Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, film director James Ponsoldt explains why his newest film, “The Spectacular Now” — a story that explores a teenage couple’s charming but somewhat toxic relationship, heartbreak and transition from adolescence into adulthood — is so personal to him.
HLN: In the film, both of the main characters Aimee and Sutter get their hearts broken. Do you remember your first heartbreak?
James Ponsoldt: My high school relationship. We dated for years, but when we first started dating, I don’t think either of us took it too seriously. She ended up dumping on me on New Year’s Eve, and I was bewildered that she would want to break up with me. I was such a jerk, idiot, teenage boy, but the idea that she would want to break up with me was crazy to me. And I remember her saying, “Listen, this is a pretty superficial relationship and this really isn’t that satisfying to me.” It was so mind-blowing and just crushed me! And I had to work really hard to get her back. It meant that I had to be really honest with myself and realize that I was totally BS-ing myself and her and reveal myself in a way that I’d never done to another person. It was absolutely terrifying because you’re afraid if you really give of yourself, and someone rejects you, then they’re totally rejecting the core you. But her acceptance made me want to be a more honest person and to have deeper relationships with the people around me.
HLN: Did it make you grow up a little bit?
Ponsoldt: I think so, maybe a little bit.
HLN: Was that the first time you felt like an adult?
Ponsoldt: I still don’t feel like an adult. It’s very easy making a film about young people because internally, I still feel very much like a 17- or 18-year-old, so I feel like I’m a pretty decent advocate for them.
HLN: Both Aimee and Sutter have their own struggles with transitioning into adulthood. What do you think is the key for a smooth transition?
Ponsoldt: Being kind to people. You’ll never regret being kind and it’s better to be kind than to be right, as they say. And also, I think as you get older, you develop the awareness that other people have gone through what you’re going through. You’re not an island. That helps, I think.
HLN: Do you have a personal example of when someone was kind to you in a time of need?
Ponsoldt: For me, “The Spectacular Now” is really personal, even though it’s based on a novel that Tim Tharp wrote, because when I was younger, I was kind of like Sutter. When I was in middle school and early high school, I was getting into a lot of trouble, was really self-destructive and cared what people thought way too much. And there were a few people who called me out on it. The girl [who eventually broke my heart] I started dating sophomore year was not unlike Aimee — not really interested in stupid teenage boy stuff and partying and she actually read, she studied, she thought about the future. She just liked me for who I was. I also had a history teacher who crushed me constantly, but in the best way: He was so tough and knew when I was slipping. He understood boundaries — he wasn’t the teacher who said “Hey, I’m your pal,” but he did seem genuinely concerned. And the things that break your heart the most are when you’re at that formative age and someone actually goes out on a limb for you and you let them down.
HLN: How were you able to capture the reality of those formative teenage years so well?
Ponsoldt: I feel like we live in a world of extremes, at least in how adolescent life is depicted. And of the two extremes, neither one feels necessarily relatable for young people. On one extreme, you have Disney movies, where kids are singing and dancing in malls; on the other one, you have movies where kids are doing meth and playing PS3 violent games and robbing banks. You either have to sensationalize or completely bowdlerize and romanticize to get something good, and I actually think spectacular now is safely in the middle.
HLN: What’s your advice for balancing living in the now, like Sutter, and planning for the future, like Aimee?
Ponsoldt: People want to be very “present,” they want to “live in the now,” which I think it great, depending on how you approach it. I think from the point of view of our 18-year-old protagonist, living in the now as he takes it has a level of emotional cowardice and ethical spinelessness, where he doesn’t have to be accountable for the emotional fallout of his own actions on other people. It’s an easy thing to embrace if you’re a narcissist. However, if you’re conscientious of living in a community with other people, it gets a little bit harder. And if you’re really invested emotionally in the people around you and being a good custodian for their wellbeing, it doesn’t work so well. So in that regard, thinking about the future and about how choices I’m going to make and things I’m going to say are going to impact you is a great thing. It’s a big step in anybody’s journey toward adulthood.
HLN: What do you hope people take away from the film?
Ponsoldt: I think anything people take away from it is valid. I would never want to prescribe what people should take away from it. I think the goal of a story is to transport an audience member emotionally and help them find surrogacy in a character and hopefully help transform misery into joy, if you can. And leave people at the end at least asking questions or leave the film reverberating through their heart and mind in a way that something feels unresolved. Just like a good book or a good album, I don’t think it ends when the movie ends. I, personally, would like people to still be thinking about these characters.