When writer-director James Ponsoldt was asked to read the script for “The Spectacular Now,” he was a little apprehensive. He normally doesn’t like to adapt other people’s work; his two previous feature films are ones he wrote himself. But when he got around to reading it, he responded favorably — so much so that he also read Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name.
“The Spectacular Now,” which opens Friday in Atlanta, is a high school movie that seems a million years away from today’s brand of teen-oriented films. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who’s the life of everyone’s party. He drinks heavily and has few plans for the future. By chance he meets Aimee Finecky (Shaileen Woodley) the morning after he has passed out on her lawn. She’s a somewhat introverted young woman who seems like the last girl in school he’d wind up with. But they begin a relationship.
The movie has already garnered rave reviews. USA Today called it “easily one of [the] summer’s best films.” And Entertainment Weekly said that it’s “one of the rare truly soulful and authentic teen movies.”
Ponsoldt, who lives in Los Angeles but grew up in Athens, felt that the book was one of the most honest depictions of adolescence that he’s read, and that the script by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter of “500 Days of Summer” captured that. Ponsoldt believes that teenage audiences are sophisticated and like movies that are complicated, that don’t automatically “pander to them.”
In today’s teenage films, “there’s always clever, witty banter that the characters would never say,” the director asserts. “They’re all very well dressed. The films are very nostalgic. It’s not all about werewolves or vampires. Most people’s lives are pretty boring.”
Ponsoldt’s first movie was “Off the Black” in 2006, which featured a standout performance from Nick Nolte, and his follow-up was last year’s acclaimed “Smashed,” which received a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. “The Spectacular Now” debuted at Sundance this year and then closed the Atlanta Film Festival in the spring.
When Ponsoldt agreed to direct “The Spectacular Now,” he transplanted the setting from Oklahoma in the book to one he knows well: he shot the movie entirely in Athens last year. It wasn’t pre-ordained that he would do it there; it just seemed like a good fit. He didn’t want to show the landmarks of Athens, however, and so filmed in suburbs and subdivisions.
His crew used the former R.E.M. office as its production office. As for the townspeople, Ponsoldt says, “no one was really impressed by celebrity.” People might say, “Oh, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh,” but then they’d go back to their day-to-day grind.
Leigh plays Sutter’s mother, and Kyle Chandler, a University of Georgia graduate, portrays the father the teenager no longer sees.
Although the ensemble cast is rich, Ponsoldt gives full credit to the two leads, who do most of the heavy lifting.
Ponsoldt first saw Woodley in “The Descendants.” He initially didn’t like her character, as George Clooney’s oldest daughter. “She was obnoxious, but by the end you could tell she had a broken heart. I think she was the best thing about that movie.”
He calls the actress very intuitive. “She didn’t see this character as a nerd, the kind of girl that takes off her glasses and people say, ‘Whoa.’ She saw her as someone who didn’t care what others thought.” In real life, Woodley is “politically astute; she’s a hippie,” he says. “She hunts for berries. She cares about the world. She reminds me of people I grew up with.”
After seeing Teller in “Rabbit Hole,” Ponsoldt watched the young actor do an about-face in the remake of “Footloose.” “These are characters he created,” he says. “In ‘Rabbit Hole,’ it was like he walked into a Nicole Kidman movie. It wasn’t a showy, histrionic performance. His character [a young man who accidentally kills Kidman’s character’s son] was a kid who didn’t want to cry in front of this woman.”
Ponsoldt admits that he sees something of himself in Sutter. As a teenager, he went through a period “with a sense of attitude” before meeting a certain young woman and realizing that he could have “a better quality of life,” he says.
Ponsoldt is a huge fan of 1970s movies and directors such as Terrence Malick. Recently, he spent a weekend watching Gene Hackman films. “When you look at people like [that and] Nick Nolte, Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek . . . man, they’ve been in great movies,” he says. “They are such great dramaturges — not [many] mistakes. You see it in their body of work.” He feels that Teller and Woodley have the same potential.
One of Ponsoldt’s upcoming films is his highest-profile to date: “Rodham,” about Hillary Clinton. “It’s about that time in her life when she was in her mid-20s, a lawyer, balancing her life and Bill,” he explains. He plans on taking his time with it, knowing there will be lots of eyeballs on it. “We are in no rush to make it,” he laughs.