Thus far in my career, it’s rare that I have interviewed the same person twice. It’s happened a handful of times with a composer here and there, but I was fortunate enough to speak with James Ponsoldt twice in as many days. My friend happened to ask me to guest co-host this past weekend when James was his guest, and we spoke about The Spectacular Now (one of my favorite high school dramas). Now, I got to speak with him one-on-one over Zoom about his new middle school film, Summering. He was such a pleasant guy and it was amazing to speak with this brilliant mind once again. This interview closes out our week of Summering but read on if you want to read Ponsoldt discuss the steps he and co-writer Ben Percy — whom I also interviewed for this film — took to make sure this was an authentic representation of 11-year-old girls, the horrors of middle school, casting the adult actors, and so much more.
Coastal House Media: Hi again, James, it’s great to see you. How’s everything going? Heat 2 just came out today, did you get a copy?
James Ponsoldt: Man, no, I haven’t yet. I need to — that’s a good point. I’m thinking about the bookstore that I’ll swing by and grab it at.
CHM: It’s great to talk to you again, congratulations again on Summering! I didn’t get to say this on Sunday, but I wanted to thank you for your work. After we spoke on Sunday, I was talking about your films and I realized how much The Spectacular Now and Summering meant to me; they’re such personal films. The former really hit me at the right age and I saw it for the first time a few years back while I was transitioning from the colleges I was transferring between. So thank you and I really appreciate your work.
Ponsoldt: Oh, thank you very much.
CHM: So I know you’ve talked about this ad nauseam, but I have to ask you for the sake of this being for a different audience: What made you want to write and direct Summering?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, it started for me [with] being a parent of three kids; finding myself in conversation with my kids about both the films that they were watching and sort of how they were being represented and [that] made me think deeply about stories that are rooted in a child’s perspective and how that’s fundamentally different than my perspective as an adult. Also, as we were kind of trying to navigate, traumas, as a family, both small and large scale the way every family does [and] things that were affecting my kids: The death of a cat, the death of a grandparent, COVID, all of those things, I was trying to support my kids and be honest with them and listen to them while recognizing that they have a different way of interpreting the world and perceiving it, creating language and meaning in it, and different tools that maybe I don’t have access to their imaginations. I think all kids have wonderful imaginations and that distance, that gap between parent and child and the way that we process and make meaning out of change about loss, about trauma, all those things, was something that I really wanted to explore; that conversation between parent and child.
CHM: And you co-wrote the script with Ben Percy, who I spoke to the other day and he really spoke so highly of you. I know you guys are good friends and I want to spread the love back to him a little bit. I asked him what about you as a director made him trust you to take this material that you guys wrote together and then go and direct it. So for you, what was it about Ben that made you trust him to write a feature-length film with you?
Ponsoldt: A long time ago, we were roommates at a writer’s conference and he’s a remarkable writer. When I first met him, he was writing mostly short stories and then novels, and now comic books and podcasts and all kinds of things; he’s a force of nature. But he had written a short story called Refresh, Refresh that I really loved that was about young men and violence, toxic masculinity, young men in the Pacific Northwest whose dads are Marine reservists that are activated and deployed and about these sort of primitive violence rituals; these kids creating fight clubs and videotaping them and sending videos to their dads in green zones, Iraq and Afghanistan, to let them know that everything’s just fine. I really connected to the story [and] I adapted it to a screenplay and went to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with it and that script was ultimately adapted by an amazing graphic novelist named Danica Novgorodoff.
At the time I thought I would make a movie and then her graphic novel would come out; I’ve never made the movie, but she made a remarkable graphic novel about young men in violence and that was selected for Best American Comics by Alison Bechdel and that whole process of an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation began a long conversation that Ben and I have been having about family dynamics and gender politics and structural violence and stories containing multiple subjectivities and why we need stories that have multiple subjectivities.
We need women trying to interpret men and men trying to interpret women if we’re going to understand our culture, the culture that we’ve created for better or worse — oftentimes worse. Part of it also involves acknowledging our blind spots. We all have blind spots as viewers [and] creators of stories, and it’s worth trying to examine and lift up and expose sunlight on these things. Ben is someone that I’ve collaborated with on quite a few things over the years, and he’s just a remarkably thoughtful, sensitive person and he brings that in his own life with his own children, with his own daughter — who is like the age of the characters in this film — and in his art [and] writing.
CHM: And this is just a coincidence I spotted with Summering and The Spectacular Now, but both of their settings are suburban neighborhoods. I remember you saying that you based The Spectacular Now around your hometown in Georgia last time we spoke, but was that the case with Summering?
Ponsoldt: The Spectacular Now was [set] in the exact place I grew up. It was in Athens, Georgia in the exact houses and streets where I grew up [and] the memories were like one-to-one. It was like, “Oh, that’s where I would drive”, “That’s where we would buy beer”, and “That’s where we would party.”
Summering was initially written in the area near where I live now in California. [It’s] an area that sort of has an “every town” quality and where there are tracks of land, like dry river beds and things where young kids could go and make-believe and where their older teenage siblings could go to smoke pot and get in trouble or whatever they want to do [smiles]. In some cases, that can be like five minutes from their house. [It’s] not in downtown LA, it’s not in downtown New York, nor is it in the utter middle of nowhere. We ultimately filmed Summering in the suburbs around Salt Lake City, which had very similar qualities that I had experienced spending time in Utah and that I’d seen in other films like the film Brigsby Bear that my producing partner, Jennifer Dana, produced.
CHM: And you guys wrote some horror elements in the film, I noticed an homage to Psycho — which Ben confirmed — and he also mentioned Halloween as a reference point and I’m just curious why you guys infused that into a coming-of-age movie?
Ponsoldt: I mean, coming of age can feel like a horror film, you know [laughs]? I mean it is. We think of the sun-kissed stuff of childhood innocence, all of those clichés that we have. I don’t think anyone romanticizes middle school. These are characters that are going into middle school, no one romanticizes middle school — it becomes Welcome to the Doll House [and] it can become a horror film. And I think this is a film about real specific kids who are growing up in a culture where they’ve been inundated with images of violence, chiefly towards women whether it’s in horror films like Psycho or Halloween, or just in film noir, or in cop shows [like] Law & Order.
This is a film that yeah, the opening frames of the film are reference to Psycho, and then turns it on its head because it’s about a female friendship and a female experience and not about violence being inflicted on one of these four girls. But they [also] live in a world where there are cop shows playing in the background that are chiefly about male subjectivity that perhaps treats the dead female body as a prop or object and aren’t really interested in exploring that subjectivity whether or not these kids are conscious of it, whether or not they’ve seen Psycho or Halloween yet. Both of which are amazing movies [and are] the shoulders on which much of modern horror is built but there are a lot of things that I think are worth unpacking and looking at in those stories (and all stories). I think we all benefit from stories that have multiple subjectivities, especially if we’re going to look at the way structural violence sort of passes on from generation to generation.
CHM: And you do have four lovely young actors at the forefront of the film. I found that each character had bits about them that I could recognize in my own family and people I know, but they’re all so distinctly different. Did you write these based on anybody you know or bits of people that you knew or is it just as it came about?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, everyone in it’s based on people we know [laughs]. They’re all bits and pieces of our own kids, our wives, our friends, their kids, whatever. As I might have mentioned, my wife works in a middle school-high school. I’ve been there from the very beginning of that, so every year starting next week, there’ll be a whole new group of 11 and 12 year old’s coming in and their parents coming in excited, hopeful, and a little anxious. There are so many people that both offered their feedback and healthy criticism on how it [the script] reflected their own experiences and what it was like for them then as children and what it’s like for them as parents.
CHM: Last time we spoke, we talked a little bit about the casting process for the kids, but what about for the moms? Did that take place before that or after it was after you had cast the kids?
Ponsoldt: We knew it would be hard to find four young actors that we thought were amazing, inspiring and captured our imagination and that just seemed like they will grow up to be really interesting adults and that could serve the characters and just play and make-believe. Then it was kind of step-by-step [process] and it was finding them, creating a friend group and [then] trying to cast actors that believably would be their mothers. And because those actors are older, there are more reference points to go with.
If someone’s an actor who’s in their 30s or 40s, you’ve probably seen some things they’ve been in as opposed to an 11-year-old. In the case of Megan Mullally, I was lucky enough to have worked with her on Smashed with her husband, Nick Offerman. She’s amazing and one of the funniest people on earth. I’ve always been a huge fan of Lake Bell’s both as an actor and as a filmmaker; she’s just a real collaborator and a deep thinker and had so many thoughts in her own life [about] this relationship between this mother and daughter as a mother [herself].
My wife and I got through the first year of COVID through the videos Sarah Cooper was making that were everywhere online. They just made us laugh when everything else in the world was not making us want to laugh. Ashley Madekwe is so remarkable and Avy Kaufman, my great casting director, really was just a [fan] of hers [Madekwe] and introduced us and I was blown away by her as an actor.
OTN: Last time we spoke, you also spoke about how you put the four kids on Zoom together and they just clicked instantly. Were you at all concerned that once you got on set that it may disappear?
Ponsoldt: I wasn’t as concerned with the adult actors because I think one of the things that becomes interesting [is] that before I had kids, it’s just one of the things that wouldn’t have occurred to me, but it does now, which is my kids’ best friends — the kids that they think are going to be their best friends for their whole lives — are a product of geographic proximity. They’ve been zoned into the same school and they wound up in each other’s classes and they may have only known each other for a few years, but that’s a huge part of their lives.
And because they’re friends, I’m acquaintances — or friends, in some cases — with their friends’ parents. They might not have been the friends that I would’ve chosen, or they might not have chosen me, but we happen to know each other. So in some ways, there’s very little commonality other than our young children [between us and] our friends, and that’s a specific dynamic that’s fascinating.
As adults, we bring the awareness that our kids think they’re going to be friends forever. Some of them might be, some of them might not be talking in a year [laughs] — that just might be the case, and [then] will we [the parents] still be friends? Do we have anything in common? Maybe we don’t have anything in common except for our kids, but it’s nice to make a new friend, and that sort of interplay between generations is something that I find fascinating and lovely, and that I wanted the film [Summering] to contain.
OTN: I’m running out of time with you, but I have to ask because I love your work: Do you have anything coming up that I can look forward to?
Ponsoldt: I’ll be on set tomorrow and Thursday. I’m finishing a new Apple TV+ series called Shrinking from the Ted Lasso folks [and] with Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Harrison Ford, and Michael Urie, and a lot of really amazing people. It sort of has that Ted Lasso “laughter in tears”-vibe to it but [is] about psychiatrists in Pasadena. That will probably come out sometime early next year.
I also worked on a show before that, that I also produced and directed a lot of called Daisy Jones & The Six, based on the Taylor Jenkins Reid novel which is about the biggest male-female band of the late 1970s and how/why they broke up. [They’re] a fictional band, they look a lot like Fleetwood Mac at their core. [It stars] Riley Keough and Sam Claflin, but the whole cast is amazing. It’s rock-and-roll in the 1970s, so if you like things like Almost Famous, I think you might like it. It was amazing to make — it has really amazing music and real scope — and it was amazing to recreate the 1970s in the Sunset Strip and actually film in the places like the Whisky a Go Go and the Troubadour and Sunset Sound and all these amazing places where a lot of that music in the late 1970s was actually created.
Summering is in theaters now.
EXCLUSIVE | Alma Poysti and Jussi Vatanen On How ‘Fallen Leaves’ Became Such a ‘Learning’ Experience
Fallen Leaves premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the Jury Prize. On the other hand, Aki Kaurismäki’s direction, screenplay, and performances by Alma Pöysti & Jussi Vatanen received critical acclaim. Finland has decided to send the MUBI film for Best International Feature at the 96th Academy Awards.
Apart from being praised at several prestigious festivals, the Finnish movie has received a lot of love from the viewers in its theatrical run. Whether it is storytelling or acting performances, the Aki Kaurismaki directorial is getting the recognition it deserves. Alma Poysti and Jussi Vatanen are impeccable in their roles and continue to take the audiences by storm. Luckily, I, on the behalf of Coastal House Media, had the opportunity to speak with both stars at the movie’s press conference earlier this week. We discussed how their experience on stage aided in preparing for such complex roles.
Both the actors have been astonishing on the stage, but we all know that movies are a different ball game. I asked how they mentally processed the acting experience while starring in Fallen Leaves and although they shared different anecdotes from what they learnt while shooting the film, both actors admitted that they were “grateful” for this experience. While answering the question, Poysti said she loved how silence can also mean so much in movies and it’s something that she is still processing. She said, “I’m so inspired and so grateful for this experience, and the amount of humanity that runs through our roles. Work is so beautiful and it actually means something to people. This kind of purity inspires me to investigate how much can you take away and when less is actually more. Also, you have to be quite brave to let the camera in when you are taking off the masks and taking away the pretending.”
“Being as bare as one dares can create a fascinating and beautiful space. Trusting the silence reveals a silent dialogue within and between characters, where few words are needed but carefully chosen, with nothing extra. I’m still processing and enjoying contemplating this concept,” Poysti added.
Meanwhile, Vatanen echoed the same sentiment and credited the filmmaker to make things so easy for them. He said, “It definitely was a learning process and we got to witness old-fashioned filmmaking that is so minimalistic. I and Poysti, we both learned how can you achieve a lot by doing so much little and deliver a lot of emotions by just being present in that moment. Of course, Aki is there to help us and you just need to follow what he is trying to paint on the canvas. So, it took away all the pressure.
The actors also shared that the movie was filmed in a mere 20 days, jokingly noting that they’ve spent more time discussing the film than actually shooting it.
Fallen Leaves in currently playing in theatres across the US.
EXCLUSIVE | ‘Joram’ star Manoj Bajpayee Reveals He Never Takes Time To Get Out Of His Characters: ‘Never Had The Luxury…”
Actor Manoj Bajpayee is known for playing intense roles. From Bhiku Mhatre in ‘Satya’ to Professor Siras in ‘Aligarh,’ Bajpayee has always enthralled us with his impeccable acting performances. His upcoming movie, ‘JORAM,’ is no different and sees him playing an immigrant labourer.
In Joram, skillfully directed by Devashish Makhija, we follow the poignant journey of Dasru, an immigrant laborer. His life takes a harrowing turn when his beloved wife is tragically murdered, and he finds himself entangled in a relentless and unforgiving system determined to defeat him at all costs. Faced with unimaginable challenges, Dasru makes a desperate choice to protect his infant daughter, Joram, and embarks on a daring escape to his long-forgotten homeland nestled deep within remote forests.
The movie, which was screened at this year’s JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, received a standing ovation from the audiences. Bajpayee, who was present at the screening of the film, opened up about how he prepared for the role of Dasru and how he manages to come out of them.
While responding to a question posed EXCLUSIVELY by COASTAL HOUSE MEDIA journalist Aayush Sharma, the renowned actor revealed that he drew upon his personal experiences of originating from a humble village to authentically portray the character of Dasru.
“I come from a village. My journey has been very, very long. I have met several people. Such has been my journey that I don’t need to go to jhopadpatti to play a jhopadpatti guy. There are so many experiences stored here (points to his brain). I had to simply refresh m memories from my childhood. That’s how my character Dasru cam alive to me. I felt like I had seen him before. I just had to construct him for this film,” Bajpayee said.
On the other hand, the ‘Gulmohar’ star admitted that he never had the luxury of taking a lot of time to get a character out of his mind. Bajpayee added, “As to how I come out of it, I jump to my next film (laughs). Nowadays directors like Devashish Makhija are very, very demanding. They just want to suck you in and want you to forget everything and take a plunge in their world. I try to be a sincere listener to my directors. It’s in my DNA that I don’t get nostalgic about my films. All of us actors are like that. We find our ways to approach our actors. When we don’t work, we try to relax and go back to reading, spending time with family, etc. However, I have heard several actors taking a lot of time to come out of their characters. That is a luxury I’ve never had.”
The film also stars Smita Tambe, Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub and Tannishtha Chatterjee in pivotal roles. ‘Joram’ is scheduled to hit theatres on December 8.
INTERVIEW | Petersen Vargas, Kaori Oinuma, and Gillian Vicencio Talk Filipino Dark Comedy ‘A Very Good Girl’ and Its Overwhelming Success: ‘A Big Achievement For Us’
With movies like ‘Parasite’ and ‘Shoplifters receiving worldwide praise, there is no doubt that Asian cinema is finally getting the recognition it deserves and it is in no mood to stop at all. Joining the bandwagon is Petersen Vergas’ new movie ‘A Very Good Girl,’ starring Dolly De Leon and Kathryn Bernardo in the lead roles. The movie tells the story of Philo (Bernardo) and what happens when she is fired from her job by a stylish retain mogul named Mother Molly (De Leon). However, things go out of control after the firing as Philo embarks on a journey to take revenge and is certain about how she wants to destroy Molly’s empire.
Apart from Bernardo and De Leon, the film also stars two young stars of Filipino cinema – Gillian Vicencio (Joenna) and Kaori Oinuma (Rigel) – who have surprised everyone with stunning performances. As per our review, ‘A Very Good Girl‘ is a roller-coaster ride, filled with brilliant performances, high fashion, and superb production design. Its captivating narrative and visually stunning presentation keep audiences engaged and entertained from beginning to end. The film has received a lot of praise from critics as well as viewers for its storytelling, acting performances, and visually stunning production design.
Coastal House Media caught up with the director Petersen Vargas and actors Gillian Vicencio and Kaori Oinuma to learn more about the creative process and what kind of preparations went into making ‘A Very Good Girl’ such a massive success.
You are working with two of the biggest stars in Asian Cinema, Kathryn Bernardo and Dolly De Leon. Were the roles specifically written for them and they were the first choices for playing Molly and Philo? Also, do you think that the world will be surprised by their Mukti-layered performances?
Vargas: Yes! So, the way we developed the material like we were already thinking of Kathryn and De Leon. So yeah, those roles were tailor-made for them. But what was surprising was what they added to the roles because their performances provided more depth to the characters. It’s surprising because as you’ve said, Kathryn hasn’t done a role like this. So, I think a lot of people were very pleasantly surprised and embraced her character. Viewers call it the new era of Kathryn Bernardo. Meanwhile, as far as Dolly De Leon, I already knew she was gonna kill it, but seeing it in person, directing her, and seeing what she’s done for the film, it still amazes me I could never get tired of watching her thing.
Kaori, you are the jack of all spades. You are a dancer, model, and actress and you can sing as well. The future of Asian Cinema or Filipino cinema is looking bright when people see you on the screen. But what was the first instance where you felt that acting is something I want to do professionally and make my career in?
Kaori: Oh, my gosh! I fell in love with acting while doing my first-ever project, I wasn’t good at that time and even now, I know that there’s a lot to improve. But I just realized that for me, I realized that when you act, you’re free to do whatever you want to, to feel the needs of your character, and as a person, I am not that free. I think I want to dive into acting just because I want to be free, as a person, I can’t wait for that time that I’m free.
Gillian, your character, Joenna, is one of the most important ones and takes the movie in a whole new direction. When the script came to you and you got to know that you were playing this character, what was your first thought and what kind of preparations went in to make sure you nailed the character?
Gillian: You know, when they offered me this role, I just really accepted it, right there and then. But when I read the script, I understood the struggle and the pain of the people who are being taken advantage of, and for me, it’s important for this kind of situation to be known and to be represented. So, no matter how sensitive the topic was or what was going on with the character? I think it was time to spark some discussion about it, especially here in the Philippines. So, I discussed the creatives and directors about the backstory of the hierarchy, and I just did my best to portray it. I just hope that I did justice to the topic because it’s very important, it’s very, crucial.
Outfits play a very important role in this movie because it shows two very distinctive personalities of every character. Was that always a part of the movie? Or you thought of giving the story a spin by including this aspect while shooting.
Vargas: I think it was very much part of the DNA of ‘A Very Good Girl,’ just because it was like a showdown for me and costume design was very key in getting a glimpse of these characters. Like, once you see what those characters were, you’ve kind of like get to know them already, just from that visual. So, it was very important because we wanted to take this campy route very, very seriously. (laughs) I wanted it to be very over the top, I wanted it to be extravagant. So it was fun and because I think Philo’s character is a superhero. Like she, she dresses down to like her normal self, and then suddenly just transforms into a superhero with her with her killer outfits. Yeah, I think I’ve always just envisioned this film ending with two beautiful women in long gowns, but like, you know, like, a drip in blood and jewels. That was always the vision. So yes, definitely, outfits were a big part of the storytelling.
So, the movie has been released and it got amazing reviews. How are you guys feeling after the amazing reviews/social media reactions and do you think such reactions would be able to tell the world that Filipino cinema is back with a bang?
Vargas: The response has been very overwhelming. We are very grateful that we are successful at the box office and people are flocking to the cinemas, giving this film a chance. It’s just a pleasure to see those seats filled out. We’re very grateful and I liked how people started talking about the important themes of the film. Of course, we wanted to engage the audiences in a very fun way in this dark comedy journey, but beneath that, it was very important for us that people talked about the important topics of being good and accountable and this whole story of womanhood. So yeah, I appreciate it a lot and I hope that the audiences outside of the Philippines could feel the same way and support the movie in the same manner.
Gillian: I agree with Peterson. We came out from a pandemic and the Philippine cinema was not doing good. But, we are finally having viewers in theatres right now because of ‘A Very Good Girl’ and I’m very happy that ‘A Very Good Girl’ is the first Filipino film to premiere in Hollywood. So that’s a very big achievement for us and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so happy and grateful. It’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming. I’m just happy with the way people are receiving the movie. Thank you so much for appreciating our work.
Kaori: I think they said it all. Seeing people go back to the cinemas is a very big achievement for me and all of us. The responses and the praises for the movie, I mean, Oh my gosh, it’s overwhelming. The best thing is that people are now open to the new genre and they’re committed to us as well. We love them. We love very good people.
‘A Very Good Girl‘ is currently playing in theatres across the US.
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