James Ponsoldt Talks Smashed, available on Blu-ray, and The Spectacular Now
James Ponsoldt is currently enjoying the successful launch of his comedic drama Smashed, available now on Blu-ray, as well as the spectacular reception of his upcoming project, The Spectacular Now, at SXSW earlier in the month. We recently caught up with the director to talk about both of these projects, and the impact they've had on his career.
Smashed follows a young woman whose marriage is hinged on alcohol, and her attempts to sober up. The Spectacular Now follows a young man who is also reliant upon the pleasure and power of alcohol, and how it affects his relationship with a 'nice girl'. Neither movie is a PSA on the dangers of consumption. Instead, both of these critical darlings rely on humor and real emotional heart to get their messages across.
How does James Ponsoldt feel about his budding career as one of the most talked about directors in American cinema right now? Here is our conversation.
How did you go about putting some of the supplemental materials together for the Smashed Blu-ray?
James Ponsoldt: It was a mix of things. We had folks on set that shot behind the scenes footage. They were a couple of friends of mine. One of them is Andy Bruntel, and he has done a lot of music videos. Some of my favorite music videos, actually. Then we had a documentarian named Kelly Parker, and both of them were on set. We gave them total access to shoot whatever they wanted. Then it was put together after the fact, into a little tone poem. A featurette. I guess it's different from a lot of behind-the-scenes. It's not the typical EPK, where its talking heads and it feels corporate. It has a homemade feel to it. We have some deleted scenes. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead and myself did a director's commentary.
Really? I need to go back and listen to that. I didn't get to check out anything on the disc aside from the movie.
James Ponsoldt: Check it out, yeah, totally!
I'll do that later tonight. Watching the movie, it struck me that everyone I know is a pretty heavy drinker. I'm not talking day-to-day, but there is some binge drinking on the weekends. And I know a lot of couples whose relationships are founded on booze. Thing is, none of these people have ever sought help. Not that I have heard. You're background sounds similar, and this is a fictional story. Why did you seek this particular story out? Because it is a very odd man out in this day and age that goes seeking a cure.
James Ponsoldt: Our goal with this film from the get-go was that this was not a message film. There is that saying: If you want to send a message, use Fed-Ex. We didn't want this to be a social message movie, that goes along with a big bowl of oatmeal. It's just good for you! We wanted to make a movie that was entertaining, that was funny, that was emotional, that felt as strange, and comedic, and dramatic as life. Its cool, right? I think it started with my relationship to my co-writer, Susan Burke. We'd been friends for years. She is a wonderful writer and standup-up comedian in Los Angeles. It started with conversations between us about all the stupid things we'd done while we were drunk. We were trying to one up each other, and I had done some epically stupid things...But Susan Burke, I think, she beat me in that regard. She got sober in her early twenties. She went to AA in her early twenties. She is quite open about that, and has talked about that before. There were, between the two of us, quite a few people we knew, in our families, that had dealt with addiction. And alcohol specifically. There was a lot of first hand and second hand experiences. At its core, we didn't want to make a movie about disease. This is not suppose to be about alcoholism. It's a little bit abstract. Not everyone can relate to that. What we wanted to make was a love story. A funny/sad love story about two people who love each other, and are commited to each other unconditionally. But, you know, they both party really hard. That is the foundation and the bedrock of this relationship. We wanted to make a movie about what happens when two people love each other. And they share something. Its intrinsic to who they are, and one of them has to stop, because she will quite literally bring herself to death, or drive her car into a telephone pole, or something. This is about how that affects their relationship. The film, really...She is drinking at the start of the film, and she stops pretty quick. We focus on how the relationship gets destabilized, and how the communities around them are affected. The people she works with, or the people she meets, when she goes to AA. That's where it came from. It was important to make a movie that was really honest, but then was also funny. And it's funny in ways that are uncomfortable, and the audience doesn't know if it should laugh, because we don't know if it's okay to laugh. We wanted a film where the audience wouldn't objectify the main character, or feel sorry for them. But to really, in the beginning, you think, there is that drunk girl. I've seen her at the bar before. I've seen her at a party. Someone that everyone knows. But by the end of the movie, you feel like, that is my sister, that is my ex-girlfriend, that is my ex-roommate. That's heavy. We really wanted a film where people could really identify with the protagonist, and this couple, and not objectify them.
Its funny that you say, 'the girl at the end of the bar." The first time I met Mary Elizabeth, before I knew her as an actress, was at the end of a bar.
James Ponsoldt: Oh, really? That's funny!
It was at the Little Joy...
James Ponsoldt: Oh, yeah. I've been to the Little Joy. Many times.
The people that used to come in and out of that bar in the mid-2000s, that was just a bizarre experience. You are sitting there, and one minute, it's a bunch of dirty hipsters spitting on the floor, and the next minute, its Kiefer Sutherland at the height of his 24 fame, and he's walking in, and everyone else is too cool to care.
James Ponsoldt: That is a former police bar, back before it became a hipster bar. It was known as a cop bar. Because of the proximity to downtown, that has sort of changed. It has changed so much...
I was living in that area ten, twelve years ago, and after it was a cop bar, it became this Mexican gay bar, before it transformed into this hipster hangout. We'd go there in the afternoons, and it was a bunch of out of work gay Mexican dudes, and then the spill over from The Short Stop really pushed it into this hipster hot spot.
James Ponsoldt: Oh, really?
Yeah, the night I met her there, it was already a hipster hang out. Geoffrey Rush came through the door, and he had a basket of roses, and he was tossing them out to people. It was a bizarre place.
James Ponsoldt: Wow! That sounds like a Federico Fellini movie or something. That sounds very surreal.
None of those actors were together, either. She said she didn't know them at the time. And no one in the bar cares. People are just sitting there, hanging out, throwing their trash on the floor, and I'm thinking, 'This is a weird dirty bar to be in.'
James Ponsoldt: East Los Angeles has a lot of those divey old bars where its just people from the neighborhood, and then in walks members of a Mexican gang, and then walks in someone who's famous. And it all just blurs together. It makes sense in a place like Los Angeles. It's not a Hollywood bar.
Tell me about the humor in the movie. Did you write the screenplay out as a dramatic story first, and then go back and try to find the humorous beats, where they always just there, or did a lot of those moments come out of shooting particular scenes in the moment?
James Ponsoldt: I think it started within the DNA of it. This started as a long conversation between me and Susan. We knew it had to be a love story. These people had to love each other, but they are drunks. They are raging alcoholics. It's not about the emotional, physical abuse that can come up with substance abuse. We didn't want to see anyone getting hit. All the things you might expect to see. We wanted you to know that these two people really do work. That they love each other. But they work when they are drunk. They've only known each other when they are drunk. As the saying goes, your emotional development stops when your addiction begins. That is something you hear a lot, and it also proves that these two people are stuck in their late teens. They are in their late twenties, but they are emotionally 19 or 20. It just started from there, and the rest of it evolved through these long drives through town. I was in the process of moving to Virginia for a year. We spent a lot of time sitting together and talking about the characters. We really got to know them. With good storytelling, you are starting with an iceberg. The only part people will read or see is the tip of the iceberg. But you need to know the whole story, you need to know everything there is to know about these characters when you are writing it. The thing is, I think a lot of times, films that deal with tough subject matter, there is this idea that...And maybe this is only in big Hollywood movies...But that you can't have humor, or that you make dramas or you make comedies. There is no line drawn between them. That's just not life. The truth is, drinking is really fun. That's why people do it. And it can be really funny until it becomes really sad. When that happens it's never clear, when it goes form one to the other. So, a movie that is filled with drinking that doesn't have humor in it...I don't think that would relate to life. I think the humor in it was pretty organic. Susan and I shared a sensibility, and we knew where the story should be. We wanted situations that moved between absurd and tragic, or sad. Sometimes even in the mundane, that cold take a hard left or right into the surreal, or the heartbreaking. We went through the story, and tried to tell it. It was important for both of us to get on the same page, to find the tone of it. We watched a lot of movies, and researched the tone. When you are writing with someone else, and you have the same story, but you haven't agreed on a tone, you will end up hating each other. So it was important to get on the same page about that. It was a collaboration where we would consider the best idea, we wouldn't jump to take anything out, and it was never personal. There would be nothing in the movie that either one of us found objectionable, in terms of honesty. If one of us called bullshit on a scene, we would work it out before we were good to go. If one of us was doing a scene that had humor, but it undermined the honest of it, then it had to go. It was always grounded in honesty. That was important to us, and hopefully, the humor would be an extension of that. As opposed to serious scene, funny scene. I think it's important that the film work dramatically. I think, this film does go to some dark places. Audiences are grateful to have that humor. It's really cathartic.
What led you to cast husband and wife team Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally?
James Ponsoldt: It wasn't planned initially. I have been a fan of both of theirs forever. They are two of the funniest people alive, and I think they are one of the most beautiful couples. They are so genuinely in love with each other. But they are not above making the most profane jokes. They are really in love, and they are great. We were searching for the principle role, and we were talking to Nick Offerman. I had loved him on Parks and Recreation. We had the longest conversation. I was out at his woodshop in Glendale. I was looking at his canoes, and tables, and stuff. We talked about everything. It was clear in my mind that he was right for the part. He had the right sensibility. And he is very good with the deadpan. Which is important for that role. At a certain point, he asked who would be good for the principle that would work with him. I said, "You know, there are other actors that we are considering." We were trying to do it piece by piece, because each person that got cast would affect the next cast member. He said, "Well, have you considered the most beautiful and talented actress on earth, Megan Mullally?" I said, "I love Megan Mullally. Its so funny that you should mention her name." He goes, "I'm just throwing it out there, you know?" It just worked beautifully that way. It was a very natural extension. When you find collaborators, whether it's an actor, or a cinematographer, or a production designer, that you have a shared sensibility with. When you start surrounding yourself with those people, the people that they bring to the table sort of, no surprise, share the sensibility. You find people that understand what the tone and the vibe of a script is. In this case of Megan Mullally, she got what was sad and funny about this world and that character. It was really nice. That's how that all came about.
Did you get one of Nick's hand-made wooden combs?
James Ponsoldt: No, I did not get one of his combs. I should definitely get one.
Did you get anything from his shop? I'd love to get something from him, but that stuff is not in my budget.
James Ponsoldt: I know, I know, I know! One of these days, man...Its funny, right? He's not just a dabbler. He's not a gentleman carpenter. He does serious woodwork. I'd love to get a table from him somewhere down the road. I'll probably surprise my wife. Those things go for a lot. I'm sure you've seen the price. One of these days, if I hit it big. Maybe I'll get one...
The cribbage board is what I want. It's so beautiful, even though it's just a cribbage board...
James Ponsoldt: My gosh, that sounds just fantastic. Yeah, well...I'll save up.
In terms of sharing your drunken stories with Susan, did you have or keep any video of yourself from that time period? Did she have any for you to look at?
James Ponsoldt: For myself, I have never been one...Maybe its because I am too paranoid, I don't know why people want to document everything they do. Even now, its not like I plan on joining the CIA, but I cannot understand why people would do that. I don't have a vast record of myself getting totally hammered, or anything. I don't know if Susan does. She could...I mean, she and I have pretty good recollection of all the stupid stuff we've done. Other people in your life will not let you forget it. Some of it is clear, and other things are vague. There are some gray spots. No greatest hits videos sitting around.
As a co-writer on the film, what do you think you were able to bring to the movie that another director may not have brought to this material?
James Ponsoldt: That's a good question. Well, you know, the tone of the finished film was something we developed and talked a lot about from the moment we started writing the script. It was something where we had an intense amount of empathy for the characters. But we would never be self-serious, there would always be a sense of humor. It needed to feel like a hang out movie. Where you and I would definitely know people like them. We could relate to them in a way, and not see them as 'the other'. We couldn't make them such train wrecks where you were like, "Oh, my god! That's an amazing performance, but that's no one I know." The goal was to make characters that people could identify with. Characters that they could laugh with and not laugh at. Because I developed that tone at the very beginning with Susan, it really fused the filmmaking. Getting the right actors was the most important part of that whole process. Finding people that really understood that tone, and the challenges. They needed to know we were going for that pitch perfect tone, because if you do it too serious, it becomes dreary, and it will make you feel like crap. If its too farcical, and light, its not taking the issues of the film serious enough. There needs to be a real understanding and grasp of what's at stake when you are talking about a marriage, or about alcoholism. What's that saying by Oscar Wilde? Life is far too important to take seriously. That was the approach. You have to laugh at stuff, that is how we process pain and misery. That was the approach to the filmmaking, all the way through. To how we shot it, to how we edited it, to the music, and how the score was put in the movie. Every single creative choice sort of came from the same place and the same values, about tone, and how we relate the to the characters and this world...I guess, if someone else just read that script, they might have done something completely different. They might have made something that was way more serious. We felt that we wrote a pretty funny script, but we knew that what we found funny, other people would be like, "Oh, my god, this is horrible. This is someone vomiting in front of a group of children. This is someone urinating on the floor of a convenience story. This is someone smoking crack." These were things we could see how they would be quite funny, and it was never because we were laughing at someone. We completely empathized and identified with the main character, because many times in our lives we had been that character. Or, people we know and love have been that character. That was our approach, loving all of the characters and never judging them. That is what I brought. I tried to treat all of my collaborators, all of the actors, the department heads...I tried to give them full autonomy. I tried to surround myself with people that were smart, and people that had better imaginations, yet got what I was trying to do, and could articulate it, and elevate it, and really challenge me. I tried to not micromanage them. In that regard, I think I got some of the best work out of the actors, and allowed for them to give performances that were different from what people had seen before.
I think that's why the film feels so authentic, because it is coming from a very personal voice. And though you say its not a 'message movie', it does open your eyes to some of the things you may not want to face within yourself.
James Ponsoldt: Yeah. Absolutely. As soon as someone starts lecturing at you, and telling you how to live your life, part of me shuts down, or shuts off, or locks down...With me, anyway, "Thanks, thanks, thanks..." You start tuning into something else. Its very easy to give other people advice. We didn't want to make something that was didactic or polemic. Audiences would have turned the movie off. When you get people to laugh, and it's not pretentious, when it's a little more relatable, and it feels handmade, the audience can engage with it on a level, and let it in. They can allow themselves to find a way to relate to the characters, instead of just gawking at them. That was definitely what we tried to do.
Congradulations on the reception of The Spectacular Now at SXSW. I heard it went over very well...
James Ponsoldt: Oh, thank you! That was a blast. I just got back last night. Austin. I grew up in a college town. Austin is the mother of all college towns. Its like its on steroids. Its not a town, it's a city. There are a million people there. It's the capitol. At its core, its got a massive university there. Great bands. People filling the streets, they love to party there. SXSW is an exciting festival. It does blur film and music, and media. Like, multi-media and high tech stuff, it all comes together. It feels like this giant Mardi Gras. Everything is new. And its very laid back. It doesn't have the vibe of like, "Oh, my god, is that so-in-so, whatever famous person?" Its got a very laidback, hangdog college town vibe. Its totally unpretentious. But, you know, it is...Because there are so many young people there, the films with newer actors, or actors that are younger, or depict things that have a more youth-oriented focus, tend to really engage the audience there. It's a hugely film loving town. The Drafthouse, all that stuff, so it's a really great place to show a movie. Our screening went over fantastic. The Q&A was great. The party was great. We had a lot of love afterwards. They added a screening, which I couldn't be at. Its actually tonight. They had to add a screening because there were so many people that had heard about the movie. It was put into a category called festival favorites, where it's handpicked films from Sundance, and a few other festivals that happened before. We were only going to screen it once. That's all I had planned. So we added another screening. People seem to really dig it. In a lot of ways, I think they relate to the characters like they do in Smashed. Just because they are so flawed but relatable. The film never judges them. I keep hearing, "Oh, my god, I know that guy. I went to school with him." Its nice. People obviously like the movie, even when they come away with a different emotional response. I think they are all very valid. I love that festival.
The Spectacular Now and Evil Dead are the two movies I heard the most about coming out of the festival.
James Ponsoldt: That's so awesome. I'm excited to see Evil Dead. I love... Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is my favorite out of The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Army Of Darkness. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is my favorite. But I do love the first one. It's one of those movies where I think, you remake movies that are really flawed. You don't necessarily remake movies that already work. Part of me was skeptical. Its like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That original movie works so well. It totally holds up. Its so low budget, and it seems like a found location. Its so dirty, and skuzzy, and fucked up, it feels like a snuff film. When you watch it, you feel like, "Oh my god. They are really killing people." When you make something that makes the studio a lot of money, you want it to stay floating around, and you want something that is as scary as the original. I was really excited to hear that people love Evil Dead the remake. I'm definitely excited to go see that. I went and saw Rob Zombie on my last day. He has The Lords of Salem. That's a guy I really respect. I love what he is doing, and he really loves horror films. That's what's great about Austin, right? People can love a film about teenagers, and they love total genre movies. They love it all. People are pretty omnivorous. They love good, honest, entertaining stuff. Which is great.
Did you see Lords of Salem?
James Ponsoldt: No! I really wanted to. The screening was at midnight. We had to do a Q&A for our movie. I knew that it is coming out on April 19th, or something like that. Its coming in a month, so I will definitely see both of those on opening weekend. When I go to festivals, I try to see films where its questionable if they are going to get released, or the release strategy isn't already built in, so I know I might not get to see it later.
When does The Spectacular Now come out?
James Ponsoldt: It comes out August 2nd. We will be doing a lot of festivals before that. There's a ways to go.
It's been kind of upsetting to see some of the mean responses on the Internet in regards to the casting of Shailene Woodley in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. People are being extremely cruel in terms of saying she has been miscast. The cool thing about SXSW and the reviews coming out about the Spectacular Now, is that it has shut a lot of people up. Now, the fans that have seen your film are saying, "Wait until you see The Spectacular Now. You'll understand her casting as Mary Jane."
James Ponsoldt: I've seen them shooting in New York, and I've heard a little about the pictures that have come out of her and Andrew Garfield, and stuff. I think once people see the movie, they will know. The truth is, Shailene Woodley is 21. She is pretty much the best actress of her generation. I am obviously very biased. She is a spectacular actress, and that is why I wanted her for The Spectacular Now. She is so good in my movie, I am positive she is going to be just as good in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and she is going to raise the bar. Look at who they've cast. These are some spectacular actors, and Shailene is just so good. Once they see what she can do, all of the haters will shut up. Yeah. I don't know. There is a reason why she is starring in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. There is a reason why she is the star of Divergent, which is going to become this huge franchise. It's a serious sci-fi franchise, with her and Kate Winslet. She is no joke. What's so great about her is that she is an unbelievably honest, intelligent actor. She is wise beyond her years. And she can ground anything she is in. Especially a movie that has crazy special effects. An actor like that makes it all feel real, and relatable, and emotional. Which is the reason something works, or doesn't work. It all comes down to whether you identify and relate to the characters.