Athens native returns to film ‘Spectacular Now’

The first day of filming for "The Spectacular Now" took place at an Athens convenience store. A location scout had made the arrangements, and it took director James Ponsoldt a minute to realize the area's significance.

“I know Athens pretty well, but it wasn’t until we were about to shoot our first shot that it dawned on me that we were across the street from the hospital where I was born,” he said.

The library where he spent hours as a youngster was close by, too.

“It was a very bizarre thing,” Ponsoldt said.

The movie, starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh, premiered to raves at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and is now playing at the UA Tara Cinemas 4 theater at 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E. (404-634-5661).

The movie is based on Tim Tharp's novel, which was set in Oklahoma. The movie clearly takes place in Athens; you can easily spot places like The Georgia Bar and Clarke Central High School, not to mention Clarke County license plates. But Athens doesn't factor into the narrative, and relocating the project did not affect the story.

“Tim’s book wasn’t incredibly specific,” Ponsoldt said. “I love Athens. I love Georgia. Any chance to shoot a movie here I would, but not if it would undermine the story.”

“The Spectacular Now” revolves around the bright but aimless Sutter (played by Teller), who views graduation with wariness rather than anticipation. Ponsoldt related to the witty but troubled character at that age.

“I was wildly self-destructive,” Ponsoldt said. “Starting in middle school, I was getting in trouble a lot for vandalism, shoplifting, partying a lot. Truth be told, I guess I was running with a group of guys who were getting in a bunch of trouble. Ultimately I realized I was going to have limited choices if I kept up with it.”

He pulled it together, going on to Yale and Columbia universities, and started honing his artistic side while still in high school.

“I really grew up in the shadow of R.E.M.,” he said. “I was an obsessive music freak when I was in high school. I could get into the 40 Watt Club. I would show up in my braces and couldn’t drink anything but a Pepsi when I was there but I was on the list.”

Ponsoldt’s family is still in Athens, and he visits often. So when’s he coming back for another project?

“Hopefully in the next year,” he said. “I’m not sure what the next one will be. I’m working on a handful of things right now. Nowhere has the same feel as Athens to me. There’s a kindness, a graciousness of living. But I don’t want to make a movie just for the sake of making a movie.”

For now, he’s proud of how his town rallied to help make “The Spectacular Now,” which was shot in 25 days with a budget of around $2 million.

“We used R.E.M.’s production office,” he said. “A local art theater let us do casting there. I can’t say enough about how much this was a locally supported, locally produced film.”