The third feature film from US indie filmmaker JAMES PONSOLDT, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is a bitter sweet comedy drama that captures the confusion and insecurity of adolescence in a way that no other teen movie has ever done before. Or at least that’s how it felt to me.
Spectacularly fresh and original, the film was released in the US in August 2013 and we are excitedly waiting for its release in the UK.
Below is an interview with the director taken on 11 October 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.
Dana: How are you enjoying the festival?
James: I love it, I’ve always wanted to come to this festival, I grew up with those wonderful BFI books, like the best movies ever, I was always aware of the BFI, so it’s always been a dream.
Dana: Is it your first time at the festival?
James: Yes, yes.
Dana: But you made other films…
James: I have made other films and they played internationally, I had one last year that played in Toronto, in Zurich, but never at the London Film Festival, no…
Dana(cheekily): Why, they didn’t accept your films in the festival before?
James: No, I don’t know, a lot of times it was just scheduling, Smashed, the film I had last year, it was a Sony Pictures Classic release worldwide and it came out in the US in October last year so timewise it didn’t quite work out. In this case there is an American distributor, it already came out in the US and Disney is releasing it internationally so they were fine with it, a lot of it is just scheduling.
Dana: Your film is the sweetest teen film I ever saw and it goes against all the stereotypes of the genre. How did you come up with such lovely and complex characters? I know the film is based on a book but does it all come from the book?
James: Oh, thank you. Well, Tim Tharp wrote the novel, he wrote a beautiful book, but a lot of it comes from the collaboration with the actors. The book was the inspiration and that’s the spirit of it but the way I work with actors, I cast them for their imagination, because I find them to be very interesting people, not only because they look the way I imagine the characters look. So when I cast Shailene Woodley or Miles Teller, I’m casting them because I believe they would make the characters more interesting than I would. And that they will disagree with me, I mean Shailene Woodley knows more about what it is to be an 18-year old girl than I do. So we had many many conversations long before we shot, sitting with the script, talking about the characters, talking about them and who they are, what they found compelling, what they found that needed work, or that they would never say. So the script evolved and changed. Before we shot I even had the actors have conversations with the production designer, or the costume designer, and even the characters’ bedrooms reflected in some ways the taste and vision of the actors, in addition to me. So it was really a collaboration of all of us, everybody’s fingerprints are on it. But it got better because the script is just a pile of paper, you know, but actors are what makes something human, and you can either micromanage actors and make them do exactly what you want, in which case you’ll get something, but if you cast brilliant actors and allow them to be free, because they are artists in the same way that a cinematographer or composer is an artist. So it was really the actors, and a great book and a great script that…did the trick.
Dana: This is your third feature, what challenges have you encountered this time and how did things go on the set?
James: Ultimately we had a small budget and not a lot of time so it was a sprint. We planned a lot because we knew that when we are actually shooting, we’d have to go through this many pages every day and if we didn’t get a scene we wouldn’t be able to go back…And the goal ultimately is to plan and plan and plan so that on the day you can be spontaneous and free and throw all that out of the window, you don’t want to be aware of your watch but you have to be. But I think everybody goes through that. Otherwise we shot in my home town of Athens in Georgia, which was wonderful. And we also shot in August in Georgia, which meant that it was over 100 degrees each day and humid, and thunderstorms, and the weather was crazy, and everybody’s sweating and hot, it was pretty brutal as far as the weather, but it was really a lovely set though.The crew worked together very well, the actors were all wonderful and we were all on the same page.So it was a real pleasure.
Dana: If you were to go back and shoot this film all over again, would you do something different?I’m trying to get to what lessons you have learnt this time, I imagine you learn something new all the time…
James:Yeah, I do[…].I used to beat myself up over things, it’s very hard for me to watch a film that I’ve made and enjoy it, all I’m thinking about is the things I would change and the mistakes, so I can’t take a lot of pleasure in watching my own movies[…]. I love watching other people’s movies and I can admire the performances but it’s very hard for me to watch my films. On my first film, I’d beat myself up endlessly watching the film and thinking about what I would do differently. Now my perspective has changed, now I believe in preparing a lot as I mentioned but throwing it all out on the day, and realising that if I made the movie one week before or one week later it would be very different, it might be raining on one day, the actor might have just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever it is, and you can either fight those things or you can embrace them. Now I see it as the universe giving me those gifts, and fiction films and scripts are entirely fabricated, there’s all these elements, there’s lights and camera and you are trying to create honesty so I’m trying to be better by letting go of my preconceived notions of what it’s going to be and just embracing whatever it is in the moment, like if this is a scene between two people and I spill tea on you, that’s ok, maybe now you have tea on…but just embrace it because that happens in life.
Dana: This reminds me of Godard’s method of working…
James: Oh I love Godard, I love Truffaut…
Dana: And they loved American filmmakers, they loved Hollywood films…
James: Yes they did, they were great critics. I learnt so much just from watching specifically Truffaut, his Antoine Doinel films and his criticism and all the Cahiers du cinéma writing, and his interviews with Hitchcock. That’s probably my favourite time in filmmaking. And filmmakers like Agnes Varda, I just adore.
Dana: By the way, talking about film magazines, which one is your favourite?
James: I write for a film magazine in the US called Filmmaker.
Dana: I’ve read your interview in Filmmaker, you were interviewed by Craig Zobel, interestingly enough I interviewed Craig last year.
James: Oh fantastic. Craig is a very good friend, he’s from Georgia as well, you saw Compliance, I love Compliance. So I write for that magazine as well, and I’ve done interviews with everyone from Kelly Reichardt, to Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola and Charlie Kaufman. So I love that one. I also love Film Comment, there’s a lot that I love, I read them all. I’m partial to Filmmaker because I write for it.
Dana: Do they pay you?
James: Yes they do, symbolically. For me, the editor, Scott Macaulay, he’s a very good friend and a great champion of films…I have such a fierce respect for film criticism, and for filmmakers that started as critics…I think of myself as part of a community that I want to engender and so when someone like Craig, who is an amazing filmmaker, interviews me, it’s him being part of a community and supporting me and it’s what I hope to do as well. I try to not have a sense of competition with other filmmakers because I believe the success of an independent filmmaker with a very personal vision is a success for everyone, it’s important to not tear apart other people but to really support them, because the moment you tear apart someone else, it makes it all the harder for you to get your movie made, so the community as a whole when it thrives it’s good for everyone, that’s how I see it.
Dana: And this was exactly the spirit of the French New Wave…One last tricky question: why do you make films?
James: Because I don’t know any other way to express myself, I would think I would go insane if I didn’t, I mean it’s like an addiction, a compulsion, I’ve always needed to tell stories. When I was a child I did cartoons, I wrote short stories, I acted in plays, I played music, all these different ways that I wanted to express myself through story, and then when I made my first short film, I realised it synthesised my love of photography and acting and music and just everything into one. It is an universal art that combines everything. For me growing up sitting in a movie theatre was like going to church, it was the most cathartic experience, it was the way I better understood myself and had very private emotional experiences but it was also the way I communicated and felt connected to other people. Sitting in a dark room with five hundred people crying together is an amazing thing. And because when I was young certain movies and certain books made me feel less alone in the world, when I was angry and confused and I found the right book and the right movie, when I met Antoine Doinel for the first time, I could see myself and I knew that someone else felt that…And I guess my hope is to make films that at least one other person would have a connection to, so that’s my hope.
Shailene Woodley on why the sex scene in The Spectacular Now is her favourite…find out more here.