A kid-centric film from the director of "Smashed" and "The End of the Tour"? As he tells IndieWire, it really does make sense.
James Ponsoldt is expecting this question. Why did the guy who made films like “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now,” and “The End of the Tour” — dark, knowing dramas about messed-up adults, typically with substance abuse problems and a host of neuroses — turn his attention to “Summering,” a film about four tween girls in the waning days of their favorite season?
He’s got the answer in hand: He’s a parent of three kids, his wife Megan works in the public-school system, and this is the stuff he wants to share with his family.
But the real answer? It’s still a James Ponsoldt film. It’s not as dark as its predecessors, but the filmmaker is still using his craft to ask some very deep questions. “Summering” is, after all, about a group of girls (Lia Barnett, Sanai Victoria, Madalen Mills, and Eden Grace Redfield) who discover a verydead body and must grapple with what to do next. (Unsurprisingly, the film drew many comparisons to “Stand by Me” when it premiered at Sundance this past January.)
“Those conversations between parents and kids trying to understand each other, sometimes more or less successfully, is something that I’ve always been deeply interested in,” he told IndieWire during a recent interview. “A lot of the conversations I’m having now are trying to explain what seems totally upside down about the world to children, and realizing that I don’t have good answers in large part. In some cases, they have a much more on-point, less jaded, more true perspective than I do.”
Ponsoldt added that a friend recently reminded him that his Columbia University thesis film, “Junebug and Hurricane” was — oh, yeah!—also about a single mother and daughter (Janeane Garofalo played the mom). So while the bent toward younger protagonists and their concerns might seem new for him, it’s not. Neither is the inherent drama of the stories he tells.
Ponsoldt said he enjoyed a culturally rich childhood — his grandfather, William Teason, painted book covers (like those Agatha Christie reprints in the ’60s and ’70s) and the occasional movie poster, while his older sister introduced him to horror movies like “Evil Dead II” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” “I had a subscription to Fangoria magazine when I was a kid and I was constantly begging my parents to let me watch horror films,” he said, adding with a laugh, “My parents were pretty open to some degree, but they regretted letting me watch ‘Exorcist’ too early.”
The genesis of “Summering,” Ponsoldt said, sprang from real-world horror. “There was a man found dead not so far from our home in Los Angeles, and he was not identified. He still, to my knowledge, has not been identified,” Ponsoldt said. What stuck with him was the notion “that someone couldn’t even receive the dignity of being named when they die. It felt like a signifier of a much larger breakdown culturally, and sort of our social contract. It was a catalyst for conversations with my family and with my kids.”
Ponsoldt said he was inspired by films ranging from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Virgin Suicides” to “Forbidden Games” and “Spirit of the Beehive.” He wanted to make something he didn’t much see in American cinema: a film “chiefly anchored through the subjectivity of a young female person’s experience, not just coming of age, but the first brushes with mortality and death, at an age that is definitely pre-adolescence.”
As a film about mortality and death, it’s much easier to see how “Summering” slots in alongside films like the alcoholism drama “Smashed” and the David Foster Wallace semi-biopic “The End of the Tour.” Still, Ponsoldt said even he struggles to draw connections between his works.
“The End of the Tour”
“Themes that are common from one thing to another, I’m not conscious of it, it takes other people pointing them out to me,” he said. “But everything that I get involved with and every story that I’m developing, there’s always something deep at the core of something that the protagonist is wrestling with that is wildly personal to me. It’s usually something that upsets me, is haunting to me, is something that I’m trying to engage with.”
After earning raves for “”Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now,” and “The End of the Tour,” all of which sold to distributors after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, Ponsoldt took on his biggest gig yet: directing and adapting “The Circle” from the Dave Eggers novel of the same name, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson.
Financed by EuropaCorp and STX Entertainment, the film premiered at Tribeca 2017 and was Ponsoldt’s first to hit the festival circuit with distribution in place. It proved to be Ponsoldt’s biggest box-office hit ($40 million), but it earned the worst reviews of his career (16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
Asked how he felt after “The Circle,” Ponsoldt said he was busy focusing on his next project, the Elizabeth Olsen-starring Facebook Watch drama “Sorry for Your Loss.” That may sound like deflection, but when the filmmaker mentions the themes of the show, about a woman dealing with her husband’s sudden death, it sounds likehe was working through some pain over the film’s reception.
“After ‘The Circle,’ I was already working on ‘Sorry for Your Loss,’ which we’d been working on for years,” Ponsoldt said. “A show about trauma and recovery, a half-hour show about grief. That’s very much where my head was and it was deeply, deeply personal for me. So by the time something comes out, I’m talking about one thing but I’m already thinking about another thing.”
“Sorry for Your Loss”
One thing Ponsoldt has yet to do is direct a bonafide blockbuster, eschewing the career path taken by many of his contemporaries. (The original director of “The Spectacular Now,” Marc Webb, actually left that film when he was hired to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man,” opening the door for Ponsoldt.) Ponsoldt said he’s been in the mix for various franchises, but it wasn’t for him.
“My friends that are doing those things, whether it’s Marvel or the ‘Star Wars’ universe, they all have very specific voices,” he said. “Those filmmakers have been able to bring their personal voice and put their fingerprints on things, but one thingthat is common, is that they really love those characters and love that sandbox that they’re getting to play in … The amount of time that it takes to make a film, you have to really be invested in it.Throughout that process, it has to have its hooks in your heart and in your psyche for you to do it well and for you to bring purpose to it.”
He added, “To me, everything comes back to character. So it’s always, do I connect to a character? The thing that they’re connecting or wrestling with, is it something that speaks to me? I think people can make deeply personal $200 million films, and people can make personal $2,000 films and everything in between. I don’t judge one versus the other.”
Which is all a very Ponsoldt way of saying “maybe that world is not for me,” but he’s happy to play elsewhere, like in the world of television. He’s currently in post on two series for streamers that he expects will arrive in 2023: the Amazon series “Daisy Jones & The Six,” based on the best-selling novel about a fictional rock band from Taylor Jenkins Reid and starring Riley Keough, and Apple’s therapy comedy “Shrinking,” which features Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, and Harrison Ford. Ponsoldt pointed out that both shows are about “adults and adult issues,” but through a wide lens.
James Ponsoldt directs Tom Hanks in “The Circle”
On any platform, he identifies a lack of “multi-generational dynamics.” Ponsoldt grew up hanging out with his friendsandvisiting local hospices filled with older people, where his mother was a volunteer. These days, he spends time with his kidsandhis wifeandhis parents. Where are those stories?
“In a lot of cases, it does feel like, ‘Well, if you can’t cast a 25- to 35-year-old movie star, there’s not a place for those stories,’” he said. “Anything I’m going to say is a generalization, but in a lot of ways, those stories are found in streaming television now. … I don’t think that’s gone from films. I sure hope it’s not, because I’m going to keep trying to make those films.”
He added, “We all benefit from films that have multiple subjectivities, and if we don’t, we’re just going to be stuck. I’m going to keep trying to make films about people who are my age, about kids, about old people, about everything in between.”
A Bleecker Street release, “Summering” is in theaters now.
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A kid-centric film from the director of “Smashed” and “The End of the Tour”? As he tells IndieWire, it really does make sense.
“A lot of the conversations I’m having now are trying to explain what seems totally upside down about the world to children, and realizing that I don’t have good answers in large part.. As a film about mortality and death, it’s much easier to see how “Summering” slots in alongside films like the alcoholism drama “Smashed” and the David Foster Wallace semi-biopic “The End of the Tour.” Still, Ponsoldt said even he struggles to draw connections between his works.. “But everything that I get involved with and every story that I’m developing, there’s always something deep at the core of something that the protagonist is wrestling with that is wildly personal to me.. So by the time something comes out, I’m talking about one thing but I’m already thinking about another thing.”. “Those filmmakers have been able to bring their personal voice and put their fingerprints on things, but one thing that is common, is that they really love those characters and love that sandbox that they’re getting to play in … The amount of time that it takes to make a film, you have to really be invested in it.. I think people can make deeply personal $200 million films, and people can make personal $2,000 films and everything in between.. James Ponsoldt directs Tom Hanks in “The Circle”. These days, he spends time with his kids and his wife and his parents.. “In a lot of cases, it does feel like, ‘Well, if you can’t cast a 25- to 35-year-old movie star, there’s not a place for those stories,’” he said.. “Anything I’m going to say is a generalization, but in a lot of ways, those stories are found in streaming television now.. He added, “We all benefit from films that have multiple subjectivities, and if we don’t, we’re just going to be stuck.. I’m going to keep trying to make films about people who are my age, about kids, about old people, about everything in between.”
James Ponsoldt, the director behind The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, talks to MovieWeb about his sweet new movie Summering.
This is a man whose filmography is an accurate reflection of his passion for people and cinema alike, which is why, when noticing the paucity of great, mature films from the perspectives of young girls, he decided to make Summering .. Ponsoldt spoke to us about Summering , the state of children's movies, and how to peek past their own blind spots to make a movie that honors women's coming-of-age .. "It all starts for me, I think, as a parent.. I have three young kids," explained Ponsoldt, "and my wife works at a middle school slash high school, so every year there's a new group of 11 and 12-year-olds coming into school, and she's dealing with the kids and the parents.. So a lot of my life is conversations between parents and kids, talking, you know about larger structural issues through the lens of a family, and sometimes realizing that we have very different takes.". The death in Summering isn't only of the body; that corpse feels like a harbinger of the death of innocence, of childhood, of friendship, of all the difficult things parents try to prepare their kids for.. Of course, a man's good intentions of creating a story about female experiences from girls' perspectives is, by definition, thwarted by blind spots.. This is why Ponsoldt not only drew from his experiences with all the women in his life but also ran everything by them along the way.. Ponsoldt explained how this cross-section of perspectives informed Summering , from writing the script with Ben Percy to filming it:. "How they remember their childhoods and the raw reliability or unreliability of their memories was important," said Ponsoldt, "and the differences between female friendship and male friendship at that age and, and kids' subjectivity, being at an age where they're not yet teenagers, but they're almost out of childhood.". These are characters for whom their friendship is one of the most important things in their lives, and they can articulate that, they can talk in an earnest way that might be uncomfortable to adults, they can talk about the value of their friendship and how afraid they are to lose it in a way that, when I was that age with my male friends, we did not talk about [...] So all of those things informed the script, and then obviously there's the cast, whether it was our four young actors, or the four amazing adult actors, some of whom I've worked with before, like Megan Mullally, and just sort of asking them, like, what was your experience when you were this age, and what would you do?. From Bleecker Street, and produced by P. Jennifer Dana and Peter Block, Summering will be in theaters starting August 12th; Ponsoldt is also directing the new Apple TV+ series Shrinking , with Harrison Ford , Jason Segel, and Jessica Williams, which will likely be released later this year.
“We Wanted the Film to Feel Like a Memory, a Dream of Childhood…”: Director James Ponsoldt on His Coming-of-Age Neo-Noir, <I>Summering</I> | Filmmaker Magazine ›
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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.. 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.. 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.. 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.. Filmmaker: I appreciated the way it gets into different genres, becoming a mystery film and a horror film in places.