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Athens Native, James Ponsoldt Talks "The Spectacular Now"

"The Spectacular Now" was the closing night film at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival. The film is about Sutter (Miles Teller), a high school senior who is just happy living in the present. He seems to have everything you would want; he's popular, has a good job, and his girlfriend is the prettiest girl in high school. What more could a guy want? Suddenly everything comes crashing down around Sutter when his girlfriend dumps him, leaving his once promising world now in tatters. Sutter then meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley) who isn't like anyone he has ever met before and just might be the person to get him back on track. The film also stars Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh.    The Spectacular Now Website  

Main photo courtsey of A24

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Source: A24

The film, based on the awarding winning novel, was shot in Athens, GA and was directed by Georgia native James Ponsoldt. I had the honor of sitting in on a roundtable interview with Mr. Ponsoldt at the Plaza Theater a couple of weeks ago.

So when did you become familiar with the book?

Ponsoldt: I had heard of the book when it was nominated for the National Book Award about five years ago, but I hadn't read it. Then, after "Smashed" was at Sundance in 2012, the producers approached me with a script that had already been written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber. I was aware of them from their film "500 Days of Summer," so I read the script. I had some apprehension initially because I normally don't direct a film with someone else's script, but it was one of the fastest reads I have ever had. It was one of the best depictions of adolescence that I have ever read. I immediately read Tim Tharp's novel, which I think is just fantastic.

In the press notes, you stated that American adolescence has become marginalized by Hollywood; can you go more in depth on that?

Ponsoldt: Sure, Hollywood hasn't marginalized the way that they take their cash. It has marginalized what it means to be that age. I think they haven't just marginalized what it is to be a teenager, but also they have marginalized what it means to be six or thirty or fifty. It's really that they aren't all that interested in anything but being profit driven.

They have become multinational organization that needs to make money and sell product, which usually means action figures. They want films that are ready made that are based on previous films, something that they can make sequels with. Studio executives that might have movie posters up on their wall in their office of "Five Easy Pieces" or "Nashville" or "Psycho"  are the same films that today they would never make or could make because they would be fired if they tried to.

There's not a lot of films about teenagers that depict them as complicated human beings and respect them. Or that depict their lives that might mirror the way that they live without having to turn them into vampires or werewolves.

What was it like shooting in Athens and did the location affect the feel of your film?

Ponsoldt: It was awesome. I was born and raised in Athens. My dad taught at the University at the Law School at UGA for over thirty years. I started writing for an alternative weekly called "Flagpole" when I was fifteen or sixteen; which let me get into indie rock shows two or three times a week, which was the coolest thing on earth. Being fifteen and getting to review all those bands was great. I always knew that I wanted to make movies in Athens. My first feature, "Off the Black," I had written to shoot on the east side of Athens where I grew up, along with Oglethorpe County, Crawford and Lexington. But there wasn't a tax incentive in Georgia at the time, so we shot the film in upstate New York.

the Spectacular now James p
Source: A24

With this film, it was like a dream because now Georgia has this great tax incentive and has great facilities in the Atlanta and Athens is only 60 miles away. Athens really delivered on everything I promised to all of the people in the production. Only scenes from films have been shot in Athens, but never a full movie. It's just not known as a big production site. So I had to do a bit of talking to get it filmed there. My friend, Danielle Robarge, with Film Athens, was on the ground sending photos of potential sites to show the producers. Cine' Theater let us have auditions there and screen the dailies there. 

There really was what you would hope for, which was a totally artistic community of people whose arms were wide open to making a movie. Nobody was wiped out about it. They just thought it was cool seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh walk around town. I mean they are used to seeing Michael Stipe walk around. The cool thing was that our production office was the old REM production office. People in Athens bent over backwards to help us. 

On the screen, it lent itself to a certain authenticity and a feeling of relatability. Athens is a very racially and economically diverse town. There are mansions in town, and where we shot there were a lot of brick ranch houses that were built in the 1950s. You have people that were born and raised there like me and then you have people that arrived there when they were eighteen to go to the university and stayed because they loved it. It's a fantastic place and it was a dream come true to shoot there.

Do you feel that growing up in the South has affected your style of filmmaking?

Ponsoldt: Yeah but it's taken awhile. When I first was making short films in film school, I was obsessed with the idea of regional filmmaking. People like Terrence Malick, John Sayles, Victor Nunez and Julie Dash were telling stories set in the South. They were people that were dealing with sociopolitical issues and the politics of representation. I was like, OK, that's my thing, that's what I want to do. But I had a weird upbringing, even though I was born and raised here. My parents were from northern New Jersey and kids would call me Yankee because I wasn't seventh generation Georgian. I have always felt a slight sense of outsiderness. So I guess I am sensitive to the idea of regionalism and what that means.

Since I left Georgia I think I have come to appreciate the South and the quality of life here. The way that people relate to the environment and to the history of the region that goes back 150-200 years. One of my favorite books is "The Moviegoer" by Walker Percy, which he wrote in 1961. It takes place in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. When he won the National Book Award he was asked why are there so many great Southern writers? And he gave a great, pithy answer, "Because we lost the war." And I think that's great because people that win wars are like bullies, they go around beating up people and move on because that's what they do. But people that get beat up or have lost something are constantly reliving it.

My issue with a lot of depictions of the South are that they reduce it to easy race class parables, kind of like a movie of the week or it's the old Civil War reenactments, where it's really treated with broad strokes. The best stories about a place or region are based on characters and story. I would love to make movies throughout the South.

I'm curious to know how your own high school experiences influenced the making of "The Spectacular Now."

Ponsoldt: I always wanted to write something that dealt with late adolescence, something that mirrored my own high school experiences. But when I tried to write them it was always so nakedly autobiographical. There is that old saying; "You shouldn't let the truth get in the way of a good story." So I could never quite crack it and I was worried that the people I had based the characters on would think. But then this script came along and what got me was that Sutter, the main character, really was me.

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Source: A24

Starting in Middle School, through the early part of high school I was very self-destructive. I was getting into a lot of trouble.  As I was running my life into the ground and making really bad choices, I started dating this girl who had parents that were both academics and she never went to parties. She didn't even want to go to rock shows with me. She read a ton and thought that reading and studying were cool. I think that relationship and my discovering indie rock shows stopped me from doing the destructive things that I had been doing. It gave me more focus and helped me figure out that what I was doing at age sixteen was going to have an effect on my life in the future.

How important do you think the age of the characters are in this film, especially as it relates to the parallels that are drawn with the older characters throughout the movie?

Ponsoldt: I like to think of this film as an adult love story that just happens to have teenagers as the main characters. You have to acknowledge who the characters are, are they able to set their own curfews, do they have jobs, are they rich or poor? All these things influence who they are, but I don't think it should affect the approach of the character and how you advocate that character. In the American studio system, "teen movie" is a genre just like "torture porn." Both are marginalized and both have a lot of characteristics that pop up in them. In "teen movies" there is always witty banter, which like no fifteen year old would ever say or they will be incredibly well dressed, or it will be incredibly nostalgic, or incredibly dirty, to where the point where the film just isn't going to feel real. People are complicated and daily life is kind of boring where people are just trying to get through their day. So even though these kids in this film are living under their parent's roof, they could be thirty-five and I would still respect them in the same way.

How did you go about casting Miles and Shailene?

Ponsoldt: Shailene read the script early on. She was my favorite thing about "The Descendants" and part of it was I didn't know who she was. For me she was a discovery. I'm sure some people knew her from her TV show, but I didn't. In that film, I was like, man that's a really obnoxious character that she is playing and I hope I don't have to spend the whole movie with this character. But by the end of the movie, she had broken my heart and stolen the movie from George Clooney, which is pretty hard to do. I realized that my initial feelings were that she reminded me of myself and what a brat I was when I was that age. Her character was dealing with a lot of pain and lashing out because of it. I was blown away by her performance. She reminded me of a young Barbara Hershey or Sissy Spacek; coming from a time that actresses were allowed to be relatable and smart and could play their characters with a high level of intelligence.

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Source: A24

Miles I had seen in "Rabbit Hole." I knew the play and that it was pretty devastating. I saw the film after Nicole Kidman had already been nominated for the Oscar. I remember watching it and thinking that she totally deserved the Oscar nomination, but she got that nomination because the kid that was in the scenes with her. His performance wasn't showy, it was like he was a regular kid from any city in the U.S.. His instincts in those scenes felt so honest and authentic. It was a strangely mature performance. Then I saw him in "Footloose," and though it was a totally different performance; he was so charismatic and goofy, it reminded me of a young Tom Hanks.

Thanks for talking with us and good luck with the movie.

"The Spectacular Now" opens Friday in Atlanta at the Regal Tara Cinemas 4.

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