James Ponsoldt – The End of the Tour

August 28, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

Filmmaker James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) was immediately drawn to the work of author David Foster Wallace when he read his critically-acclaimed 1996 novel Infinite Jest as a freshman in college. Twenty years later, Ponsoldt jumped at the opportunity to direct “The End of the Tour,” a film adapted from Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky’s bestselling novel Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself about the time Lipsky spent five days interviewing Wallace during the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour. Ponsoldt spoke to me last week about his new film, which stars Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) as Lipsky.

As a writer yourself, what resonated with you about what David Foster Wallace could do with the written word?

You know, I fell in love with his writing when I was pretty young. He was able to articulate thoughts and feelings and specific experiences that I had that I couldn’t articulate myself. It was stuff of everyday life – sports and politics and music. He wrote about all of those things with thoughtfulness and intelligence and a sense of humor that really respected the minds of the readers. He was the type of writer that made you feel smarter as you were reading him. That’s a really rare thing.

Was this script more appealing to you because it focused on one event that spanned over five days rather than David’s entire life? Is a full-on biopic something you think you could’ve directed?

Nah, I wouldn’t have wanted to. I don’t like traditional, cradle-to-the-grave biopics. I don’t know how you can tell the story of a complicated human life in two hours. It’s inherently very reductive. What I really liked about this was the source material, which was David Lipsky’s book. Lipsky was a very smart, first-rate journalist. David Foster Wallace was a stranger to him, but he was deeply affected by him. There is something very universal in that experience of meeting someone that you’ve admired from afar and have complicated feeling towards because they’re more successful than you. Whether it’s a professional or personal thing, meeting someone who is a big figure in your consciousness but doesn’t think about you as much is something we’ve all experienced. We’ve all been David Lipsky to some degree. It felt like I had an opportunity to make a movie that wasn’t a straight biopic, but instead had a more universal story and didn’t require you to have read Infinite Jest to appreciate it.

We’ve seen some great comedians over the years switch gears and do some solid work in dramatic roles. What was it about Jason Segel that made you believe he could pull off something as complex as this?

I’ve always been a fan of Jason since “Freaks and Geeks.” That show had so many great actors, but Jason, for me, was the emotional anchor of it. He’s really moving and honest in it and has this sweet kind of sadness to him. I think he brought that same energy to other movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Jason is a really thoughtful, complicated guy who happens to be a great writer. So many of my favorite actors, whether it’s Tom Hanks or Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart or Bill Murray or Jamie Foxx or Robin Williams, all those guys were perceived at one point as “funny guys.” But as we all know, people who are funny can also be remarkably complicated.

You don’t have to name any names, but have you ever met someone you personally admired and were disappointed about what kind of person he or she turned out to be in real life?

Yeah, but I’m sure the people I admired that met me were disappointed, too. (Laughs) It goes both ways. People are complicated. The work they create doesn’t necessarily reflect exactly who they are. There is a power dynamic there. If you really love someone’s books or someone’s music and feel like they are personally revealing something, you feel like you know them. But they don’t know you. You’re just a stranger who listened to their album or read their book. I think there is an expectation that people bring when they meet someone who has created something they love. But, yeah, I have experienced that.

I’ve been given 10 minutes to interview you about your new film. Would you allow a journalist to interview you for five straight days?

I don’t think I would. (Laughs) I think I’m too insecure. I think it was really brave of David Foster Wallace to do that. I think it was really brave of David Lipsky to write a book about that time. It was a really courageous thing because he opened himself up to scrutiny. It feels like a very rare thing. I can’t imagine that happening for me at all. I think I’m too much of a coward.

David Foster Wallace’s family has objected to this movie being made, but what kind of reactions are you getting from other people who knew him?

You know, it’s been interesting screening this movie. I’ve met a lot of people along the way who were very close to David Foster Wallace that have seen it. A lot of them have been very moved by the film. I think that sort of speaks to the way that people have very different experiences with movies about real people. I think that’s all OK. I can respect where people are coming from. They all have different feelings. We really wanted to respect his humanity and intelligence and his complicated personality.

The End of the Tour

August 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Cusack
Directed by: James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”)
Written by: Donald Margulies (debut)

More than a simple heartfelt tribute to someone who is considered by many as one of this generation’s greatest writers, “The End of the Tour” really wants to understand what exactly was going on in the head of late novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the pinnacle of his career when he wrote his epic novel Infinite Jest in the mid-90s. It’s an answer director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) and his former college professor and first-time screenwriter Donald Margulies are ultimately unable to offer audiences, but should still be commended for crafting a fascinating and personal character without doing what most films of this nature can sometimes do and turn its main subject into a sacred idol. We may not get any answers from “The End of the Tour,” but with a personality as complex as Wallace’s, it’s difficult to know where the talent and the tortured soul begin and end. Or if one can even exist without the other.

Featuring Segel as Wallace during a five-day-long interview session on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), “The End of the Tour” pits writer versus writer in an intimate retelling of what Lipsky wrote in his own book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which was published two years after Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. Wallace’s death bookends the film as we watch Eisenberg’s Lipsky receive news of Wallace’s suicide and immediately goes into his closet to retrieve the box of recordings of their five-day-long interview, an interview that never actually saw the light of day at Rolling Stone.

With Lipsky’s book, and now with Ponsoldt’s film, fans of Wallace’s writing can get a sense of who Wallace was depending on whether or not you believe Lipsky’s and Segel’s versions of the beloved author are something you consider authentic. While some may argue that Segel does not present a true representation of who Wallace was (read The Guardian‘s review by Wallace’s friend Glenn Kenny), he does create a character with enough depth and interesting perspective to care for him as a real person. What is even more thought-provoking, however, is the dynamic between Segel and Eisenberg as the two men push and pull each other into uncomfortable and emotional corners that neither probably though they would find themselves in when their interview first begins. Think of it as conversational theater.

James Ponsoldt – The Spectacular Now

August 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

In “The Spectacular Now,” director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) introduces audiences to Sutter (Miles Teller), a confident high school senior whose philosophy on life is forever altered when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a fellow classmate who he begins to develop feelings for although she is not the typical kind of girl he would normally date. The film is adapted from Tim Tharp’s book of the same name. During our interview, Ponsoldt talked about what led him to direct a project he didn’t write himself (it’s something he’s never done) and revealed the kinds of people and stories that inspire him the most.

You’ve said in past interviews you were hesitant about directing a script you didn’t write. Where did that hesitancy stem from?

I had always worked on ideas that were incredibly personal. I would like to unpack those ideas and wrestle with them and turn them into a screenplay. It was a way of working I was very used to. Also, I couldn’t imagine living with a movie for two years – living, breathing and dreaming it every day – and not have it feel incredibly personal. At least for me, that’s the only way I can imagine doing it.

What ultimately led you to take on the project then?

When I read [screenwriters] Scott [Neustadter] and Mike [Weber’s] script, it just blew me away. It knocked me on my ass. It was one of the most honest depictions of adolescence I had ever read. Sutter reminded me so much of myself. Then I read Tim Tharp’s novel, which is really something precious and rare. I was excited about it, but still apprehensive. So, I sat down with the producing team and the writers. I gave a very specific vision of the film I would make. I didn’t want there to be questions about the tone. I didn’t want to be on a different page about the value system of the film. That wouldn’t have been fun for anyone. So, at the first meeting, I brought a 60-page look book so they could get the exact look and feel of what I wanted the movie to be. I told them I wanted to shoot it in Athens, Georgia where I’m from and I wanted to shoot it on anamorphic 35mm. I really left the door open for them to say, “OK, that’s really nice, but that’s a different type of film than we want to make,” but they were really supportive of my ideas from the very beginning.

So, Sutter reminded you of yourself back in high school? Were you really that confident of a teenager? I found Sutter to be way more confident than I remember anyone being in high school.

(Laughs) Yeah, well, when I said Sutter reminded me of myself, I didn’t mean because of his confidence. It was because of his self-destructiveness. (Laughs) I think I was probably wildly insecure. In high school I was a popular kid. I played sports. But I was very self-destructive. I wanted people to like me. I was not so confident to not care what people thought. I cared what people thought way too much. That was something I was wrestling with through middle school and early on in high school. The story really struck me because I really had a relationship with a girl that was unlike any girl I had dated before. She wasn’t just interested in going to keg parties. She didn’t care that people thought reading was uncool. She liked to read. She thought about the future and didn’t think that was lame. That [relationship] helped me stop striving for other peoples’ affirmation. It got me to a better place emotionally and mentally – a healthier place where I was OK with myself and actually thought I was worth something. Had I not met her, I think I would’ve just kept doing stupid things and perhaps sacrificed my future.

Did you have any unhealthy relationships in your formative years that affected you in the opposite way from the one you just described? How did you handle those?

You know, I think I’ve grown from every relationship I’ve been in. It’s made me the person I am now. I’m married and love my wife. It’s like being a Monday morning quarterback when you think about old relationships. You always think you could’ve been better to the other person. If there are any regrets I have about past relationships, they’re always about moments where I wanted to be right about something. Thinking back I know I should have just been kind. I should’ve focused more on being a kind person than needing to be right. I just think that was an immature impulse.

Is that the message you would give to an 18-year-old James Ponsoldt if you could talk to him right now?

I think I would tell him that, but I would also let him know he should calm down. There are people with real problems in the world and all my problems were relative. Holding resentment can really poison you. If I can tell myself anything it would be to just let go of all the junk you’re holding on to. You’ll be an adult soon enough, so you should enjoy being young and living under your parents’ roof and not having to worry about certain things. Once you’re an adult you can never go back, so appreciate where you are right now.

Is there something you’ve learned about yourself as a filmmaker over the last few years?

I think of myself as a student and I hope to think of myself as a student for the rest of my life. I want to learn every day from the people I come in contact with. I really strive to surround myself with people who are more talented and smarter than me. That’s really it. So much of directing is having a clear position and making decisions in the moment. Yes or no. Red or blue. It’s nice to sit back and listen and learn from other people in your community. I think doing that will make my movies better.

Is the community you mentioned consist only of other people in the film industry? Is that where you pull most of your inspiration for the work you do?

It’s everybody! It’s not just filmmakers or indie filmmakers. I have friends who are journalists. I have friends who are producers and actors. My wife runs a school, so I have a lot of friends who are teachers. My sister is a social worker, so I have friends who are social workers. I have friends who are doctors that I went to college with. I try not to live in an insular bubble. Most of the people I spend time with aren’t even in the entertainment industry. That’s pretty intentional. I don’t want to talk movies all the time. I’m more interested in the lives of my friends who are doing really tough, complicated and amazing work.

What about other indie filmmakers? Who inspires you? Do you consider them competition?

I don’t think I’m in competition with anyone. I think it’s a very natural impulse to feel like you’re in competition with people who are doing what you want to do, but that’s something worth getting over very quickly. When I’m out promoting a movie like I am now, I get to go to film festivals and I meet new people. I met [director] Ryan Coogler at Sundance this year who did “Fruitvale Station.” That is such an amazing, inspiring film. I was in awe of his vision and his confidence and his sense of political awareness. He’s making movies that can really change the world, which is really inspiring to me. I also met Destin Cretton who made a movie called “Short Term 12,” which, again, is an amazing, amazing movie! It’s a phenomenal film. Or [director] Joe Swanberg who has a movie called “Drinking Buddies.” He is an amazing filmmaker who makes so many movies. He inspires me to make more movies. So, on a day to day basis, I’m not hanging around filmmakers, but I do have contact with inspiring filmmakers. I’m not in competition with them because they’re telling stories I would never tell. As best I can, I try to keep my ego in check and really try to support people who are making art.

You just mentioned some incredible films, especially “Short Term 12,” which has to be one of the best things I’ve seen all year. With that said, however, those kinds of films are few and far between in an industry diluted with tent-pole films and sequels and blockbusters. How do we make more people aware of the great stories indie filmmakers like yourself and Ryan and Destin and Joe are telling?

What I would hope – and maybe this is a pie-in-the-sky hope – is that there would be an infrastructure to support filmmakers like that. I would hope there would be modes of finance and distribution that would support these filmmakers and their unique vision. I understand this might sound delusion and overly optimistic. It sounds like a fairy-tale world, but art and commerce can coexist. It’s profoundly rewarding to make film that is both entertaining and has a conscience. If I was running a studio, I would look at the filmmakers who inspire me and ask them what they want to do next and get it out on the ground floor and support these guys and bring their vision to a wider audience. I would hope those people in positions of power take some chances on filmmakers who are ambitious and genuine.

You’re next film “Rodham” details the life of a young Hilary Clinton during the Nixon era. Right now there is some controversy about a proposed miniseries that is supposed to star Diane Lane as Clinton. Some of the controversy, of course, comes from the fact the miniseries would probably come out around the time of the 2016 election. It’s all speculation, but how do you feel about films working as campaigns and do you feel “Rodham” might end up being that type of movie?

I think everyone is entitled to tell the story they want to tell, but I’m not interested in making propaganda films. Propaganda films are pretty boring to me. In the case of “Rodham,” it’s not a cradle-to-the-grave biopic. It doesn’t have anything to do with current events whether it’s presidential elections or Benghazi . It is not agenda based. It takes place entirely in the 1970s. What interested me about that story is that it’s set in a very specific time and it’s ultimately a character study. It’s not trying to compete with op ed pieces or CNN or any left or right news source. It’s a story about a really complicated young woman choosing between her personal life and her career.

The Spectacular Now

August 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson
Directed by: James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”)
Written by: Scott Neustadter (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”)

As we meet our protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), he’s drinking a beer, writing a curse word-laden college essay he’s clearly not taking seriously. It not only serves as a placeholder for his character later in the film, but it introduces the audience to some darker themes, chiefly underage drinking and borderline alcoholism. As the film continues, we see bits and pieces of these themes, although nothing really scratches below the surface. It’s an issue that plagues the new coming-of-age drama, “The Spectacular Now.”

After some heavy drinking, popular high school slacker Sutter wakes up to find he has passed out in the lawn of less popular albeit sweet schoolmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley). As their friendship blossoms into something more, Sutter finds himself surprised with how much he cares about Aimee, and how difficult their relationship could possibly become because of the heavy baggage he carries.

Woodley, who was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance in 2011’s “The Descendants,” is in top form here. Aided by her plain clothes and lack of make-up, she is able to encapsulate the attitude and personality of a girl who is totally comfortable in her own skin, but also the naivety that goes along with being a girl who never had a rambunctious childhood. Her scenes with Teller bring forward a natural on-screen relationship that really grounds the film.

Teller, while good, is only marginally believable as a super-confident, slick and fast-talking teenager. He oozes coolness, but at times it’s difficult to understand why. Kyle Chandler, who is very slowly starting to reap the benefits of his Emmy win for the final season of “Friday Night Lights,” gives the strongest performance of the supporting cast as Sutter’s father. From the second his character appears on screen, Chandler is dialed in and adds little nuances in speech patterns and attitudes that make his scenes a joy to watch.

Frankly, the acting is solid all around. The problem, however, is that despite a wealth of interesting characters, director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) doesn’t spend enough time to get to know them. Sutter’s boss played by Bob Odenkirk or his good friend Ricky played by Masam Holden are just two examples of characters who have a lot to add in their brief moments on screen, but then disappear for large chunks of time. We don’t get to truly know these characters, which is disappointing considered the depth they appear to add.

As mentioned before, “The Spectacular Now” presents a lot of darker themes that might not be in a typical coming-of-age film. Sutter, who is finishing high school, is essentially an alcoholic, who drives drunk on several occasions during the film. There’s also the slow corruption of Aimee, who goes from a straight-edge teen to taking swigs of hard alcohol from a flask. The problem, however, is that while these themes are presented and touched on, they’re never fully explored. We see minor consequences of Sutter’s drinking problems, but the stakes are never high and true darkness is never revealed

If nothing else, “The Spectacular Now” is a well-made film featuring fine performances, but the lack of depth in many different facets leaves the viewer wanting more. With such promising elements, it’s a shame the final product is decidedly unspectacular.