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Behind ’The Spectacular Now’ :: Sexuality & Substances (You Know - Being a Teenager)

by Jake Mulligan
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Thursday Aug 22, 2013
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James Ponsoldt embraces the messiness of movies.

That was clear with his last picture, "Smashed." Shot on a microbudget over the course of about two weeks, it proudly displayed all the hallmarks of a catch-as-catch-can production: improvisatory, shaky camerawork, a mish-mash of famous actors showing up for glorified cameos, a barely feature length running time. But the messiness never seeped into the content. The production may have been a struggle, but "Smashed" itself - a yarn about a married couple, both alcoholics, who slowly drift apart as the Bride goes sober - was way too easy. Wrapping itself up with cheap conceits, it escaped from the cultural memory with relative ease.

The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt’s next picture, couldn’t be more different. "Smashed" felt the product of an overextended young man, but this is the work of a consummate craftsman. Ponsoldt frames his young lovers - played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as a staggering drunk and a shy introvert, respectively - in attractive, visually pleasing compositions. Yet his camera holds onto their conversations longer than any other "teen movie" would - the things he hears them say are far more down-to-earth than anything you overheard in "21 & Over." The look of the movie is clean, this time - it’s the feelings that are messy.

As his picture gears up to enter wide release across the country, Ponsoldt took the time to talk to us about the canon of teen cinema, how he found the elegant look of his film, and why the MPAA is total bullshit.


That ’R’ rating

EDGE: I don’t know what’s going on, but all my favorite movies this year are about young people. Yours, the latest from Olivier Assayas, "Spring Breakers," "The Bling Ring."

James Ponsoldt: Oh, you know... Assayas’ earlier film from the 90s, "Cold Water."

EDGE: Amazing film.

James Ponsoldt: Hard to find. I saw it in film school. Blew me away.

EDGE: But you know, these films aren’t really getting to teenagers. You were slapped with an R-rating for this, which I find to be beyond ridiculous.

James Ponsoldt: It’s something... no one involved with the film is throwing their hands up in the air and saying, "How dare they." We all knew. The first meeting I had with the producers, I said, "This is a beautiful script, Tim’s novel is amazing, but the film that I want to make, this script as it is, it’s going to be R-rated."

The MPAA is pretty clear that if you use the F-word... they’ve got this thing that makes no sense, and speaks to the fact that they’re pretty puritanical, backwards, and have no problem making pornography out of violence as long as there’s no realistic scenes of sexuality among young people. Most sex scenes in mainstream films... they’re vaguely misogynistic.

Yeah, the official grey area description was "depiction of sexuality and substances." But we wanted to be the antidote to a lot of bullshit movies about teenagers, so we embraced that.


Going mainstream

EDGE: Right, but beyond the specifics of what got your film that rating. Is this system just totally broken?

Well I think it’s a shame. I think a lot of people, what they see as the canon [for teenage films] - "Rebel Without a Cause," "Splendor in the Grass," "The 400 Blows," "Over the Edge," "Stand by Me," "River’s Edge" - I think every single one of them would be R-rated, if they were released today.

It’s nuts. Look, I’m incredibly skeptical of all bureaucracies. That’s one of them.

EDGE: I hate to spend time talking about the business side of the film, but I love what your distributor, A24, has been doing. Taking these films that would’ve been ghettoized by R-ratings, and pushing them out into multiplexes, into the mainstream.

James Ponsoldt: For me, it’s a boon, as a filmmaker. When you make films that deal with incredibly specific situations, or as you said, some level of ambiguity - basically anything other than big comedies or moralistic stories or whatever - a lot of independent films just don’t have the resources. The distributors don’t have the time, or they have too many films, to give films the attention they need to really allow them to grow. These films require a very specific release strategy, and a lot of that. You know, A24 is not buying a bunch of product and throwing it up against the wall, and seeing what sticks. When they think about the release of a given film, they’re thinking theater-by-theater, for each individual city.


Finding the right look

EDGE: We actually were able to speak when you released your movie "Smashed" last year. This film could not look more different from "Smashed" if you had tried.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah. Well, especially if you’re doing a movie about adolescence, the very cynical, shortsighted approach, from I won’t say who, maybe a studio executive, would be like, "Oh yeah, you can do it handheld, like a found footage movie. All those kids, they’re watching everything on Youtube anyway." And that’s patronizing. It doesn’t take seriously, the live of young people.

The goal here was to make something that wouldn’t be immediately timestamped as 2013, anyway. The goal was to make a movie that acknowledges the time it exists in, but won’t age badly, either. And a lot of that is just removing easy pop culture signifiers, and allowing the characters to exist in a place... being on anamorphic 35, going widescreen, it helps that.

It seems that in every other country on the earth, films about teenagers do not automatically get reduced to "teen movie." But in America, and American theaters, these movies can be really reductive. They’re adolescent. They’re about T-and-A, or superpowers, or whatever. But you go to France, or Japan. There are films that take the lives of teenagers very seriously. To the same level they would with adults.

So my cinematographer and I, we did watch "The Last Picture Show," which is a great movie about young people, but we also watched "Manhattan." We also watched "The Diving Bell & The Butterfly." "Punch-Drunk Love." There was a real desire to give it the same elegance that you would get from a film about adults. There’s a ghetto where they send a lot of teen films. But I always saw this as a romantic drama that just happened to be about teenagers.

I think some filmmakers, they have their own look, and that’s what they do. But I think every story has its own grammar that it requires. With "Smashed," any level of romanticization or elegance would’ve been profoundly misguided, maybe even unethical. In this case, the goal was nostalgia - as opposed to sentimentality - was what we were going for.


Finding humility

EDGE: So, we have to tread lightly, but let’s speak about the end of your movie for a moment. I think it’s a lot more complicated than most critics are giving it credit for. I see a lot of feelings on Aimee’s face and I’m not sure they’re all Hollywood-happy-ending.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, I think what you’re reading, what you read on her face, that’s not wrong.... the really bad version of this film would end with Sutter screwing up, hurting this girl, getting punished, she would lecture him, and he would experience some sort of false change.

The truth is, Sutter’s cocksure, and I don’t know at the end that he’s changed. Maybe he has found some humility.

But the power dynamic has shifted. This is not a meet-cute-then-manic-pixie-dream-girl-fixes-the-guy. This is more like meet-cute-then-it-gets-complicated-and-toxic. I think at the end, Aimee respects herself more. I don’t think, at the end of the film, that she wants to be at the same point that she was earlier with this guy. So who knows what is going to happen.

The Spectacular Now is in theaters.


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