Day 1 of 25: James Ponsoldt and The Spectacular Now
A new, occasional column here at Filmmaker, “The Shooting Schedule” looks at film production through the prism of a single shoot day. I peruse a film’s call sheet and production report and ask the director questions solely based on what I see there.
To launch the column, I couldn’t think of anyone better to talk to than my friend James Ponsoldt, whose third feature, The Spectacular Now, opens today. A contributor to Filmmaker — and a director whose first feature, Off the Black, Robin O’Hara and I produced — Ponsoldt has made with The Spectacular Now an indelible teen romance that reinvests the genre with both authenticity and adult wisdom. Written by 500 Days of Summer‘s Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and based on Tim Tharp’s novel, the film tells the story of hard-partying slacker Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), on the rebound from being dumped by his forward-thinking girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). A friendship with the school’s “nice girl,” Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), turns to love, challenging Sutter to rethink his views of life, family, relationships and career. That rather anodyne description, however, does little to convey the heart and charm of The Spectacular Now, which delivers characters you root for and “movie-movie” moments that, regardless of your age, are capable of offering commentary on your own life.
Ponsoldt shot The Spectacular Now in 25 days in his hometown of Athens, GA. For today’s discussion he shared the call sheet for the first day of the shoot, July 26, 2012. Six of the script’s 139 scenes were scheduled, and all were completed. The script was 99 and 2/8 pages long, and 2 6/8s were shot, all at an Athens convenience store.
The scenes scheduled, in shooting order:
Scene 95: EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE / PARKING LOT. Sutter sees Walter drinking a big gulp.
Scene 6, 7: EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE. A young kid follows Sutter into the store.
Scene 8: EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE / PARKING LOT. Walter follows Sutter out of the store.
Scene 40: EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE Ricky talks about his date. Sutter talks about Aimee.
Scene 46: EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE / COMIC BOOK STORE. Sutter comes out of the store with a big gulp, sees comic book store.
The crew call was 9:45AM, the scheduled shooting call was 11:45AM, and, as the call sheet noted, it was a hot day.
Filmmaker: So the first thing that pops off the call sheet is, “Be prepared for hot temperatures.” Was that just a normal caution from the AD, or was the heat a real concern?
Ponsoldt: All of the above. Our AD, Nick Harvard, and our line producer, Matt Medlin, have worked together a lot. They’re super-rigorous guys, very safety concerned. But, also it was Athens, GA in the month of August. I had the wonderful validating experience of shooting a film in my hometown, but I brought it to my hometown during the worst possible month of the year. That was always the goal because I love films where you actually feel sweat and balminess. But actually getting that can be a real misery. Leading up to the shoot I was like, “I spent 18 years of my life here, it’s in my DNA, these wimpy, L.A. crew-folks will have to suck it up.” But it was incredibly tough. There were some of the hottest days on record — 105, 106 degrees, without the heat index. And in Georgia when you add the heat index it’s another ten degrees. It’s like the humidity is throwing a wet blanket on you. Our first day of shooting was all in one location, inside and outside of a convenience store, right across the street from St. Mary’s Hospital, which is the hospital I was born in. It was incredibly, incredibly hot, and I certainly didn’t plan for it. I threw on a hat, but I didn’t put on sunscreen. I was drinking water but by the end of the day, the tops of my ears burned badly. I’ve never heard of someone’s ears getting sunburned. It was really gross. A few days later the tops of my ears started to peel, and my ears sort of looked like old bacon.
Filmmaker: The convenience store across the street from the hospital — was it a convenience store that you knew? One that you used to hang out at growing up?
Ponsoldt: It was one that I definitely knew, but it wasn’t “my” convenience store. There was a specific one near my house where I would get biscuits and bad convenience store coffee cappuccino, which we would call “crappuccino.” But this had kind of the same vibe, and it was really good for shooting. And it was right by the public library where, in high school, there were two books that I would keep checking out. Finally I just kept them out for about a year and I had these massive fines.
Filmmaker: So let me ask you about the schedule. I’m looking at day one of 25. Twenty-five days. I’m trying to remember what we did on Off the Black. I think it was 23. Around that same number. Was it enough?
Ponsoldt: Before we started shooting, we had more days. When I came into it, there was nothing too insane in the script. But there are definitely a lot of locations. And there are things like “sex scene” or “car accident scene” that are pretty tricky and require time. I was really pushing for 30-35 days, and as they did on Off the Black, as they do on everything, they got chipped away. We arrived at a schedule and a budget about a week or two before shooting. This was my first time working on a bonded film, and well before we even started filming, the bond company became part of the conversation because the budget [that matched] our schedule was more than our financier wanted to spend. So we had to re-imagine some things. The amount of extras had to go down. Certain nights had to become days. There was a lot of creative shuffling. It was really an all-hands-on-deck thing. Leading up to [the shoot] the producers, line producer, myself and the AD were spending all of our time in our production office in college square in downtown Athens — REM’s former office — figuring out how we could chip away money. We shot on anamorphic 35mm, and film was one thing I couldn’t let go, not on this movie. So I really stood by it. But, 25 days was a sprint. That’s the short answer.
Filmmaker: The first day you went with pretty easy scenes. No heavy drama. And they are from different sections of the movie. I’m assuming you shot out of sequence.
Ponsoldt: Yeah, [the schedule] was very much by location. And this convenience store was one of our big expenses.
Filmmaker: You shot a whole day there so I’m assuming you shut it down.
Ponsoldt: Nope. We were there all day, and we had to have windows where [customers] could come it. It was a weird situation. It’s on a relatively busy street in Athens, and people would keep pulling into the parking lot [to see what was going on]. It would have been different if we had shot in Burbank or in Manhattan because, if people saw grip trucks, they would know it was a movie. But no, people just kept pulling in. We had to have PA’s try and stop them, and it was very confusing for a lot of people. By the end of the shoot people were aware there was a production in town; it would have been different [if we filmed these scenes then]. But at the beginning it was like, “What the hell is going on?”
Filmmaker: I’m looking at the call sheet and trying to remember all these scenes in the movie. I don’t remember some of them. Did they all make it in?
Ponsoldt: No. (Laughs) A few of them did. Scene 46 is in, as is scene 40 — that’s Miles Teller and Massam Holden, who plays his buddy, coming out of the convenience store and walking. The other ones, which were the bulk of the day and involved a moving car and a young child, were totally cut. Basically, in the book and in the script, there’s this sequence early on where you meet Sutter and he goes to this convenience store and there’s this kid sitting on the curb. Sutter is getting his breakfast burrito or something and asks the kid if he wants one. And he basically gives the kid a ride home. It’s kind of this nice gesture, but it’s a little almost creepy because this character doesn’t recognize boundaries. It could be wildly misconstrued but that’s just who Sutter is. And it wound up being four-and-a-half minutes of screen time at the very beginning of the film. It stayed in the edit until pretty late in the edit, but it just slowed the movie down. Ultimately, you really want Sutter to meet Amy, Shailene Woodley’s character, as soon as possible. You want enough of Sutter before he meets her so you have some idea of who he was before her, and then they “meet cute” and that changes the course of everything. So a lot of this first day was spent on a sequence we never wound up using.
Filmmaker: Scene 46: Sutter walks out of the convenience store and spies this comic book store. Did you have to cheat that — his POV on the store?
Ponsoldt: That comic book store didn’t exist [at the location]. The script calls for it to be within the sightline of this convenience store Sutter goes to everyday. What we wanted to use was the most famous record store/comic bookstore in Athens, Wuxtry. It’s where Peter Buck and Michael Stipe met. Peter Buck was working there. They have a comic book store called “Bizarro-Wuxtry” in downtown Athens. Wuxtry was awesome enough to let us create a fake Wuxtry right next to the convenience store. It was in, I think, some place that did manicures. They let us put up a fake façade and fake comic books in the window. That was sort of like a magic-hour shot, and we were really trying to get that last scene set up and shot in a small window of time.
Filmmaker: You started the film with Miles, one of your two leads, in every scene. Did you work with him throughout the day on his performance, or was he pretty much on from the start?
Ponsoldt: Miles was really on. I was lucky, Miles and I had a serious connection as people. I didn’t make him audition. The movie had a previous life [before me]. Tons of people auditioned, pretty much everyone British, Australian, or American you can imagine. Miles had even auditioned in an earlier incarnation. But I go for people I am a fan of. I watch so much stuff I just have a laundry list of people, like “eighteen-year-old guys” or “forty-year-old men.” Whatever it is, there is always a long list of people. I had seen Miles in Rabbit Hole, and I was blown away by him. As good as Nicole Kidman was in that film, he was what stuck in my mind. And then seeing him in Footloose, I was blown away again. He’s just wildly charismatic and goofy. It was a very different performance in a very different movie, but it was the same guy. When I first met Miles we went out for beers, talked for three hours and realized how similar our childhoods had been. He really knew this character. Sometimes with younger actors, with teen actors, people might believe, “Oh, they just cast that person because they are that way [in real life].” But Miles, he went to NYU to study acting. He was finishing that degree when John Cameron Mitchell discovered him. He’s got a serious discipline and work ethic and comes well prepared. He and I spent a ton of time talking and hanging out leading up to the shoot, so all of his big questions and concerns were addressed by the time we got to set. Anything — and this went for all the other actors — he wasn’t comfortable with, that felt emotionally dishonest to him, we reconceived to make feel more real to him. Early in the movie, I just tried to keep it loose and fun on set because, you know, he’s a laid-back character. Early on it was really important that he be loose and a guy you’d want to hang out with. And Miles really had the character on that day.
Filmmaker: I’m looking at your actor pick-ups. You pick Miles up from his hotel at 10:30, your shooting call was 11:45, but from your production report I see your first shot was 11:13. I’m assuming it took at least 15 minutes to get from the hotel to the set. So, Miles pretty much lands and goes very quickly through makeup and on set.
Ponsoldt: That was another thing — the makeup on this movie was minimal to the point of non-existent. I mean we definitely had hair and makeup there, and they were great. But the goal really was to be an antidote to the depictions of adolescents in a lot of other films where there’s a fixation on fashion and music that really dates the films and makes the kids look like models. I told [the actors] right off the bat, there’s basically going to be no makeup. I’m casting you for who you are, your imagination, but also, the scars on your faces, your blemishes, your sweat stains — I want those to be part of the movie. So, in a lot of cases the hair and makeup was really just helping with continuity so we could just [edit the scenes].
Filmmaker: How did you hire your hair and makeup keys? You must have had to find people who’d be down with this approach.
Ponsoldt: They got what we were doing. It was sort of a novelty to them. When I explained what we were going to do, I think it probably sounded like we were going to do something really amateur, or as if it was though I hadn’t worked on a film before where we could actually have real hair and makeup! I was like, “No, I get it guys. I know what we can do, but I want to do less. In this case the artistry will be by withholding, by the restraint.” And it was really important for me to articulate to everyone, every department head, that I really valued and respected them. It wasn’t out of disrespect for their jobs. It was out of a value system of how we wanted to create images about the way young people should look. That was really important to us.
Filmmaker: Your first shot went up a half hour earlier than planned, so you were moving a little faster even on day one. Can you talk in general about how you came up with a shooting plan with your DP that fit your 25-day schedule?
Ponsoldt: Jess Hall, he’s a British DP, and he’s just a gentleman and brilliant. There was a documentary about his father at Sundance this year called, I think, The Stuart Hall Project. His father was a leading anti-Thatcherite philosopher in England who coined the term, “the New Left.” Jess had shot the Son of Rambo, which I thought was really, really stunning and Wally Pfister, Chris Nolan’s DP, hired Jess to shoot his first feature, which they just finished. This was a much smaller film that he had done in a long time and a different kind of crew. He was working with a lot of people he hadn’t worked with before. [In pre-production] he and I spent a lot of time at a local theater in Athens called Ciné screening movies we wanted to watch on the big screen. We talked about the idea of scope and size, giving the characters a big environment to live in and making the location one of the main characters. More specifically, young people don’t have the perspective that adults have. They can’t necessarily contextualize their experiences. As a young person, when your heart is broken, when you have sex for the first time, it feels like this is happening for the first and only time in existence. You’re hormonal, on this roller coaster, so you feel dwarfed, and the world feels bigger than you can comprehend. We wanted anamorphic film, so we were looking at films like The Last Picture Show, Splendor in the Grass, Manhattan, Punch Drunk Love — things like that. Jeff and I spent a lot of time watching films and then really breaking apart the script to come up with an elegant design. We had a pretty intricate shot list for the film that was really designed and lean. There were a lot of one-ers built into it; it was definitely not a coverage film. It was a film that [valued] elegance as opposed to a hand-held, raw aesthetic. It is certainly not a found footage [style] 5D film, like a lot of films about teenagers now. The film had elegance; it felt timeless. And we weren’t over-covering the scenes. We knew exactly what we wanted. We had a goal of using natural light as much as possible. So we moved fast. And Jess is also an actor’s cinematographer. He really respects actors, which some cinematographers do more than others. For some cinematographers, I think, actors function more as models. But in this case Jess never wanted the cinematography or the lighting design to get in the way of the performances.
Filmmaker: In terms of the one-ers did you any safety coverage? Or did you just commit to them?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, we committed to ‘em (laughs). You know, even editors who love, who will value a [specific] aesthetic, will be the first [to say], “Um, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Shoot some hands, shoot some feet, shoot some leaves — just something so we can cut it together [if the master shots] don’t work.” But [when trying this approach] you don’t want to project failure, you know? There was a lot of pressure to make the schedule on this bonded film, and our “lean and mean” plan met those needs. Which is to say, there was nobody saying, ‘You need to cut those eight shots to two” because we already had. There really wasn’t a more minimal way of shooting things in most cases.”
Filmmaker: Okay, I have to end by asking you, what were those two books you kept out at the library?
Ponsoldt: They were John Sayles’ Matewan book and Making Movies by Sidney Lumet.
Filmmaker: And what from those two informed the way you make movies now?
Ponsoldt: John Sayles became a hero to me because of his rigorous dedication towards representing people correctly and respectfully, and trying to understand a soul of place. He’s navigated his way through the rural South and Texas in his films with a keen intelligence and honesty. I also became really interested in his career from early on as I was thinking about what a career in film might look like. I became aware that he had some really curious credits. He was making these films with a social conscience but then he had these insane screen writing credits, like Piranha. He was really the guy, even before Soderbergh developed the term, who had that sort of “one for them, one for me” mentality. I found him inspiring, making his own films and then working as a writer for Hollywood. He didn’t see them as an enemy but as a necessary ally. And Sidney Lumet had just an incredible discipline. He was one of those essential New York City filmmakers, and maybe I am wrong here, but he doesn’t get the respect that he deserves. It is always “Woody Allen and Scorsese,” and people see Lumet as more of a craftsman than a film poet or auteur. But when I was reading that book [as a teenager] I was obsessing over 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. I was giving myself a film-school education by [studying] their shot progressions and the way he worked with actors. I read this interview with Paddy Chayefsky once where he said, “Screenwriters shouldn’t approach it as high falutin art. That’s how you get stuck, how you get jammed and how you get writer’s block. You really should treat it as a craft or a trade, like you’re a carpenter and just go to work and clock in like banker’s hours and do you your work everyday. And if you have a soul of an artist your artistry will come through. You should just trust in that.” And that’s what I see in Sidney Lumet’s work. There just seemed to be a real process and discipline that he developed from [working in] early television. Same thing with Robert Altman. It’s a very unpretentious way to think about filmmaking, and I think [Making Movies] is a necessary read for filmmakers.