One could call The Spectacular Now, the new film directed by James Ponsoldt that received the Special Jury Award for Acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a coming-of-age teen love story and not be incorrect. But such phrasing would also not do this film justice. Based on the novel of the same name, The Spectacular Now is the story of an affable loser named Sutter (Miles Teller) and the unlikely relationship he develops with unassuming bookworm Aimee (Shailene Woodley) after waking up from a alcohol-induced blackout on her front lawn. As their high school lives come to a close, Sutter and Aimee appear to be on very different paths into adulthood, a scenario that is given more depth by the fact that the characters are handled with a level of respect Ponsoldt feels is lacking in most teen movies these days. With the movie opening in more theaters each week, Wrestling with Pop Culture recently spoke to Ponsoldt about this film and other upcoming projects.
You filmed this movie in your hometown of Athens, though the book was not set in Georgia. How did that affect the story, if at all?
It was originally set in Oklahoma City in the novel, and the screenplay wasn’t really site specific. As soon as I read it it reminded me a lot of college towns that I knew like Bloomington, Madison or Chapel Hill, but especially Athens because that’s where I spent the first 18 years of my life. So that’s kind of the lens through which I compare everything else.
Did the author of the book have any issues with you changing the setting?
No. Tim Tharp is the author and Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber had already adapted the script. Tim was one of the most collaborative, open people that really realized this screenplay was adapting a book, the book still is what it is and with each adaptation from book to screenplay, screenplay to movie, you kind of let go and embrace the new elements. They were all totally open to it and were great collaborators.
How did you discover the book and end up directing the film adaptation?
I had heard of the book when it was nominated for a National Book Award about five years ago, but I hadn’t read it. After Smashed was at Sundance in 2012, the producers of The Spectacular Now approached me. The script had already been written by Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber and I was aware of them from (500) Days of Summer. I read the script and I had some apprehension initially because I wasn’t really interested in directing someone else’s script. But it was one of the fastest reads I’d ever had and probably one of the best depictions of adolescence I ever read. I immediately read Tim Tharp’s novel after that and the novel is fantastic.
You’ve previously said that American adolescence has become marginalized. That does seem to be true, but ironically Hollywood is trying to capture the teen and 20-something audience. How would you say movies have marginalized adolescence?
They haven’t marginalized their desire to take their cash; they’ve marginalized respecting fundamentally what it is to be that age. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily specific to teenagers; I think they’ve marginalized what it means to be 6 or 30 or 50 or 70 or whatever. For the most part I think it’s all profit driven. Multinational corporations need to make lots of money and they need to sell product, which works out to action figures and things that can be ready made. So most of the movies that studio executives would be quick to have posters of up on their walls like Five Easy Pieces or Nashville or McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Psycho, they would never in a million years make those movies. They couldn’t. They’d be fired if they tried to, so they’re sort of in these creative handcuffs, I think. But I don’t think there’s a lot of films about teenagers that depict them as complicated human beings and respect them, or that take their lives and mirror it back to them in a way that might resemble their own without having to turn them into vampires or werewolves or something.
When this film screened at the Atlanta Film Festival, you said something to the affect of even though the main characters are adolescents, it’s easy to forget that once you get involved in the story. How important do you think the age of these characters is, especially given the parallels that are drawn between them and some of the older characters in the film?
I like to think of it as an adult love story and the characters happen to be teenagers. You have to acknowledge who the characters are: do they have the freedom to set their own curfews, do they make their own salaries, are they rich, are they poor, are they white, are they black? All these things influence who they are, but I don’t think it should affect how you respect the character and how you advocate for the character. For whatever reason in America, the “teen movie” is a genre just like torture porn or something. Both are kind of marginalized, but there are signifiers that are also intrinsic to them, for better or for worse. I would say for worse. Most teen films are really obsessed with … really, really clever and witty banter, which no 15-year-old would say. Or they’re going to be incredibly well dressed or it’s going to be really romanticized and nostalgic or it’s going to be like Porky’s or it’s going to be dick jokes or it’s just not going to feel real. People are complicated. Most daily life is pretty boring and people are just trying to get through their day. But I think anybody, from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to bed, we have a lot of boring stuff that’s just like the day before and some things that are really moving or sad or terrifying or whatever. I think it’s only in big dumb movies that it’s reductive and dramatic or comedic or whatever. Life is much more muted, people are complicated and contradictory and hypocritical and all people are basically the same, they’re just trying to get their shit together and be happy. No one wants to be a dickhead, some people just get stomped on by life and take it out on other people. You have to acknowledge that these are kids living under their parents’ roof, but if they were 35 I would respect them in the same way I respected these characters. Sounds like a no-brainer to me, but I don’t see it in a lot of big movies.
Given the success of your previous films and the recent success of this film at Sundance, how would you say your film-making process has evolved over the past few years?
I think I’m better at communicating what I want and using time. There’s a real ticking clock when you’re making a film in 19 days or 25 days and you really can’t afford to have a day go bad. You have one bad day and you’re not going to get to make it up at the end. It’s not like a studio films where you can just do re-shoots, so you just have to suck the marrow out of every single moment you have and prepare as much as possible while the clock is ticking.
Now that this film is in theaters, what are you working on next?
Right now I’m adapting a book called Pure for Fox 2000 that I’m attached to direct. It’s wildly different. It’s a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic Baltimore. It’s still with young people, so I guess it’s similar in that regard. But it’s wildly different and very much an urban vibe.
Rodham is a really amazing script I didn’t write. A guy named Young Kim wrote it and it wound up on the blacklist, which is the big list at the end of the year of the top unproduced screenplays. I had heard about it and it got a lot of attention then because it’s great, but also because of the subject matter – Hillary Clinton is one of the most famous women alive. The producer for that approached me before Sundance this year with the script and I read it and typically I don’t like cradle-to-the-grave biopics. It really reduces a life to try to tell that whole life in 100 minutes, it just becomes like CliffsNotes of a life. The ones that I really do like are more immersive in a very specific time like The Hours and Times, which is this really great one about John Lennon and Brian Epstein and a supposed affair they might have had. Or even Good Night, and Good Luck, Milk or Patton, which cover some time, or movies that we don’t really think of as biopics that I can still watch because they’re just so freaking good, like Goodfellas, which is essentially a biopic, but it’s also funny and weird and dark and stylish. So I loved the [Rodham] script, there’s essentially a first draft and I’m working with Young to make it really fantastic. It covers a very specific time in her life when she was still Hillary Rodham in her mid 20s when a House Judiciary Committee that put together a bipartisan group of around 50 lawyers, only three of which were women, to create a legal foundation with which they could impeach President Nixon. She was one of those lawyers and she was a real rockstar amongst other legal rockstars, people who were the best and brightest at that point, many of them went on to great careers. It’s about that time in her life when she was trying to figure out who she was and what she wanted while she’s balancing a relationship with her boyfriend from law school Bill [Clinton], who was living in Arkansas. The story, at its core, is not just a portrait of future famous people. If it was, I wouldn’t do it. It’s a very relatable and human story about a woman in her mid 20s choosing between her career and her personal life. It’s sort of about gender and equality and the sacrifices that anybody makes in any relationship, but especially that women are asked to make. It has no political agenda to get someone elected, to keep someone from getting elected. I’m not really interested in that, I’m interested in a portrait of a very complicated woman at a very specific time in her life. Hopefully that will shoot in the next year and a half, but it’s something you can’t rush because it has to work as a movie. You have to like the characters and care about the relationships the way you would with any movie, but if there’s one misstep about the way that you’re dramatizing history or something that’s interpreted as political, it can be so misconstrued that people will destroy you. When you look at movies like Zero Dark Thirty, which would be a great movie that can stand on its own, but [people] scrutinized the ever living hell out of what it was supposedly implying about torture. Any movie about famous people, especially when it gets into politics, is endlessly interpreted. So no one’s in a rush to make a bad version of that or the TV movie version of that. I certainly wouldn’t want to see that and I definitely don’t want to make that.