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James Ponsoldt on David Foster Wallace and the objections to The End Of The Tour

“I’m rambly,” James Ponsoldt admits with a chuckle. Verbosity is far from the only qualification Ponsoldt has for directing a movie about the late David Foster Wallace. Ponsoldt counts the brilliant thinker as a literary hero—lines from “This Is Water” were read at his wedding—and the director has proved his mettle with two character-driven gems, Smashed (2012) and The Spectacular Now (2013). Alternately probing and winning, The End Of The Tour follows freshly minted literary sensation Wallace (Jason Segel) sparring and bonding with Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) over five days as Wallace wraps up his publicity tour for Infinite Jest in 1996. The movie has come with a set of high-profile objections, namely from Wallace’s family and friends such as film critic Glenn Kenny, who recently penned an eloquent, scathing essay on The End Of The Tour—and Segel’s performance—for The Guardian. Ponsoldt was happy to address those issues and more during a recent phone interview.

The A.V. Club: You are a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. Donald Margulies was your professor at Yale. What’s your reaction when Donald sends you his initial script for The End Of The Tour?

James Ponsoldt: It was a range of emotions. I was flattered. I was excited. I was very nervous. Donald was and is someone I deeply admire. He’s a fantastic teacher. He’s an amazing writer. I was hyper-aware of Lipsky’s book, [which] I had read when it came out in 2010. So I knew [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace]. I was curious about what Donald had done with it. Wallace is a hero to me. There are a handful of people I can think of that have a real emotional hold on me that way as far as what their work has meant to me. Also, I was deeply aware of what he means to so many other people, how proprietary people feel, how much of an interest they have in him or any representation of him.

It was kind of a terrifying proposition, I think. [Laughs.] I’m generally someone that has anxiety and fear when I think of taking on a movie, and I usually try to make movies about things that I’m a little bit afraid of. That’s probably a good thing. When I read it, I was deeply, deeply moved and blown away by what Donald had pulled off.

AVC: Your three previous features have open-ended conclusions. Here you know what happens to the protagonist. How big of an issue was that for you and how did you address it?

JP: Something that Donald embraced in his adaptation and that the film tried to embrace was that Lipsky’s account is not a biography of David Foster Wallace. There’s a very good biography of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max [Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace] that accounts for the bulk of his life.

This is David Lipsky’s very, very subjective take of his time spent with Wallace. It’s his story about spending a few days with David Foster Wallace, who was a stranger to him, and about how Lipsky was affected by that time. We can’t speculate what Lipsky meant to Wallace. I don’t know. But I think Lipsky’s experience of meeting someone that he admires and maybe envies a little bit and maybe measures his own success against—that’s a much more universal experience than trying to dramatize the life of a complicated genius writer. It doesn’t have to be as inside baseball as a professional journalist interviewing celebrities. We’ve all had that experience of meeting someone that means a lot to us—whether it’s professionally or a strange relative, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever—and we get that five minutes with them or that afternoon coffee and they’re never exactly what we think they’ll be. Or rather, they’re never what we want them to be because people are incredibly complicated, and people are different things to different people. Obviously, in this case, the whole thing is a very specific experience: It was two men meeting, not in a natural way, [but] a highly unnatural way. [Laughs.] Lipsky was going to write an article about him and that tape recorder was on the entire time.

The audience brings their own awareness into the story, of course, and I think you have to acknowledge that. We had no interest in dramatizing the last year of Wallace’s life. What interested me were these several days that are included in Lipsky’s book when Wallace was enjoying the success of a book that he had worked very hard on. His mental health was in a good place. He was sober, teaching. What Wallace was up for talking about at exactly this moment in time were the themes of Infinite Jest and the themes that consumed him at that time and probably during the bulk of his professional career.

AVC: This is a snapshot and you’re looking at David Lipsky talking to David Foster Wallace. Did that help you deal with the objections? The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust objected to the movie. Wallace has friends and family who are still alive.

JP: Yeah. I mean, Lipsky has authority to tell his account of his time with Wallace, and he did. His book came out in 2010. It was a New York Times bestseller. He wrote it with the support of some of David Foster Wallace’s family. They’re thanked prominently in the acknowledgements. The article that Lipsky had written for Rolling Stone when Wallace passed away in 2008 won a National Magazine Award. Our film was made with the support of people who knew Wallace, who aided in the making of the film.

But, obviously, every single person, every family member, every friend, every casual, professional acquaintance who worked with him briefly, or people like myself who were deeply moved and consider my life better for having come into contact with David Foster Wallace’s writing, we all have a deep emotional stake in it. As I imagine is the case—and I’m stating the obvious here—on every single movie that’s ever been made about a real person. [Laughs.] If you make a movie about Martin Luther King, there will be living people who have some investment in how that person is depicted. They have absolutely the right to articulate their points of view. They don’t have to agree with the content of the film. I guess they can disagree with the very existence of it, but that’s all within one’s right and that’s sort of how it goes when you take on a story about real people.

The only thing we’re claiming to do is to try to tell David Lipksy’s story. In fact, as far as what authority one has or accuracy, we have more going for us as far as the research of Lipsky’s time than most any other film about a real person that I can think of. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] Like The Imitation Game is not based on actual conversations that Alan Turing had. I can’t imagine that Steve Jobs, were he alive, would be excited to see the Danny Boyle film. To me, as a filmgoer, that’s not part of the conversation. I’m more interested in, is this film good or is this film bad? Is it kind or is it cruel? Is it imaginative or is it boring?

AVC: What about his friends? I don’t know if you saw the essay from Glenn Kenny, the film critic and Wallace’s friend, where he says that his friend wasn’t represented properly. How do you deal with that?

JP: I didn’t read Glenn’s thing. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion. I guess enough people that knew Wallace better than Glenn have seen the movie and have really, really liked it and think it’s a good representation of David. I’m sure as the days go on, you’ll probably be reading some of that as well. Wallace was a really complicated guy that meant so much to so many people, so I can understand how someone who works with David Foster Wallace would be affected by him and feel a sense of proprietary. I totally respect that. They’re entitled to voice their opinion. I’m sure—maybe not, I don’t know how big a ripple the film will make—more and more people will see it, people that I haven’t spoken to and people that I don’t know about who knew Wallace, and they’ll express their opinions. So it’s something you kind of take with a grain of salt and assume, of course, that’s going to happen.

AVC: In the press notes, you mention that you had a “deep, deep fear of getting this wrong.” How did you get over that, and do you feel that you got it right?

JP: I guess that’s for each individual viewer to say. Our goal was to depict the time Wallace spent with Lipsky honestly. We’re obviously not doing a documentary or a dramatic recreation for The History Channel. [Laughs.] Jesse Eisenberg had dealt with this before. He played Mark Zuckerberg. Jesse actually did not very much look like Mark Zuckerberg, and I can’t imagine Mark Zuckerberg was thrilled that any version of that movie was made, but Jesse did amazing work in that film, and he captured, I think, the essence of Zuckerberg in a fictional film as we understand it. I don’t think anybody goes into a fictional film—I mean, we don’t want to see a Rich Little impersonation. [Laughs.] We’re hoping for something that’s more intelligent. We wanted to get our depictions of Wallace and Lipsky right. That probably means something different to everyone. In our case, it was the core group of people—myself and the producers—we’re all big Wallace fans. Avy Kaufman, our casting director, who cast Ang Lee’s films and Steven Spielberg movies, she was not a huge Wallace obsessive. She knew who he was, but she had to be familiarized. So she watched a lot of videos of him. She watched him on Charlie Rose in 1997, among other things. Looking at that, it was, “Okay, let’s let go of our blind spots to the people that love him. Let’s just look at who he was, how he carried himself in the company of a journalist and what energy it is we want this character to have.” Also, Jason did the real work. For my own piece of mind, enough people have seen the film that know Wallace very well and are very moved by it.

Again, it’s a weird criteria because anyone can go on to YouTube to see what he looked and sounded like in the mid-90s. [Laughs.] That’s not a secret, you know what I mean? One can judge Jason’s performance for themselves.

You can call me up in five years and maybe I’ll be a hyrocrite, but I don’t think at this point I’d want to do a traditional biopic that covers a long span of time, because I don’t think you can get deep enough. In two hours, I don’t think you can cover a life. It’s just inherently reductive. That was part of what I liked about this. There’s no need to be reductive. It captured that exact time, captured the spirit of these men—as best we can—with as much humanity, love, admiration, intelligence. That was our goal: to be very rigorous with ourselves, very tough with ourselves.

AVC: As a filmmaker, you must get some satisfaction from each project, but, clearly, this is so personal. What did you get out it?

JP: To answer that honestly with any objectivity, you’d probably have to ask me in a couple of years. [Laughs.] I’m not trying to be cagey, but it’s true. It’s still very much alive for me. I encountered Wallace when I was 18 years old. Infinite Jest meant as much to me as any book I had read at that point. It’s still one of my favorite books, and his writing has meant as much to me as just about any writer that’s alive. I got to engage with someone whose mind and insights informed my taste, informed the way I look at the world. A lot of the issues that are central to the film, not just the intellectual issues of pleasure and success and worth—they’re all things that swim around for me. Wallace and Lipsky were 34 and 30, which is basically the same age I was when I made the film. What they were going through—especially from Lipsky’s point of view, because I think I relate to him probably more than Wallace—I get that as well. Where am I going to find worth? Why do I want to do the things I want to do? Am I doing it for pure artistic impulse or am I doing it for ego?

All the issues are there, but I also think many portraits I’ve seen of the “tortured artist”—I really, really dislike them. I find they fetishize pain or they try to reduce a complicated person to certain aspects of their personality. To be very blunt, I’ve had a lot of people close to me who have wrestled with depression and substance abuse. Quite of a few that I love have committed suicide. Most portraits of depression that I’ve seen on the screen—or a person who’s battling certain demons—they tend to romanticize it or they fetishize the worst moments in their lives, which I have zero interest in. In this case, this was one of the great moments in Wallace’s life. He had worked for years on this book. It had come out and the world didn’t sort of shrug, it actually affirmed this amazing, challenging book. For most of my friends that I love who wrestled with similar things, they don’t necessarily fit the picture that most people have probably seen in films [that] wrestle with such demons. When I watch footage of him being interviewed by, say, Charlie Rose—which is what I come back to simply because it was a year after our film takes place and he’s more or less in the same place in his life—he was so, so funny and charming and charismatic and radiant. You don’t look at that person and look at him through the lens of his depression or through his tragic death that would come later. You just realize, “Good God, this man was smart and funny and I would love to talk with him about anything—about books, about sports, about music, about life, about happiness, all of these things.” That’s what I feel. You can see Charlie Rose feels that. I think David Lipsky felt that. We wanted to capture that feeling, that thing.

AVC: We just see a guy who’s on the precipice of great things.

JP: Yeah. The truth is, most films that I’ve seen about writers or visual artists, when they try to dramatize the creative process, there are a series of clichés. You can turn it into a party game: someone typing “the end” and then pulling [the page] out of the typewriter; splattering paint onto the canvas, wild-eyed. I think the truth is for a real creative person who really puts in the work to do it professionally, there might be those moments, but they are the peaks and valleys in a long, long range of just working tremendous hours, working very hard, being humbled by life, submitting yourself to other people’s scrutiny.

AVC: Was this a tougher movie to make than your others given your connection to David Foster Wallace’s work?

JP: It affects it. It becomes part of it. It’s something you bring into the equation. For me, it’s an interesting thing: I read just like everyone else. I read reviews. I read stuff online, I read Twitter, all those things. Some people, I think, for their own mental health and sanity, don’t read as much if they’re making things. The process of making an independent film—or any film—is really hard and takes a long time. This was years from the moment that Anonymous Content optioned the book, hired Donald Margulies, then it got to me and we had to put it together, to right now. It’s years of our lives that we devoted, in my case, singularly to this film. So, for me, I can only do that if it’s something on the outset that I want to be in a deep and long relationship with, that I want to wake up to. If you approach any of these things from a cynical perspective that feels like an opportunistic thing, like, “Oh, this movie will be big” or, “It will make lots of money,” at a certain point, you will grow really tired of it and you may even begin to resent it. For me, the only way I could make a movie like this is just because I love this story, I love the themes, I love the characters.

The only thing that really complicates a film like this is that they’re plenty of movies that are fictional works—like beloved novels, for instance, or a Marvel character—and there’s extra scrutiny. There’s a different fan base that will scrutinize it doubly so. But in this case, it’s Wallace fans. As any writer who has achieved what Wallace achieved has a very passionate fan base. So I think a lot of it is wondering if what you put in the world—regardless of how much you believe in it—can people look at it with an objective eye? It’s hard to look at anything with an objective eye. I think people bring themselves into the equation when they watch a movie. They bring their own prejudices, their own biases, their own feelings toward the subject matter, the characters. That’s a different thing for me. This is the first time I’ve done that. I don’t think people had any preconceived notions with any of the other films that I made. Having to contend with a thing you have absolutely no control over—[Laughs.] I cannot control what you bring into the theater when you see this film. I can’t control what my parents bring in. I can’t control what some random person on Twitter brings in to the theater. All I can control is the hour and 50 minutes that the movie lasts, and try to give it absolutely everything I can.

But of course I care; I’m a Wallace fan. When Wallace fans see this, really watch it, I want them to feel like there’s something honest and real and intelligent and respectful and something that explores the themes of Wallace’s writing. When people that aren’t Wallace fans, or just aren’t familiar, see it, I hope that it maybe inspires them to seek out his writing, to buy his books. That’s my real hope.