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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.
Hillary Clinton James Ponsoldt

So after two acclaimed, intimate indies, where does James Ponsoldt go next? Well, he has a few projects brewing that are seemingly a far cry from "Smashed" and "The Spectacular Now," but they are rooted in character, so even something like like the Hilary Clinton biopic "Rodham" can have a personal resonance for the director.

"I see it is sort of something like ‘Pan’s Labryinth’ meets ‘City Of Lost Children’ meets ‘Night Of The Hunter.’ " - James Ponsoldt on 'Pure.'

“The things that interest me [in movies] start with characters, and in that story it’s about a woman in her mid-twenties choosing between her personal life and her career, which is very relatable. It has nothing to do with the celebrity of the character, that she would ultimately achieve later. That story is not a cradle-to-the-grave biopic, it’s sort of looking into a keyhole of a very specific two year period in her life,” Ponsoldt said of the Watergate-era movie, that follows Hillary Clinton as she's chosen for the House Judiciary Committee to Impeach Nixon. He added: “The movie is not interested in whether  Hillary Clinton does or does not become President, and does not have an agenda in that direction. It’s a portrait of a really complicated brilliant woman, with a lot of tough choices before she became the person everyone knew her as.”

And at the end of the day, Ponsoldt has a very simple way to determine if "genre" stories add up beyond their expected elements. “To make stories that actually are accepted, embraced and connect with people that aren’t fans of the genre, the litmus test is, could you remove that supernatural element and have the story still work. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, their marriage and what they’re dealing with in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, it is of consequence and relatable, even if their neighbors aren’t satanists, you know what I mean? In this case, if you remove the people who ultimately became very famous politicians, is what she’s grappling with, is that relatable?”

And it's relatability that also fuels his approach to the YA adapation "Pure." Based on the book by Julianna Baggott—which ranked on our 15 Young Adult Fiction Properties That Could Be The Next 'Twilight' Or 'Hunger Games'—the story takes place after a devastating nuclear disaster, where the world has split into two: the "pures," who survived untouched inside The Dome, and the "wretches" who were fused to whatever object they were touching at the moment of detonation. Dystopian? That's not the word Ponsoldt would use to describe the story, as he already has a pretty exciting vision for the project. 

“At it’s core, the way I see it is sort of something like ‘Pan’s Labryinth’ meets ‘City Of Lost Children’ meets ‘Night Of The Hunter,’ " he explained, adding that the story—in which characters have body parts fused with objects—has parallels with the adolescent experience. “It’s a wonderful metaphor for adolescence. You think you’re too short, you think you’re ears are too big, you think have a bad acne, well guess what, in this story this kid has a birds growing out of his back, and this girl has a doll for a hand. And in this world, that’s most people. And either you embrace diversity or you live in a bubble.”

But perhaps most crucially, Ponsoldt wants to get away from typically serious-faced movies the YA genre tends to lean toward and trying something different. “I think a lot movies that are en vogue right now that are ‘dystopian’ they’re incredibly cynical and grim and kind of joyless—some of them, not all of them, I’m making total generalizations, I’m aware of that. This is actually a story that has beauty and wonder in it," the director said, adding: “It’s a film that has beautiful, strange imagery. At it’s core about two kids from different worlds looking for their mommy. It doesn’t get more primal or universal. That’s not heady, that’s not intellectual, that’s not cynical—it’s kids needing their mommy, that’s it.”

And whether it's finding a parental figure, navigating the tricky waters of true first love or making a decision about your career that could affect the rest of your life, Ponsoldt continues to find ways to tell universal stories in the fascinating ways.

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

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