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.