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THE SPECTACULAR NOW

About the Production
The true-to the-bones movie about American adolescence and first love has become a lost art -- or at least one that has gone largely unexplored for a good, long while. But for the filmmakers of THE SPECTACULAR NOW, it felt like territory ready to be revisited from a fresh perspective.

"In a way, American adolescence has become marginalized," reflects director James Ponsoldt. "Right now, you find extremes of either frenetic comedy and action or sentimental schmaltz, but what excited me about THE SPECTACULAR NOW is that even though it might look like a 'high school movie,' with all of the tropes that go along with that, it's really just an emotionally honest story about real people, an adult love story that happens to star two teenagers. I was drawn to it because it was funny, it was sad, it had love and sex and humor and parents and car accidents and all these big, wild emotions. It didn't matter to me the age of the characters. I just wanted to tell this story."

The story began with the critically praised novel The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. "From the minute 21 Laps and I came across this book several years ago, we felt that its honesty, romance and authenticity would make for a beautiful film," says producer Shawn Levy (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, REAL STEE). "We then worked really hard with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber to develop a screenplay that did justice to the book, while adding layers and dimensions that are cinematic."

Adds producer Tom McNulty (DATE NIGHT and THE ROCKER): "I fell for the book immediately. What spoke to me is that it's a brutally honest look at what it's like to be a teenager. It had a real timeless quality that resonated with what someone might have gone through in the 50s or the 70s or now. I also responded to it as a very moving and authentic love story -- one that just happens to involve young characters at a time in life when you feel things so deeply, when you really believe this person across from you is the one. And I liked that it didn't wrap things up in a nice bow. It didn't make judgment calls nor is it a story with a "message", and decidedly so. The book does this beautifully, and Scott and Mike's work reflected that."

Neustadter and Weber were excited to work with a story that explored the madness and wonder of dealing with love, family, the future and other sources of hyper-intense emotions, with honesty, clarity and zeal. They had recently re-visited the classic boy-meets-girl romantic comedy, and busted up the genre with the critically acclaimed hit 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. Now, they were ready for a different challenge.

"Hollywood seemed to have stopped making movies about real young people," observes Weber. "You have the AMERICAN PIE-style raucous comedies or the metaphors of vampires, wizards and super heroes. Both are a lot of fun and have been done really well, but the more honest, heartfelt story of first love and facing adulthood has been lost. So that's what we wanted to squarely aim for -- those movies that have a kind of timeless quality. They're about indescribable feelings: the feelings being trapped, of being sick of your parents and teachers telling you what to do, of wanting to be adult, of falling in love. Those are feelings that will resonate forever, in any time period."

Neustadter and Weber were drawn to Tharp's novel precisely because it was so thrillingly, heart- breakingly true to modern teen experiences. Unafraid to touch upon real themes of sex, drinking and the upheaval of first love, it also presented a boy and a girl who were as likeable as they were secretly tied up in knots by the search for love and acceptance.

"It's very rare that you read a novel about this age group where the characters are so human," says Neustadter. "I was impressed by Sutter Keely, even though he is the opposite of who I was at that age. He's gregarious, a great people person and incredibly confident. He's compelling and yet he's also very flawed -- and you don't often see 17 year-old characters who walk that line."

Revealing the Sutter who exists beneath his witty banter and devil-may-care bravado was exhilarating for the writers. "You start to realize he's somebody who is actually terrified," says Neustadter. "He's scared by things we're all scared by -- by what's going to come next, by all those questions you ask about who you are and what will happen when your life is changing directions."

Tim Tharp says that it was Sutter who drove the narrative from the moment he came into the author's imagination. "When I found the voice of this impossibly upbeat guy with a dark underside to him, the friction between those two qualities really got the ball rolling for me," he explains. "The voice began to grow more and more. I felt almost like a method actor, submerging myself into the character, I was in that voice, and then what he would do, what he would believe, how he would react, all snowballed as it went along. This book was easier for me to write than any other, because I had that personality to carry me along. And then things came out of me and my past that became part of that, too, but it was that voice that took hold and started everything."

Neustadter and Weber also followed Sutter's voice. "There were so many parts of the book we connected to and we wanted to keep those," says Weber. "At the same time, the big question for us was how do you make Sutter's internal experience come alive on screen?"

To give Sutter a vibrant means to tell the story of meeting Aimee and why it mattered, they brought in a rite-of-passage that has haunted millions: the college essay. Sutter may not know what he wants to say, or even can say, about his future until he is on the cusp of graduation, but his attempts to write something on his blank computer screen open up his experience. "The essay became a great way to learn about the character in a fun, energetic, visual way," says Weber.

When producer Michelle Krumm brought the screenplay to producer Andrew Lauren (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE), his first thought upon reading it was exactly what Neustadter and Weber had aimed for. He recalls, "It's a story that speaks to all ages because it has timeless elements of love and loss, hope and sorrow, bad times and good times. More and more, it seems films are getting away from reality. That's one reason I like this film so much: it's so grounded in the real."

Levy and McNulty were excited to have Lauren aboard. "Andrew is a God-send to indie filmmakers and we were really lucky that he responded as he did to the material," says McNulty.

The producers nurtured the project carefully, knowing it was something that would require just the right touch at every level. "We spent literally years trying to find the right duo of actors and filmmaker for this fantastic screenplay," says Shawn Levy. "I'm now convinced that all roads led us to director James Ponsoldt as well as Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley because they were the right trio to bring the story to life."

Ponsoldt (SMASHED) impressed the team with an approach that refused to look at the story in terms of usual teen formulas. Ponsoldt admits that at first glance, THE SPECTACULAR NOW seemed like a leap from his kind of thing. "I've never had much interest in directing someone else's script because there are so many stories I want to tell of my own," he explains. "So I kind of begrudgingly sat down to read this. Right from the start, it was a really fast, engaging read, but I still didn't know if I wanted to spend time with this guy Sutter and all his cynicism and arrogance. But by page 10, everything changed. Sutter falls on his face -- literally and emotionally -- and then he wakes up to this girl who changes his life. Suddenly, from then on it was a story I related to more than anything I've ever read."

He goes on: "The more I read, the more Sutter reminded me exactly of myself. I was a self-destructive, juvenile delinquent troublemaker; and I had a relationship that challenged me in ways I didn't know if I wanted to be challenged and helped to focus my life. Somehow this guy Tim Tharp -- who was a different age and from Oklahoma whereas I'm from Georgia -- had written my story, although I could personally have never sat down to write something so nakedly autobiographical."

Moved and inspired, Ponsoldt right away developed his own vision of the film, one that would look back to classics that have explored adolescent anxiety and passion with humor and sympathy, while peering into the reality of what it's like to grow up right now -- when shifts in the economy, gender dynamics and the way we view the American future -- make things more unstable than ever."

"What I saw in THE SPECTACULAR NOW was not just a story of coming-of-age, but a story of a guy trying to define what it means to become a man. There's this kind of lionized myth we have of the man-child that's very prevalent in the culture right now. Sutter is a kid who could grow into that -- he could perpetuate that and reign emotional terror; or he could learn to treat people better in his life and break that cycle. His journey starts with him thinking he's got it all figured out but by the end, he is on his knees."

Determined to make a movie that would defy easy categorization, the next step was finding a cast who could make the characters feel like real people anyone might know.

To play Sutter Keely in THE SPECTACULAR NOW the filmmakers knew they needed an actor who could walk a tightrope: who could be at once playfully fun yet somewhat broken, sweetly romantic yet unnervingly numb, fast on his feet and yet far more vulnerable than he would like. He had to be someone who seems utterly comfortable in his own skin, but is actually terrified of what lies under the surface.

After a lengthy search, they found that pendulum's worth of qualities in Miles Teller -- who came to the fore playing a young man trying to tread through guilt after accidentally hitting a child with his car in RABBIT HOLE, opposite Nicole Kidman. He then switched gears taking on the role of dance neophyte Willard in the remake of FOOTLOOSE.

"We looked at hundreds of tapes to find somebody who we felt embodied the American teenager right now and Miles does that," says Andrew Lauren. "He really reminded us of a kind of young John Cusack because he has this ability to bring both levity and strength to his character."

Adds James Ponsoldt: "I think he's one of the most relatable, charismatic actors to come along in a long time. He was it for me as far as who I felt should be playing Sutter. It's hard not to fall in love with him. He's fast-talking and funny but at the same time has real heart and integrity."

As his first lead role in a film, Teller jumped in with total commitment. He became fascinated by the two contrasting sides of Sutter: Sutter the seductive and Sutter the confused. "In this character you get to see everything," he observes. "You get to see him when he is that go-to, cool guy who always has the joke, who's never at a loss for words, and everyone wants to be around him. And then you get to see him in his lowest of low points, when it's not that way at all. I was really appreciative of the chance to be able to explore all of these colors."

He also feels that his authenticity of character is what sets the film apart. "I was excited to do a movie that isn't just about the superficial life of a teenager. There's nothing wrong with that, but this film is so real and honest. It's not afraid to let you see the cracks in the characters. They are all flawed but, in the end, I like that you're still rooting for all of them."

Says Tom McNulty of Teller's performance: "He dazzled me every single day. He really understood this role, and it's a very tough one. Sutter had to be that guy we all wished we were in high school -- not just incredibly charming and confident, but also truly sincere, the guy who puts everyone and himself second. Miles has all that in him and top of all that -- he's also just a great guy!" From the start, Teller seemed to have an instantaneously believable rapport with Shailene Woodley, who was cast in the challenging role as the unexpected girl who surprises Sutter with how much he cares about her -- the quiet loner, Aimee Finecky. Woodley came to the fore as George Clooney's fiery eldest daughter in THE DESCENDANTS, garnering a Golden Globe nomination among other accolades for her powerful performance. But this would take her into very different territory, into that of a smart but sexually inexperienced girl drawn into a troublesome first love. She and Teller had to find both the unspoken bonds that make them a fascinating, relatable couple and the friction that leaves their future together a question mark.

"I wanted the audience to fall for Sutter and Aimee falling for each other -- and Miles and Shailene were so real together. They brought real gifts of spontaneity and an understanding of how Sutter and Aimee each came to be who they are," says Ponsoldt. "In many ways, Shailene reminds me of my favorite actresses from the 70s. She has that organic, natural quality without an ounce of B.S. in her. In a world full of tropes for young girls, she plays Shailene as someone who stands cleanly and clearly outside of any group."

Adds McNulty: "Aimee is someone much stronger than you realize and she is also the one who ultimately saves Sutter. We were absolutely blown away by how Shailene created this character. She is effortless in her craft, an absolute pro who really took this opportunity to shine. She and Miles found a remarkable connection and chemistry. It's as much a testament to the writing and directing as to their performances how real their relationship feels."

For Woodley it was important that Shailene be seen as someone who is not so much an outsider as an individualist. "She's not a wallflower or a social outcast," she says. "She's just someone who is extremely smart and doesn't have that much in common with her peers because she's matured more quickly. She's that girl who's gliding through high school in order to get out of the town she's in -- and she's kind of over all the drama and trivialities of it."

Woodley continues: "I wanted to bring to light a character who is not your stereotypical shy girl. Aimee's not socially awkward. She's not nervous to be around people. She's just decided to keep to herself, because she doesn't necessarily feel that what she says is going to be well received around her. I thought it would be really cool to show another side to the stereotype of the unpopular girl."

The refusal of the story to put any of its young characters into boxes, or to make first love cute or cloying, intrigued Woodley. "I like that the story is messy, human and real, and that it deals with a lot of things that most movies right now don't deal with in a realistic manner," she says.

Another thing that struck her immediately as realistic was Sutter Keely himself. "His character felt like the bridge between all three of my high school relationships," she muses. "If they were all to blend into one, that would be Sutter." But what sealed the deal for Woodley was the rapport with director Ponsoldt. "From the first time I met with him, his vision was so clear and poignant and he knew exactly what he wanted the movie to be," she says. "He gave each of us the freedom to express and create these characters in a way that many directors do not."

When Sutter and Aimee first start hanging out together it's unclear exactly what their relationship is going to be. He toys with the idea that will be her gallant savior -- even if he's in no position to save anyone -- and teach her how to have more fun in life. She's intrigued by his attention . . . and then increasingly moved by the torn spots in his armor. But both are acutely aware of the fact that Sutter seemed to have had it made with his former girlfriend, the popular, sexy, intelligent Cassidy, who is still a force in his life.

If Aimee and Sutter are opposites, Cassidy and Sutter had the fiery combustibility of two people who have already formed out-sized personalities. To play Cassidy with both a fresh complexity and a tinge of bittersweet regret, the filmmakers chose Brie Larson, known for her roles in 21 JUMP STREET, RAMPART, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and the Showtime series "The United States of Tara."

Like her co-stars, Larson was drawn to a script that made it clear none of these characters was going to be a cardboard cutout. She liked that Cassidy and Sutter have a relationship every bit as emotionally convoluted and confusing in its mix of emotions as any adult love affair -- even if they have less experience with how to handle its demise. She is definitely not the typical ex-girlfriend. "What's different about this film is that no character is a stereotype," says Larson. "With Sutter and Cassidy it's not a case of 'oh she's so annoying' or 'she rags on him all the time' or 'he's too much of a drunk to deal with anything.' It's more that she becomes aware of this very beautifully fuzzed line between the fun you have as a kid and something that is becoming destructive. And some people don't actually ever get out of this phase of mistaking having fun all the time for living in the moment and forgetting about all the other aspects of life."

For Larson, the film seemed to cut to the core of what those on the cusp of adulthood fear the most. "You have an awesome time in high school and then suddenly you're thrown into this adult world and you're supposed to make decisions and know where it is you want to go and how to navigate there. I think it's a really scary thing for an 18 year old to have to deal with," she says. "I like that this movie lets you watch a bunch of kids with lots of potential stumble through that . . . and hopefully make it."

Sutter's fun-loving public persona comes out of a chaotic home life -- one he has long pretended is something that it isn't. In actuality, his single mother is working too hard to really know what is going on in his life and the unexplained absence of his long-gone father hangs like an invisible ghost over everything that he does.

Sutter's mom, played by veteran actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, struck James Ponsoldt as being a truthful portrait of modern mothers who sometimes have to choose between paying the bills and paying the kind of attention they would like to their kids. "She reminded me of some of the moms I knew growing up who were working like crazy and were the ones who had to provide everything for the family. Films often try to work in easily defined roles of 'this is a good parent' or a 'that is a bad parent' but for me, she is simply an incredibly loving person who wants to give her child a better life but often comes home tired, wakes up still tired and can't be there for him all the time. Yet I think more than anything, she just wants her son to be a better person than his father was."

Having the opportunity to work with Jason Leigh was thrilling for Ponsoldt. "She's one of the greatest actresses we have," he says. "And it's no accident that one of the stars of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH was cast in this movie. It's a kind of a passing of the torch."

Jason Leigh says she was drawn to the script: "I was surprised by it. I loved that the hero was so endearing and yet so flawed, that you care about him even though he makes a lot of big mistakes. I love the dynamics between the characters and the things that happen in the story. It just took me in."

Producer Tom McNulty was impressed by the actress' willingness to take on an imperfect parent looking for redemption. "She plays a character who may not always seem very likeable, but she really just wants to protect her son," he notes. "Jennifer did a beautiful job of giving the character a lovely turn at the end of the film."

As for Sutter's father, he remains a cipher who long ago left the family home until Sutter unearths him in a scene full of the awkward weight of a reckoning. Taking on the tough role of a dad who gives Sutter a brief glimpse into what a life without ever taking on responsibility might be like is Kyle Chandler, renowned for his long-lived role as inspirational coach Eric Taylor in the television hit "Friday Night Lights" and seen recently in ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY.

Chandler was intrigued by Tommy Keely, despite the ways he has damaged his family. "He's the kind of fellow who has his own problems just managing his life and getting by and I found him an interesting character," he says. "Just as his life is going down, he meets the son who wants to reconnect with him." But he also knew he would have to delve into some very dark, tricky territory. "He is a character who scared me a bit," Chandler confesses. "I didn't know how a man approaches a son he hasn't seen in 10 years . . . wanting to say hello to him, yet also wanting to get rid of him. One of the main reasons that I almost had to take this role is because I was so damned scared of it."

Says producer Andrew Lauren of Chandler's performance: "Kyle looks quite a bit like Sutter, so that was great, but there's also real depth to what he created. We all know Kyle as the loveable coach, so it was exciting to see him do something unlike anything he's done before."

Adds McNulty: "Kyle might be known for these true-blue, reliable, trustworthy characters, but he brought the same degree of integrity to a down and out, irresponsible father as he did to all those other roles. He really dove into this, and he came in scruffy, haggard, slouchy and with total commitment to playing this role honestly. He's just a brilliant actor"

For Ponsoldt, Chandler and every other member of the cast, which also includes Dayo Okeniyi (THE HUNGER GAMES), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who won an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Ponsoldt's SMASHED), Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad"), Andre Royo ("The Wire"), Kaitlyn Dever ("Last Man Standing") and newcomer Massam Holden -- brought something exciting. "My hope when I cast each of them was that they would become these characters -- that they would exist in this funny-sad region of vulnerable honesty," he summarizes. "I have profound admiration for all of them. I found it very exciting because they're all lovely people and they're so damned talented."

THE SPECTACULAR NOW was shot in Athens, Georgia, the same funky, artsy Southern college town where director James Ponsoldt grew up. Perhaps best known as the home of rock band REM and of the University of Georgia, Athens gave Ponsoldt not only a ready-made community of support but also provided the quintessential American atmosphere he was seeking.

"It's not really the city but it's not the middle of nowhere either, and there's a kind of an Americana to it that was very intentional," he says. "We removed any markers from the town so that it could be any one of hundreds of towns like that across the United States."

Early on, Ponsoldt made the decision to shoot the film in anamorphic 35mm, a choice that led him to collaborate with cinematographer Jess Hall. "He had shot SON OF RAMBOW, which really impressed me with how it captured childhood imagination and as soon as we talked, I loved his intelligence and sense of humor," says the director. "We both wanted to go for something very, very timeless in shooting these characters. He did an amazing job of creating a sacred space for them, and even shooting an unadorned, unabashed, serious, tender, awkwardly honest sex scene." The producing team was equally exhilarated by Hall's keen eye. "James and Jess made the decision to target a much larger canvas and it was really worth it, because what Jess shot is so beautiful," sums up Tom McNulty.

The rest of the behind-the-scenes team was equally important to creating the film's strong naturalism. "Everyone had the commonality that they understood the DNA of the script and were devoted to these characters in all of their physical, emotional and even spiritual dimensions," says Ponsoldt. "Our production designer, Linda Sena, is an obsessive artist who built the character's houses from the ground up. Our editor, Darrin Navarro, refused to put a dishonest moment in the film and was never willing to go for something cool at the expense of truth. Composer Rob Simonson creating something surprising, emotional and timeless. And we had an amazing team of producers, where were there throughout the film. It felt like we had a community who really cared about these characters and the world we created for them."

That world culminates in an open-ended climax to the film that leaves Sutter and Aimee on the exciting but mysterious brink of the unknown, as individuals and as a couple. Concludes Andrew Lauren: "I think the end of the story is something that gives you a sense of hope -- of realizing that the now can be wonderful but the future is also wonderful and don't forget about the past."

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