The director’s cut: James Ponsoldt behind the scenes

Filmmaker and screenwriter James Ponsoldt was meant to portray raw existence. After graduating from Cedar Shoals High School in 1997, he has gone on to direct several movies including “The Circle” starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, as well as “Smashed” starring Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In his pursuit to chronicle even the most mundane perspectives, Ponsoldt proves that everyone has a story worth telling. 

“I really love people. I think they are endlessly fascinating and have mysterious inner lives and are very similar to each other in many ways. Films that explore how strange it is to be alive are things I really gravitate toward,” Ponsoldt said. “My hope is always that someone might see some version of themselves in a character or in an experience and feel less alone through the process.”

Immersed in the creative world from a young age, Ponsoldt remembers being exposed to plenty of books in his childhood as his mother wrote short stories. His grandfather, the late William Teason, painted movie posters and book covers, notably for Agatha Christie novels. Being raised in Athens, home to several well-known bands, actors and countless visual artists, he was engulfed in culture. 

“I was really lucky to grow up where they normalized engaging with culture and the idea that maybe you could create it,” Ponsoldt said.

In his early life, Ponsoldt began to tell stories through various mediums. He drew comic strips, wrote short narratives and acted in the local Athens Community Theater group. After attending Barnett Shoals Elementary and Hilsman Middle School, he also worked at Beechwood Cinema, further immersing himself in film. When he wasn’t working at the theater, he wrote articles for both Excalibur, Cedar’s student newspaper at the time, and the local Flagpole magazine.

“He (Ponsoldt) was never afraid to do what he wanted, not what everyone else wanted to do. He had his own ideas about how he thought things should be done,” Ponsoldt’s former journalism teacher Beth Tatum said. 

ROLL BACK THE TAPE: James Ponsoldt poses for his senior photo in 1997. He has been telling stories since he was young, even before high school. “I devoured different types of stories and storytelling. I was reading books and comics and writing stories. I loved watching movies and was acting in plays,” Ponsoldt said. Photo from 1997 Cedar Shoals yearbook.

While Ponsoldt has always had a creative mind, it was his economics class at Cedar that sparked his interest in film. Students were tasked to create a commercial for a fictional product — an assignment Ponsoldt quickly took the lead on. With his dad’s video camera, a partial script and a few friends, he discovered a method of marrying together his diverse interests of acting, writing, photography and music.

“I realized that filmmaking combined all the things that I really loved. I think it was a lightbulb moment for me,” Ponsoldt said. “Nothing else up to that point or since has really captured my full attention in the same way.”

Before graduating from Cedar, Ponsoldt played varsity football for three years under head coach Scott Wilkins. In 2022 he was inducted into the Cedar Shoals Athletic Hall of Fame. After high school, Ponsoldt attended Yale University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English while playing football. Living in a college town his entire life prepared him for the similar environment Yale provided. With exception of the colder weather, Ponsoldt found little culture shock but quickly realized that he was moving on from what he knew. 

“I essentially came home from the hospital as a baby to the same house I lived in my whole life until I left for college. That’s what I really knew,” Ponsoldt said.

Once he graduated from Yale in 2001, Ponsoldt dove headfirst into film school at Columbia University. While working toward a Master’s of Fine Arts there, he also began pursuing the MFA fiction program at New York University, all while writing a novel. Ponsoldt eventually enrolled in a screenwriting professional program at the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television. 

“​​I moved to New York ostensibly to go to graduate school and learn to tell stories or try to tell my own,” Ponsoldt said. “I felt like with the novel that I was trying to write at age 22, I needed to do some more living.”

In his second week of school in New York, the 9/11 attack shook the country. A quarter of his classmates quit the program as they reassessed their priorities. Ponsoldt stuck with the Columbia program, as he felt he had found his true passion there.

“Graduate students from all over the world who were storytellers suddenly had this unprecedented thing that happened right there. I think for a lot of people it was a gut check,” Ponsoldt said. “It helped focus people’s perspectives or at least make them ask what kind of stories are worth telling.”

To pay for his extensive education, Ponsoldt became a teaching assistant and bartended his way through school. Following 9/11, he worked at Gotham Comedy Club where he performed stand-up and served food.

“It was a time (post-9/11) when either not a lot of people wanted to go to comedy clubs or they really needed to go to comedy clubs,” Ponsoldt said.

He soon made the leap from graduation to his first feature film, “Off the Black.” The 2006 movie follows two characters: an alcoholic (Nick Nolte) and troubled teen (Trevor Morgan). Here Ponsoldt began to solidify his directing style. Despite the meticulous choices that go into producing a film, he aims to create a sense of naturalism.

“In every frame, every time, there’s an edit. Someone made a decision to do that at that exact moment. It’s this real impressionistic, fake version of reality that when it’s done well, you just get immersed in it for hours,” Ponsoldt said. “I want it to have a real, lived in, earthy experience and I want the people that I work with to put as much of their own humanity and personality into it. I think that makes for better art and a better experience.”

Tatum saw this vision even when Ponsoldt was in high school.

“He was always thinking in terms of what you can see, what you can feel and what you can touch,” Tatum said.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: James Ponsoldt works on set. He hopes audiences find a way to actualize their own experiences through his movies. “I think when it works well, art can be a mirror into our own experiences and help us feel less alone or it can offer us insight. It can inspire us, it can make us laugh, it can help us. If we’re going through a hard time it can help us forget what we’re going through for a little while. Art gives meaning to life. I really believe that deeply,” Ponsoldt said. Photo provided by James Ponsoldt.

Ponsoldt wanted this same effect for his 2013 movie, “The Spectacular Now” starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. He aimed to make the movie timeless and avoid looking exceptionally outdated. The set location largely played into the ambiance; the romantic comedy was shot at Clarke Central High School because Cedar Shoals, had already been torn down and renovated at the time.

“I like locations that have a sense of character and have really been lived in and not brand new. We live in a world where we get strip malls with a new Starbucks and new grocery stores and everything looks the same. When you find a place like an older house or an older building that has character I think that’s really beautiful. It’s like one of a kind. Unfortunately, the Cedar Shoals that I went to had already been knocked down,” Ponsoldt said.

Of course, none of the infinite decisions and processes exist without the script. As he’s gotten older, Ponsoldt tries to write more than one screenplay at a time to help with writer’s block. If he gets stuck on a project he can focus on another. Through years of experience, Ponsoldt recognizes his writing pace and time constraints. With a family of his own, he has seen the value of time and how to be most efficient in his writing.

“I think just sitting down and forcing yourself to write anything, even just the same frustrated word, eventually it might unlock something. I think it’s important for people who are writers and creative to treat their work like a craftsman; the same way that someone who’s a carpenter or a plumber or a cobbler would. Make yourself responsible to do that work everyday,” Ponsoldt said.

Throughout his journey to follow his passion and persevere amongst creative challenges, Ponsoldt embraced the unfamiliar. Growing up, he didn’t have a template to follow. Parts of his life felt abstract at first, as he didn’t know anyone who went to Yale or had direct connections to the film industry. 

“The idea of actually making movies seemed really distant because I didn’t know anyone that did that,” Ponsoldt said. “It helps to have models around you who do the thing that you do so you know it’s not just something that only other people get to do.”

As a competitive field where connections are crucial, devoting one’s life to the film industry, or any art form, is often a risk and luxury since it doesn’t promise stability. Ponsoldt reminds himself that those who do commit must make sacrifices and be willing to fail many times over.

“I think every person alive is a creative person at their core. When we’re children we all play make-believe and we all have imaginations, it’s just some people choose to keep doing that,” Ponsoldt said. “To make that a career or be lucky enough to get to do that is not easy and it’s very competitive. A lot of people would kill to do that.”

Appreciating the success he has had, Ponsoldt sees the privilege in pursuing a career not many kids from the East side of Athens experience. 

“I think to squander that passion and to not pursue the thing you love … there’s something really tragic in that,” Ponsoldt said. “I realize it’s easier said than done, but you have to recognize that your life is worth it and your voice is worth being heard. Your point of view is important.”

SNIPPETS OF TIME: A film strip shows James Ponsoldt’s past directorial endeavors. Ponsoldt has directed a number of independent films including “The Circle” and “The Spectacular Now.” Graphic by Kira Law.

Kira Law

Senior Kira Law is the Co-Editor-in-Chief for her fourth year with Cedar BluePrints. She has yet to decide what career path interests her, but she enjoys film and literature. In her free time, she plays softball for the Lady Jags softball team, helps with the Cedar reader book club, and watches movies. This year in journalism, Law hopes to establish herself as someone her peers can go to for help. She appreciates the great minds of the staff and how journalism gives her more insight into the school community.

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