We've Got Hollywood Covered

How ‘Spectacular Now’s’ James Ponsoldt, Shailene Woodley & Miles Teller Saved the Teen Movie

It's not easy to make a coming-of-age movie that feels as if it's showing you real people, not movie characters


In preparation for the Friday debut of “The Spectacular Now,” Landmark Theaters around the country curated a selection of notable coming-of-age movies: Cameron Crowe‘s “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous,” John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” and Richard Linklater‘s “Dazed and Confused.”

The message was simple: “The Spectacular Now” is not just another teen movie. And the message was also accurate: With quiet, natural performances, Miles Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) anchor a movie that gives viewers the sense that they’re watching real teens. 

Getty ImagesIn a way, “The Spectacular Now,” based on the novel by Tim Tharp with a screenplay by “(500) Days of Summer” writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, has given a maligned genre a shot of freshness and emotion. TheWrap spoke to director James Ponsoldt, and to Woodley and Teller, to see how they did it.

1. Aim high.

JAMES PONSOLDT: A lot of people will get to that one-line description in TV Guide and see “teen movie.” And for better or worse – I would say worse – “teen movie” has come to connote in America a marginalized film ghetto where it’s about adolescence, and the approach and the filmmaking is adolescent, immature, obsessed with T&A, fart jokes, whatever.

It wasn’t always that way. “Splendor in the Grass” wasn’t that way, “The Last Picture Show” wasn’t that way, “Rebel Without a Cause” wasn’t that way. To me, there’s a very cynical attitude of, “Oh, it’s about young people, so we’ll do it hand-held on a 5D, or make it like a found-footage movie." I wanted to create something that could exist outside of time, that could be on a shelf in 1993 or ’83 or ’75 next to “Breaking Away” or “Over the Edge."

2. Pick the right material.

PONSOLDT: I was approached after Sundance, because the producers had seen “Smashed” and liked it. I wasn’t interested in directing someone else’s script, but I was curious, so I read it. And for the first five or 10 pages, I was like, “I don’t know if I like this main character. I don’t want to glorify this guy.” He was kind of a petulant, bratty alpha-male guy. And then he literally fell on his face, met Aimee, and then the story proceeded to take slightly left-of-center choices throughout. And ultimately, I was Sutter in high school. That was me. I’d always been interested in writing a story about late adolescence, but I didn’t want to be too autobiographical, but these guys had written the thing.

The Spectacular Now3. Get the people right.

SHAILENE WOODLEY: It was one of the best screenplays I’d ever read. We fought for three years to get it made. I think Saoirse Ronan was attached at one point, and she fell out. I auditioned twice, and they were not good, but after “The Descendants” they were sort of interested in me, and I was interested in the movie. And then [director] Lee [Toland Krieger] fell out.

PONSOLDT: I had heard that Shailene was interested in it, and her being involved got was part of what got me excited about doing it. 

MILES TELLER: It rang very true to me, and I knew that I’d be able to play him. I’ve played that kind of party dude before, but this, you actually got to see some stuff underneath it, which is always my favorite stuff. I auditioned twice for the other director, but they weren't good. But when it came around again, I just met James at a bar and we had some drinks and then he said he wanted to do the movie with me. Yay alcohol!

4. Make sure you’re on the same page.

PONSOLDT: When I met the producers after reading the script, I still was like, “I’m going to give them every reason to think I’m not the guy, even though I do really like this script.” So I put my nervous energy into work, and put together a 60-page look book of exactly what I wanted it to look and feel like. I told them, “These frames and references are probably not yours, but I only want to do it if I can shoot in anamorphic 35mm, in Athens, Georgia, where I’m from, and with these actors" … and they embraced all of it.

The Spectacular Now5. Know the stakes.

PONSOLDT: When you’re 18 and you’ve had your heart broken, you’re gonna die. The world’s gonna crush you. Or when you first connect with someone and have sex for the first time, it’s so Proustian and salient that you will never forget it – that smell, the feel of that shoulder, whatever it is. And I think the texture and feel and emotionality of film, and of anamorphic 35mm, was part and parcel of how I wanted to do it. I wanted a real elegance, not a cheapness.

6. Embrace the mess.

PONSOLDT: You imagine something so many times in your mind that on the day you shoot, if it’s actually raining, or the actor has a really bad zit, there’s a feeling at first of, “Oh my God, this is different!”  But different’s not bad. Different’s just different. You should say, “OK, in real life people get zits, and it rains.” 

WOODLEY: We just got to play, and in every scene there was something different. A bug would fly by, and we could react off of that. We just tried to be so present in every moment.

Getty Images7. Go with the flow.

TELLER: I didn’t know that some of the takes were going to be one long shot. James could have given us any kind of idea and I think we would have done it, just because of how he was approaching the material.

WOODLEY: And he was so respectful of our instincts, and how we saw the characters. We just had an open dialogue with him, which is so rare. He’s an actor’s director, for sure.

TELLER: And I’m a director’s actor, so that works.

WOODLEY: And I’m an actor’s actor. [laughs] It was very fun, and a different way to film. A lot of one-ers [single shots, without coverage]. I prefer that now.

TELLER: And I just prefer what Shailene prefers.

WOODLEY: Because he’s my little pet.