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Pathway to the Spectacular Now

By Kathie Smith

When Billy Rosenberg read The Spectacular Now, he knew it should be made into a film. “Tim Tharp’s novel reminded me of Ferris Bueller, Say Anything, a little bit of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye,” he said. “It wasn’t your typical teen comedy. At that time, I was reading a lot of Hunger Games–type books, and there weren’t many YA books that didn’t have mystical creatures or dystopian landscapes or wizard powers.” But getting the book to the silver screen was as circuitous a path as the one that took Rosenberg from Minnesota (and the Walker, as a youth) to Hollywood and back again: on July 11, he’ll be at the Walker with director James Ponsoldt to introduce the film adaptation to audiences.

Tharp’s novel, about a gregarious, fun-loving teenage drunk who chooses the “now” over his stormy past and uncertain future, was quietly released in 2008. In an equally understated affair, it was chosen as a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. After reading it five years ago, Rosenberg championed the novel to his bosses at Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment and they in turn recommended it to Fox Searchlight. “This was a book that we read and fell in love with,” he recalled. Fox Searchlight took 21 Laps’ recommendation and passed the book to screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who just had success with (500) Days of Summer and were eager to adapt Tharp’s novel. “We were huge fans of Scott and Mike’s work and having read (500) Days of Summer, we knew they were the perfect writers to adapt Tim Tharp’s novel,” said Rosenberg, who coproduced the film.

Fox Searchlight, however, took a step back from the project and Levy, Rosenberg, and the other producers spent a few years shopping the script to potential parties. Then they saw Ponsoldt’s Smashed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The story of young husband and wife, Charlie (Aaron Paul) and Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), stuck in a party mode that is slowly transitioning into a destructive addiction, Smashed is an unforgiving film that rises above the platitudes with large doses of compassion. “What [James] did with Mary Elizabeth’s character in that movie was completely unique and original, and taken from a character point of view. And we thought, ‘Wow, what he can do with actors; what he does with storytelling—we would love for him to be our director.’”

Rosenberg’s intuition was dead-on. Ponsoldt’s flair for working with actors may be The Spectacular Now’s crowning achievement, with the startling performances of both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley who play the roles of Sutter and Aimee. One year after signing on, Ponsoldt returned to Sundance with the film and earned the leads the Special Jury Prize for, what the jury described as, “two young actors who showed rare honesty, naturalism and transparency and whose performances brought out the best in each other.” Rosenberg explained how this was something Ponsoldt sought to accomplish from the beginning: “He cared so much about wanting to bring an authentic point of view of high school life to this movie. He wanted to cast actors that looked like real teenagers instead of The O.C. / Gossip Girl kind of actors.” Woodley, who had a supporting role in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, was interested in the script even before Ponsoldt signed on, and Teller, who made a very powerful impact in his small role in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole, came on board shortly after.

Beyond the obvious talents of the two actors, there were also decisions in how to shoot the movie that facilitated the rich characterizations depicted by the cast. “[James] was adamant that we shoot on film not digital. Fewer and fewer independent movies are shot on film because of the lower costs with shooting on digital cameras.” Not only does this give The Spectacular Now a more nostalgic look and feel, but it also enabled the creative choice to use “oners,” or one-shot takes. “That pays into the realism of the moment that you capture because you have these actors having to do the scene in one take. There is no cutting away and they really have to bring it.” You won’t have to look very hard to find those moments that Rosenberg refers to as the camera seems to be waiting for a reaction either through gestures, facial expressions, or the verbal rush of an emotionally charged teenager. That aura of uncomfortable realism is especially apparent in a very intimate scene between Sutter and Aimee within the confines of one long shot.

The Spectacular Now is something of a perfect amalgamation of author Tharp’s original story, screenwriters Neustadter and Weber’s sensitive adaptation, actors Teller and Woodley’s fearless performances, and Ponsoldt’s knack for flawed but genuine characters. Sutter (Teller) is the charismatic life of the party, a magnet for fun in the high school world of impromptu keggers and get-togethers. Under the haze of booze and friends, he and his girlfriend are invincible. But with graduation approaching, Sutter’s affinity for living in the moment may have a limited range of return (finding himself floating down a similar path as the two characters in Ponsoldt’s Smashed.) His girlfriend dumps him, prompting an awkward but portentous early morning meeting with Aimee (Woodley). The two fall into the category of opposites that invariably attract—he confident and unruly; she shy and responsible—but that cliché says nothing of this forthright and tender love story set against the backdrop of fragile young psyches it portrays. Teen movies love to underscore the oozy nostalgia of innocence lost, but rarely do they champion the importance of experience gained. The film’s endgame is not Sutter and Aimee’s romance, but rather their momentary collective force on one another at a volatile point in their lives.

On the heels of the final film in The Twilight Saga and the eve of what is sure to be one of many entries in The Hunger Games franchise, The Spectacular Now seeks to reestablish the American teen movie in a more realistic light that has largely faded from contemporary cinematic offerings. “I grew up with the movies of John Hughes and Cameron Crow,” said Rosenberg. “I don’t think Hollywood studios are making those movies anymore. With the exception of Perks of Being a Wallflower last year, there aren’t those relatable movies that appeal to teenagers and adults.”

Fittingly, Rosenberg’s own high school years happened right here in the Twin Cities. As a high school student, Rosenberg had a short film screen at the Walker, and he also cites the Walker’s Regis Dialogue and Retrospective program as a “piece in the puzzle” that led him to working in the movies. “I was a huge fan of Silence of Lambs as a teen, and I remember going to see Jodie Foster [in a Regis Dialogue]—I was probably 12 or 13—and getting to meet her afterward was a really big moment for me.” After graduating from the Blake School in Hopkins, Rosenberg went to college at the University of Southern California and has lived in Los Angeles ever since. “It means a lot to be coming back; having produced a movie that is now screening at the Walker is a really nice moment.”

In looking at the late summer films releases, The Spectacular Now is a haven of modest sensitivity that does not shy away from bridging tough subjects or from exposing the heart worn gracefully on its sleeve. “We always saw this as a universal love story that just happens to be told through teenage characters,” Rosenberg said. “The idea of people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s looking back nostalgically at their own first love, and also high schoolers being able to see a representation of themselves on screen, is really exciting.”

“Tim Tharp’s novel reminded me of Ferris Bueller, Say Anything, and a little bit of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. This was a book that we read and fell in love with.” —Billy Rosenberg

James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now, 2013

Photo: Wilford Harewood, Courtesy A24 Films

The Spectacular Now coproducer Billy Rosenberg, director James Ponsoldt, and co-producer Dan Cohen

Photo courtesy Billy Rosenberg

James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now, 2013

Photo: Wilford Harewood, Courtesy A24 Films