“We Wanted the Film to Feel Like a Memory, a Dream of Childhood…”: Director James Ponsoldt on His Coming-of-Age Neo-Noir, Summering
In Summering, James Ponsoldt‘s return to cinema following several years of episodic television work, four young girls, best friends about to enter different junior high schools, find their final moments of group bonding upended by a shocking discovery: a dead body. Encountered near a secret spot they dub Terabithia (after the YA novel and film Bridge to Terabithia), the gruesome find turns into a challenge. What if rather than calling the police or telling their parents these friends could actually solve the mystery of this deceased middle-aged man’s identity and cause of death? It’d be both a kind of end-of-summer ritual as well as an early reckoning with the complicated world of adult issues they are not far from entering. Blithely ditching their panicked mothers, the girls set out on their low-key adventure, one in which the girls find themselves navigating their own interpersonal dynamics while Ponsoldt’s direction cleverly and gently turns them into characters within a succession of film genres — the neo-noir and the horror film most specifically.
With a storyline that references Stand By Me, Summering, which premiered in Sundance’s 2022 Kids section, is less a film about the formative aspects of childhood from an older perspective than one about the ways in which childhood play endures amidst a culture where much impinges upon it. The film’s storyline is informed by, as Ponsoldt says in our interview below, conversations he’s had with his own children about the world they are growing up into, and to make it, Ponsoldt has returned to the world of purely independent filmmaking, shooting in Utah during the pandemic and consciously working towards making the set a respectful and safe space amidst the anxieties that surrounded a return to film production.
I sat down with Ponsoldt — who, full disclosure, is a friend, a contributor to Filmmaker of excellent director interviews, and whose first feature, Off the Black, Robin O’Hara and I produced —to discuss navigating the film’s tricky tonal shifts, the larger societal issues he was interested in embedding in the film, and bouncing between film and television projects. Summering is in theaters today from Bleecker Street.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the idea spark that led to Summering.
Ponsoldt: Being a parent and having three kids has probably been the most profound thing that’s affected every aspect of my life, but certainly the questions that I ask, and certainly when I’m representing stories through the the subjective experience of young characters. [I thought about] conversations between parents and children — the sometimes awkward and fumbling [way] parents try to understand and support their kids, to create autonomy [for them] in safe spaces while also understandably projecting their own anxieties and trauma back onto the kids. Inevitably parents are reliving their childhoods through their children and are probably playing revisionist historians [because] our narratives around our own childhoods are unreliable. But the catalyst for the film was that a man was found dead not so far from my house, and he couldn’t be identified. Still, no one has ID’d the body. If you can’t even get the dignity of being named when you die, that is a signifier of something broken at a structural level culturally. So, I was trying to have a conversation with my kids about larger issues around how [lack of] equity and structural violence can lead to issues like toxic masculinity, people being unhoused, families dissolving, and in some ways this film was born out of these conversations. And also the conversations I began having with my cowriter Ben Percy years ago when I adapted his short story, Refresh, Refresh. All these conversations were part of the fuel of the film.
Filmmaker: The film is also something of a return for you to a pure independent model. After working television so extensively for the last several years, what was that return like in terms of the filmmaking process?
Ponsoldt: Well, as you know, we made this in the Summer of 2021, during COVID, so, first of all, there was just a sense of gratitude from everyone that we were able to go out and film something. We took that all very seriously. Working with an ensemble of four kids, some of the questions that we’ve all been asking about equity and safety on film sets, about inclusivity and the ethics of production models, about working hours, work/life balance, became even more important. You want to create an environment of generosity and kindness and to create space where everyone feels physically safe and emotionally safe, and feels valued and that they can take creative chances.
Filmmaker: How did the reduced hours inherent with working with children affect the way you approached the film visually in terms of short lists and coverage?
Ponsoldt: Greta Zozula, the cinematographer, was on the East Coast, and I was on the West Coast, and we talked for over a year before we shot the film, just going over the script on long Zoom calls. She talked about her experience being an 11-year-old kid exploring the woods, and we nerded out on William Eggleston photographs and films we liked. Because we were both locked down in our respective homes, we slowly worked on the shot lists, but at a certain point we realized it was much more important to talk about the emotions of each scene and to really talk about a single image. Like, if a single scene could be boiled down to one image, which could be also be one emotion, what would that be? And we knew we wanted to have our four young people in a frame together spontaneously reacting to each other because that’s an alchemy you can’t fake. That superseded the question of [coverage], because even if you wanted to cover [in singles] all four actors, we couldn’t have done that because we didn’t have the time, but, also, nor did we want to.
So it was really about anchoring the film in the subjective experience of these kids. How would they react to each other? How would they react to their parents? How would they react to this [body] that they discovered? And then we wanted to dignify their emotional lives. We wanted [the film] to feel like a memory, a dream of childhood — or, a nightmare of childhood. We wanted each scene to have a quality that sort of felt a little larger than life, especially because it’s not just a pure coming-of-age story. It also deals with genre to some degree.
Filmmaker: I appreciated the way it gets into different genres, becoming a mystery film and a horror film in places. Tell me about mapping those tonal transitions, both in terms of the screenwriting but also the production and edit.
Ponsoldt: Going to Blockbuster as a kid, where there was the drama section and the comedy section, always felt so weird because that’s not how life felt to me. The dramas I liked also felt like comedies, just with fewer laughs. As I got older, I gravitated towards weird ‘70s movies, like Brewster McCloud, or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which aren’t specific comps for this, but are comps for movies that have weird buffet of tones, which are the things that I love the most. I think our goal [here] was never to be arbitrary. It’s all from the subjectivity [of the characters]. And, you know, films require multiple subjectivities if we want to understand the way that structural violence is transmitted through society. One of the most marginalized groups we have is children — they don’t have the rights that adults have, and what’s happening on a larger level with their fathers and mothers affects them. So we wanted to [portray] the decision-making process and feelings of kids who are not yet teenagers. And, you know, kids develop emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually at different paces. Some kids at 12 very much live in a fantasy land and can present as fairly naive, and some kids at 12 are already world-weary and cynical. Maybe they’ve experienced a lot of trauma and violence. So we wanted [the film] to contain that spectrum.
The film does become, in many ways, a neo-noir, a detective story, and these kids, although they are not aware of it, are living in a world that has digested all this neo-noir [storytelling]. My guess is that 75% of these stories use violence towards a woman as an inciting incident, and the female body is an object, or prop. They don’t dignify [women’s] emotional inner lives. So this was a story that wanted to center itself on female friendship, female identity, and the relationships between mothers and daughters. And that moment when, at 11 or 12, middle school is a horror film.
Filmmaker: To continue talking about tone, could you discuss the process of calibrating those tonal transitions in the edit room?
Ponsoldt: It was a balance, and, honestly, one that continued [after the film’s Sundance premiere]. [Finishing a film for Sundance] is such a rush, as you know, because we’ve experienced it together. But it started with the script and then trying different edits over and over and eventually being done because of the [Sundance] deadline. Then after Sundance, we kept working on the film, tinkering with it. It was awesome — our producing partners, Jen Dana and Peter Block, and the Bleecker Street folks were like, “Keep playing, keep trying things,” which we did. On The Spectacular Now, we changed just a few frames and a song — nothing significant. Here there were new scenes we added and scenes we cut. It was fun to have the luxury of time to keep exploring because it was a weird year, you know? We were not able to be in rooms with a lot of people. We did one outdoor screening with a group of friends, but for The End of the Tour we did six or seven in the editing room with groups of people. And then Sundance was virtual, so I didn’t know what it was like to hear feedback from people [in the room]. Part of what I love about Sundance is being at every screening — seeing [a film] in the morning, seeing it at night, seeing it in Salt Lake City, seeing it in Park City. I know how it plays with a sleepy audience, how it plays with a late-night audience, small room, big room. At the end of that experience, I feel like I understand the movie and I honestly don’t need to watch it again. But in this case we didn’t have that luxury. So if we have the ability to keep tinkering, let’s keep exploring, and that was really great, especially when you’re doing a balancing act with tone.
Filmmaker: Talking now about your career, I think you have one that a lot of young directors I meet aspire towards. You’re making independent features but also are prolific in television. You became making films in the mid-2000s and have seen the industry change. What advice would you give to someone starting out who wants to have a foot in both of those areas?
Ponsoldt: I first directed television with back to back episodes of Parenthood and Shameless. At the time, I think was interested in being in the DGA and having health insurance! And being able to pay my rent. I didn’t have kids yet, but then it became, how do I feed my kids? I didn’t think I would have the freedoms to creatively flex my muscles, and I was so wrong. I have met so many actors, cinematographers, costume designers, who are moving back and forth between film and TV in a very fluid way. And there’s a structure in place to explore nuanced stories of adults and families that were the stuff I grew up loving, whether they were films by Ozu, Ashby, Nichols. And [in television] there’s a sense of equity, where the people who are doing it are actually able to make a living, to pay their bills. It’s not just a series of favors you’re asking all the time.
Filmmaker: If you could distill the key element of the James Ponsoldt approach to pitching television, whether that’s as a creator, or someone coming on board as a director or producer, what would that be?
Filmmaker: I mean, I feel I could almost answer the question for you.
Ponsoldt: What would you say?
Filmmaker: Well, when talking about work, you bring a huge amount of enthusiasm and informed knowledge to the conversation. You always have a wide breadth of references, whether those are art, literature, music, poetry, painting, photography. You’ve very good at pitching the artistic world that a project can live within. So I’m curious how you prepare for your meetings. What’s the thing you try to keep in mind to remember to do?
Ponsoldt: Well, it’s what you said, although I don’t know that I’m self aware enough to [have said that]! But what you described is kind of what I do. I am reminded of when I was in grad school at Columbia and took a course with James Schamus, “Seeing Narrative.” There were two films on the syllabus, Deep Red and Close Up, and otherwise it was talking about a Charlotte Bronte novel or John Ashbery poems. The idea was that narrative, stories and characters exist beyond the scope of the movies we’ve seen, and that if you only know those [movies], you will not lead an interesting life, or you won’t tell interesting stories. There’s a more robust ecosystem of stories and storytelling potential that can exist if you’re interested in the subjectivity of experiences that sometimes have not been in a film or a TV show before.
I also talk from a place that starts from character and an emotional connection to character. If I can’t emotionally connect to the central conflict of a character, what they’re going through, what they’re afraid of and trying to articulate but can’t say to the people around them, what their dream is, or, to use Waldo Salt’s term, what their greatest human need is, I’m not the right person. But if I feel deeply connected to a character, it’s just a natural extension, and it becomes a creative conversation that I would be having with collaborators, whether we are working together or not.