The Spectacular Now has been in theaters for a month now and has slowly emerged as a quiet late summer hit. The heartfelt, low-key romance stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley-- both of them huge up-and-comers with giant franchises in their future-- as a pair of teenagers, Sutter and Aimee, who start a relationship. He's a popular guy with a major drinking problem, she's a wallflower brainiac who hasn't attended a party in her life. In most movies their relationship would be a boundary-crossing scandal and it would all come to a head at prom. But The Spectacular Now, while funnier and tenderer than most real high school experiences, is leagues more realistic than most teen romances-- and leagues more affecting as a result.

After premiering at Sundance-- where a special prize was created for Woodley and Teller-- and traveling to SXSW, The Spectacular Now is winning over audiences across the country, and arrives at a time of great change for its stars as well as its director, James Ponsoldt. Ponsoldt was at Sundance just last year with Smashed, and six years before that with Off the Black, but his career has accelerated significantly since January of this year. He's adapting the Broadway musical Pippin for the Weinstein Company, working to cast the Hillary Clinton biopic Rodham, and at some point dipping his own toe into the broad world of dystopian young adult fiction with an adaptation of Pure. It's a big change for a guy who started off solely as a writer-director, and since I had already chatted with Ponsoldt and Teller about the movie at Sundance, I took the time to talk a little more broadly about Ponsoldt's influences, his goals as he moves on to directing movies based on other peoples' scripts, and his commitments to making movies that feel like they're set where they actually are-- which includes revisiting his hometown of Athens, Georgia and making strip malls look beautiful.

Check out the trailer for Spectacular Now and our conversation below it, and see the movie now in theaters.

I was looking at your Tumblr this morning and you posted something about Say Anything and about Lloyd Dobler. It seems like that movie influenced the way you think about relationships, but is there anything else similar to that?
I mean, like Say Anything really crushed me and I fell in love with Ione Skye and…

How old were you when that came out?
I mean, that came out in ’89, I would have been 11. I didn’t see it until a few years later though. I saw it on video. I mean, this isn’t romantic, but Dumbo and Bambi really fucked me up and stuck with me. Woody Allen stuff, I mean Annie Hall and Manhattan really did a number on me. My mom loves, still, silent movies, so there were a lot of Charlie Chaplin, like City Lights was one that I watched with my mom. City Lights is one that I just remember just crushed me, and then Nights of Cabiria was another one, Fellini and it stars his wife. She plays this prostitute who’s this kind of sad clown and she’s amazing. It’s devastating, this tragic comic and the world shits upon her but she refuses to feel sorry for herself. I mean the end, if you go back and watch City Lights and Nights of Cabiria, they have the best ending ever and there’s like Charlie Chaplin as this sad tramp and there’s this blind girl. At the end of it, it just kind of, the world can be so mean, how do people stay alive and not blow their fucking brains out? How do they keep trying? That feeling of like, God, but people will still get up, and people will still keep trying. Don’t they know to stay down?

Or a book like The Moviegoer or a book like Catcher in the Rye or whatever, where it’s like, but yet people keep trying. It’s like they catch you when you’re at your most low and shitty and alone and like feeling like nobody gets me, like no one has ever dealt with what I’m dealing with. I can think of some albums as well, like Blood on the Tracks or Blonde on Blonde, albums where they catch you at the right moment, it’s like, “Oh no, other people have dealt with it.” They process it. There’s been trauma, recovery. There’s scar tissue. They’re able to articulate it now in like a work of art and it’s worth, life can be really painful, but it can also be lovely and it’s worth moving forward.

I was just going to say, your movies haven’t been quite that painful, like nothing is as bad as Dumbo being ripped away from his mom.
There’s still time.

But, here’s the thing. I just rewatched Smashed this morning and the look on Aaron Paul’s face, like the last shot you see of him, just kills you and it feels like you’re digging at that.
There’s time. I mean, it’s interesting. I’m not a sadist. I mean, there’s films sometimes where I’m like, “That’s so emotionally manipulative.” Film is inevitably kind of, it can be emotionally manipulative. I guess that’s name of the game in some way, but I just feel like such a fierce advocate for the characters and I love them so much, that I like being gentle with them, you know. When I watch a Hal Ashby movie or a Paul Mazursky movie, there’s such love and there’s pain, but like, it never feels like they want to punish these characters.

But you do have to punish, I mean you do punish the characters in this movie.
You have to make life really hard for them, yeah. You have to make life hard for them, but I don’t ever want to feel like they’re a prop or a marionette, and sometimes I see that and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t think he really identified…”

The Lars Von Trier method, not that he’s not a genius, but…
Yeah, I respect it. It’s beyond melodrama. Like when I watch old Nicholas Ray movies, really melodramatic things or even Douglas Sirk is like a really great example of melodrama where it’s like these are types, but he knows he’s dealing in types. That’s kind of what I feel like Lars Von Trier is doing, where it’s almost expressionist. I mean, I love some Lars Von Trier movies.

But you’re making people more than…
I mean, I just think, I want to make characters who you can actually see yourself in and who you’re not feeling like, there’s a sense of distance where it’s like, that’s the other and where I’m like watching someone go through a morality play, you know, almost medieval or dark ages morality play where someone’s, there’s going to be some social injustice, they’re going to get punished and die for all of our sins. For me, there’s like a schism and a disconnect from characters at some point when I see that and I’m like, I get it. You’re making people cry, but people are able to see that movie as something other than something their dealing with in their own life. I like movies that are a little more tricky, that gets their hooks in you. My perverted masturbatory fantasy is that weeks later, months later, someone might be having an experience in a relationship that may be unhealthy, after a night of partying and go, “Oh, fuck.” It’s literally like that moment when that character did that really embarrassing thing. They can find themselves in it and when they can totally find agency and surrogacy in a character.

That's how Fruitvale Station is working for people too, because you have to take the extra step of getting all these upper class white people into this black guy’s head. I don’t know. There are so many different ways to do that.
Yeah, Fruitvale is one too, where I think it will be 20 years from now, it will be one of the movies of 2013, that people are still talking about and some of the reviews have said, you know, something to the extent of, “What did his death have to do with anything that came before it?” You know what I mean? It could have been any kind of death, but I do feel like you’re exactly right. The truth is, it was a senseless and stupid death, but I feel like the real beauty of it isn’t just how Ryan dramatized that last sequence of the death, which is stunning, everything from the subway going out before midnight with the dance sequence. It’s just so alive and so much joy and it’s just devastating. It’s really, I think I heard, it was Coppola I read once said, a great movie, it’s second best scene should be at the beginning, it’s very best scene should be at the end and everything in between should make sense, like the ending of that movie really just bops you over the head. But that’s not the genius of it. I think I read Ray Bradbury once say something like a good story is creating a complicated character and following them throughout a day in their life. He’s a regular guy and he’s dealing with shit and he’s trying to get his life together and it’s a very normal life. I think that’s the beauty of it actually, is that it’s not a sensationalist story, because he’s not a spy. He’s not really, yeah, he slings drugs a bit, but he’s not really about that. It’s a very average life, but like honest and textured and worthy of depicting. That was the humanism of Ryan Coogler. It’s very easy afterward for someone to make a critique of that film and say they should have done X,Y, or Z. He was the guy that became aware of a life, because of a death, but his interest was in depicting the life. He had the interest and he spent the real hard sweat and time in creating that 90 minute story and other people didn’t. You know what I mean? Other people didn’t and he did.

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