'We didn't want pain to define [David Foster Wallace],' he says
The End of the Tour is a cinematic snapshot of journalist David Lipsky‘s five days spent interviewing David Foster Wallace in 1996, a time when the writer was experiencing the success of his just-released Infinite Jest. The film ends on a moment of Wallace (Jason Segel) jubilantly dancing, one that some have pointed out might not have actually happened. EW talked with director James Ponsoldt about the decision to conclude with that image, why he chose not to focus on Wallace’s well-known depression and suicide, and his desire to find Wallace’s “humanity.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d you decide to end on the image of David Foster Wallace dancing?
JAMES PONSOLDT: The story is David Lipsky’s impressions of his time with David Foster Wallace. It’s sort of who David Foster Wallace was to him during this time and there’s something very universal in that. We all knew through our own research what David Foster Wallace had said to David Lipsky — “I’m going to this dance” — that there may have been some truth and a lot of fiction in it. [Laughs] We were completely aware of that. David Lipsky was aware, we were aware, that Wallace was probably too polite to just ask David Lipsky to leave. [Laughs] I think there was something really lovely in it.
I should say, it is a creation of [screenwriter Donald Margulies] to end the movie on that beat. So it was something he had written, and that’s what I read. It was clear that it was very much Lipsky’s sort of subjective take on how he would have liked to have remembered Wallace in that moment and that he was completely in on it, to some degree. That he was in on Wallace politely telling him that their time together was over, and that whatever the reality was of that moment — it’s something that if you read D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, you can read about that. It’s all sort of well-documented about where he might have been going. It was Lipsky’s desire of how he would have liked to remember Wallace. David Foster Wallace was not defined by pain, not defined by his depression. It’s something very charming and something very funny and I think it’s one of those very universal polite exchanges that two people have when they know their time is over but they don’t know how to say goodbye. Someone doesn’t want to be a jerk. [Laughs]
Did you expect viewers to know that the scene of him dancing wasn’t meant to be taken as fact?
The way I approached the story was this: David Lipsky’s memoir, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself — which was the source material for Donald’s script, and then David Lipsky also made himself available to Donald and told him other stories that were not included in there, some of which made their way into the film — was not a biography. D.T. Max wrote a great biography that was sort of a cradle to the grave story of David Foster Wallace. David Lipsky’s a first-rate journalist, a fantastic writer, and he recorded their time together, but it was subjective. We all have our blind spots. What he captured for sure was how David Foster Wallace behaved in his company, in the company of a complete stranger. David Lipsky didn’t know him before that. They weren’t relatives, they weren’t friends, they weren’t roommates, anything like that. There’s something very universal in that. I think we’re all, to some degree, performing for each other.
So the way we tried to tell the story was to really embrace the blind spots of the film. To not try to tell a more traditional cradle to the grave biopic and pretend that we had some god-like omniscient point of view, to really embrace the subjectivity of David Lipsky’s point of view. The movie begins with David Lipsky receiving news of Wallace’s death. When you meet David Foster Wallace for the first time, you’re meeting him very much through the lens of David Lipsky. The way we shot pretty much every frame of the movie, you’re seeing Wallace from Lipsky’s point of view. So when Lipsky leaves the house at the end of the film, at that point, we can’t account for what Wallace is doing. We tried to be very true to the rules of the world we created. Lipsky did not know, we can not know. We can certainly speculate. Once Lipsky left, it was sort of Wallace as he would like to imagine him.
It felt like a fitting ending to the film, and a film that did not define him by the pain that he felt in his life, which was very important for us. He died, but we didn’t want pain to define him. He was — certainly in the time that David Lipsky spent with Wallace — by all accounts, Wallace was for so many people, for family, friends, students, he was a wildly charismatic, funny, warm, giving guy. There’s a lot of humor and light there. That was certainly Lipsky’s experience with him. But he also was just a guy. He was a complicated guy.
I appreciated that the film didn’t romanticize his depression or death.
I’ve had a number of people very close to me who’ve committed suicide and a lot of people very close to me wrestle with depression, and I don’t find any of it romantic. Quite the opposite. So when I see films that tend to romanticize the myth of the “tortured artist,” I am really repelled by that. I feel like it’s the worst kind of romanticizing or myth-making of human suffering. We didn’t want to depict David Foster Wallace at his worst moments. David Lipsky happened to catch David Foster Wallace at exactly the moment that he was enjoying real success — he had written a very complicated, challenging book that the world affirmed and did not deny, and on a personal level, he was dealing with a good time in his life. He was sober, he was experiencing kind of good mental health, he was teaching well. That was the moment in his life, those few days, that interested us. We’re certainly not interested in dramatizing the worst moments of his life. I would not want to see that and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make that.
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to end the film with Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship”?
I knew from the very beginning. [Laughs] It was something that Wallace had written and included that song in [The Pale King], and I knew that song was very, very meaningful to him. There had even been a scene that didn’t make it into the final film where the two guys talk about that song. There’s a song that came on the radio at the time that Wallace thought was sort of indebted to “Big Ship,” and when they got home, Wallace wanted to play it for him on the stereo. It felt like that scene wasn’t ultimately necessary, but the emotion of that song, certainly what it meant to Wallace, was there.
How did being a fan of David Foster Wallace’s writing affect how you made the film?
Wallace’s writing has had a deep, deep impact on me in my own life. I think the film is an exploration of the theme of his writing, certainly the writing in Infinite Jest. In this case, I think there was a real pressure to try to depict him honestly and humanely. The same way I would try to approach any person.
We had things available to us that a lot of films about real people don’t, such as most of these conversations that are had in the movie, a large chunk of them they actually had. There’s a lot of footage of David Foster Wallace available from that time period that you can see. We were able to talk to people who worked with him and knew him well. So we had all of those things available to us as resources. We weren’t trying to offer some sort of pop psychology explanation of why he was how he was. We really just tried to depict him how he was from David Lipsky’s point of view when they spent time together.
That being said, while we had all those resources, myself, and Donald, and Jesse Eisenberg, and Jason Segel, none of us wanted to do impressions of these guys. Jesse obviously had done this before playing Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. We wanted to capture the essence of these guys and the emotional truth of them. There was, from my point of view, a lot of respect, and I tried to bring as much humility as I could to the equation. I worked really hard to render David Foster Wallace as just a writer. A man, a writer, a complicated person, and not more than that. Certainly not a saint. I don’t think it does anybody any good to do that. We wanted to find his humanity.