Trusting Your Gut: James Ponsoldt on 'The Spectacular Now'
Perhaps because Hollywood films are so fixated upon stamping their products - er, movies - as clearly existing within preset genres, with nary an off-brand moment throughout, it's unfortunately common for filmgoers to assume that all films fall into neat categories, like DVDs in the Blockbusters of long ago. James Ponsoldt's convention-defying new film, The Spectacular Now, is - in such a cultural climate - a welcome breath of fresh air, vacillating through various genres (romance, coming-of-age movie, teen comedy) with matter-of-fact abandon.
What Ponsoldt's film ultimately exposes is that such genre categorizations are themselves nonexistent - just illusions created to make it easier to sell movies. A funny, saddening, unexpectedly wise picture, The Spectacular Now follows the travails of two high school seniors (the superb Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley) trying to figure out the world - and each other - over the course of their unexpected romance. Recalling not so much John Hughes' sharply-pointed teen films of the 80s so much as it does European entries to this realm from the 60s (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The 400 Blows come to mind), the soft touch of the film's direction is a brave choice at a moment when so many teen-centric pictures have all the subtlety of an acid bath. I had the chance to sit down with Ponsoldt recently to discuss his film.
Tribeca: The way your film is lit reminded me a lot of Gordon Willis’s stuff in Annie Hall – a lot of it is very dark. A lot of romance films, like Nicholas Sparks-type films, have this look to them -
James Ponsoldt: A glossy, dewy hue to them.
It always blew my mind when I was a kid that there were separate sections for comedies and then for dramas in the video store. That’s not life.
Tribeca: Exactly. And this is so far from that. How did you discuss the look with your DP?
JP: You know, I heard an interview that Harris Savides gave, and in at least his relationship with Gus Van Sant, he said that they didn’t light for characters specifically. They would light rooms and let people move in and out of them. It always blew my mind when I was a kid that there were separate sections for comedies and then for dramas in the video store. That’s not life. From the time you get up to the time you go to bed, it will probably be kind of boring and a lot like the day before, but there might be a really great moment, where you eat a really great cheeseburger, or you see a great movie, or you talk to your mom. Or there might be a really tragic moment of something you’ve never seen before, so there’s always a little bit of light and a little bit of dark to everything.
I like a value system that’s much more democratic. The emotional values of the characters can ebb and flow. Let them all have moments that are about themselves. As far as the collaboration with Jess Hall, the cinematographer, he’s brilliant, he’s British. He’s shot a lot of stuff in North England, where everything is just grey, and you have this soft greyness. It’s a lot different in Georgia in August, when we shot. It would be like, sunny, thunderstorm, sunny, thunderstorm. I had loved a lot of the stuff that Jess had shot on anamorphic 35 which this was. I really loved Son of Rambo and we just shared a value system that was about using really really natural light.
It’s only in really bad movies and bad TV that everyone is in a medium close-up.
Manhattan was a movie that we watched together, talking about how it lets characters go in and out of rooms and in and out of shadow. It’s okay if you can’t always see everybody perfectly. It’s only in really bad movies and bad TV that everyone is in a medium close-up. It’s also about being in Georgia in late summer. It’s not bright green. It’s still kind of brown and muggy. And there was almost no makeup in this movie, and the characters were sweaty and zitty, as some teenagers are.
Tribeca: You were talking about how life doesn’t have genres like sections of a video store, and that definitely comes across. There were dark moments, funny moments. Some of them were romantic but it’s not just a romance film. When you live in the US and you watch a lot of Hollywood movies, you’re coded to read films in genre because Hollywood sells products and products need their genre constraints. How do you go through different narrative realms while still maintaining a narrative cohesion, so it all feels consistent, tonally?
If some actor has an emotional scar I don’t want to hide it. I want to highlight it.
JP: You kind of hit upon it. My favorite teen movies aren’t John Hughes movies. They’re really complicated moving films, like Ozu's works, stories with young people, old people, which kind of dignify all those characters. I never look at a movie like, “Here’s the funny scene,” “Here’s the serious scene.” I mean obviously there are some movies where that was the thought. But I think it comes down to the worldview of the storyteller and how you populate your film with actors. I mean obviously some dramatic lines are spoken by Bob Odenkirk, who some people might know from Breaking Bad but also from Mr. Show. Hopefully it never telegraphs that this is an indie romance or a comedy or drama. Hopefully it’s somewhere in between and somewhere off kilter. Any scene can go in any direction at any time, which is why you have to keep watching.
Tribeca: When you’re working with the actors, do you give some sort of indication on what the tone of the film will feel like?
JP: I spend a lot of time casting the actors. That phrase “80% of directing is casting the actors,” I totally believe that. I cast actors who hopefully obliterate my preconceived notion of the character, and after I’ve met them, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the character. They also have to have an imagination. Like Brie Larson, for instance, who is a storyteller. She makes short films. She had a short film at Sundance this year, and her films have a great sense of dramaturgy to them.
As far as overall tone, I talk to the actors a ton about their character and the individual scenes. I tell them anything they want to do in front of the camera is fine as long as you try anything that I ask, and anything you find false in a scene, let’s correct it before we get to set. We can improvise on the day, but don’t hold back. I don’t want you to tell me on the day of, 'Actually I always thought this line was kind of lame.' I want them to tell me what they would say! Shailene knows more what it’s like to be an 18-year-old girl than I do. That’s the relationship that we have.
I tell (my actors) to watch a documentary, like Vernon, Florida by Errol Morris. If you want a real spontaneous performance, watch a documentary.
Tribeca: It seems like the sort of thing that you’re not giving your actors is an exact tone of the kind of thing you’re going for, which is why you can move between all these tones so fluidly.
JP: A lot times, actors will ask if there’s a movie I want them to watch, or a performance I should see. And in the back of my mind, there are probably a ton of movies. I don’t want to tell them that. I more want to tell them to watch a documentary, like watch Vernon, Florida by Errol Morris. If you want a real spontaneous performance, watch a documentary. For me, I want to absorb as much as I can how actors are as people. If some actor has an emotional scar I don’t want to hide it. I want to highlight it. I try to get actors to talk to the production designer and art director. It’s going to be a collaboration between me, the actor, and some department head. Like, let’s put some shit in the room that’s meaningful to you that you think they would have. They’re going to bring a different level of specificity, and I think that’s okay.
When I was younger, if people brought something to the table that was different from what I imagined, sometimes I didn't like that. Maybe it’s a control freak thing. We have a mythology of the control freak filmmaker, where it all stems from my one genius brain. You have an opportunity to surround yourself with other geniuses. Like, I’m an okay DP, I’m an okay editor, but there are DPs and editors who are way better. There’s a reason The Beatles lasted less than a decade. They were brilliant guys who would argue and make the best music of their lives. I like solo John Lennon, I like Wings, I even like some Ringo music, but I don’t like it as much as The Beatles. I want to surround myself with people who will say, that idea is good, but it’s not great. You either create an environment where you try and create something better than what you could on your own, or you’re a control freak and you work from a place of fear, and you get something that’s exactly as good as the film you imagined and not any better.
Tribeca: It’s funny. I was interviewing Andrew Bujalski the other day, and he was saying that the director is the least talented person on set. Everyone else has a specialty. You’re just trying to keep it all together.
JP: Jack of all trades, master of nothing. Your job is to be okay at a lot of things and have a holistic view of the whole thing and know that you want to integrate it. Everybody else has a specialty skill set. The actor shouldn’t be worried about the tone of the film. If they’re worried about the tone of the film, then maybe they’re kind of telegraphing something abstract. Their goal is to be an advocate for that character and to be worried about the microbeats of that character and what their specific wants and need are beat to beat; not the overall scene, arc, and needs of the story.
If it starts raining or one of the kids breaks out and has a zit, whatever happens is now part of the scene.
Tribeca: All of the performances in this film are truly great. How do you work with your actors? Do you rehearse?
JP: I view it like a game of ping-pong. By the time I’ve met them, they’ve read the script. I don’t then want then want to tell them, you have to do this and this and this. That’s not letting someone return the serve. If they’ve read the script, I want to get to know them, and then I want to get their ideas about the character and what they see as the pluses and minuses. And then I want to absorb that, and if they’re the right person, and I like the way they hit the ping-pong ball, that’s great. That’s cool. And then, figure out how to send it back to them and tweak it. I’ll have conversations with them, like how do you imagine their hair, or what kind of clothes do you think they would wear or what kind of car do you think they would drive? All that stuff, it’s just a fluid conversation.
I did do a low key reading with some of the actors, just going through beat by beat, and it was like, consider this something where we could stop at any moment. You sometimes hear lines read out loud that sounded much better on the page. I don’t want anyone to try and shoehorn something in that they think is a crock of shit. They say, no I wouldn’t say that, or why would I do that? I want to figure that out early. It’s really just a constant back and forth conversation. I don’t give them specific exercises, I just want to talk to them as much as possible to get on the same page. So that by the time they get on set, hopefully they feel totally comfortable. And hopefully any scene where they feel like there’s a chance where they could look like an asshole, hopefully they feel completely physically and emotionally safe. Especially scenes like that where they’re emotionally or physically dangerous, I’m really explicit, like this is exactly how I’m going to shoot it, these are the shots. But only in those cases.
The goal is to create an environment on set where we can just play. We can all be kids. We have a plan, and we’re confident in that plan, and the goal is to throw it out because of what we see in the moment, or we can be present and just toss it out and something’s better; if it starts raining or one of the kids breaks out and has a zit, whatever happens is now part of the scene and whatever happened on that day is the gift of the universe. If it happened on a different day then it would be different. If we do five takes, hopefully there will be happy accidents along the way where we can be more honest. If there are weird mistakes, those are things that I kind of like.
There’s this moment 30 minutes into the film where everyone just shuts up. There’s nobody eating popcorn or coughing.
Tribeca: One of the things that was particularly striking about the film was your usage of long takes. I was just wondering on your particular philosophy on long takes and what you think long takes add to the emotional build of a scene.
JP: I don’t think there’s anything particularly revelatory about a long take. We’ve seen it, and sometimes it can be done as an affectation. Usually it’s done for the wrong reason. It’s a very superficial reason; just people showing off. It’s like, look what I did. It’s like a perfect gymnastics thing where it’s like, give me a 10.0. I think there are intellectual conceits in filmmaking where it’s like, they’re doing a whole movie without a cut! There can be something riveting about that, because it’s like watching someone pitch a no-hitter. But it doesn’t speak at all to the characters in the story, which should be your most important part of the process. I think hopefully there’s a film where it’s incredibly elegant. It’s like in Orson Welles movies, where you’re like, I think that scene before went for like seven minutes. Did that actually happen? The cumulative effect is of the filmmaker compressing elongated time and taking you on an emotional journey that ebbs and flows. Hopefully it’s a bit of a roller coaster and at certain times it’s getting you to invest in characters and the mistakes of characters and getting you in tune with their wants and needs.
One of the joys in film is that you can cut from one moment to another. That’s what sets it apart from the other arts. Hopefully you don’t think one plus one equals two, hopefully it equals one and a half or three. But there are also times where it’s like, you see a conversation evolve, and you can see an emotional moment evolve, and it can change the emotional vibe. It can go from casual to awkward to funny to anxious to flirty to something else, and I think there’s a moment where you feel it when you see a film a lot.
When you’re a filmmaker and you start going to a lot of festival screenings of your film, you start to know your film as an organism that’s unique from you. Like there’s this moment 30 minutes into the film where everyone just shuts up. There’s nobody eating popcorn or coughing. You can feel where people are connected in the moment, and I think a long take can do that, where people can feel something happening. It’s a palpable, almost chemical thing. I love intellectual show-offy things of people doing things a really cool way.
The 12-year-old boy in me loves cool things. The cool things I love now are different from the things I thought were cool when I was 12, but I think about my favorite music albums, where there are 12 tracks and they’re meant to be heard all together, and track 11 is 25 minutes long, and track two is 30 seconds. Why did they do that? But somehow, it just worked. That’s kind of what I think about. Whatever the emotional journey of that album or that movie is is exactly what it should be. Sometimes you have to trust your gut. Sometimes your first impulse is the right one, sometimes it’s not good enough. If you ever have done improv comedy or improv jazz with people, when you’re being inspired by the material and the collaborators, you kind of imagine like, holy shit what if we did it in this way? I feel like you have to listen to that but also trust your gut.