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.