‘THE END OF THE TOUR’ Q&A: James Ponsoldt On the Art of An Interview & Author David Foster Wallace

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IMG_0684Preston Barta // Features Editor

The late David Foster Wallace certainly created waves in the literary world. There is no doubt about it. Now, director James Ponsoldt (THE SPECTACULAR NOW, SMASHED) does the same in the world of film with his latest, THE END OF THE TOUR, by focusing on a snapshot in the life of Wallace. It’s Ponsoldt’s greatest directorial achievement, and one of the smartest, most honest and human stories of our time.

Based on the book ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF, THE END OF THE TOUR depicts Wallace (Jason Segel) at a monumental moment in his career: It’s 1996, he’s just turned 34, and he’s on a publicity tour for his breakthrough novel, INFINITE JEST. In the midst of all that, Rolling Stone magazine sends reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) to interview Wallace. As a result, the duo spend five days talking/arguing about fame, loneliness, depression, junk food, and DIE HARD.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with director James Ponsoldt this week about the film, the art to a good interview, security blankets, fame, and casting Segel as Wallace. Read our transcribed interview below.

Director James Ponsoldt at the premiere of A24's 'THE END OF THE TOUR at Writers Guild Theater on July 13, 2015 in Beverly Hills, CA. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Director James Ponsoldt at the premiere of A24’s THE END OF THE TOUR at Writers Guild Theater on July 13, 2015 in Beverly Hills, CA. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

As someone who is in the same profession as David Lipsky, there were so many elements in the film that I found completely fascinating and true. From doing this film, what in your opinion is the art to a good interview?

James Ponsoldt: “There are plenty of interviews I’ve read that I found compelling. There are different interviewing styles, but I think being generous, kind, respecting the intelligence of the person you’re interviewing, approaching it with an open mind– I think those are all really good things to consider when going in. It’s a complicated relationship. I mean, that’s the nature of our film, right?”

Right.

Ponsoldt: “That’s what the film is about. There’s a quote, and I’m not going to even attempt to quote it, but at the beginning of the book SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM, Joan Didion’s collection – it’s a wonderful collection of essays about California in the 1960s – she has a preface where she says something to the extent of she’s able to get interviews because [she’s] petite and not necessarily so well spoken, so people kind of forget that [she’s] in the room, but make no mistake about it, if [she’s] writing about you, then [she’s] writing against your own best interests [Laughs]. It’s a funny admission, or it’s a very honest admission, which is to say it’s a very tough thing: to write about someone, to do a profile on someone and really do them justice, because people are very, very complicated. It’s tough to be objective and open, not bring in yourself into the equation or your own biases, blind spots, impressions, prejudices– It’s hard to do that, so I have so much respect for people that are really great at it.”

Absolutely. I agree. Some people have said you have to hit people where it hurts to get what you want and need out of an interview. Do you think there is a way to interview someone and get what you need/want while maintaining some sort of mutual respect there? For instance, if you look to the news, there was that interview with Robert Downey Jr. that went south, and more recently with Cara Delevingne for PAPER TOWNS.

Ponsoldt: “Yeah. I mean, I remember hearing about the Robert Downey Jr. one, but I didn’t see it. I did, however, see the Cara Delevingne one, and what I read initially online was that she had a quote-on-quote ‘meltdown.’ And then, I watched the interview and found the questions she was being asked so rude.”

Oh, yeah. They were parading her.

Ponsoldt: “They were so hateful. They were totally just insulting her, asking her questions they never would have asked a man, but I thought she carried herself remarkably well. She was quick, she was funny, she was actually kind of gracious and tried to preserve the quality of the interview by keeping it light while they were asking really insulting questions. I thought they showed her zero respect. I was really embarrassed for those people asking those questions; it really made me sad that there is a community that has to be told the news like that. Those people, if that’s how they feel, then that’s their value system being reflected in the way that they asked an intelligent, interesting young person these questions. They never would have asked a young man, ‘did you read the book the movie is based on?’ I couldn’t believe that.

So, again, I think being generous, being respectful, not being snarky and going for a short soundbite is key. Click-bait journalism – I’m sure I’m mangling that term – has changed the game. People just want retweets in some cases, and it’s just like, ‘What’s the quote that’s going to be the most sensationalistic and get the most retweets?’ It’s all the journalists that we all love and admire. They went deep, you know what I mean?”

Oh, definitely.

Ponsoldt: “They write pieces for The New Yorker, like serious pieces, and spend months and months. There’s deep fact checking. It’s real journalism. That tradition is a high standard but it’s something that everyone should aim for. The same goes for criticism as well. I mean, when I was young and figuring out that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I learned so much about filmmaking from reading reviews from Pauline Kael (The New Yorker) and James Agee (The Nation, Time). They are two of the greatest criticis– well, writers, period. They wrote about the arts that I know of. I learned so much from them, so I respect them.”

David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). Photo courtesy of A24.

David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). Photo courtesy of A24.

You know, I could probably talk all day about this element of this film all day [Laughs]. It’s endlessly fascinating to me,  but one of the other things about the film that I found compelling was this idea of meeting your idols, or someone you admire, and they don’t quite turn out the way that you expect them to.

Ponsoldt: “Yeah!”

And don’t worry, you’re totally cool in my book.

Ponsoldt: [Laughs] “Oh, thank you.”

But I’m sure that moment crossed Lipsky’s mind at one point, even though they remained friends after the interview. But is there anyone that you would be scared to meet, for fear that is would mess with your perception of them and their work?

Ponsoldt: “You know, in my experience, I relate very much to David Lipsky in this film. I started when I was 15 or 16-years-old, writing for an alt-weekly in Athens, Georgia, where I’m from, interviewing bands and reviewing concerts.”

Oh, really? That’s really cool, man.

Ponsoldt: “Yeah. I thought that was what I wanted to do. When I was in college I interned at Rolling Stone. So I spent a lot of time interviewing people, or at least in the case of Rolling Stone, I was transcribing other people’s interviews as an intern. After that, I went on to write for Filmmaker Magazine; I occasionally still do that, interviewing directors whom I really admire, whether it’s someone who I’ve seen all their films for over 40 years or a new filmmaker who I really just love because of their film at Sundance.

I think it’s really complicated in my experience. There’s a blessing and a curse to meeting someone who you admire. As far as someone who’s creating a work of art, you know, a movie, a novel, an album, a painting– sometimes who that person is, is reflected in the art. In some ways, inevitably it is. But in many ways, people are very mysterious and wildly different from who you think they are based purely upon their art. It’s a very lopsided relationship, because if you say you love a novel someone wrote, or an album that they recorded– you know, there are certain Bob Dylan albums I’ve listened to thousands of times, probably [Laughs]. I know them like the back of my hand, and it makes me believe that I understand Bob Dylan, but the truth is if I ever met Bob Dylan, I would be a complete stranger to him and yet I could delude myself into believing I have an intimate understanding of him. So it’s a really tricky thing.

So [Laughs] when I’ve accidentally come into contact with people who I admire, I’m always a little hesitant because sometimes I just want to preserve the beauty of what seems pristine in my conception of them through their work. That being said, I’ve also met filmmakers and artist who after meeting them and loving their work, I grew to love their work 10 times more, because I realized they are amazing people, and that’s a really wonderful, affirming thing for me. It’s really inspiring and reminds me that you can be a serious artist and be a good person.”

Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in THE END OF THE TOUR. Photo courtesy of A24.

Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in THE END OF THE TOUR. Photo courtesy of A24.

To get more scene specific with the movie, one of my favorite scenes in the film is the scene where you find out why Wallace wears a bandana.

Ponsoldt: “Yeah! [Laughs].”

Do you have a security blanket of some sort?

Ponsoldt: “Oh, man. They’re more pathetic and modern, right? It’s probably all my gadgets. It’s my iPhone, my laptop– I really no different than your average 13-year-old, in that, if you take my iPhone away from me for two hours and tried to make me function without it, I would probably get really, really anxious.”

Oh, I’m the same way. The same way!

Ponsoldt: [Laughs] “I would get confused and lonely– I would probably melt down very quickly, which probably means I need to examine how I’m operating in my own personal values. That’s the reality of it. I also have some albums that are really meaningful to me, as well as some books I have some old copies of that are falling apart and would never get rid of.”

So much of this film deals with loneliness, depression and how fame could consume one. I feel as though your career is on the up and up. Since SMASHED (2012) I have followed your career and was always excited to see what you’d do next. Do ideas of fame, acclaim and maintaining an image worry you at all as a filmmaker?

Ponsoldt: “I think thinking about that too much can really muddy the whole creative process, which is to say, making a film in my experience has been– each film has been two or three years of my life, several years, really. From the time there is a script, trying to put finances together to make it, promoting it– the whole thing is several years of your life that you’re going to be in relationship with this thing [Laughs].

For me, the only way I can approach it is by being absolutely obsessed with it. I mean, three years is a relationship. If you’re in a relationship with another human being for three years, that’s a pretty substantial relationship. That’s no joke. So I have to really believe that every morning I’m going to wake up and want to spend all my time with this film. When I go to bed at night, I have to believe I’m fine with it consuming my dreams, or nightmares, whatever it is. So I have to approach it from that perspective, and if I approached it from a more cynical place of, you know: Will this make money? Will it get acclaim? Any of that stuff would short circuit things. I would start to second-guess my own tastes, judgement and gut. I really have to trust my gut on these things. I really don’t know where it will take me. There’s no [Laughs]– maybe it’s a problem, but I don’t have a 20-year plan, so to speak. There’s no trajectory that I’m particularly interested in, other than telling stories that I’m deeply passionate about. I’m pretty agnostic on where the financing comes from, you know, whether it would be an independent film or a studio movie, or whether it would be a really tiny movie or slightly larger movie. It totally depends on the stories, so that’s what I do.

I didn’t approach this movie, thinking that it would necessarily get a lot of attention. You know, it’s a talky movie with two guys talking about books [Laughs]. It doesn’t scream blockbuster, but I knew that making this movie that if I saw this movie, if I saw the movie that was in my head, if I saw it at the right time in my life, it would profoundly affect me. It’s a film about someone who’s writing has really given great meaning to my life, and as I articulated some of my hopes and fears– making a movie about someone who inspires me. So it was very, very easy to stay in love with this story.”

Eisenberg and Segel. Photo courtesy of A24.

Eisenberg and Segel. Photo courtesy of A24.

I can only imagine, but that’s so great. But before I let you go, I wanted to say that thought both Eisenberg and Segel were great in the film, especially Segel. How did you know that Segel was the one to play Wallace, and was your reaction when you watched him on set?

Ponsoldt: “I start from a place of being a fan, you know? I try not to get too intellectual about these things. I’m a profoundly neurotic person, but I try to just go back to my gut, what I like watching, being democratic and open-minded about it. I watch a lot of films. I watch a lot of TV – Indies, blockbusters, foreign films, reality TV, good hour-long shows – I consume all of it as much as I can. I’m addicted to it. And I loved Jason ever since FREAKS AND GEEKS (TV series), which came on near the tail-end of my time in college. I think FREAKS AND GEEKS was one of the most beautifully cast teen assembles I’ve ever seen, along with DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), MY SO-CALLED LIFE (TV series), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), and AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). It really is amazing. Obviously, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini– they all matter in FREAKS AND GEEKS, but Jason Segel was the emotional anchor of that show.”

I completely agree.

Ponsoldt: “And when FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008) came out, I was blown away by him and just how likable he was. He reminded me of what I felt about Tom Hanks when I was a kid. And it blew me away that Jason had written this movie. It was a personal movie for him.

I have a kid now. I have a son, and he’s too young to watch movies at this point; he’s only 15 months old, but I look forward to show him THE MUPPETS (2011). Jason didn’t just star in that movie, he wrote it. He’s written two children’s books, and he’s writing THE LEGO MOVIE sequel. Jason lives, breathes and thinks like a writer, and you can’t fake that.

If you’re a writer or any kind of artist, there are high-highs and low-lows, but what’s consistent in the middle is you spend a tremendous amount of time alone working, revising and revising, submitting your work to the scrutiny of other people and allowing it to be eviscerated, potentially. It’s putting your ego on a chomping block, and then, going right back and doing it again; that does one of two things: it either makes you quit, or you develop a thick skin and keep doing it because you can’t not do it. And that’s what it’s really like to be a writer, and Jason knows that innately.

I’ve always found there to be a soulful, sad quality behind Jason’s eyes, even though he’s been in a lot of things that are funny. In meeting him, I realized just how intelligent he was, how thoughtful he was, how complicated he was, and how he was nothing like the character he was on that TV show for nine years. There was that, and I was surrounded by so many people who just believed in him. Our producers were fans.

Our casting director, Amy Kaufman, who’ve we worked with on multiple movies and casted movies for Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg– I mean, she was the one who cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. So when I showed her footage of David Foster Wallace, while I’m a super-fan of David Foster Wallace and watched all the interviews online endlessly, she hadn’t. She knew who he was, but didn’t watch a lot stuff. When she watched David Foster Wallace on CHARLIE ROSE in 1997, she just looked at him objectively. She just looked at him and was able to articulate his fundamental qualities of how he carried himself opposite a journalist, which is what our movie is about. That really informed our casting process. It really opened it up and made us not be so narrow-minded.

I think for a lot of people they would assume if you’re making a movie about someone who wrote a 1000+ page novel and died tragically in the way that Wallace did, clearly it has to be a quote-on-quote serious actor, a dramatic actor. But that’s really reductive. If we were having this conversation five years ago, we probably wouldn’t have predicted that Jonah Hill would be a two-time Oscar nominee, or during BOSOM BUDDIES (TV series), we wouldn’t have predicted Tom Hanks’ success– or Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Jamie Foxx, or any of these guys who are most beloved actors who we tend to compartmentalize, even more so in an age with internet assessment, where we can pile on and make quick decisions.

The truth is I loved Jason Segel right out of the gate. I thought he was always doing beautiful work, and I was excited to see him to do something different. When it all came down to it and we considered everyone, he seemed like the absolute perfect person to play David Foster Wallace. So it was such a thrill to chance on it, because it was a really bold thing for him to do. I was thrilled that it worked out as well as it did.”

THE END OF THE TOUR is available to purchase today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.