James Ponsoldt is quickly shuffling his way to the forefront of the independent movie scene and I had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his film The Spectacular Now, which is currently sitting as my favorite film of the year thus far, as well as his plans for the future.
Infectiously cheery, James was happy to talk through the process of adapting the film from a popular novel, working with Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie 'Pure' he's working on and why he keeps letting alcoholism play as a central theme in his films.
Were you familiar with Tim Tharp's novel before you received the script or was it new to you?
James Ponsoldt: The producers of the film gave me the screenplay right after Sundance 2012 when my film ‘Smashed’ played there. I knew Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who wrote the script for (500) Days of Summer and I had heard of Tim’s novel because it had been nominated for a national book award back in 2008 but I hadn’t read it. The screenplay was the first thing that I read and it blew me away. I never really wanted to direct someone else’s script and I was flattered that they gave it to me but I was so moved by it that I immediately bought Tim’s book and read that and was equally moved by it in some of the same ways and some different ways.
This is your first film where you didn't have a hand in writing, what was that experience like for you just hopping in and doing someone else’s work?
JP: It was good. I didn’t know what to expect. My concerns were probably the same ones that anyone would have which is do they not want me to change anything or are we not gonna see the same things because I didn’t want to because writers get short-changed. As a writer, I didn’t want to turn around and be a hypocrite and disrespect these writers. I really wanted to collaborate with them and they were the best. I wanted them involved and on set because they know this story better than anyone - because they spent so much time adapting it. As the screenplay evolved, as any screenplay does, they were there by my side and working agelessly and tirelessly to make changes specific to the actors that we had and things specific to where we filmed, things that had to change. They were down for it because they saw the screenplay as a blueprint and the film is something different. It was great but it was different. I like collaborating with really talented people at the end of the day and there were so many talented people including the writers so it was a blast and it was humbling and made me reflect on my own writing.
Having read the novel and the screenplay and contrasting that to your feature version of the work, do you think there are many differences between the three versions?
JP: I think they’re all true to the same spirit and all starts from Tim’s novel. Scott and Mike’s screenplay is really great and the way that the screenplay and the novel deviate the most is that the novel has somewhat of a different ending that I think works in literary prose but onscreen people might see as more potentially nihilistic or dark. What was great about what Scott and Mike did is not that they gave it a “Hollywood ending,” it’s still a really honest and ambiguous ending with a hint of hopefulness to it. I think there’s a hint of hopefulness in Tim’s novel but there’s more that’s left open-ended. They all have the same spirit and are coming from the same place of emotional honesty and trying to dig really deep into the lives of some young people, deeper certainly than most films do about young people.
It really does transcend the high-school genre film and is not anywhere in the same realm. What are you hoping that audiences take away from this film?
JP: I’ve heard so many different perspectives from people. People can talk about the same subject or plot point and have wildly different takes and wildly different emotional experiences and it’s all totally valid to me. If it was the same for everyone than we would have made something closer to an advertisement or propaganda. There’s no judgment over these characters and no morals or lessons or anything like that. There’s nothing prescriptive about how someone should feel. I hope that people will be entertained and that people can find something of themselves in the characters and be able to identify in some way.
All three of your major motion pictures have had alcoholism as a key thread. Is that a wild coincidence or do you have a personal connection to that issue that makes you put that at the forefront of your films?
JP: The second film I did Smashed that was a major component of it and I wrote that with a good friend who is one of the funniest people I know but is also very open about the fact that she got sober in her 20s and started going to AA. I did have a number of friends who did deal with similar things, substance abuse, alcohol, so it was something I just kept seeing. I realized that I’d been at the third or forth wedding where the bride and groom were just blitzed out of their minds and I was like this is really funny but when they have kids in two years this is not gonna be really funny. I’m really interested in this because I keep seeing this. As we get older, the type of behavior that was totally normalized in college [becomes weird]. No one teaches you how to ween off. You just don’t sleep and do whatever in college and you just have to figure it out for yourself and some people don’t. It’s always been interesting to me. It was definitely a question that the producers had when they gave me ‘The Spectacular Now’ which was, “Hey, we know you have a movie that dealt with alcoholism and this character drinks. Is that a problem?” and I just wanted to read the script. I was glad that they articulated their concerns but I found the script so honest and I didn’t find the story about alcoholism or an alcoholic. It was part of who he is but everyone is damaged in some way. Someone loved us too much or too little and we’re all self-medicating either through something a doctor prescribed or something that we’ve figured out. I think we’re all trying to make our way through the world and be ok with ourselves and be able to look ourselves in the mirror and live an honest life and be good to people around us. I like seeing the way that people wrestle with that and I like seeing that in people who are very human and non-judgmental.
Do you plan on sticking with smaller, independent projects or are you open to doing a larger studio movie or would you feel that would be sacrificing too much of your independence and control?
JP: I like good movies. I watch everything. I watch tons of T.V. and movies. Whether it’s studio movies or independent films or foreign films, I watch them all. A lot of my favorite films are studio comedies or sci-fi movies. I like things that are good and are honest and have good characters and aren’t boring. That’s kind of it for me. I am right now developing a couple movies with studios and we’ll see how it is when we actually get into the making of them. There’s a couple that I’m writing that I’m really excited about with a bigger budget and there’s more opportunity to realize things on a bigger stage and have more special effects and things like that. One of the things that I’m working on is a science fiction film. It’s totally of interest to me but I can’t tell you what the finished experience will be like. You’ll have to ask me in a couple of years and maybe I’ll say, “Never again!” But I’m excited. I’ve had plenty of friends who have gone back and forth between studio films and independent films and they have good and bad things to say about both. I don’t think that the independent film world is necessarily a sacred space. I think it has a lot of shortcomings and problems and nice people and crummy people just like there is in a studio world but it’s nice to be able to make the film that you want. The more money there is, the more that people want to put their two cents in.
Can you tell me a little more about this sci-fi feature that you’re working on?
JP: The sci-fi one is called ‘Pure’ and it’s based on a novel by Julianna Baggott and I’m adapting it for Fox 2000. It’s a post-apocalyptic story that’s pretty crazy. Then I’m gonna be adapting a couple things for the Weinstein Company, one of them is the musical ‘Pippin’ which I’m writing but not directing. Then there’s another one by Matthew Quick who wrote ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, his new book that’s coming out in the fall. Very different stories from each other.
Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of the table for you. In this film both Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller were just absolutely brilliant, what was it like working with them?
JP: They’re the best. I really, really loved them. I can honestly say that about all the actors I work with. My rule is do I want to hang out with them, and not just in life? Do I want to watch this character, even in a 600 page script that is just terribly boring and just follows every detail of their day, wake up, have cereal, take a shower. I want to just watch them and be in their lives and find them compelling. Those are kind of the people that I want to work with. I spend time with them before to see if we will creatively jive because you have to spend a lot of time together and a lot of stressful time. When it’s overtime and late at night and not going well, those are the people who are either gonna make things better or make things worse. Whether as an actor or a production designer or a DP, you’re working with people who have gotta be strong and imaginative and kind in crisis. Shailene, I loved her in ‘The Descendants’ and that’s what I knew her from before this. I wasn’t aware of her before that and she gave this performance that was revelatory for me. It felt so preternaturally honest and grounded and intelligent with no BS or veneer. It reminded me of early performances of Sissy Spacek and Debra Winger and Barbara Hershey, actresses that I really loved from earlier generations. That’s what it reminded me of and there was no vanity. When I met her, she was one of the most profoundly decent and kind and just knew exactly who she was even though she wasn’t what I was expecting. I had a real collaborator there. She knew her character so well, even better than I did. I’m this 34-year old dude and when we met she was a 19-year old girl. Of course, I leaned on her so heavily to help figure out who that character was. Miles is one of the best actors I’ve ever met and one of, if not the most, charismatic people I’ve ever met in my entire life. If you look at him on one side in ‘Rabbit Hole’, which is a serious drama acting opposite Nicole Kidman in his first feature film, and then you see him in ‘Footloose’ and they are diametrically opposed films, one’s an indie, one’s a studio, one’s a drama, one’s a comedy, and yet somehow he’s so grounded and honest. Regardless of the demands on him, he’s someone you want to spend time with. He feels like a regular guy. He doesn’t feel like an actor pretending to be a regular guy. Hanging out with him before we shot the movie, I really got a sense of him and how much we have in common and I couldn’t think of any other actor who could play this role like he could. It’s a puzzle when you put together an ensemble and he and Shailene made something so compelling. Their energy was just wonderful, there’s something about them where you could watch them do anything. I thought if I don’t screw this up and just capture one iota of this then we’d have something really special.
I was not really familiar with Miles before but it definitely seemed like a star-making turn from him. In contrast, a lot of people say that Shailene was robbed of an Oscar nomination for The Descendants, do you expect any push for her in terms of some award's buzz? Personally, I thought it was a worthy performance and she’s just fantastic.
JP: That’s awesome. I obviously agree with you but I’m obviously partial. I think she’s amazing and I think she was robbed for ‘The Descendants’ and I think she’s really phenomenal in this film as is Miles and all the cast. I hope they get all of the acclaim for these performances that they possibly can. Obviously, there’s a million things that have to happen right and the life of a film is not something you can predict but I feel like we have great support from A24, our distributors. They really fell in love with our film at Sundance and wanted to take it off the table the opening weekend right after the premiere and they came in really strong and seemed to understand the film and what made it unique from other films about young people. What’s been really great thus far from the festival circuit so far is people do seem to be universally falling in love with them individually but them also as a couple in this film. I assume that they’ll continue to gain critical support for these performances.
You’ve worked with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in your past two features, do you plan to continue fitting her into roles in your films?
JP: I would love to work with Mary again. Honestly, I hope to make a number of films in my life and I would love to work with all of these actors again. You have to find people that you think are perfect for the role and an actor that you love might not be perfect for a certain role but all things being equal I love the idea of having an ensemble, like a stock company of actors that I can keep working with again. The same thing that excited me about working with Nick Nolte on my first film, I’m still excited about that and I would love to work with him again. I love really great actors and I love watching people who can make me laugh and then break my heart.
If you were handed the keys to any superhero or supervillain movie, what would you want to do?
JP: That’s really tough. I feel like my take on heroes is really specific and human and flawed that I don’t know if the people financing the movie would want me to make it. It’s hard for me to say because I would...we live in the golden age of superhero movies where we have really damaged characters but I would probably want to push them even further. This book ‘Pure’ that I’m finishing the adaptation on, I wouldn’t call it a superhero story because it has more in common with ‘Brazil’ or ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ or ‘City of Lost Children’. One of the main characters is a 15-year old girl with a doll for a hand. It’s futuristic Baltimore with all these detonations so people have all these things fused to them. One of the main character has birds growing out of his back; another guy is fused to his brother. It’s really strange and somehow funny and weird and moving. It’s a great adventure story that reminds me of ‘Wizard of Oz’ in some ways, which is one of my favorite movies.
Do you have anyone attached to star in that yet?
JP: No, not at all. It’s really early stages. Most of the main characters are teenagers so we’ll see. Casting teenagers is so tough because if you shoot a movie in 2012 and do a really extensive casting search and meet all these great American and British and Australian actors, you can get a sense of where the acting talent is in that year but if you shoot a movie 3 years later, most of them are probably too old so you have to go out and rediscover. So who knows. I’m sure the actors that will be the best actors for those roles aren’t even on my radar yet. Some director will put them in something for Sundance next year that will blow everyone’s minds and that’ll be them.
The Spectacular Now has worked its way through the festival circuit and will be hitting theaters in limited release on August 2.