There’s one thing filmmaker James Ponsoldt just can’t seem to get away from: obsession. With films like “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour” under his belt, Ponsoldt has a knack for humanizing characters with seemingly outsized needs, from addicts to recluses.
It’s that kind of obsession that also drives Ponsoldt’s next film, “The Circle.” Ponsoldt (who has always been a big believer in the power of the cinematic adaptation) has adapted Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name, which follows May (Emma Watson), a young woman who is hired by a powerful internet company (think Facebook, but bigger) and slowly falls down the rabbit hole of its many dark conspiracies and major secrets.
“It’s rarely a conscious thing, in terms of the stories I’m attracted to,” Ponsoldt recently told IndieWire. “But I can only speak to the experience I had when I first read Dave Eggers’ novel, which was I was horrified. A lot of it was that I saw myself in May, in her reliance on her gadgets, her addictions to her gadgets. Just the way that she was living her life.”
Putting himself into May’s shoes was essential for the filmmaker, who has always been able to connect with his characters in personal ways.
“I didn’t feel any judgement of her whatsoever,” Ponsoldt explained. “I just totally saw myself in her. My wife and I were about to have our first child, and I was just asking myself a lot the questions I think a lot of new parents do now, ‘what is the world our son will be born into?’ or ‘will he have the same choices to live a private life that we had?’ I’m not sure what the answer is.”
Still, Ponsoldt is clear about his own engagement level with technology, and the questions our own culture ask of it.
“I’m not a Luddite,” he said with a laugh. “I love technology! There’s nothing that seems more tired than a novel or a film that asks, ‘does technology bring us closer together or move us further apart?’ I feel like, to some degree, that question has been asked.”
Ponsoldt is more concerned with the ethical questions that plague a world filled with ever-expanding technological options and how his characters deal with that. “At its core, it’s a character study,” he said. “Of someone who is trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life, who wants to do something with her life, who wants to leave a legacy, and isn’t quite sure how to do it.”
In short, it’s not just about the gadgets.
In a stroke of casting genius that Ponsoldt still seems very tickled by, the always genial Tom Hanks plays the (maybe nefarious?) Steve Jobs-like figure who heads up the so-called Circle, and “Star Wars” star John Boyega plays a higher-up employee at the corporation who finds his loyalties tested as May becomes more and more important to the success of the company. Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, and Bill Paxton round out the film’s starry cast.
Ponsoldt is also looking ahead to his next film, an original CGI and live-action hybrid for Disney called “Wild City.” That’s the real outlier on Ponsoldt’s resume these days, but he’s still looking to the real world for inspiration. The film follows a young animal form Los Angeles’ Griffith Park area — close to where Ponsoldt and his young, animal-obsessed family live — who loses both his home and family and must embark on an unexpected journey.
“For a lack of a better term, [he’s] a refugee,” Ponsoldt explained. “It makes it feel all the more timely. I’m writing it [right now]. It’s something I dream about every night.” You could even say he was obsessed.
STX Entertainment will release “The Circle” in theaters on April 28. Check out the film’s newest trailer below.