James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke decided to co-write Smashed after sharing their embarrassing stories about the times they got wasted drunk. They set out to create an honest depiction of what it was like for a strong, young woman struggling with alcoholism – something they felt hadn’t been seen before. In return they got an amazing and powerful performance from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World star Mary Elizabeth Winstead. We recently got the chance to talk to the director and his co-writer about Alcoholics Anonymous, casting, and where to draw the line when sharing personal stories.
How much research did you do into actual Alcoholic Anonymous meetings?
Susan Burke: We didn’t have to do that much research. I’m actually sober and I got sober when I was 24-years-old. Originally I got sober when I was 18, drank and then got sober again when I was 24. I have a lot of familiarity with the program, and getting sober again. James Ponsoldt actually had the idea to write this script sort-of based on different conversations that we’d have about it. I felt like a lot of movies didn’t represent alcoholism the way that I connected to it. I understand that it’s a different disease for different people, but getting sober young and being a woman, that hadn’t been told. We wanted to tell it from a very real place. James had come to meetings with me before, just to support me and bring me cakes, but he came to a bunch.
James Ponsoldt: Mostly for the free cake.
Susan Burke: And the fashion.
James Ponsoldt: Exactly. There’s really hip meetings in Los Angeles. It’s really intimidating actually. Some of the ones in Silver Lake and Hollywood, the Friday speaker series ones, it’s like a parade of people in skinny jeans, chain-smoking. You feel like you’re at a concert for a very cool band and you shouldn’t be there because you’re not cool enough to be there. That’s how it felt.
Susan Burke: I’ve had the thing we’re I felt, “I’m not pretty enough to go to AA today.” (Laughs)
Some of the things that happen in the movie are based on personal experience, where did you draw the line?
Susan Burke: It’s definitely not my story. There are elements of my real experience in it, and there are some directly from life-things. But when we were writing, Kate and Charlie became these two separate characters and their story became their own story. What we wanted more than anything was for the story to have real-life feelings. Even though there are instances in the movie, which I won’t say which ones, that really happened to me, it changed so much. The script became a totally different story. All the actors made it their own story too.
I was hesitant to open up about being sober. Not just for people knowing that I have a drinking problem that I’ve overcome, or that I’m overcoming still, because that’s a common thing, and I think it’s good to talk about, but because AA’s policy is not to promote itself. I wouldn’t want anyone who is sober to think that I’m speaking for all of AA. I’m not. This story is more about the relationship than about sobriety anyway. Hopefully sober people won’t be mad about it.
Can you talk about casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead?
James Ponsoldt: I’d been a fan of Mary for a long time. The movie that I’d seen her in most recently was Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and I really love that film. It’s obviously very different from Smashed. It’s super-stylized, almost like live-action cartoon. But what I think is great about it is, amidst all the chaos, Mary is this very still, constant, strong presence. She actually has a very tough role in that movie. She’s suppose to be cold. This ice-queen who isn’t allowed to smile. There’s real strength and humanity that comes out of her, and a sly sense of humor.
It was very important to us that the main character in Smashed not be weak or fragile. She goes through quite a bit. We didn’t want to create a character and beat them to hell. Or have the audience gawk at them and objectify them. We wanted someone to be a surrogate for the audience, who could find strength. Someone who could go through a lot, and when they fell, they could also get back up. I’ve thought that Mary is an amazing actress for a long time. This is different because she’s done a lot of studio films and genre films. But I’m really excited for people to see her in a different context.
Did you shoot this before The Help came out, before Octavia Spencer got all that publicity for that?
James Ponsoldt: Yeah. While we were shooting The Help was just coming out. Octavia’s first screen role was in the mid 90s. It was in one of those John Grisham movies. She’s just someone that you’ve seen in movies and TV shows for the past 15 years. Whether it’s Ugly Betty or Drag Me To Hell, Dinner For Schmucks – they’re all very different movies, but when she’s onscreen, she’s alive and present and funny and elevates everything around her. I was fiercely passionate about her. Luckily I had casting directors and producers who were equally thrilled to have her in the film.
What do you hope audiences take away from this?
Susan Burke: I hope that they think it’s the best movie ever made. And that they take the script of Citizen Kane and rip it into a million pieces. (Laughs) Really, I just hope it’s something young people can identify with. When you’re in relationships and you’re young and you’re in the same path, and once one of you go on a different path – whether it’s politics, religions, career, etc. – people can relate to that. When it comes to alcoholism, I hope people are able to say, “I know that person.” It’s not like Leaving Las Vegas. Something people can relate to. It’s not such a weird, creepy thing. It’s a very normal thing.
James Ponsoldt: We were also very adamant from the get-go that we didn’t just want to make a social issue movie, or a message movie. That would be a real failure and boring movie. There’s also been some great, definitive movie that are all about alcoholism. But we set out to make something that was a very successful love story about young people who’ve committed themselves to each other. It’s a coming-of-age story except they’re so emotionally stunted that they’re coming-of-age in their late-20s. Part of what’s common to the relationship is the fact that they just black-out drunk most of the time.
We also wanted to make something that had humor. It was important that it not be something that we took very seriously. There’s a reason people drink. It’s fun. It just is. You can have a movie about people who are dealing with a serious disease and still say that it’s fun to drink. Those things can coexist. It’s just usually in movies, they don’t. People feel like they have to be really precious about something, or treat people who’ve been through something like this as fragile, but they don’t. People are tough and resilient and complicated. We wanted the film to feel that way. We wanted to have a main character that was all of those things.
Was it important to have both sides of the issue?
James Ponsoldt: Again, that saying, “If you wanna send a message, use Fedex.” This wasn’t a message movie. This also wasn’t suppose to be propaganda for AA. It wasn’t suppose to be a take down of it. It a part of the story, and part of the dynamic of this relationship. There are two people and there’s a group that becomes part of their life as well, and it changes it on a very personal level. I know just as many people who say their lives have been saved by AA, as there are people who say it’s a cult. Everyone has a very personal take on any group whether it’s political, philosophical or religious.
Susan Burke: It’s not a black and white thing. So many people have different takes on sobriety and AA. We didn’t want to take a side. We just wanted to show it the way it is for the character. There are complicated things about sobriety.
What about her script appealed to you that you felt you had to make this movie?
James Ponsoldt: It started with a conversation. We co-wrote the script. It was started as stories about stupid things that we did when we were drunk, which we both had. Susan is one of the strongest and funniest people I know, she’s hilarious. A wonderful comedian and actor and writer and all that. But at a young age she said, “There’s something about my life that I need to change because I don’t have control over this thing.” That’s a really bold thing for someone to do when they’re young. It can alienate the people around you. If you’re going to be the person who says, “Have fun, I’m not gonna drink,” it makes other people look at themselves.
I also just had a lot of friends around me that were dealing with similar things. We both felt that this was a story that was meaningful for us and the people around us. And also a story that we hadn’t really seen, with this type of humor and relating to a character and not objectifying something that had a female protagonist. She wasn’t just a weak woman who falls apart. She’s hilarious and can be mean she’s a drunk. She can be all those things that someone can be. I was also just excited to write a script with Susan. There is a specificity of experience which doesn’t have to be everyone’s sobriety story but it’s certainly past the witness test for a young woman struggling in her 20s to try and get sober, and has tried AA among other things. It seems to be pretty honest.
Susan Burke: We had done like little tiny projects together, like internet videos and stuff. I been a fan of James. It was great to write together. It was a really fun writing process. James would make mix tapes of the music that Charlie would be listening to. We had a really cool process.
Smashed hits theaters Friday, October 12th.