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Director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now


Director James Ponsoldt on set in Athens, Ga.
Director James Ponsoldt on set in Athens, Ga.
Based on Tim Tharp‘s novel of the same name, The Spectacular Now is a naturalistic coming-of-age story about a life-of-the-party high school senior who lives in the now to cover his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, and a clueless, socially lacking nice girl who has dreams for the future. The film won a special jury prize at Sundance 2013 for lead actors Miles Teller (Sutter) and Shailene Woodley (Aimee).

The producers approached James Ponsoldt to direct the film after his feature Smashed played at Sundance 2012. Used to directing films that he also writes, Ponsoldt was initially “a bit wary” about taking on the project, but he respected screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who had written (500) Days of Summer and he knew that the novel had been nominated for the National Book Award. “I read the script and I was really blown away, ” said Ponsoldt. “It was one of the most honest depictions of adolescence that I had ever read in my life. I profoundly related to Sutter.”

The Spectacular Now
The Spectacular Now
When he sat down with the producers, Ponsoldt came in with an incredibly detailed 60-page “look” book to illustrate the “hyper-personal” movie that he wanted to make. The book illustrated “exactly what the film would look and feel like, and what the film’s vocabulary would be.” He also told the producers that he wanted to shoot anamorphic 35mm in his hometown of Athens, Ga. “To my surprise the producers were fully supportive,” said Ponsoldt. “They embraced my vision. We were off to the races.” By late July 2012, the production was filming.

The turnaround into production was very fast, so the look book became a valuable resource for the director to relay his vision to key crew. “The more work you do at the very beginning, the more you lay the foundation and don’t leave it abstract, but articulate clearly what you want, the more it allows you to have a shorthand with your collaborators,” Ponsoldt explained. “Ultimately the goal for any director is to hire department heads and actors that are more talented than them, then to not micromanage or undermine them, but to give them creative autonomy to communicate your vision in clear and concise ways.”

LR-9-TheSpectaculaNow_Day_five_80612_rgbPonsoldt had never before collaborated with cinematographer Jess Hall, but really “respected his work.” Hall had worked extensively with anamorphic 35mm, Ponsoldt’s preferred format, and worked really well with natural light. He had also shot Son of Rambo, a film that the director loved. On his choice to shoot film in the era of digital, Ponsoldt admitted, “I’ve done three features and two of them have been anamorphic 35. The last one that I did – Smashed – was shot on the Alexa. I am certainly not a Luddite. I definitely embrace technology. I think they are all tools. It’s a project to project thing.” The director loved the “emotionality” and “texture” of the 35mm anamorphic film format, as well as the feeling of “space and scope that creates a timeless quality that doesn’t timestamp the film as right now.” Ponsoldt credited Company 3 colorist, Sean Colman, who became familiar with the film when he did dailies, with finessing the final look.

Ponsoldt was born and raised in Athens so he knew the area extremely well. Having worked together on Smashed, he already had a good working relationship with production designer, Linda Sena. “We really share value systems,” said Ponsoldt. “It goes to honestly representing the characters and being aware of the socio-economics of the environment. All these things will affect what kind of furniture they are going to have, whether they are going to have new siding on their house, what kind of car they have. Linda is really fantastic about that. She is obsessive in the best possible way, very detail orientated and great at helping create a world.” He collaborated closely with her and the cinematographer to create the color palette, the look and the feel of the film.

LR-THESPECTACULARNOW_still1_rgbCostume designer Peggy Stamper lives in Atlanta. One of the best costume designers in Georgia, she did the pilot for The Walking Dead. “She helped create a world for these characters that was honest, that was unpretentious, that really represented who they were, that didn’t comment on them, that didn’t make them look like little fashion plates,” commented Ponsoldt. “She was so wonderful to work with.”

Darrin Navarro, who edited Bug and Killer Joe for William Friedkin, came on as editor. The director also liked films that Navarro had edited for director, Azazel Jacobs, in particular the film Terri with John C. Reilly, which he described as, “one of the best films about teenagers that he had seen in a long time.” They had mutual friends, so Ponsoldt had known Navarro for a while. In addition, both were “film nerds” who would see each other at the Silent Movie Theater.

LR-TheSpectacularNow_Days_16-18-19-252012082100010028_rgb“He loved characters and loved finding tiny moments of surprise and revelation. He is a real excavator,” said Ponsoldt. “Editors are the unsung heroes of film. They are storytellers. The best editors don’t just execute the vision of the director; they challenge the vision of the director. They bring out something that is more rich and expansive. Darrin was absolutely a collaborator helping shape the narrative of the film.”

Especially when working with young people, casting directors have the opportunity to expose new talent to directors. Casting directors Barbara McCarthy and Angela Demo worked tirelessly over long hours and numerous casting sessions to assemble the ensemble cast. “They adore great actors,” explained Ponsoldt. “They were great champions to the actors they love. They were wonderful allies. We were in it together. It was a roller coaster ride.”

“The person who did our regional location casting, was Tracy Kilpatrick,” Ponsoldt added. “She does casting throughout the southeast.” Because a feature film had never shot in Athens, the director was not sure how things would work in terms of hiring day players. Tracy brought in actors from Atlanta, Columbia, South Carolina, Wilmington and Charlotte, North Carolina, Orlando, Florida, New Orleans and Baton Rouge to audition for the company at the Ciné Athens Theater. “Tracy knew all of these actors. They drove really far because they trusted Tracy. They knew she worked on good projects, so they were willing to make that drive,” said Ponsoldt. “She had exquisite taste.”

LR-z-R4_1-40_1_rgbAs far as the sound design, The Spectacular Now was the second film that Ponsoldt did at Wildfire Studios with supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer, Ryan Collins. The director was excited to work at the sound house because of the reputation of Leslie Shatz, who owns the company. “For me, he is one of the preeminent sound designers of all time,” said Ponsoldt. “I’ve loved his work on so many films, but his collaboration with Gus Van Sant, I found to be mind-blowing. I think he is a genius.” Ponsoldt loved the boutique nature of the company. Based on the company’s body of work, he knew the sound would be emotional and that the auditory experience would be as exciting as what was seen on screen because film is a combination “sight and sound.”

To that end, one of Ponsoldt’s favorite collaborations was with composer Rob Simonsen. “He created so much of the emotion and heart of the film and helped tell the story through his score,” commented Ponsoldt. “It is not a film that has too many source cues. It is a lot of score that creates an emotional journey.”

A few other people deserved special mention for their contributions to the production. Danielle Robarge, a friend of the director and head of an organization called Film Athens, worked as assistant location manager with Atlanta location manager, Jay Underwood. She was on the ground in Athens while the producers were still in Los Angeles. Using her knowledge and contacts in the town, she laid the foundation for the production, before the team even arrived.

“And, the last person I will mention was our assistant cameraman, who pulled focus, Atlanta-based, Joseph Thomas,” said Ponsoldt. “The focus-puller job was particularly difficult because of the narrow depth of field of anamorphic film. The director and cinematographer both credited Thomas with keeping focus on long tracking shots and commented that they “could not have made the movie without Joe.”

As an art-friendly, university town, Athens and the locals were very supportive of the film even though the town lacked the filmmaking infrastructure of other areas in the state. “It required a lot of people going above and beyond the call of duty to make it happen,” concluded Ponsoldt. “I am grateful to all of them.”

The film is currently playing in the Los Angeles area. In advance of the Aug. 16, Atlanta opening, the director will be back in Athens this Tuesday for a special sneak preview fundraiser to help the local art-house theater, Ciné Athens buy a digital cinema projection system.

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