‘The Spectacular Now’ Director James Ponsoldt Respects Teen Emotions
The protagonist of director James Pondsoldt’s new film is an alcoholic. The other characters in The Spectacular Now may not point that out, but why would they? Nobody in high school thinks of any teenaged partier as an alcoholic, and Pondsoldt sets the film directly from that perspective.
More so than with his previous film, Smashed, with The Spectacular Now Pondsoldt deals with a destructive main character. The protagonist in Smashed (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wasn’t actually hurting anyone besides herself. We see the opposite in The Spectacular Now. This isn’t a coming-of-age movie where the nerdy kid comes out of his shell because some hip girl takes an interest in him. It’s one where he maybe breaks out of that shell a little too late while hurting others in the process.
Keep reading to see what director James Pondsoldt had to say about crafting an authentic high school experience for Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and his audience.
You did Sundance two years in a row, correct?
Sundance in 2012 [for Smashed] and then again this year. It was a weird experience where you lose track of time. There was no downtime between those two movies, but I like to work. I’d prefer to work than not work [Laughs].
[Laughs] It’s funny you mention the lack of time between the two. They almost feel like companion pieces.
It’s about characters at different stages in their life and shot in different places with a different style, but with these types of people and what they’re wrestling with makes them kindred spirits, in a way.
Smashed confronts alcoholism head on. I don’t think anyone even says “alcoholic” in this film. Was that deliberate?
Yeah, it was. In the case of Smashed, I realized I had been to my third or fourth wedding in a year where the bride and groom were just hammered, and in an embarrassing way. I thought it was totally hilarious, but tragic. I had a lot of conversations with my friend Susan Burke ‐ who’s a comedian who got sober in her early 20s ‐ and we wrote it together. That film was born out of a desire of focusing on people who got out of college and just partied a lot, and doing it with humor.
For The Spectacular Now, it wasn’t where I thought of it as, “This is your addiction.” His drinking is a part of who he is. Maybe everyone didn’t grow up this way, but he drank as much as most teenage boys I knew growing up. You’re young and want to try everything then. I didn’t want this to be a message movie judging its character. As much as it is a coming-of-age movie, I think it is distant from some of those teen movies, where there are some things under the surface for the audience.
For both films, did you see them as being comedies from the start? Or did the comedy naturally come out of the drama?
I’d say they were similar in how we had tone conversations. We would talk about plot and what works and doesn’t, but tone is a more subjective thing. When I was writing with Susan we developed a tone and watched a number of movies. People can agree on the story of a film but can have wildly different opinions on tone. For Smashed we watched Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, and a couple of John Cassavetes movies, which are things that were funny and sad. The humor could only make those dramatic scenes resonate more. We wanted levity with the comedy, while also staying true. A day in anybody’s life is funny and sad.
Were there any films you watched specifically for The Spectacular Now?
The thing I realized was the “coming-of-age” movies I loved were set apart by the fact that them being about teenagers didn’t really matter. The emotional value system was the same, even if it was about adults looking back. I looked at The Last Picture Show, Show Me Love, 400 Blows, Say Anything and Dazed and Confused, which are all movies that respected the emotions of their characters. The ones that my cinematographer and I talked about were a couple of those, but also Manhattan, Punch Drunk Love, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Before Sunset. You can’t have these characters think like they’re 50, but you have to take them seriously.
Something your film has in common with some of those better High School movies is casting. When I went to high school, I was disappointed everyone didn’t look 30 years old like they do in certain movies. Was having a variety of different looks important?
That was important to me. In high school there are some seniors where you go, “Wow, that guy has a beard!” There are also kids who look ten, of course. I wanted a realistic depiction of the kids you’d see at a public school in Georgia, which is where I’m from. The age of the characters was important to me. I also didn’t want to say, “There’s the jock! There’s the geek over there!” I think that’s a shorthand some of those movies create, not trusting an audience is smart enough to understand those things. They are smart, though.
There are really none of those cliques you always see in movies.
No, there really aren’t. As much as I like the John Hughes movies, high school was nothing like that for me. I think he’s a filmmaker who respected those kids and their emotions, but they’re really aspirational films about rich white kids in the suburbs. They’re not incredibly diverse. Also, tonally, they lean into broad comedy at times. I do think they’re really great, though. I think what Cameron Crowe says about young people are incredibly specific worlds. In the big box of teen movies, his stand out. I mean, Singles is a very, very specific Seattle movie and Fast Times is a very specific movie about Southern California.
Almost Famous is definitely one of the best films when it comes to finding those specific details about being a teen.
100%. That’s about as personal as movies can get. When you tell a story you know well, that’ll translate to people who know that feeling. I don’t think that movie just appeals to aspiring rock journalists [Laughs]. I think whatever you’re doing in your life, you’re going to meet some of your heroes that’ll let you down.
Right. One piece of casting here that leaves an impression on the rest of the film is Kyle Chandler. It’s a small but important part. How deep did the search go to cast Sutter’s dad?
With supporting roles, [for] the characters that are spoken of but not seen you have to create a negative space with the audience. This kid is told his father is an asshole, but he’s probably modeled his ideas of masculinity around his father. The goal is that when the kid sees his father the audience can breathe a sigh of relief. Some actors just telegraph trouble, but not Kyle. For five years he played one of the best father figures on Friday Night Lights, and the audience is going to bring that into a theater with them. Some actors can burn expectations like that. You just think, “Of course an 18-year-old kid would worship this guy!”
So was twisting the Coach Taylor image a part of his casting?
Absolutely. Kyle was serving our story so well. When certain actors find their defining role ‐ James Gandolfini on The Sopranos or Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad — sometimes it can be hard for them to break that mold so people can see them in different ways. I think Kyle knows the image that he has. He’s an actor who can do anything, but I think it was intentional to take on a role that would obliterate what people saw him do before. You can see an intensity and light darkness to him, which was there a little bit in that show. He’s been great at playing authority figures, but it’s much more visceral seeing him playing a guy you don’t want see around a kid.
The Spectacular Now is now in limited release.