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Sundance Interview: Star Miles Teller and Director James Ponsoldt of 'The Spectacular Now'

The director and star of the Sundance smash talk love, booze, summer heat, elbow-y sex and more ...

By James Rocchi Jan 21, 2013 9:13PM
In "The Spectacular Now," Miles Teller's Southern good-times kid with a broken home and bruised heart meets, and romances Shaelene Woodley's shy, slightly nerdy girl with problems of her own; the end result is the rare teen drama that earns everything it makes you feel. We spoke with Teller ("Footloose," "Rabbit Hole") and writer-director James Ponsoldt ("Smashed") about shooting in the Deep South, keeping their on-screen romance real and the allure of teen self-destruction and the promise of teen self-awareness. 


MSN  Movies: How great is it to have a block-rocking premiere go down at The Library where you opened the film literally almost a year after "Smashed"?


Miles Teller: Yeah. It feels really good. I'd saw a rough cut with Shailene (Woodley) in James' house. He had a small TV kind of set in his fireplace on the floor, and he had cats running around, which I'm allergic to. So it's just like this really, and the sound wasn't there. The music wasn't there. After the screening James came in and he's like, "So what do you guys think?" And Shailene and I were just like, "I don't know." Like, it's just so uncomfortable to watch.


We'll just finish it, cut it, have less cats in it.


Teller: Right. Yeah, exactly.


James Ponsoldt: “There won't be cats in the film. Don’t worry. “


Teller: It was uncomfortable, man. I really, like I couldn't see the movie. And I was just focused on all these other things, and I was really in my head about it for a long time. And James could tell, and he's like, "I promise you, man, blah, blah, blah." So to see it in the theater, it's a beautiful theater, it's a beautiful house, the audience was so fantastic. They were there every step of the way. And with the music and everything, the color correction, it was beautiful. And I told James it's the most like proud I've ever been of something I've been in. So it's really like a, yeah, it's huge man. It's awesome.


And Mr. Ponsoldt, I'm wondering like when exactly did the script like come to you? How did you find this material?


Ponsoldt: The script came to me pretty soon after Sundance. I'm not sure which producer actually; one of the producers of it saw "Smashed" and quickly had the other producers watch it. They sent me the script. I hadn't been interested in directing someone else's writing just 'cause I'm always writing myself, but I knew a lot of the people involved with it, or knew of them. I didn't know them personally. And I just fell in love with the story and felt that it kind of was my story that I never would've written. Someone else had. When I met with the producers I told them that but also told them, "You know, if I make this like I want to make it on anamorphic 35. And we're going to have to take it down to Athens, Georgia 'cause it's kind of my story." All of these things that I thought they would say, "Oh, that's very nice. Have a good day." But they were very supportive. And sort of I talked about the actors that I really loved, they agreed. I mean I was just shocked how much we were on the same page as far as value system. And so it sort of came together really efficiently in a way that I hadn’t anticipated that I'd be making a movie six months after Sundance at all. It was not on my radar this time last year, and then suddenly it just happened.


BING: Miles Teller l James Ponsoldt

And a really swift turnaround time. How long was the shoot?


Ponsoldt: 25 days, which felt luxurious compared to "Smashed," which only had 19 days.


Teller: We finished August, what was it?


Ponsoldt: Like the 30th, or something like that.


Teller: Yeah, yeah.


And you said that you were running around. Or one of you said at the premiere that you were running around in Georgia in hundred-degree heat.


Teller: Yeah it's, and I think it plays in the movie, I mean we don’t have the time to come in and get all this sweat off you. It's just like you're sweaty, and everybody's sweaty. So you know, just do it. But yeah, I mean especially that scene where we're at the kegger outside and the one kid is in a polo shirt with huge sweat-stains. The kid gets a huge laugh 'cause of that giant armpit stain.




Ponsoldt: (Laughs)


Teller: But there was ... it was very important to stay hydrated, 'cause it's a Georgia summer, dude.




Teller: And I'm from Florida, so like I was a bit used to it, but it was I mean we were hot, which is good, man. I'd much rather shoot in that than like on a sound stage. It just feels very authentic, and you're sweating, and you're using it.


Ponsoldt: When people happen to sweat in real life. It's just in movies where they don't sort of sweat.


Teller: Right.


Ponsoldt: Unless it's in a really sexy way or something. I was really excited to just embrace…


Teller: There's no sweat in the sex scene.




Teller: It's like the only place there's not.


But you are indoors, which presumably has air conditioning.


Teller: Oh yeah, we got air conditioning. And you see it at the beginning.


It's good to know we're talking about sex scenes and sweat. Can we talk briefly about wardrobe in that the kids in the movie look like kids. It's like Wal-Mart clothing. You watch a lot of movies about teens and it's just about very tiny, very expensive adults.


Ponsoldt: Sure.


I mean how important was it for you to keep that like Wal-Mart reality level?


Ponsoldt: I mean I think oftentimes films where people go back to adolescents and tell those stories they're pretty revisionist. Either they're sort of magnifying some internal self-loathing they had, you know what I mean?


It's either rose-colored glasses or utter Godardian despair.


Ponsoldt: Yes, and that's really just not the reality of it. And for me, I mean people aren’t necessarily comfortable seeing. The truth is, kids at a public school in the Deep South or probably anywhere in middle America, they're aware of fashion. They all watch. They're all on YouTube constantly. They know what people are wearing. They can't really afford it, you know what I mean? There may be something aspirational in it. It might be informed by that, but that's definitely not what they're wearing. What they're wearing, in most cases, was maybe a second hand. Maybe it's passed down by a sibling, or they just wear it a lot. So by the time you get to the end of the school year it looks like crap.


Teller: And I shopped for some of my character's stuff at a thrift store that's like right down the street from the hotel. I mean I think Shailene might have done that, too. It's just like, yeah.


Ponsoldt: I mean listen. If this had been a film… If this had been a film set at a performing arts school in Manhattan it would've been different. The kids would've been more sophisticated.


And more singing.


Ponsoldt: And more singing. (Laughs). Exactly.


Maybe a musical number in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Like that? Like “Fame?” Is that your vision?


Ponsoldt: Exactly. No. It was informed by place. I mean the characters, what they wore was all informed by place.


Mr. Teller, your character pretty much constantly has a drink in his fist. Were you method drinking? Were you actually drinking booze? Or were you shunning that?


Teller: I'll you what man. There was like a conversation that happened early on 'cause I knew I was going to be like naked, and it was the first time that I had like had any kind of those scenes. And I was like “Oh, you know, this is a leading role and I'm going to be naked. I need to work out and stuff, get a little bit in shape.” And I was talking to James up front. He's like, "What?" He's like, "No, man." He's like, "You can't be doing that." And then I was like, "Yeah, you're right." So legitimately yeah, before I filmed that movie I was just like drinking whenever I wanted to drink and eating whatever, just not caring whatsoever. Do you remember that?


Ponsoldt: Yes. Well actually, the really great thing was even more of an advocate of that than me was Shailene.


Teller: Right.


Ponsoldt: It was like almost she made a pact with you and was like, "Watch. Your body is beautiful Miles. Like, have a gut. Whatever." (Laughs) Like you would in real life. Like you're not going to have a six-pack. You're not Taylor Lautner. No offense Taylor Lautner, but this isn't about vampires.


Teller: Yeah.


Yeah, and the whole Abercrombie and Fitch esthetic that Hollywood implants upon teens, all washboarded up and stuff.


Ponsoldt: Well, I mean it think it's the adult fetishes of youth and sexualizing young people. And there's certainly these kids are sexual, and it's okay. The movie's unapologetically they're sexy in an awkward, clumsy, honest way. But it's not through the lens of an adult sort of projecting how they would like these kids to be sexual.


The phrase I love is "sweet elbow-y love making." How long did that take to shoot all of your sex scenes and keep them awkward? Like you can't rehearse them too well.


Ponsoldt: (Laughs) Yeah.


It'll turn into ballet.


Teller: I'd …  it was both Shailene and I's first sex scene ever. And it was really at that point I just felt like we were really comfortable with each other, and we had a lot of trust. And it wasn't, and there's James there. There's like very minimal people, but there are people there. And you know, we'd be like kissing and, you know, doing the sex stuff and it's like, "Cut!" And it's like, "Alright, and that's lunch." And it's, you know, you just kind of do it.


Just another day at the office.


Teller: Yeah, yeah.


Ponsoldt: I remember you, I mean on set there was for that scene especially, throughout it but especially that scene, there was a great sense of humor about it.


Teller: Right.


Ponsoldt: You were also really -- and I remember Shailene commented on this -- you were like a real gentleman. You were aware that there were other men in the room and that she was taking her top off. And you were very quick to like help her get her clothes back on.


Teller: Hold a blanket and stuff.


Ponsoldt: No, it was really great. I mean…


Teller: You've got to have a little levity in it.


Ponsoldt: No, you were a gentleman in doing it. But honestly it helped Shailene, it helped you, and it helps the film.


Teller: Yeah.


And also thank you for shunning the cliché of, "We're going to have sex, but I'm going to leave my bra on." It's that great Hollywood thing…


Teller: (Laughs) It's more like, "We're going to have sex, and I'm going to make sure your arm is kind of…"




Teller: But James was very specific on that 'cause obviously Shailene wants to protect herself as a woman in this business and yada, yada, yada. But James was very much like, "I don't want it to look like, oh we bring the blanket up now or your arm is here." He's like, "The sex needs to feel real. I don't want it to feel like it's postured or positioning." So we found a really nice balance there. And if you look, well, whatever. (Laughs)


Were you even remotely considering about going back on the booze cruise after "Smashed"? There's a lot of thematic similarity.


Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean I was. I mean it was something that I had to ask myself. You know, what is this story about? For me the story is not about alcohol. For another director it might've been about a young alcoholic. It's part and parcel in what it is to be a teenager, certainly in my experience. And this really I was projecting a lot of my own self onto this character and into this story. I mean down to shooting on streets where I grew up. So for me that's when I was 18. When I was 17, honestly when I was 13, I was drinking all the time. And all my friends were drinking and smoking a lot of weed. It was like, not a big deal. And I feel like it's only, I don’t know, it feels like it's only a big deal when it's in the wrong storyteller's hands.


I mean looked at as an aggregate, isn't it amazing any of us survive our teens?


Ponsoldt: Yes. I mean, no. Hormonally, I think we have a self-destruct mechanism where we're like taught to hate our bodies. And actually society helps accelerate that process by making us either go bankrupt or like kill ourselves because we grow to hate ourselves, you know? Or try to like, you know, do stuff to make ourselves feel better ourselves.


Teller: Yeah. The town I grew up in, it's sad, but there's a lot of drunk driving that happened in the town I grew up in. there's so much so there was like a, almost like a tally man every year like one or two kids would pass away in a drunk driving accident. It's just something kids do, and you hope that they don’t. You want them to make smart choices, but bottom line is at that point they're not mature enough to really sit back and say, "Maybe this is not a good idea."


Can we talk really briefly about Sutter's whole hearty, joshing, cajoling, good-humored thing because I loved? I felt like I was watching somebody who had been raised in the wild by Bill Murray movies.


Ponsoldt: (Laughs)


Teller: That's awesome. Cool, yeah.


Is that what you were shooting for? Was that a model? Like that kind of like…


Teller: No, and I tell you what. It's funny. The film I'm doing right now the one director's like, "I've got to find something for you with Bill Murrary man." Yeah. But no, actually I hadn’t seen a whole lot of films. I hadn’t seen a lot of Murray's stuff, but I always know that he's just so well respected. It's just one of those things. I have more fun when you're having fun.




Teller: So if the people around me are having fun, then I'm having a better time. It's almost like them first and then I'll find my footing in there. But it's, yeah.


Ponsoldt: I think part of what's great about Tim Tharp's book and the script and what attracted me to it is Sutter's arc, and he really does that with this character with a real arc from the beginning to the end. In the beginning you might believe, "Oh God, this is going to be a movie about a bro," you know what I mean? A boring cocky bro who has sort of worshiped at the altar of the Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell cult of the man-child that we love in America. You know, the guy who's 45 but lives like he's 18, and he's still having fun…


Wears a lot of basketball shorts.


Ponsoldt: Wears a lot of basketball shorts. And the truth is I love those actors, and I love a lot of movies. They've given me so much joy. And Adam Sandler movies have given me a ton of joy. But in real life most of the people I know that had that person as a father or in a relationship with them got left really high and dry. And I feel like a lot of what this story does at a script level is unpacks this myth of the mantle. How does that guy at 40, what happened to him when he was 18? How was he either affirmed in his behavior, or what was he desperately seeking out that made him become that way?


And that's the great thing is when Mr. Chandler shows up as her dad he's like the factory second, scratch and dent model of you.


Teller: Yeah. (Laughs)


Ponsoldt: (Laughs)


Like more mileage on rougher roads. Is it a pleasure acting opposite him in those scenes? It's tough for him to be such a resolute jerk.


Teller: I was so lucky in this movie just to literally, it's like every single person I'm acting with is an incredible actor. It's like Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, and Kyle Chandler, and Brie, and Shailene…


Ponsoldt: Jennifer Jason Leigh.


Teller: Jennifer Jason Leigh. Literally it's just like every single relationship that I had was so real. And Kyle, 'cause I've never seen "Friday Night Lights," I've never really seen Kyle in that much stuff, but this character really affected him man. He was not this like smooth, powerful, confident guy. He was very like, I remember we did the first scene and kind of just having trouble with the blocking, and he was like getting this and that. And he was just, he was that character. Almost like in-between scenes and everything he really was living in that space, and it was just like yeah. It was awesome. Especially now watching the performance, as soon as he comes out of that apartment door you're like, "Okay."


As soon as he comes out of that apartment door, I really want to know what the hell is in his apartment.


Teller: His mind was like he had just had a fight with my mom and this and that, and he was coming out in this weird state but…


Ponsoldt: He and I, I mean what was so exciting to me about Kyle, I mean I do think that especially now with one-hour television almost sort of supplanting really great adult films, or adult dramas for adults. Like "Friday Night Lights," him as Coach Taylor, essentially America for five years had Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda in their living room. That's kind of what that guy was, the all-American or Jimmy Stewart, like just profoundly decent father and coach. And the idea of inverting that and having him play a raging narcissist…


Pickled in booze?


Ponsoldt: … pickled in booze, was really exciting. I think that terrified Kyle and was what excited him. And that's really what our conversations were about. He's an amazing actor and asked amazingly pointed questions before he arrived in Athens. And when he arrived he really was that character. It was pretty stunning.


What's the best thing you've had people come up to you and say after seeing the film?


Ponsoldt: I mean I've had a lot of people say something like, "Oh my God." People were really emotional. I didn’t necessarily get a back-story, but they were like, "I knew that kid. That kid, like I dated that kid," or, "Oh my God, my best friend." There's something about your character that like really reminds them of some guy that they knew who clearly broke their hearts. I think there was like some wasted potential aspect to it that really gets under people's skin, and they definitely feel like that was my high school.


Teller: The one they couldn't fix or the one that…


Ponsoldt: Yeah.


Teller: Yeah.


Watching you I kept on thinking what Romeo says about Mercutio, “he jests at scars that never felt a wound.” But your character is laughing at pain because he has it.


Teller: Yeah.


Is it easy to throw yourself into recreating that kind of defense mechanism?


Teller: See for me, man, I've always like, you know, I feel like a lot of actors' parents never wanted them to be an actor, and they had all this struggle and this and that. I come from a wonderful family. Like my parents are here, my sister's here, my grandparents are here. I've always had that love and support. I'm the youngest so I feel live I've always been adorned with love, and you can literally do anything you want. So I didn't have that. I went through a lot of pain later on in my life through various other avenues. But that was what I really loved about this script is that he does have this. You do get to see what's under the surface. Living in somebody else's pain for an actor man, it's actually nice when you get to feel that kind of emotion. That's what I like.


Ponsoldt: Something I love about watching Miles act, and I could watch you in anything, whether it's a big like a "Footloose" or a "Rabbit Hole," is like there's this emotional counterpoint that he has. There's this cognitive dissonance that's going on with him constantly where yes, you are the most charismatic person in any room probably, but yet you're not a stranger to pain, although you'd be the last to ask for like someone to feel sorry for you. And that's what, you know, breaks hearts.


You're not walking around rocking ahair shirt with a penitent look of a man who's suffering.


Teller: Right.


Ponsoldt: You want to bring people up. You want to make people laugh.


Teller: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely man.


One final thing, have you thought about selling tie in marketing flasks?


Ponsoldt: (Laughs) I could use the money. I don’t know. You're probably fine, but…


Teller: Yeah. Remember when we were going through all those different flasks I was like, "What about this one, man? It's a banana." (Laughs) There's a version of Sutter where he's like, "I'm the Sutterman!" And like it was just a big joke but…


Ponsoldt: Our props department had a ton of flasks; Miles put that away.


Teller: That's the only prop that I took. I love the leather. It's like my dad gave it to me.


Ponsoldt: It's interesting. I don’t think there'll be any flask company…


Teller: People love when I get (Woodley's character)  that gift. People loved. They just thought that was great. Little do they know…


Ponsoldt: I don’t know how they love it. I don’t know. It's very ironic right? But our premiere party here was sponsored by a liquor company. I guess they didn't see the movie ...

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