×

‘Spectacular Now’ Director James Ponsoldt Drawn to Complex Themes

Helmer eyes bigger scope with Hillary Clinton bio, 'Pippin' adaptation

Writer-director James Ponsoldt appreciates real damage.

He’s not a fan of what he sees as the safe and easy emotional problems that Hollywood movies typically resolve by the third act. Instead, he prefers the kinds of ugly, messy traumas that endure, whether it’s the legacy of alcoholism in his latest feature “The Spectacular Now” (debuting Aug. 2) or a high-school shooting in his upcoming adaptation of “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock” (by “Silver Linings Playbook” author Matthew Quick) or the travails of an aspiring female politician in “Rodham,” about the early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I do believe everyone has their own scar tissue, and I’m interested in that,” says the 34-year-old filmmaker, who recently adapted and will direct “Pure,” based on Julianna Baggott’s dystopian sci-fi novel for Fox 2000; and is adapting the Broadway musical “Pippin” for the Weinstein Co.

A graduate of Yale, where his thesis on suicide in Greek and Shakespearean tragedies was overseen by literary critic Harold Bloom, Ponsoldt went to Columbia’s Graduate Film School to further refine his talent for directing actors. “I empathize with what they have to do,” he says. “Every actor has a different process, and I try to be what they need.”

So far, Ponsoldt’s process has paid off: His 2006 feature debut “Off the Black” stars Nick Nolte as a deadbeat high school baseball umpire in top soulful and scruffy form; his follow-up, 2012’s “Smashed,” a black comedy about an alcoholic couple, showcases a breakout performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead; and “The Spectacular Now,” a Sundance 2013 favorite being distributed by A24 Films, represents raw and stellar acting from rising thesps Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in a coming-of-age tale about two high school seniors struggling with love, family and their futures in a small Georgia town.

“I wanted to make something that didn’t make light of the emotional complexity and horror of being a teenager,” says Ponsoldt, who says his inspiration for “The Spectacular Now,” was the controlled melodrama of movies like “The Last Picture Show,” “East of Eden” and Ken Loach’s “Kes,” “where the kids happened to be young, but they’re not pandered to.”

Andrew Lauren, the producer of “The Spectacular Now,” credits Ponsoldt for always keeping it real.

“He is definitely all about authenticity,” Lauren says. “He has a wonderful rapport with actors, and he doesn’t force anyone to do anything that doesn’t feel genuine to them — he’s a no-bullshit guy.”

In the same way that “The Spectacular Now” feels refreshingly darker and more naturalistic than most teen dramas, Ponsoldt hopes “Rodham,” will transcend biopic conventions. “There are TV movies of the week,” he says, “and then there are films like ‘Milk,’ or ‘Patton,’ or ‘Good Night and Good Luck,’ where there is real psychology to these people, and you can relate to them in their humanity, not their fame.”

Ponsoldt says he is deliberately going slow when it comes to developing the “Rodham” project. “We’re being very careful, because there’s not a lot of leeway to screw it up.”

While he is meeting with actresses for the central role, no offers have gone out. In fact, there’s not yet a casting director on the film.

“Because I’m a man in my 30s and I’m telling a story about a woman in her 20s,” he says, “I’ve been very interested in listening to people talk about their take on the character.” But any speculation on who will play the part remains premature.

Based on a script by Young Il Kim, the story unfolds during the height of the Watergate scandal, when Rodham was torn between her work as a D.C. lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee to impeach Nixon and her feelings for an aspiring Arkansas-based politician named Bill Clinton.

If “Rodham,” “Pippin” and “Pure” sound a bit outside of the director’s wheelhouse, Ponsoldt says he looks forward to making films that have the same values as “Smashed” or “The Spectacular Now,” but broaden the scope of his work.

“Now is not the time to be lazy,” he says.

More TV

  • Amazon Prime nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for

    Amazon Prime Nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for Germany, France and the Netherlands

    Amazon Prime Video has acquired the first season of series “Russian Affairs” for distribution in Germany, France and the Netherlands, from Russia’s Start Studios. The eight-part drama that follows the lives of Russia’s elite and those who aspire to that position is set in contemporary Moscow. Under the title “Gold Diggers,” the series was broadcast [...]

  • MODEL RELEASED Mother with baby, 1

    Channel 4 Orders ‘Baby Surgeons’ From Wonderhood Studios

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has commissioned Wonderhood Studios for a documentary series with the working title “Baby Surgeons.” The series will explore the journeys parents go through to save their babies during complex pregnancies and will feature cutting-edge baby surgeries, some performed inside the womb. It will also use CGI, MRI and Ultrasound to enhance [...]

  • Bertelsmann CEO Says RTL, ProSiebenSat.1 Should

    Bertelsmann CEO Says RTL, ProSiebenSat.1 Should Be Free to Merge

    The CEO of German media giant Bertelsmann has said its RTL Group TV division should be allowed to merge with German rival ProSiebenSat.1 and called for a loosening of E.U. antitrust regulations in order to better stave off intensifying competition from U.S. streaming giants. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published on [...]

  • Politicians and Petition Support BBC Following

    Politicians and Petition Support BBC Following Reports of Major Cuts

    A war of words around the future of the BBC continued on Monday amid reports of severe cutbacks to the U.K. public broadcaster. The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that Downing Street, the seat of the U.K. government, was planning to replace the annual BBC license fee with a subscription service; sell most of [...]

  • Stanley Tucci

    Stanley Tucci to Host BBC Radio 4 Series 'The Californian Century'

    Actor and filmmaker Stanley Tucci will front series “The Californian Century,” set to air on BBC Radio 4. Tucci will play a cynical screenwriter who narrates the stories of ten people who helped build California over the last 100 years. They include Francis Boggs, the first person to direct a full movie in California; Hattie [...]

  • Devils

    See Patrick Dempsey in First Trailer for Sky Italia, Lux Vide’s ‘Devils’

    Sky Italia has launched the first trailer for its highly anticipated thriller “Devils,” set to premiere in April on Sky. Produced by Lux Vide and Orange Studio with funding from Sky Studios, the series is distributed internationally by NBCUniversal Global Distribution. The trailer drops hot off the heels of news that Comcast-owned satellite TV operator [...]

  • Sharp Objects

    Entertainment One Commits to Drama: 'Hasbro Bought the Business to Expand It'

    “Sharp Objects” and “Run” producer-distributor Entertainment One is reassuring partners of its commitment to drama following its acquisition by toy giant Hasbro. EOne has always cultivated a strong set of procedurals, such as ABC’s Nathan Fillion-starrer “The Rookie” and Fox’s Stephen Dorff-led “Deputy,” but has also gained traction with cable propositions such as HBO’s “Sharp [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content