Few things make me more irate than driving-and-talking scenes in which the driver primarily looks at the person riding shotgun (usually a woman) and only glances at the road sporadically. Five or six seconds of eye-contact for every one or two seconds of road-watching. That’s exactly the opposite of what real driving is like, even in the case of reckless drunks. I never, ever look at a passenger except when we’re at a stop light or stalled in traffic.
Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now
And yet directors are constantly telling actors during driving scenes that they can eyeball the passenger all they want. I flinch and seethe when this happens. I twitch. “Asshole!Watch the road!”
Most actors don’t care about driving realism. The car they’re acting in is usually being towed by the camera-and-lighting car so what do they care? They just want as much eye-contact as possible with the person riding shotgun so they can show the audience how personable and sensitive they are. And 90% of the time the director indulges them when he/she should be saying, “Do you drive like this in real life? Glancing at the road in one- and two-second bursts while staring soulfully at your passenger?”
I’m mentioning this tendency because director James Ponsoldt and actor Miles Teller have taken the ignore-the-road aesthetic to a whole new level in a scene in The Spectacular Now, a decent Sundance flick about a teenage drunk that I saw two or three days ago.
Teller, a 25 year-old playing an 18 year-old, is driving down a suburban road when a car with a couple of girls pulls up on his left side and starts cruising at the same speed. Both parties roll down their windows and start chatting, and Ponsoldt and Teller blow Hollywood’s “four or five seconds of eye-contact for every one or two seconds of road-watching” rule out of the water. Teller — this guy is bold as brass — just fucking stares at the women in the car and ignores the road altogether…nine, ten, twelve seconds! Go for it, Miles!
Two little kids could have run out in front of Teller’s car and he would have flattened them like a flesh pancake. An elderly man who’s fallen out of his wheelchair could be crawling across the road and Teller would have come along and turned him into a pile of blood, broken bones, brain matter and hamburger.
I mentioned this to Ponsoldt yesterday when I ran into him at the Prospector, and he laughed in his usual charming way and said I need to ask Teller about this. Ask Teller?
It’s time for directors like Ponsoldt to man up and admit that they’re consciously trying to defy the reality of the road when they shoot driving-and-talking scenes, and once they’ve done that they need to man up and push it farther. One of these days a truly bold and visionary Kubrick-like director is going to tell his behind-the-wheel actor to ignore the road altogether when he/she is driving. Don’t glance at the road every five or six seconds or, in the case of guys like Teller, every ten or twelve seconds. What road? Make your own world, man!