"Spectacular" Georgia Director Comes Home

James Ponsoldt, director of The Spectacular Now, sat down to tell us what he loves about his hometown of Athens, Ga.

Photo by Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Images for SXSW/Getty Entertainment Kyle Chandler, James Ponsoldt and Miles Teller at the 2013 SXSW Film Conference & Festival. Chandler graduated from the University of Georgia; Ponsoldt's father taught there. 

Imagine growing up in a town surrounded by world-famous musicians, writers, actors, scholars and academics, artists, poets and top athletes. And in that town is the nation’s oldest public university with its stately Romanesque and Greek revival architecture as well as historic homes, lakes and rivers, a lively and eclectic downtown, and even a tree that owns itself. The world would expect great things from you in return, no doubt.

We’re talking about the Classic City, our neighbors to the east, Athens, Ga.

Athens native James Ponsoldt, director of the new film The Spectacular Now, was truly inspired by his upbringing and keenly aware of his unique and special environment.

“Oh, I love Athens. No matter where I go it’ll always be home to me,” Ponsoldt said. “When I was presented with the chance to film here, well, it was an absolute dream realized.”

Originally set in Oklahoma, the film is based on the novel by Tim Tharp and tells the story of two 21st-century teens trying to mature in the real world. We mean the one where one parent is absent, and kids have jobs and there’s no trust fund waiting at the end of the rainbow. American Pie and/or Clueless this is not. Think of it as more of a Catcher in the Rye gets into a drunken crash with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Ponsoldt met with producers and suggested that the film be shot in Athens, as there are no overt cultural references to any town in particular in the script.

“It was just obvious that they weren’t in the big city, but it did feel like a college town to me,” explained Ponsoldt. “Maybe I was projecting, but it felt like the town in Breaking Away. The kids who were from there, the 'cutters,' were always going to feel different, outsiders in their own town, and that is what I saw.”

21 Laps Entertainment Ponsoldt said that directing in his hometown of Athens was a dream realized.

He was given the green light and filming started in July 2012 and wrapped in under a month. Athens residents and shop owners were so helpful and generous that things went rather smoothly. No one seemed to want anything in return either; they were just being neighborly.

“One of the characters reads manga and so I immediately thought of Bizarro-Wuxtry, an Athens comics and records shop I’ve gone to my entire life,” Ponsoldt said with a wistful smile. “I asked the owner if we could cheat the location so that it is next door to the convenience store that the main character drives past every day. He said yes and asked for nothing in return. That is the Athens I know.”

Ponsoldt now lives in Atwater Village in Los Angeles, a funky neighborhood somewhat reminiscent of Athens. When he’s back down South amongst us sweet-tea drinkers, there are a few stops on his list as well as places that will always mean home.

Photo by: Wilford Harewood This scene from The Spectacular Now was shot in Mell's Lounge located on the Atlanta Highway. Mell's opened in 1952.

“Well, my favorite places to eat are the National and Weaver D’s. For drinks, you gotta hit the Manhattan and there is no place on earth like the 40 Watt Club to see a show,” he said. “Sometimes I just ride around and look at the houses on Boulevard and Barber, drive past the R.E.M. church or walk on North Campus. I used to wait for my dad there outside the law school and I take those memories with me wherever I go.”

The Spectacular Now opens in theaters this Friday and stars Golden Globe-nominated Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Kyle Chandler, himself a Georgia native and University of Georgia graduate.

Of Chandler, Ponsoldt added, “Kyle is an enormous talent, someone who projects decency and kindness, someone who would fit in alongside Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda in an old western. But chiefly, he's a world-class actor. Kyle's connection to Georgia and UGA only made his presence in our film all the more perfect.”

Personally, we think Ponsoldt is pretty spectacular, too.

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