READ MORE: David Foster Wallace Cheat Sheet: 7 Things You Need to Know Before Seeing ‘The End of the Tour’
What would David Foster Wallace think of “The End of the Tour”? That’s the million-dollar question, of course. Recently, some devout Wallace readers and old friends of the writer have gone on record to spurn the film and dissuade others from seeing it. These opponents cite Wallace’s difficult relationship with fame and celebrity as the basis for assuming he’d denounce it himself. While it is true that Wallace notoriously struggled to reconcile his self-image with his public persona, “The End of the Tour” is not the human rights violation some are painting it out to be. That’s because David Foster Wallace is dead. Sadly, he no longer has a self-image to contend with; he belongs to American history, alongside the other brilliant minds that reside in our literary canon. All we have of him is his writing, his recorded words and his memory in the minds of others. Rather than desecrating Wallace by way of trying to achieve objective representation, “The End of the Tour” memorializes him through someone else’s memory.
In 1996, journalist David Lipsky spent three days with Wallace on a book tour. It was one of the only occasions Wallace permitted a journalist to spend uninterrupted quality time with him in service of an article. While Lipsky’s profile of Wallace was never published in Rolling Stone, as had been originally planned, Lipsky’s audio tapes from their time together remain, and so do his memories of the interview that changed his life.
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Self-proclaimed “Wallace obsessive” James Ponsoldt used these tapes, Lipsky’s own recounting and a little bit of creative license to make “The End of the Tour” come to life. He’d be the first to tell you that his film isn’t a biopic. When Indiewire sat down with Ponsoldt after the BAM CinemaFest premiere of “The End of the Tour” in New York, the director seemed troubled that audiences might interpret his film as a Wallace simulacrum. “It’s a very limited window [of time], and it’s Lipsky’s story,” said Ponsoldt. Read the conversation in full below.
Which characters or themes in his work really spoke to you?
When he came to New York for the “Infinite Jest” book tour, he went to KGB Bar and people really describe it as “a seismic shift in the lit world.” I think it was coupled with that fact that “Shipping Out” had just published, which was retitled as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and everyone had read that even if they hadn’t read “Infinite Jest” yet. People have described it to me as verbal cocaine. It was by someone who was so funny, so astute. There were so many tangents, where he could write and articulate the way that we think. People read him and said, “I found someone who writes the way we think and no one else does.” How often does that happen? That’s like Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Pynchon, Hemingway, some of the people who are referenced in the film. There was a real palpable excitement. What people have said to me, including David Lipsky, is that it wasn’t that he was someone who was far off in an ivory tower. He was someone who looked like them, someone who was roughly their age. He was only 34. He did something that put them all to shame. [laughs] Certainly I think it was very hard to be a writer of fiction at that time and not measure oneself against Wallace, with the ambition of “Infinite Jest” and the way that the world affirmed it. I think if you were a fiction writer at that time it would be easy to be insecure.
Is it unfair for Wallace fans to reject your movie, given the fact that you’ve made no “biopic” claims?
Zero claims. [laughs] I wouldn’t know how to and wouldn’t want to tell a story about Wallace from his childhood to his death. What attracted me to this is that it’s a very limited window. It’s David Lipsky’s story about a few days that he spent in the company of David Foster Wallace. It’s his recollections of Wallace, his recounting of it. It’s Wallace in his own words from that time. There’s a validity to that. I don’t know what Wallace thought or felt ten minutes before these guys met or ten minutes after, or what he really deeply thought of Lipsky. I don’t know. I know what he said around Lipsky, I know Lipsky’s account of it. Which is to say, this is not objective, there is no objective truth. This is something that is deeply subjective, which feels like a much more honest approach to taking on someone’s life.
The [original] tapes all existed, so there’s that as well. Lipsky was a great resource and gave me all those recordings and I gave them in turn to Jesse and Jason. Jesse had obviously played someone who was real before — he played Mark Zuckerberg. But this was Jason’s first time doing it. Neither of them wanted to do a caricature or an impression. They wanted to understand the souls of these people. They wanted to understand what they could. It wasn’t “SNL,” and that was vitally important to them. Jason did work with a dialect coach to get the cadence down. There are a lot of external, superficial things like that that go with putting a character together. How did this person walk? How did they carry their shoulders? How did they shuffle their feet? Wardrobes, things like that. What part of their mouth did they speak from? So much of understanding Wallace’s biography of where he was from, who his parents were, what part of the country it was. There were a lot of issues of diction that were important for Jason to get. But the most important thing for him was reading Wallace’s writing. I think that gives you a better sense of where that guy operated from, what he thought and felt, what his values were. And then spending time with someone who knew Wallace really helped Jason. Jason was really brave and courageous and made himself vulnerable, and trusted that I wouldn’t let him look like a jerk. He removed his ego from the equation and wanted me to be vigilantly honest with him and tell him when things didn’t feel right. It was really a great collaboration.
David Lipsky is a first-rate journalist; he recorded the whole thing. Wallace was a great journalist as well; he has written my favorite profiles of people, whether it’s of an athlete or a filmmaker or a politician. He knew the pressure Lipsky was under, the wants and needs of a 1,500 word piece. He knew what would make for good copy or pull quotes, but he also wanted to be vulnerable and honest and give a good interview. I’m sure there was something that was very, very meta to the whole experience. Also, consenting to spend days with another person, as you know, does not happen. When it does, it can get really blurry. You go on tangents and go, “Wow, we could be friends.” Maybe you could! But there’s something very artificial about that ephemeral relationship one can have in that context, and that wants and needs of desires of what’s going to happen in this conversation. That’s very specific and interesting.
Who’s to say whether Wallace ever let his guard down against Lipsky? Hopefully there’s a tension in the film that maybe these are two guys who are both performing for each other in a way, playing the role of journalist and subject with constant status shifts. I think that’s what makes it interesting, hopefully. It felt like we were doing some kind of photorealism, I don’t know. I think of some of those David Hockney paintings from the ’70s, where it looks like the way things are, almost, but it’s an impression. This is not a documentary.