It was one of our favorite movies both at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals–you can read our review here–mainly due to the performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as 1st grade teacher Kate whose nightly drinking binges with her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad”) start to get out of hand when it starts to affect her job. After a couple of incidents, she’s convinced to go to an AA meeting by the school’s vice principal (Nick Offerman from “Parks and Recreation”).
Last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, ComingSoon.net had a chance to speak with co-writer and director James Ponsoldt and his two stars, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul–the latter interview which you can read here.
We’ve actually spoken to a Winstead a number of times over the years, because she’s been involved with so many genre movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the prequel to The Thing and Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter earlier this year. Playing Kate in Smashed is a very different role for her, because it’s a movie and character grounded in reality.
ComingSoon.net: What was it about this script or role that got you on board? Kate’s a very interesting character, that’s for sure.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah, it’s such a no-brainer, everything about it. When I read the script, it was one of those things that I thought I’d never get the part, because the few times in my career that I read a role that great, every A-list actress in Hollywood is trying to get it. It’s such a competitive environment because there’s so few roles that good for women, so I thought I was really going to have to fight for it and really get my name in there and I was amazed with how easily they went for me and they were like, “Yeah, we think you’re great for the part.” It was kind of a shock because it was such a well-rounded readable woman, and it’s incredibly rare. Not even withstanding how great the script is and how well drawn the characters are, the simple fact that it was such a great, real human being to play, was all I needed.
CS: Did you spend a lot of time with the film’s screenwriter Susan Brooke, who has been sober for years, before shooting?
Winstead: I have a lot of people. The majority of my time was with James talking about the character and developing a rapport with him. It was really great, because we were really on the same page. It was effortless, it was just so easy to work with him and to play a role after we had gone through all the character study and everything together. I did talk to a lot to Susan and she took me to a lot of AA meetings, which was great and we also had one of our producers, who is in recovery, so I went to a lot of AA meetings with her as well. Pretty much every neighborhood in L.A. has an AA meeting and they have very different types of people depending on which neighborhood you go to, so that was really interesting to hear the different stories from the working class guys in one neighborhood to West Hollywood and the industry people. All different stories from different types of people, but all totally relatable. That was my first step into realizing that this character could easily be me or anybody, because everybody’s struggle is the same struggle in AA. It’s something that’s pretty universal to relate to although it may seem very far away from what you think you are.
CS: Did you know people who get this drunk and obnoxious?
Winstead: We all do in the world that we live in. In L.A. and in the industry, I think we probably know several high-functioning alcoholics, because that’s so part of our culture and what we do. Everybody goes out to drink and that’s how we socialize. I don’t think many of us really look at ourselves and think, “Okay, do I drink too much?” At a certain point, you have to really get to a point where you are able to look at yourself and say, “Okay, I think this is too much. I think I have a problem.” Sometimes it’s really that fine line of “I’m just having fun.” It can be a blurry line sometimes.
CS: I can never imagine you being that drunk or obnoxious. I’ve always thought of you as rather in control and well-spoken.
Winstead: (laughs) Well, thank you. I’d have to ask people who have seen me drunk. I don’t really know. I mainly get really giggly and I dance a lot, that’s pretty much all I do.
CS: You don’t pee on any floors.
Winstead: No (laughs) as far as I know!
CS: What was it like doing those classroom scenes? Those looked like they could be a lot of fun, partially because we get to see something we haven’t seen you do before but also dealing with kids.
Winstead: Those were so much fun to shoot. The kids were great, especially the kids that had real dialogue to say. They were such great little actors and they were so excited to be there. All the extras were hilarious, because I really felt like I was a teacher. I’d be standing up there and they’d be like (puts on a snarky kid’s voice) “How old are you?” Then I’d say my age and they’d go (snark kids’s voice) “Oh, you’re soooo oooold!” (laughs) It felt very my like I was really the teacher. This was between takes and they were making fun of me for being so old, and for wearing such ugly clothes and stuff like that. (laughs) Yeah, they were hilarious.
CS: You gotta love kids. They’re honest.
Winstead: Totally! Yeah, one of them told me I had flabby arms. I was like “What? C’mon man!” (laughs)
CS: What about working with Aaron Paul? When I first saw the movie, I hadn’t seen “Breaking Bad” yet.
Winstead: Oh, really? You’re like the one person. It’s so funny because it’s this little cable show, but it seems like everybody knows about it and everybody watches it. It’s such a phenomenon and he’s incredible. He’s such a great actor in that, he’s so great in “Smashed.” He’s so open and dedicated and one of the kindest people that you’d ever want to have around on set. Just willing to do anything that needs to be done, to be there for everybody and for the other actors.
CS: He was very complimentary towards you, saying he was a big fan of your work and that he was glad he could be involved with a project that showed off your talents.
Winstead: Nice! Very nice.
Next up, we have our interview with co-writer and director James Ponsoldt, who we actually spoke to before Mary Elizabeth in the same general space at Toronto. We had never had a chance to speak with Ponsoldt before, but we found him to be quite eloquent and personable. Besides talking about Smashed, we also spoke briefly about his next movie, The Spectacular Now, written by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, the duo behind (500) Days of Summer.
ComingSoon.net: What started you down the road to make this movie?
James Ponsoldt: My good friend Susan Burke, who I’ve known many years. It sort of just started as a conversation between the two of us. I guess we were at first sharing stories about just stupid, moronic things we did while we were really drunk or otherwise. I’ve got a lot of those and she had a lot of those, but even more and better stories than I did. All of her drinking stories start from the very mundane and relatable to sort of funny and then surreal and really terrifying. It’s worth saying that Susan is a comedian, but she’s also sober–she’s open about that. She started going to AA when she was in her early 20s. She has a wonderful perspective on sobriety and her struggles with alcoholism. We wanted to create a film that sort of captured the relatability and humor, but also the terror of what it is to be an alcoholic. We sort of talked about the value system that we wanted the film to possess, or rather, what we didn’t want it to have. We talked a lot about other films that we’d seen that dealt with drug addiction and alcoholism. We sort of knew that we wanted to make a film that had a female protagonist, that wasn’t about a guy struggling and the woman that supports him, which is what we so often see. We knew that we wanted it to be someone our age who we could relate to. We knew we wanted it to have humor and humanity and empathy and not be about objectification or other things you often seen in the sort of “scared straight” movies. We also knew that booze was kind of the drug of choice here, even though we, like so many people, have really awful stories about people we love who’ve gotten addicted to heroin or meth or crack or whatever, that wasn’t what we wanted to tell a story about. That was sort of the launching pad for it. We also really wanted to make something that was a love story at its core and a coming of age story.
CS: You mentioned humor and that’s one of the interesting things about the movie. I saw it at Sundance and people were laughing at her drunken highjinks, and I watched it again in a little more subdued setting. I still found things to be very funny, but you feel guilty to laugh about stuff when you’re the only one laughing. I was curious about how you incorporated humor into what’s a really dark story.
Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean, it was very intentional. I guess my favorite comedies are ones where I feel that there’s a real love and empathy for the characters–Mike Leigh films, Paul Mazursky films, Hal Ashby films, the best of Woody Allen, I really love. I guess I would say comedy that’s based on, a comedy of gentleness and comedy of awkwardness and situational comedy as opposed to punch line humiliation comedy. I think the best comedy as they say, comedy and tragedy are so closely linked. The cliché saying is that comedy is just tragedy played in like double time, where the comedy is tragedy viewed from a wide shot. There’s a famous Mel Brooks quote which is at the beginning of the Gary Larson “Far Side Anthology,” where he says, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger making a sandwich. Comedy is when YOU fall into an open manhole and die.” So much of it just has to do with identification. I think to be able to laugh at something makes it more human and palpable and identifiable. I think to try to induce pity from an audience and to feel sorry for someone, it immediately creates distance and we’re gawking at someone like an animal in a zoo, which is what I think so often we see in stories about people dealing with addiction. For me, there’s no otherness about it. So many people that I grew up with that I know and love have been addicted to something or other, or rather, have some damage. Everyone has damage. “What is your damage? Did your parents love you too much, too little? Do you like booze?”
CS: When you were writing it, were you thinking, “Oh, that’s going to be really funny?” Could you tell what might be funny to audiences or not while you were writing it?
Ponsoldt: I guess the biggest barometer for us was let’s write something honest and let’s try to make ourselves laugh and let’s make something that doesn’t feel like we’re shoehorning any gags in, but then go to places that are unexpected, surprising and uncomfortable and then transcend the discomfort and make it actually funny, where we would certainly laugh and we know that we’ll probably lose some people because some people won’t feel comfortable laughing at someone going through these situations like urinating in a convenience store, which is actually really funny. Mary’s a brilliant physical comedian, but it’s also horrible and terrifying and sad and I think it certainly just depends on your perspective. From my perspective, nobody dies in the film. A marriage dissolves, but there are no children, so it could always be worse. For myself, I think I went to my sixth wedding this year of good friends who are total alcoholics. They were drunk at their own wedding, and it’s hilarious because they don’t have kids. As soon as they have kids and those kids have to be raised by alcoholics, it’s not going to be so funny.
CS: That’s one of the things about the scenes where we’re seeing her as a teacher, because they’re really funny but you don’t want to see something like that happen in real life, even though kids are smart these days and you can see something like that play out.
Ponsoldt: No. I think for us it was just important to have real stakes, you know? If this had been a story about just the physical or emotional or psychic abuse of an alcoholic relationship, it would’ve been kind of tired and you would’ve been like, “Leave that guy” or “Leave that woman.” Because they love each other, that’s not the question. There really is something at stake, which is two profoundly flawed people who have committed themselves to each other who want to make it work. Because she actually is able to maintain a job and has the lives of children in her hands, and because she’s actually quite good at it, there is this tremendous loss because of her own personal demons. I mean, people are complicated, everyone has problems. I think my favorite stories are about really screwed up people trying to fix themselves. It doesn’t matter whether they can see it, in fact, perhaps it’s more moving or inspiring if it’s an attempt in vain, but I love watching people try because I think it’s in the trying we can relate and find something really human.
CS: How’d you arrive at Mary Elizabeth to play this role? I was talking with Aaron Paul about this but she’s a really good actress, and we don’t often get to see her playing off different sides of what she can do.
Ponsoldt: I’m sort of like a fetishist for great actors. I just have long lists of actors that I love, character actors, actors that have been in genre movies that I think are really great actors, from TV, anything. She was someone I just loved for years. She just popped in everything. “Scott Pilgrim” was the film for me where I really, really was like, “Oh my God, she is so good.” I really loved that movie. It’s totally stylized, it’s a completely different film than “Smashed.” It’s like a live action cartoon, like an Anime film come to life, but at the core of it, you have this actress who’s so grounded, so still. My favorite actors, like the Robert Duvalls and the Jean Gabins and the Henry Fondas, there can be chaos around them, but they’re just still and they’re able to take it in and have a quality of thinking and have wonderful eyes. She has some of the best eyes of any actor I know–these big, emotive eyes. She’s strong and intelligent. It was really important that the person playing Kate, who really had to shoulder the burden of the whole film, had a strength because she falls down a lot, emotionally, sometimes literally, and you have to believe that she’ll get back up and for an audience to not feel sorrow and pity for her. Because we want to believe that we can get up, and if she’s a surrogate for the audience, then we need some of that strength and resilience.
CS: It’s a bit like the type of roles Sally Fields used to play, one with strength and humor.
Ponsoldt: Absolutely. I mean, I love Sally Fields. There’s other actresses who I also love, people like Madeline Kahn or Laura Dern, whomever, who can make me laugh my ass off and break my heart.
CS: I was curious about shooting the drunken scenes and how you prepared for them? Were they completely scripted?
Ponsoldt: It was definitely very scripted. I had a dialogue with the actors before we started that anything they wanted to try in front of the camera, we would film, because once they were cast, they were the parts so I saw them as collaborators. I gave them total permission to improvise as they saw fit, to treat the dialogue as beats on the page. For the most part, they were very faithful and respectful of the dialogue and didn’t stray too much, but I think we definitely explored a lot. As far as with the alcoholism, Mary and I just spent at least six weeks just talking and talking and talking and making this very personal for her. A lot of people went to AA meetings. Actually, with my co-writer Susan who goes to AA meetings sometimes with other people involved with the film, who we thought of as advisors. They were sort of B.S. advisors, the people who at any given point, they had free reign to call B.S. “No, that is not what she would do. No, that’s not how a meeting would be.” Things like that. I think there was a great duty that we had to get that right. We spent a lot of time just putting the character together and really just developing her, and then creating a process on set for how we could sort of induce the feeling of being drunk.
CS: Group therapy seems to be the running theme of TIFF this year, between this and “Thanks for Sharing” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Why do you think group therapy seems to be creeping into all these movies at once.
Ponsoldt: It’s interesting. I just came from the Deauville Film Festival in France and someone asked me–I couldn’t believe this–but they said, “AA and the 12 steps seem to be a distinctly American phenomenon,” which I’d never thought about.
CS: What do they do over there?
Ponsoldt: I have no idea. They just suffer through it and keep drinking wine. (laughs) No, I don’t know. Maybe they live in some sort of post-modern age. We’ve kind of seen the movies about addiction and struggling and just purely struggling and just purely, which I think sometimes can even be sadistic, where it’s just like, “Let’s just punish a character for two hours and make the audience suffer through it and look at my filmmaking virtuosity.” Maybe now we’re in a place of empathy and reflection where people actually have the capacity to heal and that in and of itself is sort of the infrastructure that’s been set up to help people to try to get better. It’s fascinating in all its sort of complicated dualities of good and bad, because as many people I know whose lives have been saved by AA, I know just as many people who in some cases know nothing about AA who will call it a cult. I think the film is pretty agnostic as far as that. It tries to be sort of fair. It’s not a propaganda film for AA. It’s not a critique of it. I tried to have as much love and empathy for every character in the film as I could.
CS: When I spoke to Aaron, he said you finished shooting the movie a week or two before the Sundance deadline. Was it good to have so little time to finish the movie and get it up and running before showing it there?
Ponsoldt: I’m going to completely mangle this sentiment, but I do remember reading something from Werner Herzog once where he basically talked about how fast he edits his films. It’s essentially the idea of being that if you can’t edit it fast, you might not know what your film is. I mean, I have all the respect in the world for Terrence Malick who spends a couple years or someone like Kenneth Lonergan, who will spend five years on “Margaret.” Everyone has a different process, but in this case, there was something very frenzied and there was a real propulsive energy to this story itself, which was infused into this shoot. The editing sort of came together really fast. We had a lot of long takes. The actors were so great, and I was pretty much working in lockstep with my editor and we knew what we wanted, so it worked well. I mean, if anything went wrong on the shoot, if we had to do reshoots, if there’d been a bad performance, anything, it wouldn’t have worked that way, but everything sort of just clicked for us. We felt really lucky.
CS: I find that’s the case with a lot of movies at Sundance where people just have to get it done the day before it premieres and then everyone loves it so they don’t feel they can change anything. Did you want to do any work on it after screening it there?
Ponsoldt: No, I mean, after Sundance, we didn’t. I mean, the truth is – what’s the saying? A film is never finished, it’s just out of your hands. I think most directors are probably a bit compulsive, probably have control freak tendencies and probably some neuroses where they will just keep editing. If someone would cut them a check and say, “Hey, you can just edit for a year,” they probably would, but I don’t know that films would always get better from that, you know? At a certain point, we found the film that it was supposed to be in post, and it was different a bit from what we wrote, from what we shot. I think it was better and became something that I really loved. I mean, there’s a million ways you could put a film together, but I think we have the right version of it, the version that I’m really happy about. There’s something to be said for having real creative restriction. They don’t always have to be imprisoning, you know what I mean? Saying you have 800 words, you have to write about this is much more freeing probably than saying, “Of all the words in the world you want, you can write about anything.” It’s like, when I say, “Tell me a joke,” you might go blank. If I say, “Tell me a joke about a priest and a rabbi,” you’ve probably got one ready, so it’s good to have some restrictions. I think that it speaks maybe to something that’s great about independent film is that the nature of economic and time restrictions sort of forces you to be creative and actually make hard choices and decisions, which on an unlimited bank account, you can kind of just assume that you’ll fix it in post, which never really works.
Smashed opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, October 12. You can also read our earlier Toronto interview with Winstead’s co-star Aaron Paul here.
(Photo Credit: Nector Marmolejos/WENN.com)