We’re stretching the category of Best of What’s Next a little bit, including James Ponsoldt here. After all, his last two films have taken Sundance by storm, and the latter, The Spectacular Now, has been one of the most critically lauded films of the summer. Still, with much bigger projects looming, including a narrative feature for the Weinsteins on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role in the Watergate hearings, the timing seems right.
The Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (rising stars in their own right), is a very different kind of teen movie. It’s neither a soft-focus romanticization of high-school life nor a gross-out exploitation of it. It’s a story Ponsoldt carefully crafted from a script that was in turn carefully crafted from a carefully crafted novel. The tone is just right.
“I don’t know if it’s a fine line or a vast expanse between nostalgia and sentimentality,” says Ponsoldt, “but there is a difference. I think that sentimentality can be really toxic for movies. And I think a lot of bad movies about adolescence are sentimental. I guess, conversely, they can also be corrosively cynical and snarky and just about dick jokes. But nostalgia, I think, can be a pretty great thing. Because I think nostalgia is laced with a little bit of pain and sadness and loneliness and the sense that as soon as you can articulate ‘Wow, this is an amazing time,’ it’s already over. There is something sad in that. I think this movie has managed to tap in to something both for young people who are coming out of the movie where it feels honest to them and as somewhat of a reflection of their own life or of the people they know.”
But it’s not just young audiences who are lapping up the film. “I do think for older audiences that’s true as well,” he says. ”And by older, I mean anybody mid-twenties and up. I think there’s a sense of nostalgia, both for what it was like for them in high school and also of perhaps, a type of film that once was made that isn’t necessarily made anymore. Whether for some people that’s Say Anything, or whether for some people that’s The Last Picture Show or Splendour in the Grass, or Stand By Me, I don’t know. Pick a movie in the past 50 or 60 years—Rebel Without A Cause—pick a movie where the characters happen to be very young, but the film took their hopes, dreams, fears and anxiety seriously. Which shouldn’t be that big a deal. But those movies certainly aren’t made anymore by Hollywood studios. And neither was this! This was made independently. But it if it does well, then the Hollywood studios will make movies like this.”
Taking the characters’ hopes, dreams and anxieties seriously has been one of the hallmarks of Ponsoldt’s work to date. “My approach is always to work with characters and with stories, and not to judge the character. Be a good advocate for the characters. No matter what age they are. I think there are a couple of film genres, maybe horror and maybe quote unquote teen movies too, where there are archetypes. And tropes. And we’ve gotten into postmodern teen movies and postmodern horror where things sort of wink a little bit. But that’s not so much of interest to me. So, yeah. With these characters, yes, they happen to be 17 and 18 but they could have been 27 or 47 and I would have treated them the same way. I just respect that they have a complicated emotional inner life. As does anyone.”
That attitude of respect is something Ponsoldt carries over into his relationships with his actors as well. “My commitment,” he says, “is always that they can try and do anything in front of the camera; they just have to try anything I ask of them. We’re collaborators, and I will never force them to shoehorn in something they find dishonest. You know, we just talk things through, long before we shoot. Like, every scene. You know, lots of little details about their character to make sure that they agree with the direction of the film. And if they don’t agree and if they have questions or concerns, we address them, and in some cases their characters change. They become more specific because of that actor—who they are, what their feelings are. To put it bluntly, Shailene Woodley knows a lot more about what it’s like to be an 18-year-old girl than I do. So if she feels something strongly, I listen. Across the board. That’s kind of it. The movie is the sum of the parts of all the people who have collaborated on it.”
Ponsoldt sought authenticity in The Spectacular Now not only from the actors, but also from the setting itself. Although the novel is set in Oklahoma, he chose to set the film in his hometown of Athens, Ga. “John Sayles was someone whose book about Matewan, about making it, I found in high school. And there were a number of filmmakers like that who were thought of as regional filmmakers, in the way that there are regional authors. Especially in carving out the South. John Sayles being one, Victor Nunez, Julie Dash, Ross McElwee… Terrence Malick to some degree. Those were people I really admired. And as someone who was born and raised in Georgia, I was looking for people to latch on to. Those folks I could latch on to because I could see their movies and it looked like where I grew up. They were kind of dealing with the same ghosts and the same hopes and conversations and anxieties of growing up in the South. You know, looking back 40 years before, Walker Percy was, and Flannery O’Connor was, and Harper Lee was, so I saw a sort of continuum with that. There’s a rich tradition there.”
“I really was only going to do Spectacular Now,” he continues, “if I could shoot it in Athens. I didn’t want to direct anyone’s script before this, and I really had a lot of anxiety about directing someone’s script. But when I met with the producers, I went into that meeting with a 60-page look book of exactly what the movie would look like, and exactly what the movie would feel like, exactly what the frames of reference were, exactly how white space and everything would be used. You know, I said it had to be in Athens, Ga. and it had to be on anamorphic 45 and I talked about the types of actors I wanted and I really gave them every reason to say no. Because it’s sort of like, talking to investors, if they’re going to back out, you would rather them back out five months before rather than two days before.”
The investors were sold, though, and The Spectacular Now is now thrilling audiences and helping push James Ponsoldt on to the next level.