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'Spectacular Now' Director James Ponsoldt On His Upcoming Hillary Clinton Biopic and Adapting the Musical 'Pippin'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 2, 2013 at 6:10PM

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 keeping busy.
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"The Spectacular Now"
"The Spectacular Now"

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.

The Spectacular Now

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.

Hillary Clinton

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.

This article is related to: James Ponsoldt, Interviews, Hillary Clinton, The Spectacular Now , Sundance Film Festival, Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Romance, Drama, A24, News





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