Academy Screenings: Director James Ponsoldt on making ‘The End of the Tour’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Siegel in "The End of the Tour." The film plays Saturday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings in Harris Concert Hall.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘The End of the Tour’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Saturday, Dec. 26, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $20 GA/$15 Aspen Film members/Free AMPAS, BAFTA, guild members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

Fans of David Foster Wallace may have hoped — or feared — that “The End of the Tour” would be an attempt at a full biopic-styled portrait of the esteemed writer. It’s not.

The film, which screens Saturday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, is a snapshot of Wallace (Jason Siegel) in conversation with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) on the final leg of the novelist’s 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” just as he was being crowned the voice of a generation. Director James Ponsoldt calls the limited scope “a little keyhole that you could look through” to glimpse Wallace.

Adapted from Lipsky’s bestselling 2010 book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” which presented transcripts of his conversations with Wallace, the film is faithful to the witty, delectable back-and-forths between these two brainy Gen X-ers. But it’s less about Wallace than it’s about envy and journalism, desire and fame.

Reporter and subject, Lipsky and Wallace talked endlessly for four days between Bloomington, Illinois, and Minneapolis. Lipsky is crestfallen over a recently published novel that nobody read. Wallace presents himself as uncomfortable with the attention on him for writing a novel everybody read (or pretended to read). As Lipsky puts it in the film, “He wants more than he has. I want precisely what he had.” Watching that dynamic play out over the course of the road trip is fascinating. Wondering how much of this Wallace is a pose put on for a reporter is, too. New York Times critic A.O. Scott, listing the film as one of the best of 2015, credited it with upending buddy movie tropes to birth a new genre he dubbed a “frenemy film.”

“Very few of us have written a celebrated novel, but many of us will come into contact briefly with someone we measure ourselves against,” Ponsoldt said from the editing room of his next literary adaptation: Dave Eggers’ “The Circle.” “Whether it’s a professional acquaintance, or a relative, an estranged love one, there’s someone who exists much more to us than we do to them. … It can be really destructive to compare your own success or happiness or find your own validation compared to someone else. We’ve all had that experience. And I think it’s the experience that ultimately David Lipsky starts to have.”

Ponsoldt’s relationship with Wallace’s work goes back to the early 1990s. Growing up in a college town — Athens, Georgia — Ponsoldt wrote about music for the local alt-weekly newspaper as a teenager. The youngster, now 37, was introduced to Wallace’s writing by the undergraduates and grad students he worked alongside.

“They were all deeply into Wallace — mostly his essays that were being published everywhere,” he recalled. “David Foster Wallace was like and older, smarter, cooler writer to aspire to and envy.”

Ponsoldt was about to enter college when Wallace’s magnum opus, “Infinite Jest,” arrived on bookshelves and shook the world with its funny, complex portrait of American consumerism and addictive tendencies. His freshman year at Yale, Ponsoldt made his way through the book.

”Every English major that I knew either had a copy of ‘Infinite Jest’ that they were reading or trying to read or pretending to read,” he recalled. “It was this book that you couldn’t deny — this audacious, 1,000-page book. … The most complicated relationship I had that that year was with that book.”

Among his teachers at Yale was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies. Ponsoldt kept in touch with his former teacher as he began his career as a filmmaker, and a few years ago, a script from Margulies arrived in Ponsoldt’s inbox: the adaptation that would become “The End of the Tour.”

“I didn’t read the book thinking about it as a film,” Ponsoldt said. “I was floored by what Donald did with David Lipsky’s book. I’m a huge fan of Donald’s writing, but of all of his plays I think it’s my favorite thing that he’s written.”

The film does a great service to the smart, crackling complicated Lipsky-Wallace conversations and Margulies’s script by putting the words in the mouths of two talented young actors.

Eisenberg spent time with Lipsky, who has remained a prominent journalist since his days with Wallace (and who, in 2013, taught at the Aspen Summer Words literary retreat). Siegel prepared by reading “Infinite Jest” — joking that it was the hardest part of his preparation for the role — and watched interviews with Wallace from the time period of the movie.

It helped, Ponsoldt noted, that both Siegel and Eisenberg are successful writers themselves. Eisenberg writes regular humor piece for the New Yorker and earlier this year published the story collection “Bream Gives Me Hiccups.” Siegel writes screenplays and children’s books.

“They think like writers, they have the humility of writers,” Ponsoldt said. “They didn’t want to do impersonations. While I love ‘Saturday Night Live,’ no one wanted that. It was about capturing the essence of these guys.”

As a long-time Wallace fan himself, Ponsoldt understood the deep, personal relationship so many people have with Wallace’s work and the critical eye many would turn toward his film (early footage of Siegel, dressed as Wallace, filming at the Mall of America, raised hackles online).

“Knowing that going into it, and having that reaffirmed when the movie came out, lent intention to what we were doing, which was to make a movie with love and respect for two complicated men who took their work very seriously,” he said.

Limiting the scope to the few days of Wallace as he was seen by Lipsky gave Ponsoldt a manageable framework. Though the making of the film drew criticism from Wallace’s family and many friends, who stated Wallace had agreed to an interview with Lipsky but not to a film based on their conversations, Ponsoldt saw the book and Margulies’s script as unassailable.

“Abstracting David Foster Wallace, making him into a saint or anything like that — which is what happens a lot of the time with films about artists — it does a disservice to what they did,” he said. “When people try to do films about people who are creative — writers, musicians, visual artists — they oftentimes focus on the real high moments or the real low moments: someone ripping the last page of a manuscript out of a typewriter, splattering paint onto a canvas and tearing it apart.”

There’s none of that here. Instead, we have Wallace on the road smoking cigarettes, eating junk food and talking junk movies (along with art, honesty, the weight of fame, the despair of depression, the human condition).

“The movies I like that deal with real world people, generally, focus on a moment in time, a brief encounter,” Ponsoldt said. “What struck me about the book was that it was that it was so subjective by its nature: it was what Wallace was to Lipsky over a few days. That was something we could account for and that we wanted to tell.”