‘The Spectacular Now’ Interview: Director Says Hollywood Needs ‘Simpler Stories, More Complicated Characters’

Credit: A24 Films

If you’ve seen The Spectacular Now, then you know it is no ordinary teen drama. Not a bit like most other “last day of high school” movies with which you’re well acquainted. And while the genre is filled with fun, moving, and otherwise memorable entries, the new endeavors taken on by The Spectacular Now are more than just inventive, they’re invaluable. In speaking with director James Ponsoldt, we touched on how he made his film so “special,” what the powerful story means to him, and where the genre is heading as a whole.

First off, I want to know, did you come onto the movie based on a relationship you had with the book?

I had known of the book because it had been nominated for a National Book Award a couple of years before. I hadn’t read it. The producers of Spectacular Now approached me after Sundance 2012 — I had a movie called Smashed there — and they said, ‘Hey, we loved your movie. Do you want to read this script?’ Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted it.’

I never really thought that I would direct someone else’s script, but I was open to it. It sounded interesting, and I was profoundly moved by it. I read Tim’s novel immediately afterward and loved.

Was there something specific about the way that they write that made you more willing to take on their script?

I had always been interested in writing something that had dealt with adolescence, and dealt with some stuff that I was dealing with as a teenager. I had never gotten around to it. And then with Tim’s book — this character, Sutter, is kind of who I was when I was that age. It was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, someone wrote my story.’ So it was very much just loving that character and feeling that I had to tell it. Also, the producers were very open. If I was going to do someone else’s script, I wanted to do it in a very specific and personal way. I wanted specific actors, I wanted to shoot it in my hometown of Athens, Georgia — there were a lot of things I wanted to do that I thought they would probably… I wanted to give them every reason to say no. But they’re like, ‘We want to make this with you. Make it in whatever you want. We love it.’

I like the way you use the phrase “my story.” There’s an authenticity to this that I haven’t seen in a movie about adolescence in years. Can you put into words how you guys worked to achieve that?

I think it started from [the fact that] the novel and the screenplay respect the characters and don’t passing judgment over them. They allow the characters to not be overly clever or overly cynical. There’s an earnestness to it, I think, in the casting. Across the board. I cast actors who I think are unbelievably natural, and who I, and I think the audience, want to spend time with. But who also can really handle dramatic scenes, bring levity to the dramatic scenes, and, in more comedic scenes, can ground them. You never know exactly, emotionally, which pitch or valance a scene’s going to have — if it’s going to go dark or light. And then really recognizing who these people were as actors, and not micromanaging them. Planning a lot with the actors. Talking about the scenes a ton. Really allowing the freedom for there to be happy accidents — almost seeking those things out.

I feel like a lot of these types of movies are being attempted. Perks came out last year, The Fault in Our Stars is in development now. There have always been movies about teenagers. But is there something about this era that is more conducive to open, honest, and biting movies like these? Or that really needs them?

I think people always need books and films to make them feel less alone. A world where they can connect. I think that everyone has that experience — whatever that book was for them. Whether it’s a Judy Blume book, or whether it’s Catcher in the Rye. Whatever it is, when you were 13 or 14 and thought, ‘Oh my God, I thought I was the only person who was dealing with this.’ You really connect strongly [to firsts]. When you get your heart broken for the first time, or you ‘break up’ with your best friend. You feel like, ‘I’m gonna die.’ You don’t have an elaborate system of coping mechanisms that you develop as an adult to deal with these things. The truth is, if you look at European films or Asian films, they’ve always been making movies about young people. And they dignify them and take them seriously whether they’re six or 16 or 60. As for the American Hollywood studio system, maybe there needs to be a financial incentive for them. At some point, it seems like they decided that these movies aren’t financially viable. Or that we need to really go for blockbusters. And these movies are never going to be huge blockbusters the way a four quadrant tent pole comic book movie will. Though I think people can actually articulate now, ‘Holy shit. It’s been almost 30 years since John Hughes was making those movies.’ Say Anything came out in ’89. A lot of people who grew up watching those movies are now running studios. So hopefully, they’ll realize there is a financial viability. And then actually, I think it’s just having a fundamental respect for your audience. Respect for a younger audience. Realizing, ‘No, no, they want to see movies about them where it’s just them. Not them turning into werewolves. Just them.’

Credit: A24 Films

Do you think the movies of John Hughes, or the people who grew up with them and are now making these movies, do you think they lent to them

Yeah, John Hughes… there are some things that I like, but there are things in those movies that I don’t like, too. I didn’t grow up in a rich white suburb in Chicago. Race and class in those movies I don’t really relate to. I grew up in the Deep South, went to a public school. There was a lot of poverty in my school, more black than white. It was very different in that regard.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an amazing movie, but it is a fairy tale. It’s a fantasy. There’s no consequence. You can do anything. The pain and fear and anxiety in something like The Breakfast Club is real. Cameron Crowe — I think his movies are really tonally spot-on. Richard Linklater, of course. Dazed and Confused is a masterpiece. I think those are movies that you watch at a certain time and they are meaningful. For myself … Lukas Moodyson’s first movie Show Me Love is really meaningful. Kes, Ken Loach’s film, is really meaningful. Over the Edge. River’s Edge. There’s a lot of other movies from the ’70s and ’80s that are more meaningful to me. They go to darker places and don’t get as goofy. Humor is great, but it has to be earned. Injecting an emotional scene in the middle of a sitcom isn’t really my thing. It’s bits and pieces. I’m pretty democratic, I’m not a snob about it. I love having a good time when I see a movie. You know, I’ll go back and watch Sixteen Candles. Anthony Michael Hall is still amazing in that movie. Still really, really funny. Amazing in that movie. When you see Robert Downey Jr. in Weird Science, you see that guy is electric. You can just tell: “That guy is going to be somebody!”

What’s interesting about this movie is that you don’t often have a movie with a character like Sutter. He’s dynamic. On the surface, Sutter is what you’d have in a normal teen movie. And then you combine that with a more sensitive character that you’d see in, say, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I’d like to know what you think is achieved by showing that these heroes, these class presidents, also have this darkness and pain.

I think part of what Tim Tharp’s novel does, and what the screenplay and the film try to achieve… one thing they deal with is gender politics, and the false notions of masculinity that I think especially young men have been forced fed. If you look at Hollywood studio comedies of the past 15 years, there’s an archetype of this crazy, wacky 45-year-old guy who won’t grow up! And then he meets a girl and he grows up, or something. And it’s kind of absurd. Those movies are fun — they’re fairy tales, they’re fantasy, they’re goofy and not grounded in reality — but the fact is, a lot of these characters are kind of raging narcissists. And if you’ve ever been raised by a guy who is 45 but still thinks he’s 20, that’s a horrible person to raise you. That person would abandon your mother, because he’s like, “I can’t settle down! I like ladies!” Or whatever the thing is. It’s kind of a corrosive role model. And I think, at the end of the day, this is a story about a kid who worships a father who abandoned his mother. And he kind of hates his mom for it, for no good reason. He has this idea that this guy is who he should be as a man. And consequently, he treats his mom kind of bad. He’s not really that great to the women in his life in general. And all that crazy social drinking he’s doing, he’s actually medicating pain or deflecting. He’s got that laissez-faire “Live in the now, bro!” attitude. It sounds great, it sounds kind of Zen. But it’s also ethically lazy. It means, actually, “I don’t care what I do to you, or how it affects you in the future, because I’m just living in the now.” Actually thinking about the future and being concerned about other people is not such a bad thing. It’s actually pretty great.

Do you see that sort of epidemic, the carefree mentality, as a big problem in how it is portrayed in movies?

I don’t know. In movies or in life… I just think a lot of movies, in most big movies, I don’t connect with them emotionally. I don’t connect with the characters. The characters feel totally two-dimensional. I can’t see myself in them. I don’t think they really think about the characters. I think they’re thinking about the action figures. About the plot and the effects. And that’s fun. I watch big, dumb event movies. I love ’em. Give me some popcorn and some 3D glasses and I’ll have a blast. I do feel that there’s an appetite in audiences for a different type of movie, though. Where the characters still live on in their imagination, and people can actually see themselves in them. And they can relate, and access the movie as a compass for what they’re doing. I don’t know if, or I hope I would never make a “message” movie, or anything like that. I don’t know about epidemics. I think there is a lot of lazy filmmaking out there. I think the world needs more films with characters who we can really root for and find ourselves in. That’s where it should start from. Start with simpler stories but more complicated characters. That’s what I want to see, personally, as a film buff.

I think my favorite line in the entire movie is the final line Sutter says to Bob Odenkirk’s character. I’m interested in how you managed to keep such a dramatic scene from fleeing too far from the naturalistic feel of the movie.

It’s of note that the guy who delivering that [scene] is Bob Odenkirk. People know him now from Breaking Bad, but he’s one of the creators and costars of Mr. Show with David Cross. If you want to cast a really funny, boring-looking middle-aged white dude, you couldn’t do much better than Bob Odenkirk. He’s almost like this sad, middle-aged clown, saying something very sobering and very serious. I guess it sort of stems from my value system. I’ve never understood, even from a young age, when I would see in a video store: here’s the drama section, here’s the comedy section. That’s just a movie that I love, and life as I know it doesn’t function that way. Some of the funniest people I know are epically depressed and suicidal. And it goes all ways. I like populating movies with really funny people who can do drama, and vice versa. And just taking the characters seriously. Taking the wants and needs very seriously. Figuring out how to create a story and make the scenes have real stakes. It’s really important to these characters — if there’s no stakes, then who cares? Why watch the movie? Why waste people’s time?

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com

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