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.
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.
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: 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: 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.
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: 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.
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.