Q&A: The Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt
The director behind Smashed reinvigorates the coming-of-age teen romance.
There have been a handful of filmmakers that have somehow discovered, in that most hackneyed of dramatic genres—the coming-of-age movie, wherein innocence is perpetually lost and summers change lives 4-ever—a key that unlocks their most resonant artistic sensibilities: Elia Kazan (East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused). You can add James Ponsoldt to that list; whereas the 35-year-old native of Athens, Georgia, may not be in their league chops-wise (yet), his latest film suggests that stories of slouching toward adulthood can indeed indicate maturity behind the camera as well. The Spectacular Now doesn’t just give life to Tim Tharp’s novel about a charming high-school fuckup named Sutter, whose aptitude for drinking and live-in-the-now attitude mask a legacy of pain. It gifts viewers with a rich, realistic look at teenage growing pains, and features two of the best performances you’re likely to see this year, courtesy of Miles Teller and The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley.
We talked with Ponsoldt over the phone about the perils of boys-to-men storytelling.
You’ve said that when you read the script for this, it immediately made you think of your own high-school experiences. Which is a little worrisome, frankly.…
James Ponsdolt: [Laughs] Yeah, I could see where you might say that. I should say that, even though I’d heard of Tim Tharp’s novel when it was nominated for the National Book Award, I was initially hesitant to read the script at all.
James Ponsdolt: I’m not used to directing other people’s work. My previous two films [2006’s Off the Black and 2012’s Smashed] were projects I’d either written or cowritten, so that’s just how I’m used to working. When I eventually started to read it, I really didn’t like the character Sutter at all. The first ten pages, it was like, Great, another fratty, douchey kind of guy, who’s chauvinistic and way too cocky for his own good. Perfect. Just what I was, um, looking for. [Laughs] I mean, I really didn’t want to make a movie that glorified that archetype. You know, “Hey, everybody, it’s this craaazy kid who does wacky things! He parties like he’s in his late twenties.”
“It’s Van Wilder goes to high school!”
James Ponsdolt: Right, exactly! “Will he grow up? Will the love of a good woman tame him?!?” Which translates to an unhealthy amount of stunted-manchild worship and, in a lot of cases, outright misogyny. So much of pop culture feels either derivative, numbingly cynical or some toxic combination of both. My first thought was, Okay, it’s more of the same. Thanks but no thanks.
But then you get past the first ten pages, and Sutter falls flat on his face—figuratively and literally. And from then on, as the story started to take some very left-of-center turns, I found my expectations of where things were going to go, and how the story was going to handle certain aspects of the coming-of-age story, being thwarted more and more. You have this guy who, yeah, he’s the life of the party. But he is self-medicating to an alarming degree and has this weird, warped mythology in his head of what masculinity and being a man is all about. It went from, as you said, “Van Wilder in high school” to, “What if this kid was raised by a Van Wilder type?” The answer is, he’d be incredibly fucked up.
You still haven’t gotten around to saying how this reminded you of your own high-school experiences.
James Ponsdolt: I haven’t.…[Pause] I mean, I was that self-destructive teenage guy who was angry at the world. For me, there was nothing academic about this. The more I read on, the easier it was to understand Sutter, because, to some degree, he was the person I was in high school. There was a little bit of Shailene Woodley’s character, Aimee, in me as well. But my teenage years involved a lot of acting out, and a lot of getting busted for shoplifting, vandalism, everything you could imagine. I drank way too much, as did my friends. Then I met someone who wanted nothing to do with any of that, and the person helped me focus more.
You know, I’d always wanted to do a movie about adolescence, specifically what I went through as an adolescent growing up in Athens. But every time I’d start writing something like that, it would come out way too personal and memoirish. I mean, we’re talking really mawkish and embarrassing. So I let it go, and then I get this script, which was like, “Wow, it’s all in here.” Tim Tharp and [screenwriters] Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, it felt like they’d just nailed everything. At that point, it was impossible not to go after the project wholeheartedly.
In your opinion, what is the secret to doing a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t feel clichéd or like the gajillion other films that tackle the subject?
James Ponsdolt: You cast actors that come across as actual teenagers. The first time I saw Miles and Shailene in other movies, I thought, Who are these regular kids that wandered onto those sets? Did they realize people were shooting a movie? They weren’t going to play it like Cool Guy Meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Filmmakers, listen to your young actors; they’re close to, or close enough to, the age of the characters they’re playing, so welcome their input. Don’t put them in skinny jeans and the hippest new clothes. Put them in second-generation clothes from Walmart.
I’d also say that the coming-of-age films that I go back to are never the ones where the kids are constantly spouting poetry or bits of wisdom that suggest they are already way beyond their years. Don’t get me wrong, I love a Malick-y tangent as much as the next guy. [Laughs] But you feel like the deck is stacked at that point. I’m much more interested in seeing films where you feel like you’re watching real kids actually finding their way through life onscreen. Splendor in the Grass feels like that. So does The Four Hundred Blows, Over the Edge, Nobody Knows and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. I could go on, believe me.
Did those movies also have a seven-minute walk-and-talk tracking shot?
James Ponsdolt: Ah yes, that looong tracking shot! I knew that was going to be a nightmare to shoot, but from the moment I read that scene of them talking together, it was simply how I pictured that scene. The conversation they had needed to be a single take. I figured if I could nail that scene, I’d be okay with the movie. Again, thank God I had great actors.
Speaking of great actors: You realize that Kyle Chandler playing the world’s most deadbeat dad is a stake through Coach Taylor’s heart, right?
James Ponsdolt: [Laughs] You will not find a bigger Friday Night Lights fan than me, but man, I hope so. It’s a really tough part, because it’s one of those supporting roles where he’s not onscreen for very long, but he has to live up to the mythology that’s built up around him and then leave a lasting impact once he’s gone. You don’t want to telegraph that the guy is a bastard and you don’t want the audience to be like, Eh, it’s just another guy. When Kyle opens that door, you can feel the audience sort of lean in: “Oh, everything is going to be okay, it’s Coach Taylor!” And that just makes the snake-oil-salesman charm, the lack of moral culpability and the letdown even greater. Kyle knew exactly what he was doing with that part. He knew that the man who opened that door should be nobody’s role model. That is where the endgame of constantly living in the now will get you.
You’re really not aware that this kid may have a problem with alcohol until you’ve gotten to know him; there’s a very gradual sense of a downward spiral going on. Having done a film right before this that deals with the subject of alcoholism, Smashed, in a very direct and extreme manner, did you find yourself purposefully toning things down here?
James Ponsdolt: I think it is, yeah.
So let me play devil’s advocate for a second.
James Ponsdolt: Maybe a bit, but I definitely didn’t want to make The Spectacular Now feel like a reaction to the previous movie. I’d like to think that the deliberate way we introduce the fact that Sutter may be more than just a casual drinker would be done the same way regardless of whether I’d made Smashed or not. It’s the only way you could do this movie and not make it seem like an After-School Special, I think.
I’m sure I’m the first person to bring up the similarities between the two movies.
James Ponsdolt: [Laughs] Yes, you are the first! Well done. I’ve told people that I’m done making movies featuring charming, functional alcoholics. My next film is going to need to be about someone who’s charming and using either black-tar heroin or bath salts. Or maybe Whip-its. [Pause] And then my self-medicating trilogy will be complete! [Laughs]