‘The Spectacular Now’ director on ‘getting’ teens and not preaching

James Ponsoldt directed the high school romance "The Spectacular Now." Credit: Getty Images
James Ponsoldt directed the high school romance “The Spectacular Now.”
Credit: Getty Images

Director James Ponsoldt follows up last year’s acclaimed look at alcoholism, “Smashed,” with “The Spectacular Now,” based on the young adult novel by Tim Tharp about a live-for-the-moment popular high school senior (Miles Teller) with a burgeoning drinking problem. The film was the toast of Sundance and has kept Ponsoldt on a steady festival tour since then, something he’s not necessarily complaining about.

How do you develop new projects while doing this months-long festival tour?
I’ve been working continuously. I have my laptop with me constantly. I’m too ADD to say, “Hey, here’s 45 minutes, I’m going to dive in.” I kind of need a three-hour window. But I’ve gotten better at it. With a lot of these festivals, I don’t necessarily go to all the parties. I try to get to bed before midnight. I’ve been trying to get up earlier and earlier. Say something starts at 10 a.m. — I’ll usually be up by 5:30 or 6 and try to get three hours of writing in every day if I can, and if I have a day off I’ll just use it as best I can. It is hard. Travel, at least for me, really screws up your internal rhythm.

Did you have any trouble “getting” teenagers today?
I’ve read every think-piece about “how has the Internet changed things.” Emotionally, internally? We’re the same. I think the Internet does democratize things and does change things, but just because you can tweet at someone or send a direct message doesn’t mean you can’t still be romantic and still be proactive.

So what’s in the main character’s flask?
I think it’s whiskey. Growing up in Athens, me and my friends started drinking a lot in sixth grade. We did drink hard booze, but it was by a circumstance where we had a Thermos that on Monday you get the thermos and on that night you would raid your parents’ liquor cabinet and just fill it up with a little bit of everything and then just put Kool-Aid in there, and we’d all drink it at lunch. So it’s a bunch of hard liquor and fruit punch.

You’ve got a knack for dealing with alcoholism in film without being preachy.
I mean, do you trust people who say they have a message for you? Probably no. I mean, neither do I. I think social issue movies are the worst. It’s such an abstraction. It’s not about a character, it’s not about a story. I don’t think I’m in a position to judge anyone, nor do I want to, and I think it makes for horrifically bad storytelling. It just seems cynical and mean-spirited.


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