Emotional Nudity: James Ponsoldt on ‘The End of the Tour’
When The End of the Tour concluded its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, I knew I had just seen something special. James Ponsoldt’s film, about an extended three day interview between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) is an enlightening story about two brilliant minds, trying to connect, but constantly pushed apart by insecurity, jealousy, and the constant awareness of the interview itself.
As a person who interviews people for a living, most of them far more famous and objectively successful than myself, I connected to The End of the Tour on a deeply personal level. Ponsoldt’s film captures the inner and outer drama of attempting to connect with another individual amidst a wholly artificial interaction. But what’s more, it’s an intimate look at complex individuals, fascinatingly acted by two performers at the top of their game.
I sat down with director James Ponsoldt for the second time, after our lengthy discussion about his previous – and no less impressive – drama The Spectacular Now (which you can watch in its entirety). What followed with a spirited and candid conversation about the nature of the interview process and what we can learn from Lipsky and Wallace’s interactions. We spoke of our own petty jealousies and the inspirational impact of our childhood experiences with cinema. We spoke of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. And we talked about an important part of Lipsky and Wallace’s story that didn’t make the final cut of the film, and why Ponsoldt felt it necessary to leave it on the cutting room floor. (The film is based on a true story, but those unfamiliar with the events may wish to be wary of spoilers.)
The End of the Tour opens in theaters on July 31, 2015.
Crave: It’s interesting to see a filmmaker who, like all filmmakers today, has to do a lot of junkets and interviews, and then makes a film about the interview process.
James Ponsoldt: I know. [Laughs.]
Was that part of the appeal: because you’re familiar with it now?
I mean, I don’t approach things generally from such an intellectual place. I’m super neurotic and so I could and it would probably be the death of me. I tend to… if there’s something I’m going to write or something someone else has written that I’m reading, it’s really just, do I have an emotional response to it and am I still thinking about it obsessively two or three or four days later? Because making a movie is several years of your life so it’s like a very deep relationship that you have to, at least for me, I have to believe I can wake up and go to bed obsessed with it for years.
So it is a… that’s a lengthy relationship and if I didn’t believe that then I would be approaching it from a cynical point of view, and it’s too complicated to make films, and I would check out. Maybe I don’t have the attention span. But inevitably as far as all the stuff swirling around in my subconscious, yeah, having been on both sides of it I occasionally do… I occasionally interview filmmakers for Filmmaker Magazine, and earlier in my life thought I wanted to be a journalist.
You made the smart move.
[Laughs.] I don’t know about that!
I think it turned out better for you.
I don’t know about that but I mean, I’ve been on both sides so I can probably relate more to David Lipsky than to David Foster Wallace.
That was something really interesting. I saw it at Sundance, really loved it at Sundance, and I wanted to see it again for this interview. So I took my girlfriend, and she’s a fiction writer and I’m a journalist, and we both came at it from very different perspectives. She was entirely sympathizing with David Foster Wallace and I was entirely sympathizing with David Lipsky.
Is that something you’ve noticed, or that people have talked to you about? Whose perspective they see the film from?
I think some people, when they’ve spoken about the film or it’s spoken about – maybe a little bit in the press – [they] tend to maybe focus on David Foster Wallace and Jason’s portrayal, for any number of reasons. Because Wallace is widely read or because it’s Jason doing something more different.
But I think Jesse’s character, I mean, David Lipsky is the one telling the story. This is his story about how he’s affected by his time with Wallace. It’s a very subjective story and it gets really muddy too when you get into the idea of what types of storytellers they were. They were both fiction writers. They were both successful fiction writers; Wallace was an INCREDIBLY successful fiction writer. They both were great non-fiction writers. David Foster Wallace for my money wrote some of the best profiles of the past 25 years, whether it was people like John McCain or professional tennis players, what have you. They both kind of understood the game that was being played, and the stakes, and what the process would be like of getting this article out into the world.
But it was Wallace who was being interviewed, it was him that was sort of asked to be vulnerable and to reveal himself. I think it’s much harder. I think it’s something aspirational maybe in asking an audience to imagine that they could be a complicated genius novelist who could write a thousand-plus page novel. That doesn’t feel particularly attainable for me. But I do know what it’s like to spend time with someone who I’ve thought about a lot, maybe obsessed over or measured myself against or, whatever, I found myself living in their shadow for better or worse. And then getting an afternoon with them, or getting ten minutes with them. I think that’s a very universal experience.
We look at this from David Lipsky’s perspective and he obviously looks up to David Foster Wallace, he’s obviously jealous of David Foster Wallace, but we also get the impression that David Foster Wallace is feeling very much the same things. It’s difficult for them to connect on a genuine level because there’s always this elephant in the room. The goal, the mission.
The goal and the tape recorder, right? That’s the Chekhov’s gun there. It’s sort of, the dynamics of this relationship are always affected by the third character, the ever present tape recorder which I believe… I think there is real affection. Reading Lipsky’s book, but also listening to those tapes, actually hearing the unedited stuff. They were two smart guys that were connecting. They were connecting about ideas, they were connecting about their feelings about culture, how they consumed, how they were living their lives.
They spent a lot of time together, a very focused, intense time together, and I think it sounds to me when I listen to that that Wallace saw a slightly younger of himself in Lipsky. A version of him that was hungry and wanted maybe what Wallace had just gotten, and I think Wallace saying to him over and over and over and over, in different ways, “The success that I am experiencing, I know you think that it will somehow give you some sense of validation or happiness or fulfillment, but actually whatever carrot you’re chasing in life it’s always going to be just a little out of your grasp,” you know?
Measuring yourself against somebody else is just going to be super masochistic and never end well.
Do you get that from other filmmakers you’ve talked to in interviews, who may from an outside perspective be more quote-unquote “successful,” or rich or famous, whatever?
Yeah, I mean I think mentally… the filmmakers that I’ve met that have that level of mental health [laughs], emotional health and happiness, where that seems to be a real goal for them, like stability in their lives, they’ve dealt with issues of their ego and their insecurity and jealousy. It’s not to say they’ve, like, whipped it, got it figured out, but they’ve at least recognized those parts of themselves. Their propensity to become jealous of other people or want what they have. I have that. Most people have that.
I have that right now.
[Laughs.] And I think it’s, for myself, I can only say that there’s definitely moments… especially earlier on when I was first making movies, when I would see a movie from a young filmmaker that was so good and I would hate them and hate the film, hate everything I was feeling, and feel insane jealousy, and then have to process that and realize, wait… why am I feeling this? This has nothing to do with that person or that movie. I actually should be thrilled that they got that very honest, excellent movie out in the world, that people are seeing it, and it makes it a better environment for me to have the opportunity to do something so honest and get it out there, and I need to make my own version of that, and I should champion that.
That’s sort of me being a little bit older looking back at it. I didn’t necessarily feel it at the time. But it’s also like what it is. Measuring yourself against somebody else is just going to be super masochistic and never end well. Really you just have to figure out what is success on your own terms and what stories you want to tell.
I have to ask for one example of a film that had that effect on you.
All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green.
Yeah. That’s just one where there’s so many things about it. I was in film school. George Washington had come out and I had been… his first movie was a Criterion DVD!
It was amazing! Because everyone was talking about it. And then All the Real Girls, his second feature came out and I saw… I think it had been at Sundance but I didn’t see it there. I saw it before it came out theatrically at a special screening. It just hit all of these notes that were so personal for me, this regional thing. I’m from the south, that movie was shot in North Carolina. The relationship, the frames of reference with the film, the musical landscape, everything about it, anamorphic 35, everything about it just felt like a film that I would have liked to have made.
It just felt so honest to me, that I think on some really misguided level, I felt like he had told quote-unquote “my story.” That’s nuts! That’s a nutty thing that people feel! [Laughs.] I had to just step back and be like, “No no, I love this movie and that’s that guy’s story. Instead of griping and whining I need to just do my thing that’s my story.”
But ultimately, like, he’s a filmmaker that I’m just excited that the guy’s so successful, so omnivorous, so democratic in what he does, and he makes great movies. Like, it is a better filmmaking world and filmgoing world because he’s making movies.
I recently had David Gordon Green on my podcast and he was great, and one of the things that surprised me and in a weird way reminded me of The End of the Tour, was he had a lot of affection for the most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turltes movie.
I was like, “What?!”
It’s weird. You talk about in this film – or rather, David Foster Wallace talks about in this film – the idea of artistic junk food. That’s an interesting thing to focus on and highlight so much.
Yeah. I haven’t seen the newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I remember when the first one came out. I mean, David Gordon Green’s a little bit older than me but that was like a huge thing for me. Then, was it like the sequel that Vanilla Ice had the song for? “Turtle Power?”
Yes, The Secret of the Ooze.
Exactly, exactly. Those were like huge things. There’s something… the things that hit you in the right place when you’re like 12, 13, 14, in your prepubescent or teenage years, those don’t ever go away. The first thing that makes you think, “This is awesome.” Like, the first movie I ever bought was Batman on VHS. I watched it, obviously. It’s no coincidence that for me, getting Danny Elfman to do the score for this [The End of the Tour] was like some weird circular fulfillment of all my dreams.
You know, I think it’s also, I think when people get older and they start to tell maybe more mature stories, oftentimes they feel like they have to reject the stuff of their youth that meant something to them, but why invalidate that? What you feel when you’re younger, that means a lot to you. That’s equally valid. So I think that’s awesome that he loved the new Ninja Turtles movie.
And the truth is, we don’t change much. We just don’t.
I think there’s a critical fallacy that I’ve seen in a lot of people’s work, when they talk about the directors, that they are influenced by what’s going on at the moment or by their contemporaries. I feel like everyone is just making movies based on what they liked as kids. You look at Star Wars.
George Lucas liked Flash Gordon as a kid and now he makes Star Wars.
I feel like we’re never going to catch up.
Everyone I know that is making movies seems really happy with what they’re making. They want the movie to make money because then they get to make more movies [laughs], and the company that is distributing it made their money back… that’s a good thing, they want an audience. But the people I know that are really making it and seem to be happy from it, there’s just a very sincere drive to the stories they’re telling. There’s no apology, there’s nothing careerist about it. It’s born from an impulse of like, “This is the movie I really want to see.”
And the truth is, we don’t change much. We just don’t. The stuff that scared you, really scared you when you were eight, probably on some level is bouncing around in the back of your skull. The stuff that you loved when you were that age, the stuff that gave you hope, that’s probably still there inside you. It doesn’t go away. You can use logic and intellect to convince yourself otherwise, but it’s probably not the case.
I want to apply that train of thought to The End of the Tour, and what I’m thinking is, did you love, like, My Dinner with Andre when you were eight…?
[Laughs.] Exactly! That’s what I’d watch endlessly when I was eight. No, I mean, you know, when I was a young kid there were certain Disney movies that actually meant a lot to me. Like, that were deeply emotional. The movies that made me feel something deeply, the albums that made me feel something deeply, whether it was Bambi and Dumbo or Wizard of Oz, or later a movie like Big or I don’t know, we could keep going.
The first time I saw – keep going – the first time I saw a Mike Leigh movie! The first time I saw Life is Sweet by Mike Leigh I felt something deep. I mean my parents are cineastes so like, my Mom was a Woody Allen obsessive, so for me it was Manhattan and Annie Hall we would watch endlessly. There were emotions that I felt when I was too young to even articulate what they were that made me feel something that was different than just stuff blowing. That being said, I love stuff blowing up too.
I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to rent Spider-Man cartoons and my Mom was sick of the kids stuff. She said, “You can rent those Spider-Man cartoons but we also have to watch Strangers on a Train and Mrs. Miniver.”
It was amazing. I never even watched the Spider-Man cartoons. I just watched those films again.
Movie theaters were church for me. When I was a kid my parents, they watched movies endlessly. We would go to movies all the time. I grew up in a college town so there was… the University of Georgia had their student union that showed amazing sort of art films, international films. I would watch them with [my parents], and from a pretty early age – either my parents became aware of this or I just became aware – that what was unique about a movie was, you go in and with three, four, five hundred strangers you’re all having a common experience for two hours.
These are two hours when we are paying to feel something, to cry, to laugh, whatever with a bunch of strangers, and it is a safe space where we can do that.
Wherever you’re coming from, wherever you’re going, for two hours you’re having a common experience. And you are paying money on a day-to-day basis to NOT feel things; we medicate ourselves, we don’t want to cry in front of strangers. These are two hours when we are paying to feel something, to cry, to laugh, whatever with a bunch of strangers, and it is a safe space where we can do that. There’s something very, I don’t know, spiritual, very moving about that. I don’t want to use New Age-y language there…
No, it’s fair. It’s one of the things that bothers me when I see a lot of people watching movies with a sense of ironic detachment. You could be ironically detached without paying money to see that movie.
For me I watch advertisements with ironic detachment. When I watch an ad or see an ad in a magazine, hopefully it better be cool because it’s sort of like a tall glass of fizzy water. I’m like, “Ooh, nice bubbles” and then I forget about it five minutes later. No, when I see a movie I want to be thinking about it and telling my friends about it days later. Like, “Oh my god, you can’t believe what happened!” Or just like numb and speechless because I’m feeling something and I’m a blubbering mess. That’s what I want.
And that can go in either extreme, I find. I want it to either be so bad I can’t stop talking about it, or so good I can’t stop talking about it, because in the middle is where I forget that I saw this movie a week later. That’s anathema. That’s nothing.
You want to feel something. You want to feel like someone took a chance. They took an emotional chance, they took a creative chance, they took a casting chance, they took… whatever it was, there was something that was bold, and maybe they failed [laughs] but I remember hearing Dustin Hoffman… he said this thing, I remember Charlize Theron did Monster, which would be like ten years ago, I think it was 2005…
Give or take, yeah. [Editor’s Note: Monster came out in 2003.]
Yeah, something like that. I just remember him, in describing her performance in that movie, regardless of how people feel about that movie, the performance, whatever, he said that all great performances in his experience as a viewer and as an actor, like, it’s really someone – an actor – going right up to the precipice of almost humiliating themselves. Risking total embarrassment, looking like a giant jackass. That’s where something really brilliant and transcendent exists and that’s exciting to see.
Is that the sort of thing you tell to Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel? “I want you to go right up to the precipice of being a jackass?”
You know, I think that any time actors agree to be in a movie, the relationship they’re having with the director is one of trust. There has to be trust. Actors have to make themselves vulnerable in front of a roomful of strangers, there’s a crew, and then ultimately strangers… thousands of strangers, millions of strangers who are going to see this movie… they have to make themselves vulnerable and this will last forever.
Whatever they’re doing, whether it’s real nudity, physical nakedness, emotional nudity, whatever it is, they’re making themselves vulnerable and they have to trust that this director is going to protect them, not humiliate them, not misrepresent them. If there’s not that trust then they can’t make themselves vulnerable. So there’s a real burden and a duty…
It sounds like you’re describing the plot of The End of the Tour, with the whole interview, where it’s the responsibility of David Lipsky to make David Foster Wallace feel safe. But he also has a responsibility to get a good story out of it.
Yeah, it’s a tough game, right?
One key thing that didn’t make it into the movie was the fact that David Lipsky ended up not publishing that article in Rolling Stone. Can you tell me about why you decided not to include that, and what you think you got out of letting that go?
Yeah, it’s interesting. There was, in the script… Donald Margulies’s wonderful script made it onto The Black List, the list of the best screenplays of the year. So it’s widely out there. People can read the actual script. Then obviously David Lipsky’s book came out five years ago, was a New York Times bestseller, it was widely read.
So the facts are out there. You can just go into Google or Wikipedia and find it. The script did actually have a postscript that said something to the extent of, and I’m paraphrasing, “Rolling Stone decided not to publish David Lipsky’s article about David Foster Wallace. The two men did not stay in touch.” Literally, those two facts…
The Unbreakable ending.
Yeah! Those were literally there and in fact when we did our first… as we started screening it for family and friends, those were the notes at the end of it and it always felt like we weren’t quite… it was like playing the piano where something’s just a hair flat or a hair sharp. It wasn’t quite right. We kept tinkering and tinkering and tinkering, trying to find the right articulation.
My greatest hope is that this would inspire more people to read David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky…
And then, not the eleventh hour but I would say the ninth or tenth hour, we did a screening for a pretty large group of friends where instead of just endlessly tinkering with the language we got rid of it and showed it without any postscript, and said, “Now that you’ve seen the movie, here are some facts of things that happened with these men’s lives afterwards. Do you feel like you need to know any of this, and if so, what’s important and how would you articulate it?”
And in an audience of like 100 people they were like, “Do not put text at the end of that. That’s so didactic and lame. Don’t do that. Everything we need to know is there and anything else we need to know, we’ll Google it.”
I do think that there is potentially some context in there that might actually have been dramatically interesting. There was all this stuff about them developing a close friendship, and David Foster Wallace keeps saying, “You’re just going to put this in the article,” and the article never even came out. Does that not have a dramatic effect?
It definitely has a huge dramatic effect! It’s also, you can also say “David Foster Wallace committed suicide…”
Well, you do say that [in the prologue]…
“David Lipsky teaches at NYU.” It’s kind of one of those things where you can say with any movie, knowing what happened five minutes after it ended or ten minutes later or a year later or ten years later provides context. You know what I mean? But at a certain point you have to decide, no, this is where the movie begins and this is where it ends, and if people want to investigate these real people more or learn about the life of the writer or the people depicted, they have that opportunity.
And hopefully in this case, I mean, my greatest hope is that this would inspire more people to read David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, and then find out some of those details.
It is a question and not a definitive statement.
So the ending is like Inception. It just ends before we see the top topple.
I think so! I mean, it ends where it ends, you know what I mean?
I think it works, it’s just an interesting choice.
It’s an interesting choice that, to me, raised the actual very notion of those postscripts, these little notes, because you realize once you open the Pandora’s Box of, “Well, how much information can we include…?” Because there was actually a lot of information. I started to think, well, we could include this and this and this and this.
You actually realize it’s an endless hole that you can go in, and then when you decide actually what is essential and what is appropriate, it puts a lot of weight on seventeen words or something to add some definitive stamp at the end of a movie, which hopefully is not propaganda. It’s art. So it is a question and not a definitive statement. And then you’re adding this definitive statement at the end of something that hopefully is a little more subtle than that.
Did you see The Imitation Game?
At the end, I thought it was completely unnecessary to say “He invented the computer!” Yeah, that’s what the movie was about!
We saw the computer. It was interesting. It was like it didn’t trust us.
It’s that feeling, and if I think for an audience, if for a second they feel like the filmmakers do not respect their intelligence or do not trust them, I think it’s easy for me as an audience member to begin to resent the film and filmmaker. That’s a really terrible thing because the truth is, audience members are really smart. When you put hundreds of people in a room I think their collective filmgoing experience, they become very, very smart. It’s palpable. We’ve all been in that room where that thing happens, where you just feel the audience turn on the movie.
And that’s a terrible thing! Especially if you do it when you’ve made a movie that you’re proud of, and like, if you were to lose an audience at the very end! Or to piss them off, or to suddenly change whatever they’re feeling emotionally and invalidate it, or try to give it a hard left or right turn. It just feels complicated.