Last year James Ponsoldt arrived at Sundance with his second feature “Smashed.” Cut to a year later and the writer-director has already had a third film (“The Spectacular Now”) screen in competition at the festival, on top of signing on to direct the hotly anticipated Hillary Clinton biopic “Rodham,” and getting asked by Harvey Weinstein to pen the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Pippin.” In other words: he’s been busy.
With “The Spectacular Now” out in select theaters this weekend, we sat down with Ponsoldt in New York to discuss his remarkable run, working with breakthrough stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley on “The Spectacular Now,” and the challenges associated with portraying the life of Hillary Clinton on screen.
What has this ride been like post-Sundance? It’s crazy to think back to where you were two years ago.
It’s been fun. There’s been a lot of travel to different festivals in the U.S. and being in hotel rooms a lot and living with a laptop on my lap and just writing. Writing keeps me sane and keeps me happy. I feel like if I’m not working I’m wasting time, so it’s good to have work. And if the work can help pay bills, that’s awesome, because I’ve done a lot of other things for money and writing is more fun.
Oh, I don’t know, waiting tables, being a barback, TA-ing, working in movie theaters like cleaning out toilets. I mean, when you’ve cleaned shit off the wall in a movie theater bathroom, anything seems better by comparison.
You wrote “Smashed,” but not “The Spectacular Now.” What specifically spoke to you about the project?
The producers and the writers who are producers on it approached me after Sundance with “Smashed.” I guess probably my flattery, or my ego, [first appealed to them] because the producers were like “Hey, we loved your movie, would you read this?” and any kind of base level part of me was just like “Oh nice! Oh yummy. That’s so nice of you.” But then I kind of took a step back and realized, “Well, actually I’m a writer/director.” I had this idea and I had a few reservations, but then I heard really good things about Tim [Tharp]’s book, which had been nominated for a National Book Award, I know of [writers] Scott [Neustadter] and Mike [Weber] and I thought they were great, so I gave it a read, and it was like the fastest read I think I’ve ever had. The thing that really appealed to me is that I’ve always had an interest in telling a story about adolescence. A handful of films about that period of life were meaningful to me at that point in life and still are. I saw “The 400 Blows” probably when I was 15. Even movies like “Say Anything” and “Breaking Away.”
I love that you started with “The 400 Blows” and not “Sixteen Candles.”
[Laughs] There’s a million other ones, too. But I could never quite get the story right, and felt like “This is so memoir-y and so masturbatory.” But then I read the script and I was like, “This is basically about me.” It really was. With Sutter, I was like, “I know this guy very well.” But still, I was like, “If I do someone else’s script, everyone will have such a take on it.” I went to meet with the writers and producers and I had put together a 60-page look book and said, “This is exactly what it’s going to look and feel like, these are the movies, this is the atmosphere, the tone, it’s going to be 35mm, I kind of only want to do it if we can do it in Athens, Georgia in my home, in my house, the streets where I grew up,” and I assumed that would scare them off but they totally embraced it. I wanted them to give me a reason to say no, and then I’ll just go to festivals with “Smashed” and write my own stuff. But they were lovely collaborators.
Shailene drew great notices at Sundance for her performance, much like Mary Elizabeth Winstead did when “Smashed” premiered there the year prior. What’s your trick? Is it all in the casting?
When I think of actors who are older, who are in their 50s or 60s or 70s, who have had careers for decades, the common denominator is, yes, they have certain innate gifts of being just compelling to watch and having a great face that they’re really great dramaturges. They choose projects that are really compelling, and at the DNA level are really fascinating, and the role that they’re going to choose, they know they can hit it out of the park, they know they can do something they haven’t quite gotten to do. And Miles [Teller] and Shailene are at the beginning of their careers and they have that same sense. So, casting is one of my favorite things.
I only want to work with actors who I find compelling and interesting and who I want to watch, who I find capable of giving a wide range of emotions, like breaking my heart and making me laugh my ass of. And you can also take a great actor and horribly miscast them. For me, there’s an energy that you want for each performance and there’s something slightly surprising, like with “Smashed,” with Mary [Elizabeth Winstead], she’s an action star, or had been. She played the Kurt Russell role, she’s a badass, and it was really important to me that that character not feel like a victim or someone that’s been damaged or attacked or there’s this vaguely misogynistic approach to punish a woman, because she’s the quote end quote addict, which is a trope and I think the world is sick of. I wanted to show someone who is strong, who was fucked up. I mean everyone’s fucked up, but that when she gets knocked down, you’ll feel that she’ll get back up, and who is strange and funny, and Mary brought that energy to it.
Shailene and Miles are just wildly compelling and brilliant. And Shailene, like, in “The Descendants” she’s really great and it reminds me of, you know, you’re looking at a young Debra Winger or Sissy Spacek or something. That performance was almost bratty and obnoxious at first glance, but then she breaks your heart. It’s just unbelievable, there’s no vanity, it’s fiercely intelligent, it’s playing to the highest intelligence of the audience, it’s really grounded, it doesn’t always feel like she’s even acting, she’s just being in that classic way. Miles is the same way. So, they were the only people that I could honestly imagine playing the roles. I think every young actor out there at some point read for this part, but I really loved them.
When their characters fell for one another onscreen in “Spectacular,” I had the sensation of watching two people really fall in love. How do you go about achieving that remarkable sense of intimacy?
Spend tons of time on casting the right people, and cast them not just because they look and feel like what you think the character should feel like, but hopefully when you meet the right person, they’ll obliterate your preconceived notion of who that character is.
But really, I think the biggest thing is to surround yourself with brilliant artists. Don’t put a production designer, or casting director, or cinematographer, or actor on the film just to get them to execute your wishes. You want people who are smarter, people who have better imaginations than you, and who will challenge everything that you think to make it better.
Think about The Beatles, the greatest rock band ever. There was a tension there, a real innate tension of really creatively demanding people who wouldn’t just say yes to each other. They said no quite a bit. With the actors, it was really like “We’re partners here. I’m not going to make you look like an asshole. If you look like an asshole, I look like an asshole. What’s honestly? What’s bullshit? How can we make it better?”
There was no stress. I mean, there’s the overall stress of this being a ticking clock, we don’t have enough time, this is a low-budget movie, but let’s just play in the time that we have. Let’s get spontaneous and natural.
Moving on to another project that you’re writing. I’m excited that you’re working on something different, but “Pippin” is a curious choice. Are you a fan of musicals?
The good ones.
Is this something you’ve always wanted to do?
I mean, I didn’t grow up as a musical theater guy. I grew up doing theater and I have an fierce aversion to bad musicals, I think there’s tons of bad musicals. But the good ones, you know, like “The Wizard of Oz” is a movie I can go back and watch over and over, and “Singin’ in the Rain,” “White Christmas,” I just love. I love Sondheim, I love Fosse, so when I discovered Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective” and “Pennies from Heaven,” I was like, “Holy fuck, this is amazing.” And even the “South Park” musical, I mean, it’s stuff that’s clever and that’s emotional and actually forwards [plot], I mean, it feels like these characters are singing because they don’t have another way to express themselves.
What’s that rule they always say? Good sci-fi or good horror, if you remove the supernatural element, the story should still work, and that’s why “Rosemary’s Baby” still works. Good musicals should be the same way. It shouldn’t just be a character singing a dumb pop song for the sake of it. In the case of “Pippin,” it’s brilliant and funny and irreverent and I think its approach to history and storytelling and coming of age is similar to “The Princess Bride” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It’s just really fun. I mean, I love genre storytelling.
Are you directing it? A director has yet to be announced.
This one I probably won’t direct, I’ll just write.
Does the genre scare you as a filmmaker?
No, not at all. I don’t think they’re there yet. I had already been talking about adapting and directing Matthew Quick’s next book, the guy who [wrote wrote the novel of] “Silver Linings Playbook,” his book called “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.” So I was going to do that, but then out of left field I think they had the rights, it took them forever, but they had them before “Chicago,” and no one could crack it. It was like, “How do you turn this into a film?” And then there’s a really amazing production on Broadway right now. The director [Diane Paulus] is fantastic, she’s the artistic director of American Repertory Theater, she did the revival of “Hair” a couple of years ago. They just had me come in to see it and asked, “Do you have a take on it?” and I actually did. And I met with Harvey [Weinstein], and he’s brilliant, and we just talked about the film that I would want to see. And in this day and age, especially when there’s YouTube, where you have kids doing confessionals saying “It Gets Better,” where there’s such naked, bare, vulnerable honestly out there, or a movie like “Once,” where it’s just all the more reason to have honest musicals where you can’t get away with bullshit. I don’t think people can tolerate it in a film. They really demand something being grounded, so in that way, maybe I’m a good person to do this because I retrench at the idea of something that’s just phoned in.
Which is what makes you a great pick for the Clinton biopic, too. On paper that also sounds like a departure for you, but looking back over your three features, they’re all character-driven works, and I’m guessing that’s the approach you’re taking to the Clinton film.
Totally! It’s a very grounded, intimate story, it’s not a cradle to grave biopic, it’s a story about a woman in her mid-twenties who’s choosing between a career and a relationship. In that regard, it’s got more similarities with an Eric Rohmer film. I mean there are films that I really admire that are political docudramas, whether it’s “Milk” or “All the President’s Men” or “Good Night and Good Luck.” Again, it’s sort of that same rule: the story should work whether or not it’s about famous people. It should work on an emotional level and it should relate to people.
Do you see the project changing in any way if Clinton runs for office — assuming you’re still in the midst of developing it?
I mean, the truth is, it’s not cradle to the grave. It’s a very specific time period in ’74. I’ve definitely heard an earful from everyone you can imagine, politically — right, left, people in the film business. But I don’t care about Benghazi, I don’t care about Monica Lewinsky, I don’t care about any of that stuff. It’s about her time when she’s in D.C. on the House Judiciary Committee with three female lawyers amongst like 50 dudes, and it was people who saw a breach of justice in the White House and were trying to preserve democracy. It was a very idealistic group of people, Republican and Democrat, it’s not partisan. And then she had her boyfriend in Arkansas. And she was on a fast track to an amazing career, and when Nixon stepped down and that was all over, she moves to Arkansas. And that’s when the movie ends. So everything that comes after that is not a concern to me.
So it’s going to remain the same no matter what happens.
I would hate to make up stories. That’s propaganda. What’s that saying? “If you want to send a message, then use FedEx.” This isn’t a message film, it’s a character study, it’s a story about a relationship, and it’s a story about a complicated young woman.
Do you have her blessing?
I haven’t talked to her.
Do you feel like you need to?
I feel like it could be widely misinterpreted. I mean the truth is, I don’t know what I would do if I heard that she wants to meet about it. I know that she knows about it, there’s no way that she can’t, but she doesn’t have anything to be afraid of, you know what I mean? But I do know just by the tiny time that I’ve been on and it and what I’ve read on the Internet that if I did get her blessing that message would be co-opted by people on the political right saying it’s a propaganda film for her. And I’m sure that there are other people who are afraid it’s going to be sensationalist. It’s not about that.
The truth is people that say that it’s a marriage of convenience and they’re something very cynical in it and how could she forgive x, y, z indiscretions — I do believe actions speak louder than words. My dad worked in the Justice Department in the seventies, and he was the one who reminded me that after Nixon stepped down, she could have had any job she wanted in D.C., anything. And she moved to Arkansas, a political hinterland, because she really fell in love with this guy and thought he had a brilliant mind and she probably thought he was really sexy too. But she really loved him, the way people do, and that’s a very sincere thing, and that’s not about partisan politics. To me, she’s just one of the most fascinating people alive, and there’s a very specific window with the writer that he realized this is a pretty amazing time and place in her life.