A conversation with 'Smashed' director James Ponsoldt - East Valley Tribune: Movies

A conversation with 'Smashed' director James Ponsoldt

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Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2012 6:15 am

What happens when your marriage is founded on your mutual love of getting drunk together? What ensues when one spouse decides that it’s finally time to sober up? These are just a couple questions raised by “Smashed”, a new comedy-drama film opening at Harkins Camelview 5 this weekend.

Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”) and Aaron Paul (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”), “Smashed” was co-written and directed by up-and-comer James Ponsoldt. Ponsoldt recently sat down with The East Valley Tribune to discuss the story’s “Jersey Shore” inspiration, challenges he faced while shooting, and why “Smashed” is definitely not a message movie.

In past interviews, you’ve said that you and (co-writer) Susan Burke drew inspiration for the film from your own experiences drinking and accompanying her to AA meetings. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process and why you chose to focus on a married couple struggling with alcoholism?

Yeah, absolutely. Well we knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to do a social issue film. You know, there’s that saying that I’m going to mangle, it gets repeated a lot, which is “If you want to send a message, use FedEx.” We wanted to do a hangout film, a love story, a coming-of-age story. That was clear from the beginning for us. As far as the writing process, it started with us just hanging out, just driving around a lot, drinking a lot of coffee, sort of creating these characters from the ground up. You know, creating these characters that feel really full and real to us; people that we actually knew.

Then we sort of went about fleshing out the story, trying to figure it out together. While we did that, we also watched a few movies and talked a bit about tone and made sure that, in terms of telling the same story, we were also tonally on the same page because the movie kind of does skirt this usually comedic, and sometimes very heavy tone. It’d be kind of a disaster if we weren’t on the same page about that.

Then we kind of split up the script we wrote each week; we’d just literally divide up pages. I would write pages 1 through 15 while she would write 16 through 30. We’d trade each other our pages after the week and kind of re-write each other, we’d constantly do that. We sort of made an agreement at the beginning that we would let the best idea win and that we wouldn’t personally be hurt if we were rewritten by the other person.

What were some of the movies that you watched during that time and how’d they influence your writing of the script?

The two biggest that I’d say would be “Minnie and Moskowitz”, the John Cassavetes movie and…there were a few others that we both really liked. We liked “Annie Hall”, we liked “Punch Drunk Love”, but it was actually a lot of reality TV that we were watching as well. We were watching a lot of independent art films, I guess, but there was also “Jersey Shore”. We just felt like, with this movie, we very much wanted to live it in the world right now and of our friends – how they relate to alcohol and partying and how they just think it’s really great.

You know, we’d just watch “Jersey Shore” and kind of laugh in an “Oh my god, this is just so awful” way, and in the way that civilization is now, that we just need to laugh at people as they get drunk and as they get hurt and as they sometimes get punched in the face. It’s sort of like a comedy of sadism.

I definitely have a big appetite for junk food and junk entertainment but we wanted to have a film where they could live in a world of both “Minnie and Moskowitz” and “Jersey Shore” and “Texts From Last Night”. I have that application and it’s pretty great. It always has totally random, non sequitur, “dah dah dah”-sort of things that people text when they’re high or drunk.

Can you tell me a little bit about the casting of both Mary and Aaron?

I’ve loved Mary as an actress for years – specifically “Scott Pilgrim”, though, which I really loved, I saw it a few times in the theater. What I really dug about her was that she’s been in all these genre movies – action movies, horror films – and she’s really diverse. Here’s this character who at times can feel like a sad clown, but the movie doesn’t pity her and (she does) not feel broken or fragile or beyond repair because, you know, we wanted her to be somebody that the audience could relate to and see themselves or their sister or their best friend. So I really loved Mary’s strength and sense of humor and just her sense of fearlessness in incredibly awkward scenes, and playing very sincerely in times that could be severely uncomfortable.

And Aaron, I, like many people, just love from “Breaking Bad” and he’s just a super, super nice, thoughtful guy who has this incredible voice and intensity about him but he’s really a gentle person.

When I got Mary and Aaron together, I sort of set them up to get lunch together. Initially I talked to them afterwards and they were both just really, really excited. It was important to me that they both believed they could be married, that they could continuously be interested in this other person for the duration of a shoot but perhaps for longer. It’s worth saying that Mary is married and Aaron is engaged but it was just super important to me. I saw them as total collaborators, so I just wanted them to be as excited as I was. Once they spent that time together, I just found them endlessly watchable and wanted to create scenes where I could just push them into intimate and uncomfortable places, and, you know, they’re game for anything.

Were there any particular challenges that you faced while shooting this film?

The biggest one was time. We shot the movie in 19 days so it was a sprint but it sort of created a real intensity to the shooting because I think there was something kind of frenzied at times. They’re married in almost every scene of the movie so there wasn’t really time for her to step back and reflect, she kind of was that character for awhile.

Other than that, it was always maintaining a value system, a lightness, in between takes where we wanted everything to be suffused with a lot of joy and humor, even though we were dealing with heavy scenes. We always just wanted to maintain that. It started out with the script and then with the casting, just letting everybody know this wasn’t just going to be a super, super serious movie. Although it deals with a very serious subject, it’s okay to find humor in it and we wanted to create a world where people could.

You’ve been very adamant that “Smashed” is not a message movie, but what do you hope audiences take away from it?

I think that audiences that are younger – I mean, I’m in my early 30’s – but audiences that are college-age or younger, or even audiences that are older than me, I hope they see themselves in it. I hope they can find themselves in both Kate and Charlie and the story and the relationship function sort of as a…I mean, it’s analogous to any number of tests you can have in a relationship, when you commit to someone. It’s really hard to be in a relationship when you have to put someone else’s interests ahead of your own and to allow them to change when you’re not necessarily ready to make the same kind of change they are.

In that regard, we always saw it as the kind of movie that could have been about a husband or wife getting a job in another city and then having to uproot themselves and decide what’s really important about their values, and that was what was most interesting to us. Hopefully people will laugh and find a lot of relatability and love the film. There’s absolutely no judgment of drinking; there’s no message. I mean I certainly, we definitely know the world, between myself and Susan and other people involved with the film, we know the world of recovery and 12-step groups but this was never supposed to be an exposé. It wasn’t what the movie’s about.

What have been some of your favorite movies that you’ve seen this year and are there any that you’re especially looking forward to this winter?

I’m thinking back to Sundance…I really loved “Compliance” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. I really loved “The Master”. “To The Wonder”, the new Mallick film, is pretty great. I really liked “Looper”. There’s a new movie opening (October 19), “Nobody Walks”, it’s a pretty awesome film. As far as what’s coming up? I’m really excited to see “Silver Linings Playbook”. I’m really excited for “Holy Motors”, which I’ve been hearing about since Cannes. I don’t know, I think those are some of the biggest that I’m really excited about.

To wrap things up, what would you consider to be your drink of choice? Any drinking stories you’d care to share with our readers?

I guess a toss-up between a Dark ‘N’ Stormy and a really cold Corona – just like a really cold Mexican beer. As far as drinking stories, I don’t know. Susan and I sort of have our own drinking stories, abstract a little bit but in the movie. People should see the movie if they want to see some of our drinking stories and funny things we do while we’re drinking.

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