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James Ponsoldt on Why ‘The End of the Tour’ Is Not a David Foster Wallace Biopic

James Ponsoldt on Why 'The End of the Tour' Is Not a David Foster Wallace Biopic

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. 

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.

What’s your relationship to David Foster Wallace?
Growing up, David Foster Wallace seemed like a very cool, intimidating writer. “Infinite Jest” came out in early ‘96, when I was a junior in high school. I started college in the fall of ‘97. I was an English major, and like any dutiful English major, I had to get a copy of “Infinite Jest.” Everyone I knew was either reading it, had read it, was pretending to read it, was engaging with it or had given up to use as a doorstop. Over the course of four or five months, I wrestled with the thing and felt pummeled by it. It was one of the most challenging and complicated relationships I had had to that point. [laughs] Also, I read his collection of essays that came out that year, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and the way he wrestled with issues that I did, like pop culture…. It felt like the voice I had inside my head or the voice I aspired to have. The guy that I would love to get into arguments with about David Lynch or porn or whatever. I just became obsessed with Wallace and read everything he wrote the second I could get my hands on it. I even had some of his writing read at my wedding. I was and am a Wallace obsessive! 

Which characters or themes in his work really spoke to you?

I probably related to Hal when I first read “Infinite Jest,” when I first went into college as an athlete and I had worked very, very hard in school. I was spending seven, eight, nine hours a day working at athletics in my first year in college and questioning whether I wanted to do this with my life or whether it was my father living through me. There are all these very superficial issues that are a part of “Infinite Jest” that I connected to. I think later, characters like Don Gately and those around him with issues of mental health and addiction became very personal. I had a lot of friends that were wrestling with issues of addiction and depression; some committed suicide. Also, happiness, pleasure, success, how he measures success, what entertainment is, how we want to feel things deeply or want to numb out from things in certain ways. All of our happy screens that we have — Wallace really saw the future in that way. As I’ve gotten older, different aspects of his writing have meant more to me.
When “The End of the Tour” begins, Wallace is just releasing “Infinite Jest.” He’s at the precipice of mega-stardom. How did you recreate the feeling in the literary world at that time? 
I’ve talked to a lot of people who were in the New York literary world at the time “Infinite Jest” was published to offer context to me of what it was actually like, because I didn’t want to romanticize any aspect of this story. I didn’t want to build him up as something as more than what he was as a writer. I didn’t want to romanticize issues of mental health or addiction or anything like that. I wanted to be incredibly honest.

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.

In April of 2014, the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust publicly rejected your film. Their statement read, “David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.” What do you make of this?

That happened right after we wrapped shooting. The shoot was hard; it was an independent film, and you never have enough time or money. We were shooting it during this miserably cold winter. It was the polar vortex! Anyway, it didn’t make me feel good, but at the end of the day, this isn’t a biopic. This is based on David Lipsky’s book, which came out five years ago. It was a bestseller, a critically acclaimed book. It’s very clearly Lipsky’s story about he’s affected by David Foster Wallace. We tried to dignify the details of how Wallace was in the company of Lipsky. That was our guiding principle. 
Members of Wallace’s family have seen it and really liked it. They’re very private people, and I respect their privacy. Wallace was thought of as a private person, which he was, but became a public figure by virtue of writing. He didn’t shirk it. You can go to YouTube and see interviews with him talking about his books and talking about culture. His family didn’t choose to do that. I respect where they’re coming from. It’s complicated. I have a lot of empathy.

Why isn’t this a biopic?
Every film is different, but I think that the general stereotype of biopics, without naming names, is something that is a cradle-to-grave story. It has some “Rosebud”-type moment when someone is five or six or seven where they lose a sibling or get stung by a bee. It somehow predicts in some Freudian, pop-psychology way why, at age 70, XYZ happens. “It’s all about their mother!” I think that at 105 or 110 minutes, if you’re trying to cover that much ground it becomes a really flattened out, reductive story that feels very bullet-pointed, very Wikipedia’d, if that’s the right word. [laughs] It tries to draw easy psychological conclusions. People’s lives don’t work that way; they’re much more random. People are really contradictory. There are complicated emotional inner lives that we just can’t know. Trying to manufacture some external dramatization as a reflection of their internal conflict for the purposes of good cinema feels bullshit-ty to me.

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.

How did Wallace’s complex relationship with representation and self-image factor into your collaboration with Jason Segel? 
Jason is not in a bubble. He’s very aware of how people perceive him; he’s like any other person. He reads the internet. I think he stopped at a certain point because it’s more healthy. The idea of taking on Wallace for anyone — whether it’s someone who’s only done dramatic roles or someone who’s thought of more as a comic actor — there’s a huge pressure and a burden. Jason took that very, very seriously and he immersed himself in Wallace’s real work. He sat down and read “Infinite Jest” over a couple of months. He started a book group and worked through it. That was the most meaningful thing to him. I introduced him to someone who was very close to Wallace at the time, and he was able to ask a lot of questions that helped contextualize things.

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.

You’re dealing with representations of people in the context of interview and subject. It’s a multi-layered picture of intimacy that’s very particular to the interview situation. How did you parse through this?

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.

Did you ever have an “End of the Tour”-like experience with an idol or someone that heavily influenced you?
I’ve had exactly that experience, so I have a lot empathy for Lipsky. I would never flatter myself to say I could relate to what Wallace was dealing with, but I’m being interviewed right now, so I have felt that. That said, I definitely have been on Lipsky’s side more. That’s more what I relate to. I write for Filmmaker Magazine sometimes, so I’ve been very lucky to sit down and interview directors I deeply admire. Werner Herzog, Paul Thomas Anderson, whomever, Kelly Reichardt, masters that I’ve learned from, and younger filmmakers as well. I think there’s something incredibly universal about meeting someone who you’ve romanticized, abstracted, measured yourself from afar. Getting five minutes or an afternoon or a day with them. Whether that’s on a professional level or it’s an estranged relative, an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, whatever it is, I think we’ve all had that experience. There’s something very emotional in that, and I think that’s the experience Lipsky had. So yes, I’ve had it. [laughs]

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