A Conversation with James Ponsoldt, director of “The Spectacular Now”

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James Ponsoldt walks the red carpet at the
Atlanta Film Festival for his film,
“The Spectacular Now”
In the past two years, James Ponsoldt has not only seen two of his films show at Sundance, but both have competed for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. The Athens native now lives in Los Angeles, but when it came time for his latest feature, Georgia beckoned him back.
Proclaiming himself as a writer first and foremost, “The Spectacular Now” marks the first of Ponsoldt’s six films (three shorts and three features) where he doesn’t have a writing credit. Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, the screenwriters behind hipster mega-hit “(500) Days of Summer,” adapted Tim Tharpe’s award-winning novel. Upon reading the script, Ponsoldt approached the two with both enthusiasm and his own plans in mind.
“‘I want to set it in Athens, Georgia and I want to film it on anamorphic 35mm.’ And they said, ‘alright.'” Tharpe’s novel takes place in Oklahoma, a setting that the first version of the screenplay kept. Luckily, the story’s ties to the Sooner state are loose enough. But what else made Ponsoldt want to film in his hometown?

“It started first and foremost with story, where– it wasn’t a city, it wasn’t the middle of nowhere,” he begins. “It was a place that, to someone who hadn’t grown up in a college town, they might just read ‘suburbs.’ For me, I read college town and I read Athens. Athens is very different if you come there at 18 to go to school than if you grow up there. I was a local. You know… you have less freedom. Its a pretty amazing place, where you are close enough to culture, close enough to the university and to Atlanta; but you are still just not in the city.” Ponsoldt does a masterful job at conveying this college-town sensibility in a film where the only colleges mentioned are out-of-state.

“And its still one of the most beautiful places I can imagine,” he adds. I have to agree.

“We shot it in such a way that we were going for something very universal. So it was Athens inasmuch as say– Bloomington, Indiana is the setting for ‘Breaking Away.'” I wouldn’t recognize Bloomington, but I did recognize Athens. “People that are from there will immediately recognize it. People from elsewhere might not be sure. We removed the easy signifiers.” There are definitely no easy signifiers. No obvious trace of UGA exists, and they don’t stroll past the Georgia Theatre. We do see a few Zaxby’s restaurants through a car window, but you can’t swing a dead cat around in Athens without hitting a Zaxby’s.

Did Georgia’s seductive tax credits play a part in luring him back home? Yes, it seems. “As far as the ease of shooting in Georgia, yeah there is a great tax incentive,” he agrees. “And a great crew base here in Atlanta. Athens hasn’t had nearly as much production as in Atlanta, but it was the easiest place on earth to shoot.”

“We were in REM’s former offices as our production office and just, everybody in town was so, so wonderful. We couldn’t have made the movie on this budget without a lot of support,” he says with a palpable sincerity.

Over a dozen feature films with Georgia ties played the Atlanta Film Festival this year, with “The Spectacular Now” making the most waves, following successful bows at Sundance and SXSW. Screening on Georgia’s festival circuit, particularly as a special presentation, is perhaps the best way to punctuate a Georgia production’s journey. This isn’t Ponsoldt’s first time attending, though. Having shown his short films at the festival, he also won the Perfect Pitch screenwriting competition in 2003. This year, he served as a mentor during the competition. Ponsoldt has noticed the growth and surging reputation of the ATLFF, “It’s just a real… an international film festival. For someone who is making a film, it’s one of those stops you go through.”

“Its a profoundly meaningful festival for the southeast, obviously. But it’s an international festival that has the best films from potentially anywhere.” Even with all of the emphasis on Georgia and the South evident throughout the programming this year, the ATLFF supports a huge international presence. “Its a major film festival, that’s what it is,” he adds.

So what’s next for this guy? He is currently in the middle of adapting Julianna Baggot’s novel “Pure” for Fox 2000, a studio that is no stranger to young adult adaptations. Ponsoldt is quick to dismiss any connections between “The Spectacular Now” and his new project. “It’s wildly different. A science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic Baltimore, so… still with young people, so I guess its similar in that regard. But wildly different.” I hear someone else on the red carpet ask if he might also film “Pure” in Athens. “Well, we’ll see! I mean… maybe we’ll take it there. It’s very much an urban environment.” My suggestion that Atlanta could double as Baltimore is met with much more enthusiasm. “You should look into that,” I stress. “Absolutely,” he says– maybe just to shut me up. “Its a bigger film, so I’m sure it will move much slower into production. Hopefully [it’s] not too far off, but you never know.”

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