On-Set Diary

Exclusive: A Photo Essay on the Making of ‘The Spectacular Now’

The screenwriters of ‘The Spectacular Now’ reveal the making of the film with an on-set photo diary.

The Spectacular Now is a major motion picture now playing in New York and Los Angeles that expands to additional cities on August 9, and goes nationwide on August 23. Directed by James Ponsoldt and adapted from a young-adult novel by Tim Tharp, the film centers on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a hard-partying high schooler—and alcoholic—who, after being dumped by his popular squeeze (Brie Larson), falls for the nerdy and nice Aimee Finicky, played by Shailene Woodley. Unlike Sutter, who prefers to live in “the spectacular now,” Aimee is serious about her future and tries her damnedest to dig Sutter out of the hole he’s in.

Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, the ace screenwriting team behind (500) Days of Summer and the upcoming movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, are the writers and executive producers of The Spectacular Now, and have written a photo essay of the experience making the film.

We started shooting The Spectacular Now on July 26, 2012—almost five years after we finished writing it. What took so long?

Funny story.

It began as a terrific young-adult novel by Tim Tharp, was almost a studio film before it wasn’t, and then it sat there, ripe for the picking, while various directors and actors attached themselves, unattached themselves, said yes, said no, said if scheduling permits, until the two of us were quickly forced to realize—yikes. This movie was simply never going to happen.

In many ways, we were to blame. What breed of moron could possibly think an R-rated high school drama—one without wizards, werewolves, vampires, or some desperate attempt to lose one’s virginity—could possibly work in the current marketplace? We were told time and again that there was no audience for such “challenging” and “difficult” material, a story where characters are flawed, lessons aren’t necessarily learned, and things don’t always work out for the better. We were crazy, they said. And they were probably right.

But something strange happened.

We found out we weren’t alone. We had tenacious producers who could ignore the naysayers, withstand being left at the altar (twice), and manage to push the thing through, even if it meant doing so at their own expense. We had brilliant performers who loved the characters despite their flaws and believed, like us, that there would be an audience looking to relate rather than just to escape. And we found a filmmaker as passionate as he is talented, one who could make the movie we all wanted to make—with little prep time, few resources, and not a lot of money.

Plus, of course, luck. Lots and lots of luck.

Spectacular is the story of high school senior, Sutter Keely—an interesting mix of Dobler sweetness and Bueller cunning. Unlike Ferris, however, Sutter’s misadventures aren’t always benign, nor is the influence he has on his circle of friends entirely positive. He’s a good guy with a big heart, but, as his boss explains, he “just doesn't have a firm grasp on the concept of consequences.”

In other words, an extremely tricky part to play in a movie. All of us were well aware if we didn’t get the right actor, we were dead in the water.

Thank heaven for Miles Teller.

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Just look at him. Miles had already proved he could act (Rabbit Hole). He’d also proved he could be funny (Footloose). But the role of Sutter required him to be charming, seductive, sweet, cutting, sarcastic, vulnerable, angry, and dangerous—often all at once.

Miles auditioned several times for the role and every time, he was, by his own admission, just OK. It was when he wasn’t auditioning, when he was lighting up a room just by being himself, or swapping war stories about his own upbringing, his family, the things he was passionate about—that was the Sutter we’d been looking for.

You also need the right director. We had never met James Ponsoldt until after his movie Smashed premiered to rave reviews. We were somewhat concerned that the two movies and their connections to booze might turn him off.

But James didn’t want to talk about alcohol. He wanted to talk about John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, two of our heroes, and two of our biggest influences when writing this script. From our first conversation with James, we knew we’d finally found the right guy. (It didn’t hurt that Smashed is great.)

This photo is from the first day of shooting. It was 105 degrees and there was almost no shade—just the sound guy with a towel over his face. Craft Services later told us the cast and crew went through 200 cases of water that day.

James grew up in Athens, Georgia, and was very excited to shoot there.

I was excited because Athens is home to REM. In fact, our production office once served as REM’s official band headquarters, which I thought was super cool (album stickers and tour decals still adhered to some of the windows)!

The Spectacular Now is the first major motion picture shot entirely in Athens. Along with a vibrant arts and music scene, Athens is home to some amazing restaurants and of course the University of Georgia—go Dawgs!

One of the most valuable lessons we learned during the making of (500) Days of Summer is the huge importance of that elusive, intangible ingredient known as “chemistry.” You can cast the greatest actors in the world, but if they don’t have that thing when they’re together, forget about it.

We had Joe and Zooey the first time around, and we were just as fortunate here to have Miles and Shai.

Their on-screen dynamic feels so real and natural because, yes, they are brilliant actors, perfectly directed. But it’s also because, off-screen, their dynamic was exactly the same. Miles likes to make jokes, get everyone comfortable, laughing, enjoying themselves. And Shai is always the smartest person in the room without ever having to say so.

Watching them in front of and behind the camera was an absolute miracle—they were Sutter and Aimee.

An example: there are quite a few scenes in the movie in which they have to kiss. The first one we shot was on a playground in the middle of the night. To stay awake Miles was eating Twizzlers, and Shailene, as usual, was drinking an earthy tea. They got into character, did the scene, and the kiss was tender, sweet, beautiful. And as soon as James yelled “cut,” they both burst into hysterics. Shailene said to Miles, “You taste like processed food!” He responded, “You taste like dirt!” Differences in snack preferences aside, their chemistry is a tribute to them as serious actors and to their respect for each other.

Good fortune continued to shine on us in casting the rest of the ensemble.

James had just finished directing the phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed. She agreed to take part. We had heard that one of our childhood heroes, Bob Oedenkirk, was a huge fan of the script and hooked him for a day.

Our producer Andrew Lauren had worked with Andre Royo (pictured above) in G and suggested we reach out to him for a role. Bam, he said sure.

Jennifer Jason Leigh somehow said yes!

Some of the best young actors of their generation—Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi—all agreed to take part.

I mean ... It was an absolute avalanche of awesomeness.

And that’s all without mentioning the great Kyle Chandler, not just a stellar performer but a prince among men.

Kyle turned down first-class airfare and drove himself from Texas to Georgia. Why? Because he thought it would be the best way to prepare himself for the role. As he drove, he took pages and pages of copious notes on his character—a character who appears in one scene and shoots for a day and a half. Why? Because he’s awesome.

Kyle was the emotional rock of Friday Night Lights; a reliable husband, father, and coach, a pillar of the community. In The Spectacular Now he plays Tommy Keely, Sutter’s long-absent father. It was our dream to cast Kyle in this role not just because he’s a fine actor but because he’s so beloved. When the door opens and it’s Coach Taylor, what could possibly go wrong? Well, just you wait. If you only know Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor, get ready for something very different.

Making movies is incredibly fun but also a little insane.

For example, James decided to shoot a particularly crucial scene as one very long, very natural take. This was a risky choice considering the length of the scene and the physical challenges of the location. You only have so much time, so much money, and so much sun to make this work.

So there we are, and the first take—can’t use it. We go again. Nope, didn’t get it. The third take had promise but we weren’t sure.

And then as we’re about to start take 4, a sudden, violent rainstorm erupts. All of us had to take cover under tents and pray for it to stop (see above). But when it finally did stop, the light had changed too dramatically to try again. Fortunately, the third take worked great.

Also, nobody was struck by lightning.

This is what producing looks like at 2:15 a.m. We’re including this shot as a thank-you to the often unsung but completely invaluable producers who defied the odds and made this dream come true.

In the foreground is producer Tom McNulty, who believed in this project before anyone else did and kept believing when most everyone else stopped.

In the background is producer Andrew Lauren, who believed in it so much he fully financed it himself.

And on the right is line producer Matt Medlin, who somehow always managed to find a few extra dollars in the budget whenever we needed anything.

As you can see, long hours and many late-night shoots took their toll on everyone.

We’re often asked how a movie gets made. And the truth is, we have absolutely no idea. The recipe is inexact; a crazy mix of luck, audacity, and moxie. And once it’s happening, you only hope everyone is doing it because they love the project and they want to make the same movie you did when you started writing it down. It’s a special feeling and you know it when it’s happening.

From the intern who never worked on set before to the lead actors whose performances carry the film, that love and camaraderie was there every day and night on The Spectacular Now.

A lot can happen in five years. Or nothing can happen.

But for us, and for the movie, the best-case scenario happened.

On January 18, 2013, The Spectacular Now made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival—and people liked it! Miles and Shai even won an award. And now it’s going to be in theaters across the country. We can’t wait to hear what you think.