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The James Ponsoldt Interview: From North Georgia Red Clay To the Hills of Hollywood

The James Ponsoldt Interview:
From North Georgia Red Clay To the Hills of Hollywood
By James Calemine


Film maker James Ponsoldt was born in Athens, Georgia, in 1978. His father worked as a college professor and his mother was a writer. His grandfather created book covers for Agatha Christie novels. At an early age, Ponsoldt developed an affinity for storytelling, photography and theater. It's rare such a young film maker makes an impact on the indie film community, but the work of James Ponsoldt commands respect. A soulful resonance drifts through his films. The fertile bohemian grounds of Athens, Georgia, served as James Ponsoldt's storytelling garden that spread to Hollywood like kudzo covers north Georgia's roadsides.

Ponsoldt's latest film, Smashed, hits theaters on October 12. The movie tells the story of a couple who try to salvage their relationship once one of them becomes sober. Smashed stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof, Grindhouse and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad). Vetiver's Andy Cabic and the Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson scored the soundtrack for Smashed. Ponsoldt's first feature fim--Off The Black--starred Nick Nolte. The film earned critical acclaim. Other Ponsoldt films include Rush Tickets, Comin' Down the Mountain, Junebug and Hurricane and We Saw Such Things.

In August, Ponsoldt finished filming his latest movie The Spectacular Now (starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. His production office operated out of the old R.E.M. office in Athens. Ponsoldt's work is gaining wider acclaim, and on the heels of the release of Smashed he may find himself on the way to the Red Carpet. In this Swampland interview we discuss growing up in the South, his early works, influences, southern perspectives in Los Angeles, Nick Nolte, Smashed and Into The Spectacular Now. I encourage everyone to go see Smashed. For this writer, it's good to see a fellow scribe from Georgia expose his work to a wide audience. Ponsoldt is a first rate storyteller...

James Calemine: Talk about growing up in Athens, Georgia, and how you eventually got into film making through early influences...

James Ponsoldt: Athens is a great place to live and to grow up. I was born and raised there. My parents moved there in the late 70s because my dad took a job at the University of Georgia law school. I was born the same year they moved there. I spent the entirety of my childhood until I graduated from high school in Athens except a very brief period when my father taught at Tulane. Athens was a great place to grow up. It's a very cultural town and a town that's very friendly towards the arts and creative folks. Maybe because it's the deep south you certainly feel the tension....it's a red state with a couple of blue towns if you want to put it that way and be political. You feel the tension.

It's not like growing up in San Francisco or New York where you grow up thinking everyone is progressive, creative and open minded and it's not necessarily like that everywhere in the deep south. It's a great town--a mecca--for southern creative weirdos. Growing up in Athens you definitely grow up with a great appreciation for college football and really good music. I didn't chose to live there. I was born there and that's different than choosing to move there when you're 18. My parents were always very supportive of my creative endeavors. I was always taking photographs, doing theater and drawing comic strips which was a segue way into my film making.

My mom wrote short stories. Her father, my grandfather, painted book covers--including a lot of the Agatha Christie covers as well as movie posters. So, when I was really little I was already writing stories and drawing and doing cartoons as well as theater. My parents have a dark room in their house so theater, fiction, film and photos were always floating around. It all came together. I started writing for Flagpole (Athens art newspaper) when I was 15 because I really loved music. I was doing album reviews and going to concerts....that was the only way I could get into the 40 Watt Club (laughs). At the end of high school I knew that I wanted to make movies. It all culminated from music, acting and storytelling. Certainly by the time I got to college the goal was to make movies.

JC: You attended Yale and Columbia...

JP: Yeah, I went to Yale for undergraduate and then to Columbia for film school.

JC: This is the era of your early short films like Rush Tickets and Coming' Down The Mountain...

JP: A friend of mine from Arlington, Kentucky, Colin Spoelman (he runs a whiskey/moonshine company called King's County Distillery), he and I wrote a feature screenplay about a family dealing with Oxycontin addiction while we were in college. His father was a preacher and he would send articles from Harlan, Kentucky, about all the Oxycontin stuff that was going on in the late 90s before it was actually a big nationwide story. It was all about getting addicted, selling drugs and going to jail and we wrote a feature screenplay called Coming Down The Mountain. After my first year in film school we made a short version of that feature film script that was about 25 minutes that was shot in Kentucky. That wound up going to a premier in France and a lot of festivals. That was the first real experience for me going to film festivals, meeting other filmmakers, presenting films internationally and it set up my next short film...

JC: Which was Junebug and Hurricane, right?

JP: Exactly. I tried to hit as many festivals around America and other countries as I could and I met a lot of folks that way whether it was filmmakers, producers or lawyers at festivals.

JC: When did you move to Los Angeles?

JP: I moved to L.A. full time in 2006, but I moved there earlier in 2005 when I was still pursuing acting and coming out to L.A. with my manager for acting during pilot season. I was also in graduate school at the same time and I was kind of split on where I was going to put my focus. I wanted to make a feature film and I had just written Off The Black. I didn't know how long I was going to stay in L.A. so I went back to New York City. Maybe it was March of 2005 and then I started putting Off the Black together and shot it later that year. I had my fill of winters in the northeast. That was my main reason to get to L.A. because I couldn't handle the winter weather in New York anymore. It made me just want to stay in bed. So in the spring of 2006 I moved to L.A. I've been out here ever since except one year when I moved to Virginia to be with my then girlfriend now wife.

JC: Talk about how Nick Nolte got involved with Off The Black. He's an old Hollywood actor we all admire. That must have been very gratifying for you to have an actor of that stature in your first feature film...

JP: Yeah, it was great. It was a combination of circumstances. Scott Macaulay played an instrumental role. He did films like Raising Victor Vargus, Julien Donkey Boy, Gummo, Saving Face and Idlewild. Nick Nolte was suggested to me and they asked me how I felt about him. I really love him as an actor--he's one of my favorite actors. He's funny, scary, weird...I was kind of afraid of him (laughs). I've seen the awful mug shot that everyone saw. I thought he might be a really scary alcoholic, but they assured me he was a lovely guy and that he was wonderful to work with. They told me I should get him the script and if he liked it we should try and get him. They got him the script and as it turned out he liked the script and we met out here in L.A. and he wanted to do the movie, which was very cool.

Nick really is a sweet guy. He's kind of like a playful hippie. He's very much like a kid at heart. He's very fun to collaborate with. What I know of Nick, I've never seen any films that have approximated who he really is. He never seems like he's acting. It's like his acting is invisible. He's very disciplined. He's fun to work with. I was proud of the acclaim we earned for a first feature film with Off The Black. There were a lot of people who really helped make that happen. I'm always thankful for those who supported me.

JC: Talk about your short film you made after Off The Black titled We Saw Such Things. It retains an 'old Florida' vibe.

JP: It's a short documentary film I made that took in place in Weeki Wachee on the Gulf Coast off Florida. It's an amusement park that's been there for over 60 years. It's a place where they have a live spring where women dress up like mermaids and perform underwater by doing these-sort of synchronized swimming movements people can watch from these underwater tanks. They have this elaborate set up where the swimmers can stay underwater for about an hour. It's cool. It has this weird old-time Florida vibe to it for sure. They were down there before Disney World. In 2007, they were having an anniversary performance where they had all their old 'Aqua Belles' put on a show. Basically, it was a bunch of elderly mermaids putting on a performance--and that was the documentary. It was this gang of elderly women coming together after all these years to put on their big show. It was a short documentary about the Weird Old South. It played at various festivals in Florida--especially the one in Sarasota, which was appropriate.

JC: Your latest film, Smashed, comes out on October 12. It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Vetiver's Andy Cabic along with the fruit Bats Eric D. Johnson wrote the soundtrack. It's the story about a couple struggling with alcoholism. What were the seeds for the story? One gets sober...one doesn't...

JP: Well, as far as the seeds of the story--a lot of the people I grew up with all knew something about alcoholism or drug addiction, but nothing too abstract. I've seen addiction affect a lot of people I care about. Many people know about this on one level or another. I met my co-writer--Susan Burke--about a year earlier in L.A. She went through her own struggles with alcoholism and she's been through it all. It started by us telling stories about the dumbest things we done when we were drunk. Then we began to focus on the story of alcoholism and how two people start out partying and then later realize they have to have a relationship. We've seen tons of addiction stories before of all kinds. I wasn't interested in telling another one unless I could put my own stamp on it. I wanted real humor and warmth there as well.

JC: Where was Smashed shot?

JP: Mostly in an L.A. neighborhood called Highland Park and a few surrounding others. Some of them were L.A.'s oldest neighborhoods. The houses were built back in the 10s, 20s and 30s. Primarily for the last half century or so they have been Latino neighborhoods. So you feel a tension of old Latino, Mexican-American owned taco places, auto shops or whatever and then young hipsters on bicycles opening record stores and coffee shops. Highland Park is a neighborhood that could be pretty insular where people walk a lot and ride bikes. It reminds me of Athens, Georgia. That's what attracted me to it. Smashed is not a movie about hipsters, but there's a lot of people I would label as hipsters in Highland Park. You see al ot of houses getting flipped. Old families moving out of the neighborhood and new families moving in.

JC: The film has a stellar cast including another UGA graduate Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead a North Carolina girl. Smashed appeared at some prestigious film festivals.

JP: Yeah, Smashed showed at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. There are others ones in France, Zurich, Moscow, Mumbai, Stockholm and Rio De Janeiro. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 12. We have a couple of screenings here in L.A. for the next couple of days, and then I fly to New York. We're trying to get as many people to see it as possible. I'll be in a movie theater on October 12.

JC: What creative qualities you learned in the south did you bring to L.A and New York?

JP: I think growing up in the South and attending public schools and being raised by academics gave me a certain comfort level with people growing up. I spent a lot of time with people of different backgrounds and different income levels both black and white. I grew up with kids who were raised by their grandparents because the mother was in jail and the father was a junkie. I also grew up with kids like me who had parents like mine. I guess the South I grew up in there was no sense of snobbery. Where I grew up anyway--I went to Cedar Shoals high school in Athens. It had a pretty high drop out rate. As a college professor's kid I was probably one of the wealthier kids there. In some ways, I had a guilt complex because I got to leave town--I had opportunities they didn't.

I guess I brought that to Yale. There was a lot of wealthy people there, but they were very driven. It was different to meet people from all over the world. Most of the kids I grew up with never left the South...much less hanging out with kids from Hong Kong and Denmark. I love Athens. It's probably my favorite place on the planet. This summer I made a film there. It's my home. It's where my parents live. My sister lives in Decatur. I carry it with me everywhere I go. Los Angeles feels remarkably similar in a lot of ways. It's rare that you meet someone in L.A. who is really from there. There are definitely people who have been here for generations, but there are a lot of transients here and a lot of them are from the south. Atlanta is like a smaller Los Angeles--it's a sprawling metropolis with a lot of communities and neighborhoods. Both towns are car-cultured. There's a downtown, but there are also suburbs and sprawls. L.A. is very laid back--it's not a real snobby culture like people might think. Everyone is pretty friendly. I love New York, but I think it's a much more proper city--like Chicago or some city in Europe. Everything goes upwards, while in L.A. and Atlanta things move outward.

JC: It's great you have Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof, Grindhouse, Abraham Lincoln: The Vampire Hunter), in The Spectacular Now as well as Smashed. She's from North Carolina...

JP: Yeah, she has roots and family in North Carolina. She's not Mormon, but when she was young she moved to Utah. But yeah, she's a southern girl.

JC: Jennifer Jason Leigh (Rush, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Road To Perdition) stars in this film. You also have another University of Georgia graduate--Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights)--in The Spectacular Now, which you just finished filming in Athens this summer...

JP: Yeah, Kyle went to high school not far from Athens as well. He lives in Texas now. It was a dream come true to film in my hometown. Our production office was the old R.E.M. office. We got it when they broke up. It was really hot (laughs). I almost forgot how humid it gets in the summer. We shot in the dead of August--the whole month. It was great to work with some people that I worked with before like Mary. Her part in The Spectacular Now is very different than her role in Smashed--it's sort of a 180.

JC: What is the story behind The Spectacular Now?

JP: It's based on a novel that came out a few years ago written by a writer from Oklahoma. That's where the book took place. I did not write this one. It was adapted by a writing team who co-wrote films like 500 Days of Summer. They did a beautiful job of adapting it. It's a great portrayal of adolescence. It's a cross between Ferris Bueller's Day off and a fairy-tale type thing, but the story is about how a person doing what they want affects those around them. The screenplay and the book actually remind me of my own circumstances in high school. I've read very few things that actually reminded me of what it was like to be in high school. This project happened at the right place and the right time. The fact that there were producers who were okay with filming in Athens really helped. It all just kind of happened and it went really well.

JC: You've run the gauntlet of an independent filmmaker in L.A., New York and beyond. Now that your work is gaining recognition and you're getting more projects under your belt. What has been the hardest thing for you to learn?

JP: Well, probably time management (laughs). What to focus your energy on. I discovered you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket and I've tried to keep different things going on. I've gotten better at that--even with my free time. That goes for everything--as far as projects I'm trying to get made whether or not they get made is out of my control in some cases. In other cases, it's a matter if money is going to come in or not. Or it's just being productive in my free time and writing. Or, even time spent on the set and squeezing every second out.

JC: How long did it take to film The Spectacular Now? I'm sure there's always a deadline...

JP: We shot The Spectacular Now in 25 days. I filmed Smashed in 19 days. It was really fast (chuckles). It's a sprint. These low budget films have to be made fast. You have to plan because once the clock is ticking on the set you can't screw around. You're burning money quite literally. If there's a thunderstorm where actors are carrying dialogue on outside--you've got to make up for it and add a day at the end. It takes a lot to keep it all going--when one problem is solved another one presents itself. You have to be good at collaborating with people and making people want to work hard. Everyone wants to work hard and do a good job if they believe in what they are doing. I try to foster a good working environment. I'm very grateful for the people who are willing to work with me.

JC: Smashed opens on October 12. What's left to finish on The Spectacular Now? I suppose next summer or fall it'll be out?

JP: We have to edit the movie. All kinds of work needs to be done like special affects, visual aspects and sound design. We're working on that into January. The hope would be a release next summer. A lot of things have to happen before that, but yes, a summer release would be nice.

JC:Well, congratulations. I hope Smashed really takes off. Proud of ya man. Good luck out there. See you on the Red Carpet and I'll talk to you soon...

JP: Thank you very much James. Same to you man...

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