The Circle: Director James Ponsoldt On Making Dave Eggers’ Tech Thriller  

– by Edward Douglas

In 2013, Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle took a look at the way technology was evolving in our current society, creating an eerie almost satire about where it could go in the coming years, much of which has actually taken place since the book was published. 

The movie version of Eggers’ novel stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young California woman hired by the lucrative tech and social media company, The Circle, as a customer service representative. The Circle’s “TruYou” app allows all of your personal and public information to be stored in one place, and as Mae settles in to the campus, the company’s founder (Tom Hanks) introduces a microscopic camera that can help people keep track of everything the wearer is experiencing. Mae soon finds herself becoming one of the company’s first employees to offer full transparency, having serious consequences on her personal life.

Also starring John Boyega (The Force Awakens), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and Patton Oswalt, the movie is co-written and directed by James Ponsoldt, who cut his teeth on popular indies like Smashed, The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, before taking on this far more complex film that delves heavily into current social issues like technology and how it interferes with one’s privacy.

Earlier this week, LRM sat down with Ponsoldt for the following interview, in which he also talked about what the late Bill Paxton brought to the role of Mae’s father.

LRM: I’m not sure if we talked about “The Circle” the last time we spoke, but I heard that you found the book, read it and decided to adapt it. Did you even known who had the rights to it?

James Ponsoldt: I mean, yeah, I spoke to Dave (Eggers), and that's how it started. It was talking to Dave and getting the rights but knowing that Dave was okay with me doing it. Some of his things have been ... one of his books has been made, there's other things that people have tried to make in the past, but yeah Dave, was a really great collaborator, so it was done both with his support and literally his involvement, which was really helpful just as it needed to necessarily change, evolve, whatever, just get focused to be a movie, it was great hearing his point of view on it, and having him be involved. 

LRM: Were they already working on “Hologram for the King” at that point or had that already happened?

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, they had.  I forget what stage that was in, but Tom Tykwer definitely knew that he was making it. I don't know if they had shot it at that point, or maybe they had shot it and it was in post, something like that.

LRM: I was wondering where David's head was at when someone else comes along and says, "Oh, I want to adapt your book now."

James Ponsoldt: Dave, honestly, the thing that he told me, and he said that's what he told Tom, when he first talked to him, was, "Please don't be blindly adherent to the book. You don't have to be literal,” and he said his feelings wouldn’t be hurt. “Make it your own, but they're also two different mediums, so things should be invented, characters will need to be cut. I totally get it." He said that, and he was true to his word, he was really great, he was not precious at all, which was really fantastic.

LRM: I’m curious about the characters you cut, because there’s still a lot of characters...

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, there's like one pretty big character that’s sort of a romantic interest in the book that yeah, if the movie wanted to be two and a half hours, we probably could've kept, but I think it also would've given the movie a different focus and had to be cut.

LRM: I would've missed the last bus back home last night if it was that long, too.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, exactly, exactly.  (laughs) If it was another movie, it might've been okay.

LRM: When you were writing it, you must've known there was going to be a bigger movie right away or did it just evolve into that as the cast came onboard? 

James Ponsoldt: I mean, I guess it's bigger in some ways, but then I think of Spectacular Now, and it's a pretty big ensemble of actors, and in many ways, this film is even more claustrophobic. There's the before for Mae, for Emma's character, when she's just living with her parents in central California, small town and then the after when she goes into this wonderful, sparkly world that feels a bit hermetically-sealed after awhile. But I think it very much as a story, we're experiencing through the lens of this one character, genuinely. We have an amazing cast, and they serve the roles really well, but it’s really her story. She’s in almost every frame in the film.

LRM: With “Spectacular Now” a lot of those scenes you could shoot in any house or room, “End of the Tour” the same thing, for this one you had to create the entire campus for The Circle. It’s a huge thing that you need to convey, so you must have known that while writing it.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, we knew it would involve some level of inventiveness. None of us were suffering under the illusion that some giant tech campus would let us shoot the movie there, for a lot of reasons. Mostly given that they have work to do and regardless of how they might feel about the book or the subject matter. So we knew we had to sort of create the campus piece meal, like bits and bits, buildings with amazing architecture, and integrate it in a way where it hopefully felt seamless, where you all believe you're in the same space, even though you're in a dozen different locations, which is how we did it. And then we lucked out. Some of the ones that we found where we could find, like on the West side of LA out by the beach there, called Silicon Beach now, we were able to find effectively a campus with a giant green space in the middle of it, where we were able to suddenly tie in lots of other locations that created that world.

LRM: So with all these characters and locations on campus, you were still basically shooting in pieces in whatever order where you could get them?

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, we were kind of begging, borrowing, stealing for different places to let us shoot there, because if there was some building with amazing architecture, maybe we could shoot there on a Sunday. That type of thing. In many cases, the types of buildings we could never build or that most movies would never build, and certainly a movie on this smaller budget, we never could've built it. There were a couple stage scenes, but you would never even probably know which ones were staged and which ones were real.  Hopefully.

LRM: Did having Tom Hanks involved as a producer make it easier to get a lot of stuff? 

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, Tom's great just because Tom's a lovely person. He's easy to work with and he sees the big picture. I think people are obviously excited to work with him. He's a genuinely decent guy, so I think he helped and definitely with some of the locations, it helped that Tom was involved. Yeah, absolutely.

LRM: How did Emma Watson get involved? She hasn't done a lot of stuff since “Harry Potter,” but she's done small things. I think this is the first time, other than “Beauty and the Beast,” where she’s playing a full-on leading role in every frame, as you said.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, I loved her in the Harry Potter movies and Beauty and the Beast, but I loved her in Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bling Ring. I felt like her performance in Bling Ring was kind of remarkable. It reminded me of Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Bling Ring is a pretty finely-tuned satire and she's playing, I think, a comic performance. Not always entirely a likable person or a person with a questionable moral compass. It is a very regionally-specific kind of valley, Southern California performance that she pulled in that movie. Yeah, she's an amazing actor and obviously has a brilliant mind, and acting is only part of her life.

LRM: Then you doubled down with John Boyega, so you literally have the stars of what will be this year’s two biggest movies... and also Karen Gillan from “Guardians,” so you have stars from what will be the three biggest movies of the year in your movie.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, I'm just lucky how it worked out. With John, I just really liked Attack the Block and really liked him in that. When I met him, I just found him to be so focused and charismatic and just smart. It was just clear that he's just a super-interesting guy and a really brilliant actor. Same thing with Karen. I really dug her in Guardians and Doctor Who and things like that. She's incredible! I mean, she's hilarious, but she's also really a great dramatic actor. She was great. Her character's the first person you essentially meet at The Circle, Karen Gillan's character, and she has to be someone that you have to kind of feel like, "Man, I would love to hang out with this person!" You know what I mean? Who's complicated and funny, ambitious and all these things, but not just clearly cold or a scary person. That becomes the proxy for The Circle itself; Karen embodied all of that.

LRM: It's such a strange, diverse cast, and “Spectacular Now” was similar. Seeing Bill Paxton last night was almost heartbreaking. It was great to see him in the movie, but it was heartbreaking to see him so debilitated even though that was obviously needed for the character. 

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, the truth was that the illness that his character has in the film, Bill did not have that, so he really created that character. He really was hyper-focused on getting the details of the character right and respecting the illness and the way he would relate to his spouse and his daughter, the way he would move, the way he would talk, the way he would eat. He was just sort of incredibly generous with everyone and also, he was a filmmaker, so he understood how films were made. But we would say "Cut!" and he was the most vibrant youthful guy in the room. So full of energy, so alive, just really present 110%, all the time.

LRM: How good are you with technology? I assume a lot of the tech stuff was in Dave Eggers book, but how are you with dealing with the tech in order to understand it? 

James Ponsoldt: You mean, how am I as far as my own appetite for it? 

LRM: Sure. Where are you on that spectrum of being really heavily into it or not?

James Ponsoldt: I'm pretty into it. I'm a little too into it. I think technology is amazing. The film hopefully doesn't come off as technophobic or just purely like a Luddite argument against technology, because technology is in every single aspect of our lives. I don't know how you make a movie against it. I don't even know...that would be a ridiculous propaganda film. It wouldn’t even make sense.

LRM: And you would have to work on actual film and edit using one of those big old-school editing machines...

James Ponsoldt: I think sending civilians to outer space, going to the bottom of the sea, mapping the mind, curing cancer, all these amazing things that really are happening or will happen soon, they're great. It's like the question comes when these exact same companies who have an unprecedented accumulation of power, information, money, why they're also taking our personal data, storing it, at perhaps monetizing it and maybe even selling it to the highest bidder. That's the really upsetting transaction that I don't think we really read the fine print on the opt-out clause or not. That's the part that actually is kind of a human rights issue if you believe that your digital identity and your personal data is part of who you are and what you should own and it should not belong to other people to be exploited and monetized.

Filmmaker James Ponsoldt (on left) with author Dave Eggers (right)

Filmmaker James Ponsoldt (on left) with author Dave Eggers (right)

LRM: Since this came out in 2013 and while you’ve been working on the movie, that’s just become more and more a part of the conversation about what a company can do and put in the fine print that nobody ever reads.

James Ponsoldt: I think anytime you make a movie about technology, there's a concern or awareness that technology will move on, right? You want to, as far as the value system of what you're focusing on in the story, it should start with the characters and their relationships and the psychology of the characters and the technology, hopefully, should just invisibly fall into the background. Otherwise, you're fetishizing the gadgets and not putting the focus on your main character. As far as the idea of surveillance and privacy and the need or the pressure, real or sort of subtly felt, to share more, because it obviously benefits these companies to compel you to share more because they can market and sell to you better the more that they know about you. They can sell you things that you need before you know you need them. That's the real goal. Those issues aren't going away. I don't see us suddenly course-correcting. It's not suddenly all going to be...it's going more of the same and technology tends to answer itself with more technology. Better technology or better as someone else perceived it.

LRM: You know there’ll be at least one person watching the movie and be like Mae where they think “Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. Let’s start working on that.” Whoever created the apps and the design of the visuals, they really made that stuff look pretty cool.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, it was a lot of us working in tandem to create... it started with Dave's book, but it's also that I just have so many friends who work at tech companies and spend a lot of time up there and then our production designer, Jerry Sullivan, who's a great production designer. We just spent time at different tech campuses, really looking for both the nitty-gritty details of "Is it an open floor plan? Okay, are people...standing desks, sitting desks? Is there art on the walls? Do you have people who personalize their desks? Are people looking at each other?” We were looking at that and then trying to kind of take a step back and think about what the social dynamics are of the place, what the product is, is there a correlation, does it relate to who's at the head of the company, how are they different? They all have different... I don't think one can generalize about what it's like to be at every tech company because they all reflect the values of people that run them, but generally speaking, most of them feel like great places to work. Who doesn't want great health care and a free concert, yoga and just a place where there's a park out there? I think we wanted to get that part of it right. It would be much easier to make the "bad guys" just live in an all-white, symmetrical world and have evil looking Nehru jackets or something.

LRM: But you deliberately didn’t make the movie sci-fi, that it all could happen in the present day, which just makes it scarier, in some ways.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, it is our reality and I don't know that it's science fiction. Again, this company, it's five minutes from now. It's just a reality where a company's just absorbed all of its competitors and when there's that much power, that much information accumulated in one place... I don't think that any company or any individuals should have that much power. Again, it's not in their own nature to break themselves up or just behave more ethically.

LRM: Are you writing a movie for Disney next, an original idea for Disney? (Note: This project is tentatively called "Wild City.") That’s not something that happens very often.

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, I'm writing it. I hope I get to make it. It’s been a real thrill. It was an original idea I had and it would sort of be Jungle Book type technology, but it's set in Los Angeles, about an animal who loses his home, a young animal who sort of is a refugee, essentially.

LRM: So this is going to be live-action with CG?

James Ponsoldt: Yeah, we’re still writing it, so we have a long way to go.

LRM: Well, I wish you luck on that, because just knowing Disney is even looking at a potential original idea for a movie is very exciting, because they're doing a lot of remakes and sequels these days.

James Ponsoldt: I know, and they're doing cool remakes and they're working with great filmmakers, so I really admire the stuff that they're doing. I hope I get to make it. It would be a thrill.

The Circle is now playing nationwide.

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