Director James Ponsoldt On How To Make A Movie About David Foster Wallace

Senior Entertainment Writer
01.30.15
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When I met James Ponsoldt in the lobby of a Marriott hotel Thursday morning, just off Park City, Utah’s Main Street, he looked like he was absolutely glowing. You see, The Spectacular Now director has had a really good Sundance Film Festival – where his new film, a David Foster Wallace (sort of) biopic, The End of the Tour, has been met with outstanding reviews. So outstanding that A24 purchased the film and is now positioning it as a late in the year awards contender.

Ponsoldt has the right to be happy – to be fair, Ponsoldt always seems happy; he’s known as one the nicest guys in the industry – because when The End of the Tour was announced with Jason Segel playing Wallace, the Internet was outraged. As an admirer of Ponsoldt’s past work, I sent him a direct message on Twitter around that time, asking about that cold reaction. I remember Ponsoldt being a little taken aback, but, even then, his point was, “Well, just wait and see what Jason is going to do.”

And he was right.

Jason Segel takes what was laid out in David Lipsky’s memoir (who is played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg) about spending time with Wallace near the end of the Infinite Jest press tour and turns in something that is nuanced, funny, aloof and genuinely human. Ahead, Ponsoldt explains the process of making a movie about the person many regard as the greatest writer of a generation.

When this film was first announced, the Internet wasn’t really on board. Was that frustrating, considering the positive response to your other movies?

I mean, on some level, yes. And I took a step back. I, myself, am very proprietary of David Foster Wallace. It’s a sense of ownership. It’s not that he told great stories; it’s that voice that taught me how to think and to write. And I think there’s an assumption, from a distance, that people hear “movie,” they equate it with Hollywood, whatever that means. So it’s like, “Well, it’s going to be some dumbed down, cheapened version of this thing.”

Nothing against Paul W.S. Anderson, but it’s not like it’s Paul W.S. Anderson directing a David Foster Wallace movie.

Maybe I was willfully ignorant. And I do read the articles; I read everything. I didn’t read anything like, “Oh, this Ponsoldt dude is a hack.”

Jason Segel got some heat, though.

Segel did. I think people assumed this would be Ray with David Foster Wallace. I was like, “I don’t think most of you had actually read Lipsky’s memoir, which is certainly not that.” And, yeah, with Segel, people make the assumption that they always do … because when anyone who’s considered a “funny guy” does dramatic stuff, there’s always a hesitation and a wariness that they can’t pull it off, then time and time again, they do. For me, it was like, “Did you guys watch Freaks and Geeks?” He was 15 years old, but he was the emotional core of that show.

There’s also the opposite fear, that Segel was going to try to play him too dark and brooding, which wasn’t the case.

I think often, in a lot of films – Jason and I have talked about this a lot actually – he’s completely aware of his persona and how he’s perceived. Often, when a “funny guy” is put in a dramatic film, there’s a gimmick to it, right? It’s like now he’s going to be serious and negate everything that was good about him before.

Some comedians do take it too far, as in “I’m in a serious role now, watch me act.”

To me, when you watch Jason, whether it’s in Freaks and Geeks or whether it’s in I Love You, Man or Forgetting Sarah Marshall

He’s not a traditional comedian.

He’s vulnerable and has sad eyes and he’s honest and you lean in towards him – that quintessential thing that guys kind of want to hang out with him and women, I don’t know if they want to sleep with him, but they want to give him a hug. And that is the quality when you watch Wallace – the mind is moving that fast, but he’s funny and charming as all hell.

He has a devilish wit.

He can’t help but be several steps ahead of whoever he’s speaking to, but he’s so Midwestern and polite, he would intentionally shove it in someone’s face.

You have been vocal about what an admirer of Wallace you are, did you have to think twice about doing this film?

Yes.

If you screw it up, you’re ruining one of your heroes.

At my wedding, I had some of Wallace’s writing read…

It would be great if Infinite Jest was read in its entirety at your wedding.

[Laughs] No, it was an edited version of the Kenyon College commencement speech, which even would have been too long … I think, in death, his reputation has grown. More and more people are reading Infinite Jest and more and more people can find a four minute clip of him on YouTube and be like, the way that this guy talks and thinks is funny and accessible in a way I would like to think.

Do you remember where you were when he died?

Oh, yeah. The Kenyon commencement speech was 2005 and the transcript went viral. And I was just forwarding to everyone … this is a template for how to live your life. Yeah, I was at home in Los Angeles and it was totally devastating. I think for myself and a lot of people, he had written so eloquently about wrestling with depression — and it felt like if this person can articulate it and process it and turn it into art, then he’s figured it out for all the rest of us. We’re just trying to figure out our own mess. It offered hope. That he would take his life. There was a real sense of hopelessness.

How difficult was getting Wallace’s tone right? So you’re not yukking it up, but he’s also witty and human?

Well, it started with Lipsky’s book.

But that’s different, writing a tone is much different than the tone in a film starring a famous person we all know.

It is. Lipsky, as a person and in the book, he’s both incredibly brutal on himself, I think. He wrote from the perspective of someone in his mid-40s that understood, at age 30, he was far too caught up with being the smartest person in the room. And he missed actually being present for an amazing opportunity and a sense of regret – that’s what you get from Lipsky. He’s fiercely protective of Wallace and, in the book, allows Wallace to shine … it’s a hangout movie with these two guys.

I did find myself thinking, It would be cool to be in the backseat just listening to these guys.

Yes. I can’t remember if it’s in the finished version of Don’t Look Back, the Pennebaker film, but I found this clip of Bob Dylan and John Lennon in the backseat of a limo. What’s amazing about it is Lennon is there and he’s being so funny, so droll, doing an impersonation. And Dylan is slouched down, wearing the shades and trying to make jokes, trying to impress Lennon and he can’t keep up with him. When else in your life have you seen Bob Dylan trying to impress another human being? I mean, Wallace was in another stratosphere, but Lipsky is a genius.

There are a lot of critics of the fact that there’s a movie at all, in a “Wallace would not have liked this” kind of way.

[Laughs] I can’t speak to that, obviously.

Well, there are a lot of people who probably don’t want a movie made about them, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.

And the interesting thing that I would just say for real Wallace obsessives — I wouldn’t say this to a general audience — but I would say, for the Wallace obsessives, I would say go to his first published short story in a national publication. It was Playboy, I think 1989. It was a short story, he wanted to title it “My Appearance,” they retitled it “Late Night.” It was the Letterman story and he used an actress that was really appearing. He incorporated real people into his fiction … but, obviously, I can’t speak for him. Nobody can.

But you certainly try in the film.

Listen, the goal was this: It’s not a speculative biopic about, “this is what happened to him at age 9,” and “this is him at age 44.” This is a very subjective take of a first rate journalist who was there and wrote a memoir … there’s a weird, almost photo-realism to what we were trying to do. I asked Lipsky for the tapes, I asked for all of them and I listened to all of them. I’m making up this exact percentage, but 60 to 70 percent of what they say is almost verbatim. In that regard, I don‘t know what real precedent there is for a film like this.

And now with the sale to A24 who is going to position it for awards, people are going to have to wait nine or ten months to see it.

I know. I’m bummed, too. The Spectacular Now did tons and tons of festivals, my guess is that probably won’t be the case. You asked before about the weird initial chatter, there was this weird feeling of like this movie that finished shooting by the end of March. It’s like, I had almost a whole year to edit and we can put out some statements about the film – but that weird feeling of sitting on something. Especially Jason’s performance, and being like like, “He did amazing work.”

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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