'The End of the Tour' is a filmed chapter in the David Foster Wallace story
After Wallace committed suicide in 2008, a book was published about a five-day road trip he shared with a magazine writer. That book is the basis of a new feature film.
In 1996, David Lipsky, a writer on assignment for Rolling Stone, joined author David Foster Wallace on a five-day road trip during Wallace's book tour for his novel, "Infinite Jest." Rolling Stone never published the story and the audio tapes documenting the conversations between Lipsky and Wallace went into storage.
In 2008, after Wallace committed suicide, Lipsky turned the tapes into a book titled "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself." The book was the basis for the new movie, "The End of the Tour." The film stars Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky. The screenplay was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies, who is a theater professor at Yale University. The film was directed by a former student of his, James Ponsoldt.
"The End of the Tour" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. According to Ponsoldt, after reading the book, his vision for the movie didn't come immediately.
"When I read the book I didn't see a movie," Ponsoldt says. "I didn't know how one could necessarily translate — I mean, it was the best conversation ever. Everyone said whether it's a movie like 'Don't Look Back' or whether it is your own personal road trip, there is that sense of, Wow, I would love to be a in a car with that guy!
"I think between the lines you can feel Wallace essentially telling Lipsky to calm down. If the god that you worship is the god of your own intellect, [thinking you're] the smartest guy in the room, it's going to be a really lonely life for you. You feel that and, ultimately, Donald Margulies — who was my playwriting teacher in college, who adapted the book — really, I think cracked it."
Ponsoldt was interviewed by The Frame's John Horn.
Were you a good student of [Margulies'] or did you have to earn yourself back into his good graces?
I think I was a model — I think I was a rambunctious student. I had Donald the year after he won the Pulitzer Prize. I was really intimidated. He wound up being a total mensch. He was a fantastic professor. Donald was a great teacher. He was very sympathetic to students who didn't have their heads on straight. We stayed in touch. He was very supportive over the years.
Rolling Stone did not jump at the chance to publish the story about this road trip that its journalist went on with David Foster Wallace. Did you have similar resistance about trying to raise money about a movie about that same road trip?
I received this script from Donald. Anonymous Content — I've really admired [their] films and television shows — were involved with it. Then we started talking about actors. I think through some synchronicity of people involved and the story, we found financing pretty quickly, actually. I think it helped that we found these two fantastic actors in Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel.
Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt's new film "The End of the Tour." Photo courtesy of A24
Were they the actors that you initially approached? Did they rise to the top? How did you end up casting them?
We thought about and talked about every actor under the sun. I think not a lot of people know exactly what David Lipsky looks and sounds like, but many people have seen Wallace. You go on YouTube you can find endless clips of him. We knew it would be an incredibly scrutinized role to cast. We considered everyone. Jesse and Jason are actors I've long admired and eventually they just seemed like the only choices, really. They had never worked together. They sort of became friends through this process and it really was sitting down with the guys and talking with them endlessly.
Jesse spent time with David Lipsky. With Jason, I had been a big fan and I think, going back to "Freaks and Geeks," he was the original core of that show. Even though he's known as someone who is a comic actor, he is someone that is always grounded, always vulnerable and always honest in those performances. Jason really worked hard to prepare for the role.
If we listen to David Lipsky's tapes and listen to the way Jason spoke as David Foster Wallace, is it pretty close?
I think there is an incredible similarity. I mean Jason wasn't trying to imitate his voice. That would create something that was a hair artificial. He was trying to understand where David Foster Wallace was coming from. But, yeah, Jason did a lot of work to get that voice right. That sort of central Illinois twang of someone who was also the child of East Coast academics. It's a very specific voice that a lot of people have heard. So Jason was trying to capture the spirit of it and I think he did a pretty good job.
This movie can be read as a story about journalism, as a story about the creative process, as a story about a friendship. When you were making it, what kind of movie did you think you were making? Did you end up actually making that movie or something different?
If the film requires that you know the writing of David Lipsky or David Foster Wallace, it is playing to a pretty small audience. For me, it was a story about friendship and to some degree it was a unrequited love story. But that was really the way that I treated it and that helped keep it simple. I invested emotion in it [to not have] a film that was smarty pants and working from the neck up.
Whose love was unrequited?
I think David Lipsky's. I say this as someone who has been, to some degree, on both sides of this — both a subject and the one interviewing the subject. I've gotten to interview some people who are heroes to me. I'm sure I would wish for their friendship, but I don't know them and they don't know me. It's very easy to confuse those things and I think that is sort of what happened. But it was also a five-day trip where I think most publicists — there is no way in hell they would let that happen. It just gets too close and too weird and the line got blurred.
Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky in James Ponsoldt's new film, "The End of the Tour." Photo courtesy of A24.
It's a relic of a different era. As David Lipsky says a couple times: "You agreed to the interview." Lipsky was involved in this project. Was he at the shooting? What was that like when the other subject of your film is looking over your shoulder?
Yeah, Lipsky was fantastic in a way that I can't imagine myself being, which is to say he was a resource that was available to us. He clarified things for myself and the actors. He made the actual tapes available. When it came down to details — from production design to costume design — he was always there to read in-between the lines of what was said and what was meant.
He was consistent in that he had zero vanity when it came to himself and how he was depicted. He was incredibly defensive and fought hard for us to get David Foster Wallace right, to not screw that up. That was what was vitally important to him. He holds the memory of David Foster Wallace very close to his heart and he is very important to him.
The estate of David Foster Wallace has said that they disassociate themselves from the film and that they don't approve of it. How did you take that news and what do you think is behind it?
I think they're absolutely entitled to that. I can't speak for them. David Foster Wallace's family are very private people who dealt with an unbelievable loss. We were doing our best to adapt David Lipsky's book and to tell his story of how he was affected by this very limited amount of time he spent with Wallace. In that regard it is a very subjective story. It is not a cradle-to-grave biopic. I can say that when Lipsky's book came out it was met with acclaim. It was written with the support of David Foster Wallace's immediate family. They knew that Donald Margulies was adapting it.
So our goal was just to sort of tell Lipsky's story as honestly as we could. Tell the story of the time that he had spent with Wallace and do justice to the memory of David Foster Wallace, who is somebody that we just adore. We want to tell that story with love and compassion.