Sitting down with James Ponsoldt backstage at the Lucas Theater in Savannah, Georgia, one thing becomes immediately clear: he loves movies. Already thrilled that his latest “The Spectacular Now” is screening at the Savannah Film Festival in a cinema first build in 1921, my conversation with the director is peppered with references to classic cinema and the answers to my questions are thoughtful and deeply infused by his admitted voracious movie watching habits, which have left him with a clear sense of what he enjoys in his film experiences and what he doesn’t. And at the end of the day, no matter the genre, budget or any other factor, it’s characters he’s fascinated by, and the more complex they are, the more he’s invested and involved.
Starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now” tells the story of Sutter, a charming, popular, nonchalant high school student who seems to have it all, but is soon forced to face his personal shortcomings when he starts seeing the honest and humble Aimee. Yes, there is romance, graduation and even a bit of partying, but this is far from your typical “teen movie.” It’s a snapshot of a particularly bumpy and interesting time in the lives of young people, and for Ponsoldt he had a specific tone he was eager to hit with his film.
“I came to think a lot about the difference between sentimentality—which I think can be poisonous for films—and nostalgia. And I think nostalgia is something that’s very healthy, but I think it’s laced with a sadness and awareness of [what you’ve experienced].” He added “Everything from ‘The Mirror’ by Tarkovsky to ‘Fanny And Alexander’ to the Antoine Doinel films to ‘The Last Picture Show’ to the Apu films by Satyajit Ray, these films that look at childhood or adolescence but we really don’t think of them as ‘teen movies.’ “
But it’s not just the tone of the movie that sets itself apart from other pictures in the “teen movie” genre (which if it isn’t clear, “The Spectacular Now” doesn’t really belong to). Shot in anamorphic widscreen (2.35:1), the film presents the kind of visual palette you don’t get often in this kind of film or character-driven indies in general, but Ponsoldt drew upon a long line of films that took that approach. “We watched everything from ‘Manhattan’ to ‘Splendor In The Grass’ to ‘Last Picture Show’ to ‘Punch Drunk Love’ to ‘Diving Bell And The Butterfly’ to ‘Ratcatcher’ to ‘All The Real Girls’—films where the photography is lovely and where the relationships were complex,” he said of some of the pictures that inspired that texture and feel of “The Spectacular Now.”
And this decision wasn’t just to make the movie look pretty, but to help add true depth to everything that is happening on screen with Sutter and Aimee. “It was important for me to have these characters exist in relationship to the place where they live, and exist in relationship to each other. To have a lot of long takes that grow and develop and it takes great actors [to do that]. There’s something really beautiful that I don’t think could be fabricated otherwise,” Ponsoldt explained. “Like Shailene and Miles walking and talking through the woods and having their first kiss, it’s a scene that really has an arc that ebbs and flows, that goes from goofy and awkward to more sincere, to two people making themselves vulnerable and recognizing the connection, and then suddenly getting the fluttering feeling and something happening. And I don’t think the audience would feel the same way if it had been shot in a different way.”
And it all returns to his love of cinema, one that finds him still in love with how images look on the biggest screen possible, a belief that runs counter to a generation being raised watching programming on handheld devices. “What’s happened, one-hour dramatic television has gotten better, so complicated adult dramas, that’s kind of went the way of cable. And a lot of those shows really are cinematic. But, we’ve kind of reached this place where movies, and the value system of what young people see, they don’t understand the awe of seeing ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ or a David Lean movie [on a big screen],” Ponsoldt said. “Where it’s like, ‘Holy crap, these characters exist in an environment.’ Like it’s a not a self-absorbed medium close-up or close-up the whole time. A medium close-up or close-up works really well when you’re watching something on your iPhone, but anamorphic isn’t so great for that.”
So after two acclaimed, intimate indies, where does James Ponsoldt go next? Well, he has a few projects brewing that are seemingly a far cry from “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now,” but they are rooted in character, so even something like like the Hilary Clinton biopic “Rodham” can have a personal resonance for the director.
“The things that interest me [in movies] start with characters, and in that story it’s about a woman in her mid-twenties choosing between her personal life and her career, which is very relatable. It has nothing to do with the celebrity of the character, that she would ultimately achieve later. That story is not a cradle-to-the-grave biopic, it’s sort of looking into a keyhole of a very specific two year period in her life,” Ponsoldt said of the Watergate-era movie, that follows Hillary Clinton as she’s chosen for the House Judiciary Committee to Impeach Nixon. He added: “The movie is not interested in whether Hillary Clinton does or does not become President, and does not have an agenda in that direction. It’s a portrait of a really complicated brilliant woman, with a lot of tough choices before she became the person everyone knew her as.”
And at the end of the day, Ponsoldt has a very simple way to determine if “genre” stories add up beyond their expected elements. “To make stories that actually are accepted, embraced and connect with people that aren’t fans of the genre, the litmus test is, could you remove that supernatural element and have the story still work. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, their marriage and what they’re dealing with in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, it is of consequence and relatable, even if their neighbors aren’t satanists, you know what I mean? In this case, if you remove the people who ultimately became very famous politicians, is what she’s grappling with, is that relatable?”
And it’s relatability that also fuels his approach to the YA adapation “Pure.” Based on the book by Julianna Baggott—which ranked on our 15 Young Adult Fiction Properties That Could Be The Next ‘Twilight’ Or ‘Hunger Games’—the story takes place after a devastating nuclear disaster, where the world has split into two: the “pures,” who survived untouched inside The Dome, and the “wretches” who were fused to whatever object they were touching at the moment of detonation. Dystopian? That’s not the word Ponsoldt would use to describe the story, as he already has a pretty exciting vision for the project.
“At it’s core, the way I see it is sort of something like ‘Pan’s Labryinth’ meets ‘City Of Lost Children’ meets ‘Night Of The Hunter,’ ” he explained, adding that the story—in which characters have body parts fused with objects—has parallels with the adolescent experience. “It’s a wonderful metaphor for adolescence. You think you’re too short, you think you’re ears are too big, you think have a bad acne, well guess what, in this story this kid has a birds growing out of his back, and this girl has a doll for a hand. And in this world, that’s most people. And either you embrace diversity or you live in a bubble.”
But perhaps most crucially, Ponsoldt wants to get away from typically serious-faced movies the YA genre tends to lean toward and trying something different. “I think a lot movies that are en vogue right now that are ‘dystopian’ they’re incredibly cynical and grim and kind of joyless—some of them, not all of them, I’m making total generalizations, I’m aware of that. This is actually a story that has beauty and wonder in it,” the director said, adding: “It’s a film that has beautiful, strange imagery. At it’s core about two kids from different worlds looking for their mommy. It doesn’t get more primal or universal. That’s not heady, that’s not intellectual, that’s not cynical—it’s kids needing their mommy, that’s it.”
And whether it’s finding a parental figure, navigating the tricky waters of true first love or making a decision about your career that could affect the rest of your life, Ponsoldt continues to find ways to tell universal stories in the fascinating ways.