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Sean P. Means: Turning teen angst into something 'Spectacular'

Published August 21, 2013 6:49 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In a way, being a movie director is like organizing a successful dinner party. You invite the right guests, set the proper table, prepare good food and then watch what happens.

"I think the job of the director, if the script is really good, is that you have to be able to facilitate situations, and create an environment where everybody can feel spontaneous and free, and to mine those happy accidents," said James Ponsoldt, a director who has landed his last two movies at the Sundance Film Festival. Last year he had "Smashed" and this year it was "The Spectacular Now," which opens today at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.

It was while Ponsoldt was at Sundance debuting "Smashed," an alcoholic-recovery drama starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul, that he was approached about directing "The Spectacular Now."

"I hadn't been interested in directing someone else's script before," Ponsoldt said in a recent telephone interview. But the script, adapted from Tim Tharp's novel by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote "(500) Days of Summer," was "one of the fastest reads I'd ever had."

Because the story — about a hard-drinking high-school senior who gets dumped by his girlfriend and strikes up a new relationship with a shy classmate — struck a chord with his own high-school days, Ponsoldt said, "I wanted to make it in a very hyperpersonal way." That meant relocating the setting from Oklahoma, as Tharp wrote it, to Ponsoldt's hometown of Athens, Ga.

In making those changes, Ponsoldt worked closely with Neustadter and Weber. "Personally, as a writer, I hate the idea where writers are ostracized [by the director]," Ponsoldt said.

So Ponsoldt invited them to the set and worked collaboratively to revise the script. "It was like a tennis match," he said. "They were incredibly professional, have an insane work ethic, and they're completely without ego. … When I write for hire, they are a model for how to carry yourself."

The casting in "The Spectacular Now" is crucial, and Ponsoldt found two great actors to play his leads.

To play the alcoholic Sutter, Ponsoldt found Miles Teller, who had received attention for his role as a troubled teen in the drama "Rabbit Hole."

"I saw Miles in 'Rabbit Hole,' and he knocked me on my ass," Ponsoldt said. "People were like, 'It's a Nicole Kidman movie,' and she got the Oscar nomination. But I think she got it because she was acting opposite Miles."

Teller also has played lighter roles, as the country buddy in the remake of "Footloose" and as the bar-crawling college student in the comedy "21 & Over."

For the role of Aimee, the reserved girl who is attracted to Sutter, Ponsoldt cast Shailene Woodley, who won rave reviews as George Clooney's rebel daughter in "The Descendants."

"I felt I had lightning in a bottle," Ponsoldt said of casting Woodley. The actress probably would be outside this independent movie's budget now that she has been cast in "Divergent," next year's attempt to kickstart a "Hunger Games"-level young-adult franchise.

Everything in "The Spectacular Now" hinges on Teller and Woodley and how they work together.

To test that chemistry, Ponsoldt said, "I had them hang out a little bit, to know there was something compelling in watching them together. You have to trust your gut as a director."

Ponsoldt's gut paid off. Teller and Woodley were given a special jury prize at Sundance this year for their performances.

One of the most touching moments is a tenderly rendered sex scene, which Ponsoldt shot carefully and with as few people on set as possible.

"I wasn't trying to be sexy, but not caustically awful, either," he said. "I wanted this to be awkward and clumsy."

You know, like real life.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.






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