Interview with James Ponsoldt
Unless you are a film festival news junkie, the name James Ponsoldt may not ring any bells. But it is quickly becoming a circulated name within the film circuit in the past year and one you’ll be hearing a lot more frequently.
James Ponsoldt is a man in high demand these days, having recently signed on to direct the Hillary Clinton biopic, Rodham, and is reportedly in the talks for helming the film adaptation of the musical Pippin.
The writer-director has three feature-length films under his belt, and has been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for two consecutive years. Firstly for Smashed in 2012, with an honest and astoundingly selfless performance from actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead; and once more this year with the phenomenal The Spectacular Now, led by fast-rising talents Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, 21 & Over) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, Divergent*)
All three of his films, beginning with his first full-length piece, 2006’s Off the Black, have the similar thread of alcoholism tying characters from each of the three films together.
Don’t be mistaken; his films aren’t archetypal movies about “alcoholics.” He doesn’t treat his characters as one-dimensional. In fact, he doesn’t treat them as characters at all; he makes films that resonate with you. In seeing the trailer for The Spectacular Now you may be tempted to dismiss it as another movie attempt to capture the nostalgia of high school (a la John Hughes), but his work is more attuned to the comedic tragedy of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. With The Spectacular Now, James lures you in to what you expect to be a typical high school romance flick, but it blindsides you with a right-hook you never anticipated. The film is centered around Sutter (Miles Teller), a hard-liquor drinking high school senior with the gorgeous, party god title girlfriend. He dedicates his life to living in the now, never letting a moment go by without savoring it to the fullest. You might think you have him pegged straight off the bat but the deeper you delve into the story between Sutter and his newly discovered sweet, wallflower rebound Aimee (Shailene Woodley), you discover something you didn’t expect. I won’t give any spoilers but keep an eye out for a kitchen scene between Sutter and his mother so raw and tender that leaves you heartbroken.
Two hours is a short amount of time to fit in a complete character development arc (not to mention drama, climax, and reconciliations) and the beauty of James’ work is that he too realizes this and does something that studios vote against. He doesn’t tie up the raw edges of a story for a pretty finale but instead allows the story of his characters to continue into the unknown once the credits start rolling.
James is that rare young director who doesn’t allow his passion or ambition blindside him from staying genuine and grounded. He looks for actors and collaborators who share the same amount of love and understanding of his characters as he does. He allows his actors to discover their characters beyond the words on the script. With his guidance, Shailene and Miles breathed life into their characters of Aimee and Sutter in The Spectacular Now, fully blooming into these technicolored realities on screen. He has keen senses that allows him to direct scenes that delicately trapeze between comedic and tragic without coming off campy or overly dramatic. And his taste in music is fantastic! The soundtrack to Smashed features an original score by Fruit Bat’s Eric D. Johnson including some 1974 folk-rock jamming with Richard and Linda Thomson’s LP and a dash of Bill Callahan. The Spectacular Now’s entire original score was created by Rob Simonsen, who also scored for this summer’s The Way Way Back.
James is a fully realized director who works and creates in synchronization with his inspirations, with room to bend, creating timeless tales that are tied to the spirit of human and the power of emotion and bonds between people. Perhaps it is the influence of the writer within that steers James to film his pieces so that his characters are not solely being watched and observed, but rather the audience experiences the film with the inner perspective of the characters themselves. Be warned you are not merely a spectator at a viewing of a James Ponsoldt film, it will envelope you and once the screen goes dark and the lights go up you will find yourself digging through your own memories of the heartbreak and the fear of self-discovery of your teenage years.
I had the pleasure of meeting James after the screening of The Spectacular Now at the Boston Film Festival back in April where he and screenplay writer Michael Weber introduced the film and returned for a round of Q&A to a full house. The ever charismatic, sometimes cynically-humored and humble director spared me 13 minutes of his day to talk about hometown ghosts, screen worshipping, and the importance of making a film about adolescence that doesn’t talk down to teenagers.
Interview Transcript: (HT = Suffolk Voice reporter Hannah Tavares, JP = James Ponsoldt)
James Ponsoldt: Hey Hannah! How’s it going?
Hannah Tavares: Hi James, I’m good thank you! I wanted to congratulate you on your phenomenal film. It was so well received at the Boston Film Festival and at Sundance. I loved it and I’ve read some fantastic reviews.
JP: Oh, great. Thanks, how fantastic!
HT: I understand I have a short time with you so I’m gonging to jump right in, if that’s sounds all right with you?
JP: Ok sure, absolutely.
HT: The Spectacular Now is your first film centering on high-school aged characters, and you shot it in your hometown of Athens, Georgia. Was that in any way a sentimental or nostalgic film for you to make?
JP: It was um, yeah I mean it was interesting I thought a lot about the difference between sentimentality and nostalgia in making this film. You know because you know sentimentality can be really, really bad it can be the death of a film. You know?
HT: Yeah, it can get a bit sappy and overdone.
JP: If you kind of just sit back and look at it with this wide-eyed schmaltzy youth sense, the Hallmark approach, like “Everything was so great it was so much better then” where you just make that assumption then it makes your storytelling soft and boring and cliché. Whereas nostalgia, now I could be off on my own definition here, but the way I think about it is that nostalgia is more laced with sadness and pain. Where I think it’s possible to look back at specific a time in your life whether it was ten years ago or whether it was two weeks ago, where it’s the very recognition of saying “Oh my gosh this moment is so special to me”. The second you say it it’s over. Where the past has gone and it’s never going to happen again and you’re getting older and moving closer to well *he chuckles* to death!
It’s my more morbid take on it. *He laughs again* Any part of nostalgia is recognizing or looking back, holistically, at the big picture and recognizing that um, you know for me and for everybody, back when you’re seventeen that yeah [High School] can be an amazing time. You’re young, your full of energy, you’re so hopeful you don’t know what’s going to happen but also you have a lot of fear and anxiety because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t have freedom and your body is on this hormonal rollercoaster where you don’t necessarily like your body you feel insecure and it can be really horrifying. It can be all of those things. But for me shooting in Athens was a dream come true. It’s where I was born and raised; my parents still live there, there are so many attachments to so much of it. It’s like anybody who goes back to a place where they grew up. Haunted for you in a way with the ghosts of your previous self. You have a memory of yourself at five years old hanging out in this department store at eleven and you’re with your grandparents at a restaurant at fourteen you know? You keep bumping into that. These personal associations that can be tiring to separate from say the film that you’re going to make. That was really important to me to make a film that felt specific and honest but then fell to preserving the story as best as we could and using the setting that could be most universal and wouldn’t just be me sharing my favorite places, which would have been really boring and self-involved and may have not been a very good movie.
HT: I know that you are a writer as well as a director, but The Spectacular Now was an adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel of the same title. When you are looking at other people scripts what are you looking for when considering adapting someone else’s work?
JP: Well, I mean in this case this was a screenplay that Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber (Michael H. Weber) who both did  Days of Summer together, had adapted from [Tharp’s] novel for the screen. When I got the script, when it came to me I was aware of Scott and Mike because of Days of Summer and I was aware of Tim’s novel but I had not read it. I was aware of it because it had been nominated for the National Book Award. I heard that it was a great, great book about adolescence and then I read the book immediately after reading the script. I think for me, what I’m looking for is, and I am a writer and I’m always thinking about what I want to write and direct, but you know when a script comes along, and I do get a number of scripts and I guess I’m really looking for something that really moves me and surprises me, having characters that I find totally alive and not predictable. And there’s nothing I love more, and I’m a good writer, but I recognize that there are brilliant writers out there. Or, there are writers that are maybe just as good but just write in a completely different way, that their imagination works in a completely different way and there are just some things that I could just never write. I love reading something that is great, recognizing something that is so good and that I knew I never would’ve written and never could write but I love the story and I want to tell it. So I guess it’s mostly the telling of good stories, wherever they came from, whether it was a real thing for me or an adaptation, or something that someone else wrote. I just want to tell good stories and there is a different kind of pleasure in all of those and directing someone else’s script versus directing your own.
HT: That’s very humble of you, because Smashed, which you wrote and directed, was a phenomenal film. You never sought to look down on or observe your character for being an alcoholic but rather allowed the audience to experience her life with her, all the ups and downs of both being an alcoholic and then awakening from that drunken haze to come out into the world again sober, where you are sensitive to everything in your life. Smashed meant a lot to my mother and I because my mother’s brother is a struggling alcoholic and finally there was a film that was honest about the people who go through that process. So, thank you, for making such honest and beautiful films, and that goes for The Spectacular Now as well. They can both be brutally honest but you don’t flinch away from them, you see yourself in the same position as your characters and doing that is an art in itself.
JP: Oh, thank you so much I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you.
HT: Well, recently I feel it’s a little bit harder to get people to go to the movies with me if the movie isn’t a blockbuster superhero romance sequel thing and …
HT: …In your opinion what makes a movie good and worth going to see in theaters?
JP: *He takes a breath and hesitates* Uh, I mean…you know I think that, well. I’m not someone that thinks that like film is somehow better than television, you know? Television is can be fantastic, I really love a good TV series and I love really good films and I love it for different reasons. And there are films that are really personal, emotional, challenging films that I love and there are films that are just big silly blockbusters that are like roller coaster rides that are fun in a different way, where they don’t stick with me but they were blast while I watched them. I think films have a unique duty and challenge which is that in roughly two hours you have to take an audience on an emotional journey and that’s to transport you to another place and tell the story of someone’s life whether, you know, you cover two days or fifty years of their life you only have two hours to do it and I think they [filmmakers] have the ambition to achieve that kind of story-telling. I think story-telling is just the compression of time where every moment feels very naturalistic but it’s just the spanning of a bit of time so it’s an impression and when you have film, it allows you to have an emotional experience that you don’t quite get anywhere else. TV kind of takes its time, it can get really deep into characters over the course of a couple seasons but for us [filmmakers] we’re trying to do it all in two hours.
It’s also the process of going into a movie theater where you are submitting yourself to the movie, which is to say going into a room with a bunch of strangers letting them turn the lights off on you and then like worshipping this screen that dwarfs you and paying money to try to have an emotional experience in a room full of strangers is a really unique thing! You know, most of our day-to-day lives [consists] of going from home to work to whatever and usually you wouldn’t want to cry in front of strangers but in front of a movie you might and that is a really beautiful thing as opposed to sitting at home and being able to pause things and go to the bathroom turn it back on or go back to it later where you are the master of that thing. I think films, to be seen in a movie theater, I don’t think it’s all about spectacles. A spectacle can be good but emotionality can be really fantastic too and it’s really great when it’s experienced in a theater with a movie that has a lot of depth and it’s really emotionally ambitious.
*James’ Rep from A24 dialed in to announce the closing of the interview*
HT: Okay, so we are running out of time so I will skip ahead to my last question for you James. I wanted to ask about your use of anamorphic 35 for The Spectacular Now. It looked absolutely beautiful but I wanted to know why you chose to use that rather than going digital.
JP: Well, yeah that kind of goes into your last question where you know, I think anamorphic 35, first of all I think film is just beautiful. It’s what I grew up watching and I’m not sort of allied to think that technology is bad. HD can be great, it’s just another tool like the last movie I made, Smashed, was shot on the Aerial X which is an HD camera and it was a different story and required a different way the film should be approached uniquely. Film has a real richness and a dreamy quality that I don’t think HD can approximate yet. HD can look beautiful but it still looks “HD” to me at this point. Maybe that will change. Also you know the goal often times when decisions are made maybe by studios to make a movie about young people they decide to do it with the “of-the-moment” technology which is kind of sad, they think “Oh, we are making a movie about young people we’ll shoot it on the iPhone it’ll be a found-footage movie it’s kind of obvious. Because I’m looking at the big picture I want to make a movie that is going to last, so when people watch it in forty years it won’t feel dated. And the truth is people have been making films on film for a hundred years and I wanted something that existed, that you know acknowledges that it exists right now and [people] have iPhones and they have computers but my movie is not obsessed with pop culture or pop culture signifiers or things that are going to make it age badly and a lot of the movie feels like it could have taken place 20 to 25 years ago.
So with anamorphic widescreen it is absolutely beautiful and the goal was not to minimize the experience of these teenagers or cheapen it the way so many teen movies do or making it all about immature teenage boy jokes. I wanted to make this expansive and expressive and to dignify what these kids are going through and take it seriously the way you would treat an adult relationship. And I wanted to give, with anamorphic, you can really get a sense of space and scope and really use it as the fence, it’s a reason why people should use anamorphic 35 in movie theaters because it allows the location to be a character, it’s not all about close-ups and just putting your star in the middle of the frame and making it as big as possible. It really allows the characters to work with their environment in fact which can hopefully make the location a character but it can also externalize the internal reality of what the characters are going through, which is to say that when you’re seventeen and you are falling in love and having sex for the first time and having your heart broken for the first time it’s an emotional rollercoaster where you feel, ultimately, like you are the center of the universe or that the universe is vast and you are just a speck of dust and insignificant and small when your heart is being broken. And I think that when you are able to put your characters in this big environment with anamorphic you can do it in a really beautiful delicate way.
HT: Well, James I think we are out of time. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. It was a pleasure. I wish you all the best of luck with your next project and look forward to seeing it on the big screen!
JP: Oh, thank you. It was really a great pleasure to talk to you, have a good day!
*Divergent is the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel of the same name. Woodley has been cast as the lead, Tris. Actor Miles Teller has also been cast as the character named Peter. A release date for the film has yet to be announced.