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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