Adults can become so disenchanted with the idea of maturing and taking full responsibility for their lives and actions that they resort to drinking, using drugs and staying in toxic relationships to avoid growing up. It often takes a drastic, life-altering event to make them realize they have to change their ways if they want to survive. That’s the all-too-important message in the upcoming comedy-drama Smashed, which was co-written and directed by James Ponsoldt.
Smashed follows Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), whose bond is built on a mutual love of drinking. When Kate’s excessive drinking puts her job as a teacher at an elementary school in jeopardy, she decides to start attending AA meetings and get sober. With the help of the vice principal at her school, the awkward, but well-intended Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman), and her sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer), Kate takes the first steps to stop drinking.
However, keeping her struggle with sobriety a secret from people in her life, including her school’s principal (Megan Mullally), puts Kate’s road to recovery into question. Her increasingly troubled relationship with her mother, and the debate of whether her marriage to Charlie is really built on love or is just a diversion from adulthood, also puts Kate’s sobriety in danger.
Recently, Ponsoldt took the time to talk to us about the filming of Smashed during a roundtable interview in New York City. Among other things, the writer-director discussed what it was like penning the script with his co-writer, Susan Burke, and what the casting process was like for the main actors.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: What was the writing process like on this, because you worked with Susan Burke, and she drew on her own experiences. Can you talk about the process of you two writing this movie together?
James Ponsoldt: The story is fictional, but there are some things that are inspired by conversations that Susan and I had. I’ve known her for years, she’s a comedian in L.A. She got sober in her early twenties by going to AA, and she’s open about that.
We shared really stupid stories, because we’ve both done a lot of stupid things. But her stories are so much better-they’re funnier and weirder than mine. At a certain point, I just couldn’t get some of them out of my head.
I realized maybe there’s a reason I keep going back to these stories that Susan has. I realized there’s a relatability and a humor to them. There are so many stories about drug addictions and alcoholism that are incredibly serious. They’re scared straight message films.
There are people who shouldn’t drink and do drugs, but this isn’t a movie about that. We were pretty clear from the beginning that this is a love story and a portrait of a marriage through the lens of a young woman.
We knew we wanted to make a story with humor and characters who were dealing with their addiction. Not only are they addicted to each other, they’re addicted to alcohol. It’s something almost everyone in the audience can relate to to some degree.
As far as the actual writing process, Susan and I drank a lot of coffee. We drove all over town and listened to music for hours on end. We created this story of these characters’ lives. We knew everything about them, but we didn’t rush to write them. We got to a point where we knew exactly where we were going with the story.
We also spent a lot of time talking about the tone, which is really sensitive. It blends comedy and drama about a really serious subject. We watched a lot of movies and YouTube videos of drunk people on bicycles. We wanted to make a movie that was really relatable to my cousins who were in college.
We only really wrote it once we knew it inside and out. We split it up; we’d break up the first act, and on Monday, Susan would write pages one through 15, and I would write 16 through 30. We’d send them to each other on the weekend, and rewrite each other. We had a pact that we would never get our feelings hurt. We would always let the best idea win, and be brutal to each other.
We wrote it as friends. We wrote it to a point that since we spent so much time talking about the characters before we wrote the script, it felt like it was coming from one brain. We can’t tell who wrote what in some places.
We Got This Covered: Was it always your intention to direct the film as you were writing the script?
James Ponsoldt: Yeah, it was always something I had conceived. I always thought I could make it easily. I knew the neighborhoods I wanted to film in in Los Angeles. I also knew the main characters would be in their late 20s.
I didn’t know Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Aaron Paul before, but I did know that I had friends who could play these parts. I thought we could essentially make it for no budget, if need be. I didn’t really want to impose those constraints, but not set something on Mars and have big explosions. That would require lots of cash to make.
I knew I always wanted to make it. We were really lucky to make it the way we did, with a little bit of money and amazing actors.
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We Got This Covered: What was the casting process like for Mary and Aaron? Why did you decide to cast them in the lead roles?
JP: Well, I loved Mary for years. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the movie I had seen a couple times in theaters. I had seen her mostly in action movies. What I thought was so great about her in Scott Pilgrim was it was a stylized film. In all the chaos of the film, she has a very still presence. She was strong and real.
I knew our main character in Smashed, Kate, had to be strong. She couldn’t be fragile or weak, and we couldn’t feel sorry for her. Once you start feeling sorry for someone, you begin to objectify them. We wanted someone where audiences could see themselves or their sisters or cousins or ex-roommates in her. When I met with Mary, she was so brilliant and funny and up for doing anything, so it was pretty easy and exciting.
Then with Aaron, I loved him for years on Breaking Bad. I think he’s one of the great actors of his generation.
After we had the two of them, some of the other actors, like Nick Offerman, I adore him. I met him in his woodshop in Glendale. We talked about who was going to play the principal, and he mentioned his wife, Megan Mullally. I said, I love Megan, so that happened easily.
I’ve loved Octavia Spencer forever, even before The Help. Before she did that movie, she did Drag Me to Hell and Dinner for Schmucks and Ugly Betty. She’s always great and generous and spontaneous and funny and nice and weird. She elevates everything she’s in.
We Got This Covered: Mary has said that while you were shooting, you never yelled cut. You would continue rolling the cameras, even after the scene was over, allowing the actors to add their own ideas. What do you think that adds to the shooting?
James Ponsoldt: What’s really cool about making movies is that you get to collaborate with lots of people. It’s different than writing fiction or painting. In this case, you have to work with other people, and trust them, which can be really hard for a lot of directors, because they’re control freaks.
But if you’re lucky, and your ego’s in the right place, you have the opportunity to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than you. The director, after hiring the crew, has to be clear about what they want, but not micro-manage.
They can bring different ideas in, but maybe not better. It’s hard to say creatively what’s better or worse, but certainly say what’s different. When you have something in your mind, and people bring you something different, you think it’s not as good. But sometimes it’s way better, and you’re never going to know unless you do that.
Across the board, I had a pact with everyone, more or less, that I’d be willing to try anything you want to try. We spent lots of time before, getting to know each other, so we can have that foundation of trust.
Mary and Aaron and all the other actors had the license to do whatever they wanted in front of the camera. They could have said anything. I spent years writing this with my friend, but the words are just beats. The actors could say whatever they wanted. But people don’t really abuse that. They’re really thoughtful of the script.
We had a lot of fun playing. I saw it as a game of ping-pong. If I gave them the script, and said, this is exactly how I want you to say it, it gets in the way of the ping-pong. The script should be the first inspiration, and lets see what the actor brings back to you. Before I say a word, I want to see what they’re going to do.
I can see their contribution, and then we can go back and forth, and hopefully elevate one another. We can do something better and stranger and more heartbreaking than what we originally imagined.
A lot of the best moments are the silent moments. When there’s a bit of chaos, people are trying to figure things out. If there’s three quarters of a page of dialogue, and you don’t yell cut, people just try to figure things out. They start making things up, and it gets a little scary. Sometimes nothing comes from it, and sometimes things happen that are accidents that help instruct you.
We Got This Covered: Do you want to focus on independent films in the future, or would you also like to work on bigger studio movies as well?
James Ponsoldt: I’m interested in both. Some of the projects I’m developing down the line are studio films, and some of them are independent. Generally speaking, I’m interested in collaborating with people I trust and find interesting on stories I find interesting.
There’s a misconception that directors who only direct indies only think indies are good, and big studio films are bad. That’s not true, there’s a lot of films I want to make, and stories I want to tell, that require lots of money, because there are special effects.
We only had 19 days to shoot this movie, and I created this space where the actors could improvise . The idea of having 50 or 60 days to make a movie, that’s like all the time in the world.
People talk about John Cassavetes improvising, but Judd Apatow does a lot of improvisation as well. He’s making big budget, studio comedies, where he lets the actors riff.
I think we live in an era right now there are a lot of talented and smart people, like Judd Apatow, who have been successful enough, and have made enough money for studios. They’ve taken notice, and have given more free reign to directors to have processes that are a little bit different than. the actors have to say exactly this. I think people have realized that can be stifling.
We Got This Covered: Is there any particular scene in the film that you found challenging?
James Ponsoldt: Susan and I thought the script was very funny. (laughs) We thought we were writing a film that was honest and intriguing that treated the disease and the struggles seriously, but the tone had humor. When you go to AA meetings, or are drunk, you find things to be really funny.
It’s silly to think a movie that deals with something serious has to be serious. You can make a comedy out of anything, and that’s how we sometimes process pain and grief. I guess when we started sharing the script with other people, we started to realize that not everyone thinks what we find funny is actually funny. They think it’s not okay to laugh at this stuff, and it makes them uncomfortable. I was okay with that.
Some of my favorite moments are the funniest and the saddest and the most uncomfortable. When I was working on a lot of those intense scenes with Aaron and Mary, or Megan and Mary, they were the most talented and funny people. It’s fun to have them play it straight, and push through to do a really good take.
Then it’s fun to give them free rein, and tell them they can go anywhere with this. It can push them to go to a place that’s more honest. They can take a different tact to get a different response. Inevitably, if you have the luxury of time, I think you end up with some really weird takes, and some really gut-wrenching takes.
Or maybe that’s just what happens to me. There were a lot of tears on set, but I always want the actors to surprise each other, and break each others hearts, or both. (laughs) If they could do both at the same time, that was the best.
We Got This Covered: Did you always have in mind how you wanted to end the movie? It ends on an ambiguous note.
James Ponsoldt: Yeah, we always knew we wanted to love both of these characters. If Charlie was a jerk or abusive or completely nonredeemable, the choice would be easy-get sober and leave. But I love both these characters.
I’ve had just as many people come up to me after the movie, and say, I know that guy. He’s like my cousin. He’s immature, but she should give him a chance, because people gave him a chance. That’s totally valid.
But I’ve also had an equal number of people say, my ex-roomate was a coke head, and he would steal my stuff for drug money. That’s a toxic dynamic, and he’s an enabler, and she needs to run for the hills. I think that’s valid too.
I think a lot of it depends on how many relationships you’ve been in with drug addicts. But I like the version where they end up together. I think they can also wind up as friends, instead of a married couple, and that wouldn’t be the worst thing, either. But, if anything, people can really love each other, but maybe they’re not the best suited for each other in a relationship.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank James Ponsoldt for taking the time to speak to us. Be sure to check out Smashed when it’s released in select theaters this Friday, October 12.Previous