Major Hollywood studios like Warner Bros., Sony and Lionsgate debuted films at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, but new distributor on the block A24 might have made the biggest impact. The studio brought "Spring Breakers" and "The Spectacular Now" to Austin, and both films continued to impress festival audiences, though for vastly different reasons.
Directed by James Ponsoldt (last year's festival fave "Smashed"), "The Spectacular Now" is a coming of age tale in the vein of "Say Anything," but with a flask replacing a pen. The film -- based on the novel by Tim Tharp and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ("500 Days Of Summer") -- follows Sutter (Miles Teller), a high school alcoholic who falls in love with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), an intelligent young woman with dreams of becoming a NASA scientist. The supporting cast for the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, includes Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and, in a wildly against-type turn, Kyle Chandler as an absentee dad.
"This script came my way right after Sundance, pretty much," Ponsoldt said after the SXSW screening on Monday night. "I read it and fell in love with it immediately."
In an interesting twist, Ponsoldt's previous two feature films, the aforementioned "Smashed" and "On the Black," focused on alcoholism. The disease, however, isn't the focal point of "The Spectacular Now"; it's never even mentioned by name.
"He never brought up alcohol in our meeting," producer Tom McNulty said of Ponsoldt. "He said it was a beautiful movie about love, first love, acceptance. Alcohol in general was just kind of a subtext for him. It was never a consideration for him."
Striking the right balance, however, between first love and alcoholism is what makes the film tricky. According to McNulty, the first script for "The Spectacular Now" was completed five years ago.
"Everyone kept saying, 'Brilliant script, no one wants to see this movie,'" McNulty said. "It was an impossible sell, because unless you get it pitch perfect, no one is going to see this movie. It'll either be derivative or too dark. It was a really long journey with a lot of various elements coming together and falling apart."
That includes the casting. Teller and Woodley shine in the film -- both giving performances that are worthy of any comparison to John Cusack and Ione Skye in "Say Anything" -- but, as Teller recalled, he almost missed out on the chance to play Sutter.
"I auditioned for it after 'Footloose.' Lee Toland Krieger was directing it then, and I just bombed my audition really bad," Teller said. "They said, 'It's not going any further.' I asked my agent to get me another audition, which he did. That was pretty good, but it still wasn't going any further. It was really the best script I ever read. James came on board and I never had to audition, thank God, because I probably would have bombed it."
That may be, but Ponsoldt said it was Teller's broad range in prior work like "Footloose" and "Rabbit Hole" that helped secure the part. "I couldn't believe it was the same guy," Ponsoldt said. "That was kind of the arc of the character in a way; 'Footloose' to 'Rabbit Hole.' We hung out for a bit and at the end of several hours of drinking and talking, I knew he was the guy."
Just not the guy to say the film's title during the movie.
"What James allowed Shaliene and I to do was embody these characters," Teller said about chances to improvise on set. "If we didn't feel comfortable saying a line, we didn't. There was one moment, at the prom scene, where there's a line that's like, 'This is it, this is everything, this is the spectacular now.' I could just not say it for the life of me."
A24 is set to release "The Spectacular Now" on Aug. 2.