James Ponsoldt on Learning From a Season of Change in “Summering”

A mystery among many in “Summering” is why it feels like such a rare event, a beguiling slice of life featuring a quartet of 11- and 12-year-olds winding down their last days before enlisting in middle school, where whether they know it or not, their group dynamic is likely to change. Nods to a noble tradition are tucked into the small town of Midwood of the influences on co-writers James Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy as Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” sits on a bedside table and surely friends Daisy (Lia Barnett), Lola (Sanai Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills) and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) were inspired to call a secluded forest just beyond city roads “Terabithia” after Katherine Paterson’s young adult classic popped up on their summer reading list, but as the kind of film that’s likely to burrow itself into the mind of those around the same age of its characters upon repeated viewings, able to elicit wonder each time when they can feel as if they’re taken seriously for once within its confines, it seems no less than a minor miracle that the director of “The Spectacular Now” has delivered with his latest.

Although “Stand By Me” comparisons are inevitable given the presence of a dead body, one that the girls find during their nature walk and wonder what should be done about it, Ponsoldt is after something a bit different in “Summering” where wandering off in the woods begins to reflect the distance that they’re starting to put between themselves and their mothers (Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Megan Mullally and Ashley Madekwe), all of whom have done their best to let them be kids while carrying burdens their daughters don’t entirely know about. Yet as the girls embark on what could be an investigation, giving themselves 24 hours to figure out what happened before reporting the corpse to the authorities, they may step further away from their moms, but grow closer to understanding them as they develop minds of their own, thrust into an adult world where suddenly things that were once inexplicable now suddenly start to make sense. When the girls may be eager to grow up and their mothers know how important it is to hold onto their innocence, the film impressively carves out a middle ground with a mix of playfulness and profundity as wisdom can emerge as much from experience as not being beholden to it and the search parties formed by both the parents and their kids can actually be pleased to find different people than they actually set out looking for.

After premiering earlier this year at Sundance, “Summering” is taking its natural slot in theaters across the country as a mid-August treat and on the eve of its release, Ponsoldt spoke about how he worked with the young cast to bring the film to life, how nature played a part in capturing the perfect dusk-like atmosphere for the film and raising questions he’s still trying to answer for himself.

When this was the kind of film that I’d stop and watch when it played on cable, I’ve always wondered why more of them aren’t made, particularly in the indie realm. Was this difficult to get off the ground?

It sounds like growing up, you and I loved a lot of the same films and I have three young kids now and my wife works at a school and there’s kids around everywhere, so the conversations between parents and kids are just part of 24/7 life. And there’s a lot of reasons we can speculate about why those stories aren’t being told as much, but when you’re not making a film that is centered around movie stars in their twenties and thirties, it’s always harder to get a film made, but many of my favorite films and certainly the ones that have impacted at the time and have stuck with me the most are stories about young people coming of age or their first experiences with violence or loss or coming to terms with grief or change. Those are the stories that are so meaningful to me and honestly, they’re what I find myself seeking — a lens to talk about those issues to my kids as they get older and their lives get more complicated.

Structurally, this is quite sophisticated when, including the mothers, you’re tracking eight individual journeys where there’s occasional connections and separations. Was it tricky to crack?

It was to make a story that’s about four kids that have grown up together and to subtly articulate individuality and a sense of class between them in a way that never feels heavy-handed but is present and to lean into the subjectivity of the way that they would respond to the experience like the one that they have. It was much more interesting to us to tell a story that had different tones and even leaned into different genre conceits, whether it is a detective story or a horror film or maybe it could just exist in the mind of these kids, but these kids and this film exists in a world where those genres have been used to tell many stories prior that didn’t necessarily give subjectivity to these characters. I grew up watching a lot of black-and-white old film noirs with my parents that started with a woman being found dead and a male detective either posthumously wishing he could’ve saved her or trying to find justice for her or just trying to figure out his own relationship with his own mother or father, but never really dignifying the autonomy and the emotional reality of the life of the person who is being used as a prop to forward a male-centered story.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Lila and Mari are talking about whether they should even be looking into what happened to this dead guy when they don’t know if he was good or not in a very philosophical way. Does this open up conversations that you may not have put into a more adult-driven drama?

It’s interesting. I think films that contain multiple subjectivities are important subjective experiences — what it is to be an 11-year-old girl or boy — but if we want to understand structural violence the way it’s transmitted through society, we need to lean into multiple subjectivities. That’s the only way we’re going to understand the structures that exist and how we’re not going to be stuck culturally. Storytelling is one way to explore that, and it was very important these were characters that were not yet in adolescence — they’re at that last dying gasp of childhood, and some kids that age, 11 or 12, still present as early innocent or naive or use their imagination, which is a great tool they can use to process trauma. It’s very hard sometimes in a culture that can be very cynical to allow ourselves to look at stories through the lens or psyche of a child and the decision making process of a child, which is different and in some ways, it can actually be more rational and in some ways, it might present as wildly irrational — it might seem idealistic or naive — but I think it’s worth examining and listening to. That subjectivity is something that I was really interested in, especially as I’m having all these conversations with my kids now.

I understand that some of the walk-and-talks between the kids and the relationship between Eden Grace Redfield and Megan Mullally was largely improvised. How did you design the shoot with that in mind?

In putting the ensemble together, it was creating a plausible friend group and a plausible group of actors who would be the mothers to these kids and then creating time they could spend together, either on Zoom or once we were on location where they could create a shorthand and create secrets for themselves that maybe I wasn’t even aware of and to create space where they could say things just the way that they would, in a way that felt natural to them. With every film that I make, so much of it is finding the actors that I feel like are the right people for the role, but whose imaginations I just find the most interesting and who can create life in the white space of the script. I want them to put their fingerprints on the character and make them their own, so I put an emphasis on having a lot of time to talk to them before the shoot, how they would say things and what they would agree with and disagree with, and what they would do.

You hired my favorite cinematographer Greta Zozula to shoot this and it has this real sense of foreboding without tipping its hand. What was it like working with her?

Greta’s amazing. I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw a rough cut of “Never Goin’ Back,” the film she made with Augustine Frizzell and then “Light from Light” and “Half of It” and “Materna.” She’s brilliant, and because of COVID, she was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast and we were talking for over a year before we filmed this, so we had long conversations about photographers and films we liked and we were going to shotlist, if not storyboard, every single scene. But what we ultimately realized was important to us was to come up with a value system and talk about a single image for each scene – like [if it were] a single adjective, what would it be?

We knew that we wanted to be able to articulate the difference between sentimentality and nostalgia in the way that it looked [since] there are sentimental films which look perpetually sun-kissed. We didn’t want that. We wanted something that felt like the warmth of summer, but there were dark shadows around the edges of it and dignified the emotional inner lives of these kids and really was subjective to their experience, which is really different than an adult. The way an 11-year-old is going to process a dead body is different than the way a 40-year-old would, so we really wanted to lean into their perspective on things and to give it a timeless quality, which in some cases meant finding old lenses. We both like aberrations and dirty old lenses and things that feel a little out of time and to have the camera both connected to the characters [as] a fifth friend to the group and to create portraits of childhood that have a memory quality and a dream quality and maybe a little bit of a nightmare quality at times.

From what I understand, it was sweltering hot when you shot this and also likely the first time many of you had been back on set since the start of the pandemic. Did it set a certain mood?

I think we were grateful that we were getting to make a film after having been locked up for so long and not being able to go to the movies or make movies. There was a gratitude first which made us want to be incredibly safe and rigorous and I think a lot of the questions that we all had in our work/life balance and the value of family, all those things informed the way the shoot was. And it was sweltering hot. Much of the Western United States was on fire, and there were COVID protocols that were necessary, so we all felt like an extended family unit making something together that we cared about a lot and taking each other’s emotional and physical safety really seriously, so while the kids had their parents there, the parents became part of the crew and we all had a shared interest in making a story about children and parents.

It’s got quite an evocative score as well. What were the conversations like with Sofia Hultquist, the composer better known as Drum & Lace, to figure out the score?

They were amazing. It was important for me to have a female composer and chiefly female collaborators throughout the film and I’m a mediocre musician, but I’m a music nerd and I knew that I wanted score that felt like it existed in the collective psyche of these four kids. That becomes questions of what would feel like an externalization of what they’re thinking and feeling and what music would they actually have access to and would be listening to and what are the rhythms, the tempos, and the instrumentation of that? So I knew that I wanted chiefly electronic music, and there are not a lot of needle drops. It’s mostly score and I knew I wanted a human voice integrated into something that was electronic.

A friend of mine, [who knew I was looking for a] composer who felt right and felt could speak to these kids and where they were coming from, had mentioned the show “Dickinson,” which I had not seen at the time. I watched some of it and was really blown away — and definitely blown away by Sofia’s score. It turned out, we live like five minutes apart and she read the script and watched a rough cut and I didn’t need to explain anything. I found myself listening to her talking about her experience when she was a kid at that age and what it had been like and and what it was like being a mother now and what she hopes for her child and the fears and the hopes and anxieties that she has and that she doesn’t want to pass on. She was just an amazing collaborator and the more we worked, the more score they became because it more felt like the soundscape of the film in a very natural way. She’s amazing.

What’s it like bringing this one into the world?

It’s surreal. I don’t know how to honor or celebrate it. I don’t even know the right word because it extended from conversations I was having with my children and my children will never be the age [again] when we were having those conversations or when we made the film, so there’s… a sense of sadness, I think? [laughs] I heard someone says once that as a parent, you experience a series of tiny deaths with your kid. Like you remember them when they’re one and suddenly they’re three and then they’re six and each child is like the one before but a totally different person and they’re all there, but you’re kind of grieving how great it was when they were five or whatever it is. So there’s that. My hope is I made this film from my heart and tried to explore unanswerable questions that parents, certainly myself, am trying to answer for my kids all the time, so I hope other parents and kids might see the film and for it to be a catalyst for conversations between them.

“Summering” opens nationwide on August 12th. A full list of theaters is here.