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Savannah Film Festival: James Ponsoldt Talks 'Spectacular Now,' Taking On Hilary 'Rodham' & The Power Of 'Pure'

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist November 4, 2013 at 4:35PM

Sitting down with James Ponsoldt backstage at the Lucas Theater in Savannah, Georgia, one thing becomes immediately clear: he loves movies. Already thrilled that his latest "The Spectacular Now" is screening at the Savannah Film Festival in a cinema first build in 1921, my conversation with the director is peppered with references to classic cinema and the answers to my questions are thoughtful and deeply infused by his admitted voracious movie watching habits, which have left him with a clear sense of what he enjoys in his film experiences and what he doesn't. And at the end of the day, no matter the genre, budget or any other factor, it's characters he's fascinated by, and the more complex they are, the more he's invested and involved.
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The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt.

Sitting down with James Ponsoldt backstage at the Lucas Theater in Savannah, Georgia, one thing becomes immediately clear: he loves movies. Already thrilled that his latest "The Spectacular Now" is screening at the Savannah Film Festival in a cinema first build in 1921, my conversation with the director is peppered with references to classic cinema and the answers to my questions are thoughtful and deeply infused by his admitted voracious movie watching habits, which have left him with a clear sense of what he enjoys in his film experiences and what he doesn't. And at the end of the day, no matter the genre, budget or any other factor, it's characters he's fascinated by, and the more complex they are, the more he's invested and involved.

Starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, "The Spectacular Now" tells the story of Sutter, a charming, popular, nonchalant high school student who seems to have it all, but is soon forced to face his personal shortcomings when he starts seeing the honest and humble Aimee. Yes, there is romance, graduation and even a bit of partying, but this is far from your typical "teen movie." It's a snapshot of a particularly bumpy and interesting time in the lives of young people, and for Ponsoldt he had a specific tone he was eager to hit with his film.

"A medium close-up or close-up works really well when you’re watching something on your iPhone, but anamorphic isn’t so great for that.”

“I came to think a lot about the difference between sentimentality—which I think can be poisonous for films—and nostalgia. And I think nostalgia is something that’s very healthy, but I think it’s laced with a sadness and awareness of [what you’ve experienced]." He added "Everything from ‘The Mirror’ by Tarkovsky to ‘Fanny And Alexander’ to the Antoine Doinel films to ‘The Last Picture Show’ to the Apu films by Satyajit Ray, these films that look at childhood or adolescence but we really don’t think of them as ‘teen movies.’ "

But it's not just the tone of the movie that sets itself apart from other pictures in the "teen movie" genre (which if it isn't clear, "The Spectacular Now" doesn't really belong to). Shot in anamorphic widscreen (2.35:1), the film presents the kind of visual palette you don't get often in this kind of film or character-driven indies in general, but Ponsoldt drew upon a long line of films that took that approach. “We watched everything from ‘Manhattan’ to ‘Splendor In The Grass’ to ‘Last Picture Show’ to ‘Punch Drunk Love’ to ‘Diving Bell And The Butterfly’ to ‘Ratcatcher’ to ‘All The Real Girls’—films where the photography is lovely and where the relationships were complex,” he said of some of the pictures that inspired that texture and feel of "The Spectacular Now." 

And this decision wasn't just to make the movie look pretty, but to help add true depth to everything that is happening on screen with Sutter and Aimee. “It was important for me to have these characters exist in relationship to the place where they live, and exist in relationship to each other. To have a lot of long takes that grow and develop and it takes great actors [to do that]. There’s something really beautiful that I don’t think could be fabricated otherwise," Ponsoldt explained. "Like Shailene and Miles walking and talking through the woods and having their first kiss, it’s a scene that really has an arc that ebbs and flows, that goes from goofy and awkward to more sincere, to two people making themselves vulnerable and recognizing the connection, and then suddenly getting the fluttering feeling and something happening. And I don’t think the audience would feel the same way if it had been shot in a different way.”

And it all returns to his love of cinema, one that finds him still in love with how images look on the biggest screen possible, a belief that runs counter to a generation being raised watching programming on handheld devices. “What’s happened, one-hour dramatic television has gotten better, so complicated adult dramas, that's kind of went the way of cable. And a lot of those shows really are cinematic. But, we’ve kind of reached this place where movies, and the value system of what young people see, they don’t understand the awe of seeing ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ or a David Lean movie [on a big screen]," Ponsoldt said. "Where it’s like, ‘Holy crap, these characters exist in an environment.’ Like it’s a not a self-absorbed medium close-up or close-up the whole time. A medium close-up or close-up works really well when you’re watching something on your iPhone, but anamorphic isn’t so great for that.”

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, James Ponsoldt, Rodham, Pure, The Spectacular Now


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