The Spectacular Now at Sundance

In an age when the phrase “teen drama” suggests hardscrabble dystopias or lovelorn werewolves, what’s extraordinary about The Spectacular Now is how ordinary it is. The leads are two kids that could be from any town in America, and their romance is neither epic nor star-crossed. Stories like this one surely play out dozens of times a day all over the world.

But despite that ordinariness, or more likely because of it, The Spectacular Now is also one of the best teen dramas of recent years. Under the direction of James Ponsoldt (Smashed), The Spectacular Now is a pitch-perfect depiction of adolescence, warm and funny and sad without ever veering into forced sentimentality.

It’s a tough balance to pull off, and during a recent press stop in New York I got the opportunity to ask him how he managed to get it right. We also talked about why the kids in The Spectacular Now drink so much, how he took advantage of Kyle Chandler‘s Coach Taylor image, and which Arrested Development star he’d love to work with. Hit the jump to read the full interview. (Some spoilers for The Spectacular Now follow.)

I thought was interesting is that it doesn’t really romanticize youth the way some movies do, but it doesn’t talk down to teenagers either. How did you strike that balance?

I tried to respect the characters and not judge them, which is kind of the compass that I use. I didn’t really treat the characters any differently than if they were six or sixty, or anywhere in between. I think people have very complicated inner lives, whatever age they are. I think we deal with different situations like falling in love, having your heart broken, we deal with it differently if you’re older, if you’ve been through it before. If you’re a teenager, maybe you don’t have the frames of reference with which to put it in a context.

I think there’s a real difference between nostalgia and sentimentality. Sentimentality can be the death of films. When you make something gooey and you romanticize it and you really get into the idea of something as opposed to very specific characters and very specific choices, it gets a little soft. But I think nostalgia’s different. There’s something very bittersweet about making a movie about people who are younger, because it’s amazing to be 12 or 15 or 18, and there’s something really melancholic and sad about it, because it can be really horrifying and tough to be that age and also because you’ll never be that age again.

I heard that you shot this in your hometown.

Yeah. Athens, Georgia.

What was it like to shoot a movie about adolescence where you grew up?

It was amazing. My interest in doing the movie really centered around the ability to do it in Athens, Georgia. Because it was a script that I hadn’t written, and the previous two movies I had, so I wanted to make it hyperpersonal as I could, for better or worse. Shooting across from the hospital where I grew up, shooting in the streets and houses where I played as a kid, I think it gave a level of specificity that wasn’t abstract, that wasn’t about the idea of youth. There are very specific circumstances for these characters, and I do believe that the more specific you get, the more universal things become. That was really the goal. And for it to feel like a real place.

It wasn’t just me arbitrarily projecting my own experiences on it. Tim’s amazing novel, Scott [Neustadter] and Mike [H. Weber]‘s script — Tim [Tharp]‘s book takes place in Oklahoma, but I think the important thing about these characters, these teenage characters, is they’re not growing up in New York or LA, they’re not growing up not in the middle of nowhere but they’re growing up maybe in a suburb or in a college town. When you’re a teenager growing up there, which is what I know, yes, there are bars and clubs where music plays, but you can’t get into them. You’re growing up in your parents’ house and you have a curfew. So you can see all the cool older kids, but that’s not you. You still don’t have the freedom that you want.

One interesting thing about the movie is that alcohol is referenced but it’s not really the focus, it’s not really about alcoholism. So why did you choose to approach it that way? For example, I imagine it would’ve been an easier sell to cut that out. I’m glad you didn’t, but why was it important for you?

I think the story is a hair postmodern. Not in its construction of the narrative, but in the way that it approaches the characters in these situations. Which is to say, when you first meet Sutter, he’s this “life of the party” kind of fun dude, you’ve seen him in other movies. But then the story, once Aimee comes into it, starts to be a much more subtle story about gender politics, about a guy who actually — yes, he’s the life of the party, and he loves giving people a good time, but he deflects, he doesn’t deal with his own stuff. His whole life philosophy of “living in the now, bro,” it sounds very Zen, but it actually means not dealing with the consequences of your actions on the people around you, and not thinking about the future, and not having any foresight. Which means actually being slightly divested from the people around you, and keeping people at an arm’s length.

So in many ways, it is sort of about gender politics. He’s not that great to the women in his life, to the girls he dates, to his mother. He’s got a really screwed up notion of masculinity. He worships this absent father who abandoned his mother. He quasi-deifies him, and the truth is the father is kind of a selfish narcissist. In many ways, Sutter hopefully kind of throws on its head the idea of the man-child that we’ve seen in pop culture and studio comedies, where it’s like the dude who’s 45 and parties like he’s 20 and that’s crazy. It works for a big, broad comedy, and I love a lot of those big, broad comedies. But if you’ve ever been raised by a guy like that, or if you’re a kid whose dad walked out who was that guy, or you fell in love with that guy and left you high and dry, it’s not that fun. I think it deals with that stuff.

That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I know what you mean. When Kyle Chandler’s character shows up, you see a very straight line [between him and Sutter].

Yeah, and the alcohol, it’s part and parcel I think of the world in which this kid lives. He goes to high school parties, they have keg parties in the woods, they have keg parties in parents’ houses when they’re gone, and it seems a little more typical. I think as the context changes, as the character evolves and our understanding of Sutter evolves, we realize that he actually kind of drinks alone sometimes, and maybe he’s drinking to numb the pain, which is why some people drink. I never wanted to wag a finger at it, I don’t judge it, it’s not about that. It’s definitely not a social issue film. But hopefully it’s an honest depiction of a complicated but very relatable kid that maybe we all knew in high school.

I thought the sex scenes were similarly very, very real. I admired the way you were able to make them romantic and sexy, but also really awkward in the way that those experiences are at that age. Was it hard for you to figure out how to get the tone right?

It just came from having a very fluid conversation with the actors and everyone that I was going to be collaborating with. You know, I think one of the biggest jobs as a filmmaker, in addition to knowing your story and having a good story, is creating a safe space where the actors can be emotionally vulnerable, where they don’t ever feel like they’re emotionally or physically in danger, where they feel free to play and be natural. So the scenes that I probably talked to the actors most about, in a very specific — usually with actors, I don’t tell them this is where the camera is going to be. I don’t have technical conversations except for the scene where Shailene was hit by the car. Which is giving something away. I probably shouldn’t have said that. But except for that scene, where it is an issue of, it could be scary if an actor’s like, ‘how the hell are you going to shoot that?’ I don’t want them terrified about that. I want them to know exactly how we’re going to do it.

And then in a sex scene, I think it’s incredibly brave for an actor to get in front of a camera and make themselves emotionally vulnerable, emotionally naked, physically naked. So I was very explicit with them about how I’d shoot it. And the value system of it, it wasn’t about, we’re not going to do a soft, romanticized, silly version of this. It’s not going to be hardcore sex. It’s gonna be vulnerable and awkward and goofy, and you’re hopeful and anxious, and it’s much more about the connection between two people. So the real value system is coming into two faces. Two people looking at each other and wanting to connect, but really wanting to make the other person happy. A lot of movies that depict younger sexuality, they come with an agenda. There’s either something crude or really salacious about it, or that it has to be dirty or wrong, or a lot of times films don’t really let women enjoy sex. It’s like, no no, women can enjoy sex, and they can enjoy it when they’re a teenager, and they can be empowered and all of these things, and that’s okay. And a lot of how it was done was a product of Miles [Teller] and Shailene [Woodley], and conversations with them and what was important to them about it, and really trying to make it look and feel honest.

On a personal level, which characters did you identify with the most, or what about them did you relate to?

When I read the script, I mean, I’d always been interested in writing a script that dealt with an adolescent experience that was very similar to what I’d grown up with. And I’d never quite cracked that. I always felt like I was writing things that were very memoir-y and I just never really finished anything. And then I read the script and I was like, oh my God, this was me. Sutter was me. In many ways, I was a really self-destructive kid, getting in a lot of trouble when I was twelve years old. Ultimately there was a girl who wasn’t really interested in stupid high school parties or anything like that, who helped save my life. In that way, I was like Sutter.

But as I got into the film more and more, I realized that I also relate to Aimee a hell of a lot. There’s a soulfulness to her and she is interested in the future. She’s unabashedly sincere. She doesn’t have this veneer of irony, this scar tissue built up. This isn’t about a manic pixie dream girl who saves this guy. It’s a complicated relationship, and becomes sort of a codependent relationship with good but bad aspects as well. But I relate to both of them. I really try to understand all the characters in the film, whether they’re a main character or a supporting character, and I just try to be a good advocate for them.

Can I just say, personally, the character I identified with was Aimee’s best friend.

Kristal?

Yeah, when I saw it, I was like, oh my God, that’s me!

I’ve definitely been her, too. It’s a crazy thing. I felt so lucky. That actress, Kaitlyn Dever, is in Justified, and she’s in this movie Short Term 12 that’s coming out this summer. Her and Brie Larson, they have lead roles and they’re amazing. The goal that I had, even if someone has just two scenes, I want them to feel as full and real as possible. They’re not two-dimensional, they come in for a little bit and they go out, but they could have an entire movie to themselves. There’s totally a movie I would do all about Kristal, and I would love to do that with Kaitlin Dever. She’s a brilliant actress.

I wish I could see that.

Yeah, me too! I wish I could make that.

So speaking of actors you’ve worked with, I’ve noticed that you cast really excellent actors, even in supporting roles. You have Kyle Chandler and Andre Royo in this one, and Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally in the last one. Which other actors do you want to try to work with?

Oh, man. There’s too many for me to try to list. I watch stuff obsessively. I watch big studio movies, I watch foreign films, I watch TV. There’s so many! I like scene-stealers. I think it’s a very democratic time with TV and film, where a lot of our best actors are working in one-hour TV, and some in half-hour TV. My favorite actors are the ones who, regardless of how absurd the situation is, even in a show like Arrested Development, someone like… I’m just pulling this out of my ass, but someone like Alia Shawkat, who plays Maeby on Arrested Development. The stakes of that show are so absurd and I love that show, but she makes it real. She grounds things. Where it’s like, I could watch a character like that or an actor like that go into a drama or a comedy and I love.

And then you start to build a constellation of actors like that who can ground comedy or bring humor to dramatic film, and suddenly you have a film that feels more alive, I think. Because you haven’t telegraphed to the audience that this is going to be a dark, serious drama, or this is going to be a comedy. I think if any of us were really honest about our day, from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, a lot of it would be really boring, there would be maybe some small pleasures in the day, maybe like hanging out with your friends, watching TV, eating chocolate. There might be some things that are really heartbreaking, like talking to your grandma who maybe is sick or doesn’t remember your name. Whatever it is. And I feel like that’s life. So I like actors who can populate a world that feels like that in a movie.

Speaking of which, did you just set out to ruin Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor image? Because it totally worked.

I love, love Friday Night Lights, love Kyle Chandler on it. I love actors who are great, but I love actors who have personas. I think you have to almost embrace that and a filmmaker can use that to their advantage. Kyle Chandler for five years was in America’s living room every week, as this perfect dad, perfect coach. Supporting roles in movies are so tough ’cause you have like five to fifteen minutes, maybe, to create some indelible impression. And that father is so important in Spectacular Now, ’cause you have the main character who worships the absent father, that I really wanted someone who, when the door opens and the audience gets to meet him, finally, near the end of the film, that what they would feel wouldn’t be indifference, wouldn’t be fear, it would be a sigh of relief. Like oh, it’s gonna be okay. And then you kind of turn the screw on it, and it kind of breaks your heart. Kyle’s an amazing actor. He can do anything. And you like Kyle, so when he’s a jerk, it’s just kind of like, ugh, it crushes you.

Absolutely. I wanted to ask about some of the projects you have coming up, if that’s okay.

Yeah, yeah.

So I heard that you are going to direct Rodham, is that correct?

Yeah.

What attracted you to that project, and where is it right now?

What attracted me was Young [Il Kim], the screenwriter, wrote a beautiful script. It wasn’t like a cradle to the grave biopic or anything like that, it was a very specific time in Hillary’s life, and it really wasn’t about partisan politics. It’s about a young woman, she’s in her mid-20s, and she’s in between a career and the love of her life, which is a tough choice. It was a story that emotionally resonated with me and it didn’t matter to me that these were future famous people. It was very human and it was something that I think anyone could relate to. It does happen that Hillary [Clinton] is just one of the smartest and most ambitious people. Most people that met her throughout her life were like wow, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And one of the most ambitious. She could become the president. People were saying that about her from a very young age. So it heightens things, in a way, so that’s what interests me.

We’re slowly going through and trying to get the script pitch-perfect, because obviously it’s going to be scrutnized. It’s not shooting this year or anything, we’re just trying to get it perfect. There’s a lot of films that feel kind of like they’re going for a zeitgeist thing and capturing a moment, and that’s kind of sensationalist, that’s kind of low-hanging fruit. The goal is to make a film that’s going to be as timeless as something like Milk, or All the President’s Men.

And then you have the YA adaptation Pure?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Well, you’ve stuck mostly to naturalistic dramas so far, so what made you decide to take on this particular book?

It’s amazing. There’s a real emotional hulk to it. It is about adolescence and it is about embracing diversity. In a very surreal way. It’s about Baltimore after these things called the Detonations, so you have all these people, where after things have happened where things have fused to them. So you the main character has a doll for a hand. There’s a kid with birds growing out of his back. There’s a guy who has his brother attached to him. Women who have their children hanging around their chests. These things that are tragic and strange and remind me a lot of Japanese anime, kind of like [HayaoMiyazaki films, that are sort of nuclear allegories.

At its core, though, it’s a story about kids looking for their mommy. And it’s a great parable for adolescence. When you’re 15 or 16, you might feel that you’re not tall enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not pretty enough, you have zits, whatever, but in this world, kids have animals growing out of them. There’s more, it’s about embracing the world and embracing the different, which I think is really beautiful.

And then Forgive Me Leonard Peacock? You have a lot of things coming up.

Yeah, that’s Matthew Quick, who wrote Silver Linings Playbook. It’s an amazing book that I’ll adapt and direct. Its premise sounds really terrifying, the inital premise about a boy who’s going to school to shoot his ex-best friend, and he wants to give gifts to a few people before he dies. So it starts as though it might be a school shooting movie. But it actually goes to a place that’s much more — it doesn’t judge, it doesn’t sensationalize, it actually tries to really understand this character and understand how he came to be where he is, and it’s not a violent film. It’s a film that has a heart and soul and I think it’s really surprising and moving.

Sounds kind of like Spectacular Now, but maybe a little darker.

Maybe a little darker, yeah, certainly in its premise. I think when people hear the premise, they’ll be like “uhhh.” But I think it’s an approach with a real respect for the characters. It allows them to be human and dignifies them. It doesn’t judge them, and it doesn’t make them the other.

Have you decided which one of those is going next? Do you know yet?

I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m just kind of chipping away at all of them, whether it’s like Rodham where I’m working with the writer to develop it, with those things and just working the adaptation. Ultimately, you know, the script will get to the right place, maybe an actor will want to play a part, and then we’ll see. I wish I had a trust fund where I could just say, ‘This will go next!’ But you know when they’re ready. Things have their right time. The script needs to be perfect. It needs to be with the right actor.

Going back to The Spectacular Now for a second, when you were making it, did you have more of a teen audience in mind, or an adult audience? Did you think about that at all? Because I know it’s rated R, so it’s going to be tough for kids but it feels like it’s also aimed at them.

It was the earliest conversations I had with the writers and the producers. It was, I love the script, what I’m reading is an R-rated drama with teenagers. Like if you use the F-word twice in a film, you get an R on a film, automatically.

It’s crazy.

It’s crazy. You can kill a dozen people in an action movie about people invading the White House or something and still be PG-13, but you use the F-word twice, you get an R. You depict young people drinking, which young people are known to do, you can get an R. Young people maybe having sex, being sexual, you might get an R. And it’s like, good God, really? The truth is, the value system in this film, it should be a PG-13 movie.

But nobody made this movie for mercenary, let’s-get-rich reasons. We made it because we wanted to depict a movie that’s gonna last, that’s gonna stand the test of time and feel honest. My hope is that the audience is teenagers, and people who have been teenagers. Which includes me. I’m 34. I always want to see an honest film that makes me feel something. Hopefully it’s an emotional movie and it’s a romantic drama where the characters happen to be teenagers, as opposed to a quote-unquote “teen movie,” which I think a lot of times can be reductive and in this day and age means it’s gonna be kind of immature in its value system, and it’s gonna be about dick jokes, or characters who can turn into werewolves or vampires, and this isn’t about any of that. Hopefully it dignifies what it is to be a teenager and will make kids feel less alone in their own experience, and they can find themselves in these characters.

One more question. Which movies did you look to as inspiration for The Spectacular Now?

I looked to movies like Splendor in the Grass, and Last Picture Show, and Say Anything…, and Dazed and Confused, and 400 Blows. Those were some big ones that really moved me, where I love the characters and they feel so incredibly honest and timeless.

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The Spectacular Now is available now on iTunes

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