One of the earliest and most universally well-loved hits at this year's Sundance FIlm Festival was The Spectacular Now, which honestly, we all should have been coming. It's directed by James Ponsoldt, who made last year's very well-liked Smashed, and stars Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, two of the best young actors working right now. It had all the potential in the world, and it delivered, telling a touching but unconventional story of teenage romance with more than enough darkness stirred in to the mix; the audience was laughing uproariously at the beginning of the film, and most of them were in tears by the end.
The movie has been picked up by upstart distributor A24 films, with a release planned for this July, and it's a strong contender to be one of the prizewinners at tomorrow's festival awards ceremony. You can read much more about the movie in my lengthy review or in this video blog, or you could just hear from the people behind the movie themselves. Below is a selection from my conversation with Teller and Ponsoldt, just two days after the film's sold-out premiere and right before news broke that the film had been acquired. They tell stories about their own wild high school days--Teller's lead character Sutter is the life of all the parties-- and how Teller and Woodley established their sibling-like relationship with "some weird sexual tension." Read all about it below.
James, you said at the Q&A that this movie is a lot like your high school experience. Miles, was yours similar too?
Teller: Yeah, I grew up in a pretty small town in Florida. 7,000 people. By middle school, most kids were drinking. Me and my buddy, when I was in 8th grade, we used to go across the street and steal his grandpa's case of Old Milwaukee on Tuesday, hide it in the woods next to my house, then on Friday go into the woods and drink it, and then ride our bikes over to these girls' house and hang out there. People were drinking by 14. You probably had tolerance by 8th and 9th grade. Its great, when you get to college, you're like "I know myself in these situations."
Ponsoldt: That was my experience too. My freshman year in college, there were all these kids going to the hospital, for me I was like "I've been doing this since I was 13."
Were you in northern or southern Florida?
Teller LIke an hour north of Tampa. Central, Gulf of Mexico, Manatee capital of the world, floating down rivers, park cars in the woods.
Manatee capital of the world?
Teller: Yeah, my county doesn't know I'm in movies. It's just like "The manatees are up this year."
What does that mean?
Teller: Like the numbers, Because they're endangered.
And James, you said you were the life of the party guy?
Teller: [Imitating a high school kid] "Oh, Ponsy's comin'! Yeah!"
Ponsoldt: I was the guy who would do anything. "Oh you won't drink that. You won't steal that." "Yeah I will!" I think I desperately wanted to be liked, and for people to think I was cool. I would be crazier than other people, and I was really bad at it, because I would just keep getting arrested. I was really kind of destroying my life.
Teller: But always getting good grades and all that stuff…
Ponsodlt: Kinda. There were kids who, in 6th and 7th grade-when we were learning how to roll joints and stuff together-- I had gotten arrested a bunch in middle school and early high school, while I was still a juvenile. There was sort of a scared straight moment when I met this girl, who was the daughter of two professors at the University of Georgia. She was a lot like Aimee, and it was like our relationship. But i realized I am never leaving Georgia if I keep doing this. By the time I was a senior and getting into college, the kids I was partying with when I was 12 and 13 were getting into heroin and meth and stuff. It totally could have been me. I don't relate-- I guess I was life of the party in doe way, but it came out of some desperate need to be liked.
Teller: My second grade teacher told me I would never graduate high school. That I was going to be a juvenile delinquent.
What were you doing in second grade?
Teller: Nothing! I don't know, interrupting story time? When I was in middle school, I always did well in school, but teachers either loved me or absolutely hated me.
Were you the class cut-up?
Teller: A little bit, probably. I don't know, I just always thought I was funny, so whenever i had a joke, I would say it. I couldn't just sit on it, I had to get it out there.
Did you ever have the same fear that you wouldn't get out of town? When did you start acting?
Teller: I got into acting my junior year of high school. We got a new hot drama teacher and I was like "Alright, I'll try drama." And yeah, I don't know. I did throw all the parties. My buddy had a fake ID and we were the only ones who could get kegs. But I was also president of the drama club, I was in the National Honor Society, and jazz band. And I played sports and I was homecoming king. I had all these different groups of friends. I played drums in a band that was freaking terrible.
Ponsoldt: What were they called?
Teller: The Mutes. We were playing at the homecoming parade and the power went out on our amps. We were like "The Mutes!" Which is actually a real band name. It was taken, we got a letter. I always and ambition. I always knew I was going to go to college. I could party and do that stuff, but I always got straight As and a 4.0 and all that.
You're not supposed to admit that you were homecoming king. The narrative is that everyone who's an actor was a loser in high school.
Teller: No. I really wasn't. I loved high school, it was awesome.
James you clearly have a thing for romances, and Miles you have a lot that you're filming. Obviously you choose things differently, but is there something for each of you that especially appeals for you about romances?
Ponsoldt: I have this weird theory that every single movie is a love story, and it's just finding what that love story is. It's not as literal as "boy meets girl." What is your greatest human need and what does your soul love more than anything else? In movies, the good ones-- it's home, more than anything else. If you can find that love, that's what people connect to. I like fully dimensionalized characters and I like really flawed people failing and then getting back up and then failing. As long as there's some effort to find human connection, whether or not they're together at the end of the movie. The hope is in the trying.
Teller: For me, I had a taste for comedies, I had a taste for drama. The last few things I've done have been comedy oriented. Especially after watching this, that's why I like to do drama. You can affect people. For me it's always honesty. If it's an honest story, comedy or drama, I can attach to it and do it. Everyone likes to fall in love if it's written in a nice way. If you and the co-star have a good chemistry. Me and Shailene have awesome chemistry. It's so relaxing when you have someone you know you can trust, and that no one is trying to steal the scene and you can just play off each other. That's a credit to Shailene's talent.
Did you have to test opposite each other to get that part, since Shailene was already attached?
Ponsoldt: I didn't have him audition. This project had a life long before me. Literally, every young actor in Hollywood, New York, Australia, London-- everybody read for this. Pretty much every actor from 16 to 25 read for this at some point. I got to see that. People auditioned tons, but we went out and got a beer, and talked about partying. I just got a sense of who he was. I had already watched a bunch of interviews of you on Youtube. That was more interesting to me. I knew he could act, but I was more interested in seeing him spontaneously react to peoples' questions. Especially for these parts, I'm interested in finding out who the actors really are as people, and mining that and having it work in the film itself. Giving the actors the freedom to be themselves and taking all the credit for it.
Teller: I think, [Shailene] had like a final yes or no. And I guess she had liked me.
I didn't realize she had that power.
Teller: Oh yeah, she was attached early.
Ponsoldt: I wanted to make the movie, and a lot of it was because of her. I didn't want to be like "Hey, this is your co-star have fun." She was a collaborator, Miles was a collaborator, and she's brilliant. I think great actors, it's not just that they're emotionally available. They're really smart dramaturgs. They understand the DNA of the script and how to do something exciting. But also over the course of a filmography, they make exciting choices. They know what challenges those films present to them, and they know they can hit it out of the park. And if it terrifies them, they know they should stick with it.
Teller: W'ere so different, but we get along pretty well. We have an interesting relationship. I describe it as a sibling relationship with moments of weird sexual tension.
Well, you have an important sex scene so you kind of need that. Teller: Our sex scene, we both took each others' first onscreen virginity, so that will be always in our careers. We were very comfortable and casual in our sex scene. It wasn't awkward or weird or anything.