Jason Segel got his big break as one of the ensemble on TV's Freaks and Geeks and later spent nine seasons in the regular cast of hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, but he has also repeatedly made his mark on the big screen in comedies—Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he also wrote); I Love You, Man; Bad Teacher; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; Knocked Up, and three he co-wrote: Sex Tape, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Muppets—and now the drama The End of the Tour, directed by James Ponsoldt. Ponsoldt's directing credits include The Spectacular Now, Smashed (which he co-wrote) and Off the Black (which he wrote). The simpatico duo, in town to screen The End of the Tour at the San Francisco International Film Festival, sat down with me at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel to discuss the film and its primary subject, author David Foster Wallace.
Groucho: First of all, I enjoyed the film very much. When it was over I wanted to get right back on the ride. It's sort of this intellectual and emotional roller coaster really. Maybe that's not the best way to sell the film.
(JS & JP laugh.)
Groucho: Anyway, there's so much I want to talk about concerning the film, but as good a place as any to start is sort of what we're doing here, this: the nature of interviews. Philosophically, we might ask if we can ever really know another person even if it's a spouse or a parent, and these guys were ostensibly getting to know each other over just five days together. How well did you think they did get to know each other?
James Ponsoldt: I think that's up to debate, you know? I think they probably walked away from it with very different impressions, you know? (Laughs.) I mean I think a lot of it was probably obscured by certainly David Lipsky's desire to have more than just a professional sort of experience. I think he, you know, wanted a friendship from that time. I think he felt a real sense of intimacy. I think, you know, he had made this—he had pitched the story to his editors. He had made a big trip out to the Midwest to interview someone who he thought was a living genius. I mean, it was a big deal for him. He was young. He was 30, and Wallace was only 34. David Foster Wallace was at the tail end of a book tour talking about this book a lot, so I think he was really exhausted. (Chuckles.)
James Ponsoldt: So I think hopefully there is a tension in the film where you're not quite sure whether these are two guys making themselves vulnerable in a genuine way and connecting, or performing for each other, posturing for each other.
JP: You know they both have jobs to do: to promote something and then to report on something.
JP: So hopefully there's a bit of gray area there.
G: Mm-hm. Actually I wanted to ask about another kind of tension in the film which is—and in Wallace's life and career I think—between high culture and low culture, and that's something that all artists probably experience and in all American lives we experience. One of the more cinematic images in the movie for me is that long main drag of the chain restaurants and fast food restaurants. We all recognize that image, and we enter into a couple of them and also the Mall of America. Anyway—can you both talk about this side to Wallace as this regular guy, American consumer, but also maybe the great American novelist and then this kind of marriage—uncomfortable marriage—between artistic creation and what we're doing here—maybe selling something, having to sell something.
JP: Yeah I mean, you know, Wallace was obsessed with language and philosophy and sort of abstract intellectual ideas and wrote about them, but I think he was also very democratic in what he consumed. He was a guy from the Midwest who loved sports. He loved music. He loved food, politics. He loved engaging with all those things and really absorbing all of it, and found real comfort in television, which he was always pretty open about having an addiction to. I think he found a real connection to other people through the sometimes banal, sometimes invigorating stuff of everyday life, and found that far more relatable than talking about advanced sort of lit theory.
G: Uh huh.
Jason Segel: I think that one of the things that's so compelling about Wallace is that he acts as a surrogate for us, so—he says, “Don't you feel this way also?” And he can do that going on a cruise ship, attending a porn convention, and then he can also do that about intense feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction. So that's what's really amazing is that you read Wallace and you feel like “Oh, that is us.” He's not telling us things that we don't know. He's able to express things that we already know. We just don't have the vocabulary for it.
G: And that was, if I understand correctly, your approach to the performance...to try to find the ways in which he and you overlapped or intersected as people—
Jason Segel: Sure.
G: And maybe also for the audience. Can you talk about what you related to there as an artist, as a writer, as a celebrity, as a person?
JS: Yeah. Well I think that 'as a person part' is what's most important. When I read Infinite Jest I almost felt like it was a—it was like a distress beacon of somebody saying, “Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else feel this way?” over and over, and I think the answer is "yes." That's why it resonates so much, at least for me when I read it. And all of his writing, I feel like the question is being asked, “Anyone else feel this way?” And so I really tried to connect to that—and what really hit me, what the movie was about and what I think Infinite Jest is about, is this idea that we're told—and it's a very American idea—that certain things are going to satisfy this feeling of inferiority, of not being enough, that something is missing. Isn't there more? And you find out, I think, as you get older, no, they don't. This sad reality as you achieve things, and realize, “Oh, I feel the same," and so to me it was about this question of, well, where should we put our value? And I just really connected to that.
G: Mm-hm. I wondered when watching the movie, too...did you connect or relate to or have a sense memory of your first profile piece experience, like somebody following you around like this? Surely this has happened to you before.
JS: (Sighs.) Yeah. Well, it was slightly different times, and when I kind of came of age to be profiled—
(JS & G chuckle.)
JS: The internet had really come into its own, and there is this notion of anything you say at any given time now lives forever. And so I really did relate to this feeling of extreme caution that, uh, even something I say off-handedly could now be printed out-of-context, anywhere, for the rest of my life.
JS: And so, yeah, I was able to take some of that into that context because I think David Foster Wallace had a lot of experience being on the other side of the tape recorder, and so he knew—when we talk about him in the movie you get to take this piece and write it up however you want.
G: Yeah. "A hundred different ways."
JS: Yeah. That's a scary prospect.
G: Yeah. So David Lipsky's memoir, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, captures his own view of Wallace as observed over these last days of the personal appearance tour. Can you talk about adopting that entirely subjective viewpoint into this medium that's very collaborative? Obviously it starts with Donald Margulies' screenplay, and then it gets into your hands and then Jesse Eisenberg's hands.
JP: Yeah, well, I mean, I think any claims towards objectivity or a desire to be objective in storytelling even in something like the direct cinema tradition documentaries like the Maysles and Fred Wiseman is that still you have to acknowledge that you know someone is making a choice of what to put in the frame and how to edit and how—there's so much power that someone can have and how little power the subject can have. So I think that for me, most for lack of a better term "biopics" I find really reductive and kind of trite. I mean, to do a cradle-to-the-grave story of someone in 105 minutes. It's by its very nature—you're really cherry-picking moments. You're trying to draw conclusions, or this is, you know, the meaning of why something that happened at age 7, you know, would foretell something that's going to happen 30 years later. It's really, really tough. So, you know, in this case, I mean, part of what excited me and why I was interested in this is that by its very nature it's incredibly subjective. It's someone whose job it is to go and just turn on his tape recorder and shadow someone as long as he'll possibly let him.
JP: And then, you know, the reporter's own ego, and sort of insecurity and desire for validation sort of complicates all of that. But I think what's great actually about Lipsky's book is that it's—when he wrote the book he was listening back at these tapes that were over a decade old and hearing himself at age 30, when he's now in his forties, try to compete to be the smartest guy in the room and, I think, feeling a real sense of regret. And probably between the lines of even being warned by Wallace, like "I know the game that you're playing. You should stop that because I'm actually trying to be vulnerable and honest and I'm giving you something good. Stop these games." (Laughs.) You know, kind of like a kid brother thing.
JP: I mean, it's really there, and I think that Lipsky had wished—I get this sense of, yeah, regret and melancholy and a desire that maybe he could have done it differently, and you know, in a different context, if these guys met in a different way, they might have become good friends, but because of the nature of their professional needs and requirements of that relationship there were always going to be weird walls and sort of a very performative aspect maybe to what they were doing.
G: So what sort of discoveries did you guys both make in listening to Lipsky's tapes?
JS: The thing that struck me was how fun the conversation was. For as tense as it could have been given the context. I guess over four days you're bound to let your guard down a little bit, and so the fun pop culture conversations when music would come on the radio or they would get off on a tangent was really what hit me because it led to some really important decisions about what the movie should be like, and James and I had talked about it, but you really need to want to be in that car as an audience member.
JS: If this is just two smart guys talking, or if it's just a pure heaviness—emotional heaviness—it's not a fun car ride. And so I think that part of what James captured so well is there's some real serious stuff in the movie, but there's also elements of two guys on a road trip together...
JS: I thought that was really cool to hear David Foster Wallace talk candidly about music, you know?
JS: It was great. It was more in line with the short-form writing, and then you get into the more Infinite Jest kind of stuff, so the conversation really encapsulates the different styles of David Foster Wallace's writing, too, I think.
JP: I think also...in listening to all of those conversations, you realize they were two guys that were sort of finishing each other's sentences. That they were in many ways, in conversation at least, really great peers, and, I mean, Lipsky...everyone knows exactly how brilliant David Foster Wallace was. David Lipsky's also brilliant. He has, in my experience, an encyclopedic knowledge of most everything, which can be exciting, it can be exhausting, and I think when you hear the tapes what you realize is that by the end of it, you know, Wallace worked for five years on a really tough, very personal book, and that he was now at the tail end of a book tour promoting that and talking about those ideas, and I think really wanted to retreat and just go back and be alone?
G: Uh huh.
JP: I mean, and he was just being prodded and prodded and prodded. And he sounded tired, you know. He sounded exhausted and just was probably vulnerable. That being said, it's hard to say because, again, you know, he did know how this article could be used because he wrote great profiles himself of directors, athletes, and politicians, and I think maybe how vulnerable either character was actually making [himself] to the other person it's impossible for us to know, and hopefully the film has a real tension and has a big question in that. I'd like to think that they were being intimate and vulnerable with each other, but maybe there were just performing.
G: Right. Right. So Donald Margulies, who wrote the script, is a playwright, who you studied under, right?
G: And while I feel the film is cinematic, it also has this theatrical quality to it that I love. It's this kind of classic, two-hander thing like Frost/Nixon or something like that...
G: And I also thought about Linklater a lot because it's such a great conversation film. Anyway, that emphasis on dialogue and the compressed scope of time and space: can you talk about it as a piece of drama, and did you have the luxury of rehearsal?
JP: We didn't rehearse, you know, properly, I mean like as far as in a very traditional like let's-rent-a-space for a few weeks and work for eight hours a day, and actually in this case I didn't want to. It's worth noting that Jesse and Jason had never worked together before, and they hadn't met before this, and that was the relationship that Lipsky and Wallace had. This is not a film about Wallace's—you know, a family member or a roommate. It's about a stranger who came with an agenda that he's very open about and that Wallace is very aware of, and then he left. And they didn't stay in each other's lives. But I do think there was something electric while they were together, and I think it was revelatory certainly for Lipsky, who's a person who wrote the book that the film is based on. I think it did alter his consciousness and the way that he approached his work. And so in that regard, yeah, so much of this I think is subjective, and it is a power struggle between two guys, of someone trying to—with less power, trying to gain it.
G: Yeah. Maybe to re-frame it for Jason a little—your working with Jesse: did you guys find that you had a very similar approach to the material and the characters, or was there a period of sort of sniffing around each about how you guys would work and approach the material?
JS: Well, I think that, since the preparation was done separately, that was all very personal, and I think that that was helpful in that we met maybe twice before we started shooting, and then we arrived on set, and there really wasn't like an introduction day of shooting where we did some light scenes. We really started with some pretty heavy stuff. We shot out of sequence, so we shot in the house for the first three days. And a lot of important stuff happens in David Foster Wallace's house in the movie, so we jumped right in, and yeah, I think that seeing—you know, I knew going in that Jesse was just going to come uber-prepared and sharp-as-a-tack—and he did. And so I didn't really have a choice. I mean, I wasn't going to do it any other way anyways, but I think it was two guys who knew that they had to come in and kind of be on their game.
JP: Yeah. I mean it's worth noting—well, we didn't—it was important for me to kind of keep them separate and let the discoveries, the epiphanies, whatever it is, hopefully happen on camera, individually and myself with each of them. They did a lot of preparation in there after their own processes to get ready to sort of—you know. It was a boxing match to some degree.
G: And I know that the script had to be just an amazing starting point, but I wonder, too: so much of acting is re-acting and how much there might have been of a little bit of improvisation—or was there anything like that?
JS: There are very sparse moments of "something happening," but I felt as though doing any paraphrasing of David Foster Wallace wouldn't have done justice to how smart David Foster Wallace is. He's so much smarter than me. (Laughs.) And so I felt like it was very important to come in literally word perfect, because there is such a specific way of articulating a thought. It's not even just a speech pattern or anything like that. It's one of the important character traits of David Foster Wallace is he speaks in perfectly formulated arguments that manage to sound conversational. And that's just not something I would have been capable of doing in an improv way. Yeah.
G: So as you said, you go the other route from the whole "biopic" thing, and this really is a snapshot of this moment in his life. Can you talk about where you think he was at this moment and his state of mind? Obviously there's a haunted quality about it with the quality of hindsight we all have knowing that not long after this he'd be gone from the planet.
JP: Yeah, I mean, there's a D.T. Max biography called Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story that came out a couple of years ago that really—it's very different than Lipsky's book. It's a sort of it's a traditional biography that sort of gives you a sense of everything—where he was professionally, personally. So that helps contextualize, and through our own research, you know, talking to people that were close to Wallace at the time, we have a pretty good sense of it, but he was in a good place, you know? He was thriving as a teacher. He was a great, great professor at Illinois State. His students loved him. And I think that really gave him structure and made him accountable to people. The stories that you hear from students of his, really, he bent over backwards and made himself available, in a way. My father was a college professor for over thirty years, so I mean I just have deep admiration for great teachers, and it sounds like he really was one of those. He had worked for five years on a really hard book. You know, it was not him trying to sell out. (Chuckles.) He was making a challenging, postmodern 1079-page book, and the world didn't deny it. It affirmed it and totally embraced it. I don't know that he could have possibly expected that. It must have been a really weird thing. You know, he, at that point, really had an emphasis on living healthy, and I think there was probably also this feeling of—there was some great weight that he'd just gotten rid of and put out but also maybe that thing in his gut that you hope that is filled by professional admiration or the world saying you're a good person. I don't know that it necessarily was filled, because at the end of the day—what's next? (Laughs.) What's next? It's a horrifying proposition. The friends of mine that I have that have created something really amazing and ambitious and that the world really embraces, there's just an insane amount of pressure on them that I would never want to have to deal with, so in some ways I can't imagine where he was.
G: Anything to add on that, Jason?
JS: Well, I just think it's a very scary, scary moment—and this is all speculation from me—but in having to play the part—in getting to play the part—I had to make some of these decisions, you know? I think it's a really terrifying moment when you unload something so personal, so good, it's embraced by everybody. It goes as well as it can possibly go, and then you are left with that you still feel the same. I think that is just a very terrifying moment to have to deal with. So this four days of the movie: that was what was on my mind is what happens when something goes as well as it can possibly go, and it doesn't change your insides?
G: Well, I think this has gone as well as it could have possibly gone.
JS: Yeah—you nailed it! (JS and JP laugh.)
G: Thank you very much, guys.
JS: Thank you!
JP: Yeah, thanks.