James Ponsoldt and B​illy Rosenberg on their much-buzzed about film “The Spectacular Now”


After spending a week out in Park City, Utah covering the Sundance Film Festival for Twin Cities Daily Planet, I had taken in 26 films and it was my last day to catch another film before my shuttle came to pick me up to head to the Salt Lake City airport. There was a film that had been talked about since it premiered almost a week earlier, director James Ponsoldt’s (Off the Black and Smashed) third feature, The Spectacular Now, based off Tim Tharp’s 2008 young adult novel. The film was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who had written the romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer a few years earlier. The Spectacular Now was bought by the flashy distributor A24 (Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and the upcoming, The Rover), shortly after its premiere. Having initially missing the first press screening, there was a second one right before I had to head out of town and incidentally left the biggest impression on me.

I still can remember the screening quite vividly even after seven months. I even said, “The Spectacular Now is a rare teen drama film that hits all the right chords and one that finally stands up to a comparison to John Hughes’s 1980s classics,and having seen the film a second time, I still stand by that quote. It was the only film I gave an “A” letter grade to of the 27 films I saw at Sundance this year.
A startling coming-of-age story that really leaves you laughing one moment and heart-broken the next, The Spectacular Now, opening this Friday, August 16 at the Landmark Uptown theater, stars two up-and-coming actors, Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole and Footloose) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). Teller plays Sutter Keely, a charming and confident high school student who is also the life of the party, and rarely seen without an alcoholic drink, partying or not. He has the most amazing girlfriend Cassidy (played by Brie Larson, from the upcoming Short Term 12) until she breaks up with Sutter. Going out partying all night, Sutter wakes up on the lawn of quiet and good girl, Aimee Finicky (Woodley), who needs to go out and start her morning paper delivery route, he asks for a ride and offers to help, but he also needs help finding his car. As Sutter is failing classes in school, he asks Aimee for tutoring help and she agrees as she starts preparing for college and wants to help him, he starts to turn her on to his partying ways, and the two form an unexpected relationship that even surprises Sutter. Filling out the terrific ensemble cast is Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing Sutter’s hard-working mother, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (from Ponsoldt’s, Smashed) playing Sutter’s sister, Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) playing Sutter’s boss, and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as Sutter’s absentee father.
Ponsoldt and co-producer and former MN Native, Billy Rosenberg, attended Blake School in Hopkins and right around the corner from the Walker, both came to the Walker Art Center last month for the MN premier of the film. Rosenberg told me before the interview that he had a short film screen the Walker when he was in high school and was thrilled to have the local premiere at a place close to his heart. Before the film started, I met with Ponsoldt and Rosenberg to talk about their much-buzzed about film, where it won a special jury prize in acting at Sundance for Teller and Woodley, and more recently has been selling out shows across the country and been getting rave reviews now that the film has opened in New York and Los Angeles.   
This is your third directed film and the first in which you didn’t write the screenplay for. How were you approached by Billy to direct a film that wasn’t of your own creation? Had you heard of Tharp’s novel before you took on directing it?
James Ponsoldt: I had heard of the novel as I’m one of those bookie-nerdy dudes, as is my wife, and I had heard of it when it was nominated for the national book award, but I hadn’t read it. I had heard of the script which was a “black-list” script (based on a survey published every year of the best unproduced screenplays) and I knew screenwriters [Scott] Neustadter and [Michael H.] Weber from 500 Days of Summer.
Billy Rosenberg: We had seen James’ previous film, Smashed, at Sundance and we loved it. After the festival, we sent him the script and loved it and wanted to do it, so it was pretty simple.
After Smashed were you about to start writing another screenplay or were you open to the idea of directing someone else’s material?
JP: I was open to the idea and it was right after Smashed, which was a whirlwind, it wasn’t the type of film that had been done for a year. We shot Smashed in late-September of 2011 and then premiered it only a few months later in 2012 [at Sundance]. So for eight-nine months I was working around the clock on that and was thinking about nothing else. When I got this script, I hadn’t thought I’d ever want to direct someone else’s script, and I was a little skeptical. When I started reading it and I read the first ten pages I didn’t know if I liked this guy, he seems to be a stereotype of this cocky kinda alpha-male and I don’t want to glorify this guy’s values system and then this guy falls on his face literally and emotional and everything.  The story began to surprise me continuously in ways it didn’t feel to clever but just felt a hair left of center and it felt like a story of an exploration of gender politics amongst teenagers. But it also felt like mythology of masculinity in the way boys idealize and mythologize their fathers. And my reaction was, “Wow, this is dealing with some really incredible stuff.” And when I met with Billy and the crew, I presented my version of this story would be and what I saw there. “This is a heavy, weighty R-rated teen drama, there is levity in it, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy,” I told them and I explained how I wanted to shoot it on anamorphic 35mm and how I wanted to bring the story to Athens, Georgia, a lot of things that I though would scare people off.
BR: We talked about seminal high-school movies, like John Hughes films, Splendor in the Grass, and we knew by everything what James just said, we knew he was the right guy to direct.
You mentioned it was on “the Black List’, but what were some of the challenges of bringing this highly acclaimed novel to the screen, and the fact that you were working from someone else’s script?
BR: Book to script, we read the book, and we knew that this was something special, and we instantly thought of Neustadter and Weber because we knew them, and we had tried to work with them in the past and we were also loved 500 Days of Summer. Once we gave them the book, they had this amazing take on the book and, they understood it wasn’t just another Ferris Bueller romp and that it had real pathos to it.  Pretty much the first draft of the script was the one that James saw and we worked with them a little bit on it, but they absolutely knocked it out of the park. We also had to cut out a few scenes due to budgetary reasons too.
JP: I thought when I first saw the script I thought that every scene worked as was impactful. It is surprising, funny and moving.  I wouldn’t say anything tonal anything changed, I would say that a lot of the energy in the scenes changed but it wasn’t necessarily wholly because of me, but it was sort of an organic process of working with the actors who have take on them. I try to create an environment where I tell the actors, “you can do anything you want in front of the cameras, but you have to agree to try anything I ask you and it’s a collaboration.” So in prep, leading up to the shoot, I would have conversations with the actors and ask them about their scenes and if one of them said, “I don’t know if I would say this or this doesn’t feel completely right.” I was really fortunate Scott and Mike were there to be part of the process all on the way to the finish line in finishing the film. It was something I really wanted and a lot of times, writers aren’t necessarily involved when you’re shooting, and I write too, but I told them to come to Georgia and be on the set. I told them they would have a great time, Athens is a college town and it’s where I’m from. Weber was there for the whole summer and Scott was there for part of the time, and if there was scene where an actor felt like it wasn’t working, we’d sit down as a group or even just the actor would talk about it. I wouldn’t say that it was making anything better; it was making it different in the way of the people and parts that were assembled.
I knew about Miles Teller before seeing The Spectacular Now, but hadn’t seen him in anything, but originally wasn’t another actor supposed to be playing the role of Sutter?
JP: Nicholas Hoult is the actor. There were two other directors in mind for the film before I did the film and one was [Michael] Weber in a follow-up to 500 Days and other director. And Nicholas, who I hadn’t met, was vaguely interested in it and it goes with Shailene and both are phenomenal actors. For myself, Miles was someone I had seen in Rabbit Hole opposite of Nicole Kidman, which is a heavy weighty drama and even though, Kidman got the Oscar nomination but I feel part of the reason she got it was because she was acting opposite with Miles and I think it was his first major film role, if not his first feature. He has this preternatural stillness he plays this teenage kid where he’s accidentally killed this child and there was nothing showy about the performance, it was all internal and a regular kid and I wondered where the director, John Cameron Mitchell had found him. And then I saw him in the Footloose [remake] and I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. So after meeting Miles I knew he was the right guy for the role.
So for the actors in the film did they have to audition or did you know you wanted Miles in the role of Sutter Keely?
BR: Miles had auditioned before James came on board and one of the previous filmmakers wasn’t one of their choices. When James came on, he was his number one choice for the role.
JP: I met with Miles and I told him, “You don’t need to audition, you’re the guy.” It wasn’t that I just looked in his eyes and had seen him in this character’s arc and just knew he was right for it. A lot of times when you audition people, you’ll have them do several scenes and have them do the real emotional highs and lows scenes. But the emotional arc of that guy from Footloose, from that guy, from this funny charismatic, slap-dicky goofball guy to who he played in Rabbit Hole, is kind of the arc in what Sutter has going on and hanging with Miles for three hours in a bar, we talked about the role. You cast great actors for there imaginations not for their ability to say the lines, of course, they can do that, but the white space on it what they bring to it, how they are going to bring it to life to them and after meeting with him, I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the part.
Talk about your cast, and the great performances and were there any surprises along the way featured in the film?
JP: Putting together an ensemble of actors, and maybe Billy has a different take on this, but it is one of my favorite things. For examples, when I look at someone like director David O. Russell’s films, I think he does a beautiful job along with and his casting director, of putting together ensembles that are unique and autonomous to that film. If you look at something like Three Kings, in what world do George Clooney, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze do they co-exist? If every single film it seems on the page, kind of crazy, there is unique energy that you can’t box in what the tone of the movie is going to be. For a film like this, it was really important that it didn’t read like, “broad comedy” or “indie drama” and it’s a pretty democratic cast of actors from really great one-hour television and feature films. The common denominator for me was these were some of my favorite actors, and they could make me laugh my ass off but they could also break my heart. That was pretty much the thing with every actor in the cast and I didn’t want to undermine or micromanage what was unique about them. The actors you love you try to give them a role they can deliver in spades and give them a platform to really do that in an unadulterated way. Or try to push them into doing something they haven’t quite done before. Or screw a little with a public perception of an actor like Kyle Chandler. As coach Taylor for five years [referring to Friday Night Lights], once a week he was in America’s living room as a modern day Henry Fonda/Jimmy Stewart, like the greatest guy on earth.  So, of course, you want him as the raging narcissist dad.
BR: Or someone like Andre Royo, who played Bubbles, the drug addict from The Wire, but in the film he plays a teacher.
What do you hope audiences take away from The Spectacular Now?
JP: My hope is that people see the movie. I’m proud of it and believe in it. It’s the movie if I were 18 or hell, if I were my age, I’m 34 years-old, it’s the movie I would want to see. I hope people find get to the theater and find a connection with it and that it has a really great life. You feel weird and icky saying that about a movie you made but it is what I hope. I would do anything for this film. Since it premiered at Sundance, I have been to fifteen other film festivals since then, and so I’m so thrilled to be here at the Walker in Minneapolis to share the movie.
BR: I agree with James. The movie itself I think people will really connect and talk about and tell their friends to go see and I hope that it has a life of its own.