James Ponsoldt
James Ponsoldt

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.

Like what?

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.

The Spectacular Now
"The Spectacular Now"

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.

The Spectacular Now

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.