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James Ponsoldt, Smashed

Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a devoted elementary school teacher who, early in James Ponsoldt’s new film Smashed, shows up for work with a wicked hangover and vomits in front of her students. Forced to explain her behavior, she tells her class and colleagues that she’s pregnant. The lie leaves her feeling awful, and it’s soon clear to Kate that she needs to back away from the bottle. After all, this isn’t a one-off incident. She and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) are almost constantly drunk, and it’s pretty clear to her that they live for booze as much as they live for one another. Charlie agrees to cut back, then quickly jumps ship, and their differing views about Kate’s sobriety—she needs the positive reinforcement of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he hates the slogans and rules that accompany her recovery—causes a rift in their marriage.

Movies about heavy drinkers are almost as old as film itself, but Smashed, the follow-up to Ponsoldt’s much-praised 2006 debut Off the Black, is less about alcoholism than the vicissitudes of married life and the nature of the commitments that not-quite-fully-formed people make to one another. “I like stories about damaged people trying to connect with other people, and maybe trying to fix themselves or get better,” says Ponsoldt, 34, “and it really is irrelevant to me whether they’re pursuing it in a rational or successful manner.” With a cast that includes popular TV stars Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, it’s the kind of artfully constructed, smartly acted indie film that’s easy to admire.

Ponsoldt, a regular Filmmaker contributor, talked to us about his film recently. Smashed opens on Friday, Oct. 12.

Director James Ponsoldt

Filmmaker: So just this morning a big Hollywood-centric magazine posted its review of Smashed. You got an A-.

Ponsoldt: Yeah, that was really nice. It was nice to see someone articulate what we were going for as far as tone.

Filmmaker: Do you read all the reviews?

Ponsoldt: I think there’s something to be learned by reading them. I write about film as well, and I think almost all people who write about movies are writing about them for the right reasons. They’re passionate cineastes, and they want nothing more than to champion a great film. I think there’s something valid when they have a criticism, and maybe they can teach you something about yourself as a filmmaker. I guess in theory I’d be curious to read them all, but sometimes maybe I’m too thin-skinned, or too afraid. But I love reading a writer at the top of their game, writing with passion.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about where the idea for the film came from. Susan Burke, your co-writer, seems to have been an influence in terms of her adventures when drinking.

Ponsoldt: Susan is an old friend, and one of the funniest people I know—she’s a comedian—and the whole thing started with us just talking. She had some stories that I really loved about dumb things she’d done when she was drunk. I had a lot too. I’m from a college town, and I’ve done horrendously stupid things, as have most people I know. But hers were just way better, and they were better not just in the extremes they went to, but in how mundane they were and how relatable—and then they took hard right or left turns and became suddenly strange and surreal and funny and heartbreaking and really scary. I think the best stories do that.

So I talked to Susan about the idea of maybe writing something that actually dealt with alcoholism, but that first and foremost was not a social issues movie, was not a scared-straight movie. Social issue movies, I think, can be boring and didactic—even well-intentioned ones. There are definitely some great movies about self-destructive alcoholics, definitive ones. But usually when I watch them, even if the filmmaking is great, the performances are great, I find myself gawking at them: “Look at that Bukowski-esque character who wants to destroy himself.” I can admire the performance, but I don’t identify. Ultimately it’s kind of objectifying the person. We wanted to do something where it was funny, relatable. It’s alcohol—it’s not heroin, it’s not meth; we know those stories, we know they’re really tragic stories—but we wanted something that was funny-sad and that anyone could find themselves in it.

Filmmaker: You alluded to older movies about self-destructive alcoholics. Did you go back and watch any of those, stuff like The Lost Weekend, for instance, to find inspiration, or to make sure that you avoided certain themes that’ve been done to death?

Ponsoldt: I’ve seen them all, I watch everything. The ones, honestly, that most stick with me are the movies that aren’t described as movies about alcoholics. I really love Withnail and I. It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s a hangout movie, I could watch it over and over and over again, it’s the kind of movie I’d like to make. And Withnail is an alcoholic. If you watch the original Arthur, with Dudley Moore—it ’s an amazing performance, and he’s an alcoholic. I’ll go back and watch it because I like hanging out with him. I don’t feel like someone’s giving me oatmeal and telling me that it’s good for me. Sideways—that’s a portrait of an alcoholic. There are a lot of these performances in films that I love. I asked Susan if she’d ever seen Minnie and Moskowitz, the John Cassavetes movie. She hadn’t, so we watched it. I love the vibe of this movie. It’s probably the most sentimental Cassavetes movie. These are two screwed-up people. The stakes are high. They may never wind up in love or in a stable relationship, but there’s something gentle and human about it. I love that.

And then we also watched a lot of Jersey Shore. It seems to me that three-quarters of all reality television is actually a portrait of an alcoholic or a drug addict—but usually it’s comedy or sadism, pity or mockery without real advocacy for the characters.

Filmmaker: You’ve written and talked about how Smashed is a coming-of-age film, although Kate and Charlie are already married and in their late 20s, give or take.

Ponsoldt: There’s a saying: One’s emotional development stops when their addiction begins. It’s something you hear in AA and NA a lot. If you’re in a relationship with someone who’s an addict an important thing to recognize is that you’re always going to be second to that addiction. For the story to be successful, it couldn’t be about alcoholism first and foremost. It’s about sacrifice and fidelity, and what is required in a serious relationship—on a day-to-day basis being more concerned about the wants and needs of your partner than yourself. Which is hard enough to do for anyone, but when you add alcohol to it…These characters know each other through the lens of being intoxicated, and they probably don’t even really know each other. I think in a lot of ways you have two characters who are living like children, but they’ve also gotten married at a very young age.

Filmmaker: At a nuts-and-bolts level, how did you and Susan handle the co-writing?

Ponsoldt: This was a really seamless, lovely process. The thing that was important to me is that we didn’t actually jump into writing the script too soon, because I think sometimes when you start writing really fast you can make decisions and you get stuck on things that maybe aren’t the best choices. If you’re really tough on yourself, nine out of 10 of your ideas probably aren’t good enough. And it was important to me that we have no vanity or sensitivity about it—that we let the best idea win out, whoever’s it was.

And it was also really important to me that we knew that we were not just telling the same story as far as the dramatic beats, but also tonally. So we spent a long time talking about the characters, and talking about the relationship, and just going and getting really strong coffee and having long drives around L.A. and listening to music and talking about the relationship and the couple—who they are, where they’ve been, so we knew every single thing about them. The movie’s the tip of the iceberg, but we knew the other 90 percent.

Then and only then we made some kind of outline, we watched some different movies and talked about tone. We were living in different places by then—I’d moved to rural Virginia for a year, Susan was in L.A.—and we just split it up. We would be sort of like, “On Monday, you write pages 1-15, I’ll write 16-30. On Friday send me your 15 pages.” Then we’d send them to each other and say, “Rewrite. If I kill your best line, don’t be mad. I won’t be mad.” And then we’d just constantly do that—write and rewrite, write and rewrite, write and rewrite, so that in the end we’d rewritten each other so much I can’t honestly say which lines I wrote and which lines she wrote.

Filmmaker: How important is that rewriting process? It sounds like you guys were pretty merciless when it comes to revising and editing yourselves and one another.

Ponsoldt: It’s what I try to do. I haven’t done it a lot—I’ve completed two features and just shot another one this summer—and what I have realized is that in the post process it’s great to say, as a storyteller, “I want to let the best idea win out,” but it’s harder to do it. When someone’s like, “Hey, you know what you should do? You should this this,” your immediate reaction is, “No, I shouldn’t. I should do what I think.” But if it’s the best idea and your ego is blocking you and making you blind, listen to the idea. Honestly, a lot of the best ideas are ideas that someone else had. During the process of editing a script or editing a film it really is important to let go of your ego and know that when people are saying, “Hey, I’m having problems with this character or this part of the film,” they’re not attacking you, they’re actually just looking at the film as a separate object and trying to make it stronger.

And also, generally if something is your favorite scene or favorite line, a lot of times it seems that that’s not the best thing for the film, because if it’s so autonomous, if it can stand alone so much, maybe it’s kind of a hiccup in the narrative.

Filmmaker: The cast is an interesting mix. Lots of people will probably recognize Mary Elizabeth Winstead from, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, while Aaron Paul has a big fan base from Breaking Bad, Octavia Spencer just won an Oscar for The Help and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman are big television stars.

Ponsoldt: A lot of my favorite filmmakers have a real gift for putting together ensembles of people, populating films with people that ordinarily wouldn’t go together but who also have unique gifts. I don’t know that a lot of people would think that Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s this kind of action star, would go along with Ron Swanson (the character Offerman plays in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation), or Megan Mullally next to Aaron Paul next to Octavia Spencer. But I’m a lover of good and bad movies—I watch everything. And TV right now, the writing is so amazing—people say it over and over, but we do live in a really great age of TV, when some of the best writing and some of the best actors are on television. I’m pretty agnostic (about the differences between TV and film). I think a lot more filmmakers are. I think at one point there was maybe a concern that if you put TV actors in your film, it’s going to seem like…But Aaron Paul is as good as any actor acting today. I’m convinced of it. He’s like a young Jack Nicholson. He just won his second Emmy. He’s going to win Academy Awards. He’s that good. Octavia Spencer was on Ugly Betty. And the movies I saw her in most recently were Dinner for Schmucks and Drag Me to Hell. Very different movies, but talent is talent.

Filmmaker: It always seems to me that acting drunk, persuasively, is a hard thing to do. Mary Elizabeth Winstead had to do a lot of this. How did you help her figure this out?

Ponsoldt:  Mary and I spent a long time really developing the character, and breaking it apart and connecting it to personal things in her life. Mary’s not an alcoholic—she hardly drinks, it was a total performance—but it was important that we personalize everything. That whole idea of emotional growth stopping when your addiction begins—we wanted to figure out what age she became an alcoholic and what sort of drunk she was. It’s a pretty childish drunk, a pretty immature drunk. She’s not a totally mean and vindictive drunk, although there are times in the film when she’s a little petty.

We went to lots and lots of AA meetings, Susan and I, and some other people who were involved with the film—only open meetings, and we were always very open about our intentions. The goal wasn’t to harvest other people’s stories, but to gain a respect for what people are going through, a sense of nuance and specificity. Something that I knew from going to meetings with friends before is that those meetings are really funny. People are being vulnerable and honest, but you hear the funniest stories you’ve ever heard in your life, and then you hear the saddest story you’ve every heard in your life. There’s nothing sacrosanct about it. People laugh their asses off there. We wanted the film to have that in it.

Filmmaker: I like the score a lot. It’s a lot of acoustic guitar, gentle percussion. How did you decide on what sort of music would accompany the movie’s key scenes.

Ponsdolt: I’m music-obsessed. I grew up in Athens, GA., and all my friends were in bands. I was an intern at Rolling Stone, and I didn’t know if I was going to make movies or write for a magazine, or whatever. I worked with a really great music supervisor named Tiffany Anders, and we had long, long, long conversations: “What is dramaturgically correct for this scene? What would the character be listening to? What can we afford?” It’s this real tap dance: “We don’t have enough money, but how are going to get that Richard and Linda Thompson song?” The score was done by these two great guys, this guy Andy Cabic, who has a band called Vetiver, and this guy Eric D. Johnson, who has a band called Fruit Bats. We just had long conversations about the tone and vibe of it, and they kind of holed up. They would just send us stuff, and we’d give them notes. Obviously musicians speaking to musicians, they have a different language. I’m a music lover but not a musician, so sometimes I would feel like, “I’m really sorry for saying something as dumb as: ‘Can it be happier? Can it be brighter? Can we pick up the pace?’”

Filmmaker: In an interview with another magazine, Winstead raved about the sense of teamwork she felt during the shoot. How do foster that spirit?

Ponsoldt: The exciting thing about working in film, as opposed to writing prose fiction or being a painter, is that in those things it’s you alone—you would be God, it’s all you. If you’re working in film, and if your ego’s in the right place and you’re not a raging narcissist, you get to surround yourself with a cinematographer, a composer, a production designer, actors—all these people who are smarter and more talented than you, where your job is to articulate to them, “This is what I want, this is what the scene is about. What do you think?” And then respecting them and giving them the autonomy to elevate what you’re going to do. There’s usually the kneejerk reaction when you collaborate with someone and they give you something different from what you were expecting, you’re like, “This can’t be right.” But if you realize that the name of the game is making it is as good as possible, different can be better.

If you’re a micromanager, or if you’re a control freak, and you want yes men, what you’ll get is only as good as you imagine. I’m interested in planning a lot with people, giving them autonomy and setting the stage for happy accidents. I think a lot of my favorite directors, whether it’s Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme or Hal Ashby, they did that.

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