Director James Ponsoldt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead on the set of Smashed
Photo by Oana Marian, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“You’ll pay 15 bucks to go into a theater with 500 strangers and you want this thing to make you cry. That’s a really beautiful thing. To be able to participate in that for me is a real gift.” – Smashed director/co-writer James Ponsoldt on making movies

Smashed, which opens in limited release today, is the second feature directed by James Ponsoldt who also co-wrote along with his writing partner Susan Burke. It tells the story of Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a married 20-something, school teacher and alcoholic. As her addiction spirals dangerously out of control, Kate tries to seize control of her life but finds it’s not as easy as just giving up booze. Her husband Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) loves getting loaded too, but he doesn’t see it as a problem and the two begin to grow apart.

Ponsoldt and his cast were in LA recently to promote the film. He’s one of those very friendly, very open and very easy to talk to people who seem to just be having a blast doing what they’re doing and are all too happy to share it.

Craig Kennedy: So, you’re from Athens, Georgia, home of R.E.M…

James Ponsoldt: Yeah I am! R.E.M., The B-52s…

CK: I had to ask about them because they were sort of a part of the soundtrack of high school and college for me.

JP: Yeah, they were huge. My parents moved to Athens so my dad could teach at the University of Georgia the same year I was born (1978) and I lived there until I left for college. They made a huge impression on a town that’s not that big. I mean, to have a band as big as R.E.M. that’s socially aware and is made up of really really great dudes who are actually involved in local causes and local politics and things like that. It’s cool to be from a cool place with a good band! (laughs) It was great. What they did, and maybe the B-52’s before them even more so, they kind of flew the freak flag where it was like southern weirdoes from anywhere throughout the south who couldn’t fit in in their very conservative or religious families – rural Alabama, George, Florida, South Carolina wherever – could come to Athens and they knew that they could do whatever the hell they wanted and create art. It really was a mecca, a creatively vibrant place. It was cool to be from there.

CK: Tell me how your creative collaboration with your co-screenwriter Susan Burke came about. A lot of this story is inspired by her own experiences, right?

JP: We had a friendship and we had mutual friends and we’d known each other for a while. I knew she was sober, it wasn’t like a secret. She’s a stand-up comedian and  she’s pretty naked and vulnerable and honest about most things in her life and certainly dealing with alcoholism is one of them. I think it kind of started with the two of us swapping stories, the stupid things we’d done while we were drunk, but her stories just beat mine by a mile. I’m from a college town with a big drinking culture and I have tons of friends that are alcoholics or drug addicts, but her stories are just epically insane. So I just kind of asked her if she was interested in writing something with me that was fictional and wasn’t a message movie, but a love story where the common denominator between the characters was that they drunk a ton. I wanted it to be different than other things we’d seen before in as much as I wanted it to have lots of humor. It was going to have a female protagonist and the characters were going to be younger. And it was going to be booze, it wasn’t going to be meth or heroin where it’s supposed to be crazy where you kind of gawk at it. It was going to be something totally relatable. I think I might’ve been a little afraid to tackle something like that if I was writing it on my own. I’d been to AA meetings, but I never went through that. There wouldn’t be specifics and if you can’t get the specifics right, what’s the point? So, Susan was willing to collaborate with me and I was really lucky for that.

CK: There’s a lot of black humor in this, especially at the start before it gradually becomes more serious and dramatic. How did you settle on the tone you wanted and how did you go about pulling off the balancing act?

JP: I don’t know how we pulled it off exactly (laughs).  I think the most inspired humor comes out of real tragedy. I think it was Chris Rock, I might be saying the wrong person, but I think it was Chris Rock who said the reason there are so many African-American and Jewish comedians is because if you’ve had something so collectively atrocious in the history of your people as the slave trade or the holocaust, what else are you going to do but make jokes about it? You have to. There’ve been a ton of tears and if there’s a sacred cow that you can’t make jokes out of, well that’s terrible.  The way we survive is by learning to laugh. That’s the most human instinct. So, getting that humor was a real goal. And the truth is, if you go to AA meetings, they’re really funny. And I don’t mean in some morbid “Ha ha I’m laughing at people” way, but when you go around the circle and share at those meetings, you will hear some of the funniest stories you’ve ever heard in your life. They are people who’ve seen it all, done it all. There’s no pretense whatsoever. They’re already humbled. There’s no vanity of like, “Oh, what are you going to think of me?” They’re there because they know people won’t judge them so you hear hilarious stories. You hear heartbreaking ones too. Sometimes they’re the same stories. I think the most beautiful stories on earth are the ones that are totally heartbreaking and totally hilarious and totally absurd at the same time. I guess a lot of that comes into the movie by creating a value system of really loving your characters, making them really full and loving them and then trying to make things really uncomfortable for them. Hopefully if they’re really relatable then they’ll be uncomfortable for the audience, but they’ll find themselves in that as well.

CK: One thing Smashed does really well that most movies about addiction seem to forget is that it shows how drinking is fun. People don’t drink because it makes them miserable.

JP: Yeah. Drinking and drugs are fun! (laughs) And you can’t say that when you’re making a movie that deals with addiction or alcoholism, but that’s absurd. It’s not me saying “Hey, go do lots of drugs guys” or “Hey, drink yourself into oblivion” but I’m not saying the opposite either. I’m saying everyone is different. I’m saying some people can keep things in check while some people can’t control their appetite for certain things. Anything in moderation can be ok, but I’ve always found it so odd that in the alternate reality of most movies about substance abuse that the substance is this evil thing. It’s like “Really? Because all my friends love it!” But it’s a tightrope. Yes you can laugh at anything, but you have to respect people’s essential humanity and the dignity in everyone and allow them to be human and not laugh at them. You have sort of a moral duty if you’ve created a full character then you’re accountable for everything that you’re going to do them in a movie. You have to stand by it if you have a spine. That’s a real challenge, but those are the films I love most when I don’t know if it’s OK to laugh.

CK: The other thing the humor does is keep the film from just being a public service announcement for Alcoholics Anonymous.

JP: Listen, I would neither vouch for or against AA, but I generally do know a lot of people whose lives were made better by it and I’m interested in the intricacies of it as an organization. It’s part of the process and it’s very common. There’s kind of a tried and true narrative of someone trying to get sober maybe going to AA. There’s something relatable there. Hopefully we have a level of specificity and honesty and humor that sets it apart.

CK: In addition to the film’s specificity though, I think there’s also a generality that relates to any person trying to make a change in their life, whether it’s quitting drinking or losing weight or whatever. This movie gets that one of the hardest parts of any life change is the friction you get from the people around you who maybe feel threatened by the changes you want to make.

JP: Stasis is preferable for most people just because you don’t have to put effort into being static. Creating momentum towards something new means actually looking at yourself and asking where you want to get to. You can just sit contentedly not really changing anything and it’s very easy, but when you start changing things, you realize you’re not on an island, that actually there are people around you and they rely on you and their lives are influenced by your decisions. If you make a decision, it affects them and they might not be happy about it. People are afraid to rock the boat. They’re afraid they’ll be abandoned and people want to be loved and no one really wants to be alone even if we think we feel that way. This story wouldn’t be successful if it was just about alcoholism but there’s a real soul connection between the two characters. They’re two people that really do love each other.

CK: You really want them to make it together.

JP: You have to! If you didn’t, you’d be like “Yeah, get rid of him. Get sober. Get healthy.” You should genuinely want these two people, who are maybe kind of codependent, maybe not right for each other, maybe are a little bit enabling, but are really fun and when they’re drunk they’re really funny, charming, cute drunks, but they might also kill each other. Not out of rage but out of negligence and making bad decisions.

CK: The ending is a little ambiguous in the sense that you could see Kate’s life taking several different directions after the camera stops rolling. Was it hard getting the ending just right?

JP: We didn’t want to be pro or anti… anything. There’s no judgment there. We thought on the page and then when we were shooting it that it’s kind of a litmus test. Whether or not you think this couple is going to get back together, or whether they should be together, depends on one’s own relationships and history. Like, our ideal audience members would be best friends or boyfriend/girlfriend where they don’t come out agreeing whether the characters should get back together or not. They’re equally valid. I think you can root for both of them. I think you can love someone and not be right for them. It’s hard to be in a relationship with someone. It takes work and it takes a level of maturity and focus and attentiveness that is adult and these are not two fully formed adults. They’re emotionally stunted.

CK: Relationships are hard enough without a booze addiction in the mix.

JP: And they’re in their early twenties. We imagine they met in college. And the thing you always hear from people who get sober is that that being sober is sooo boring! 24 hours a day having to live with yourself and having to have the life skills to deal with things like basic depression or failure at work. If you have to deal with that sober, it’s really hard, and sober people don’t realize how many tools they have to get through life that addicted people don’t develop. A lot of people their way is to just not be sober. I totally get why people would want to drink or use drugs all the time because life can be super sucky sometimes. I mean, I think life’s great and I’d rather to be able to experience the good and bad but…

CK: There are days…

JP: (laughs) There are definitely days!

CK: You’ve pretty much done everything in film it’s possible to do. You’ve acted, you’ve written, you’ve produced, you’ve directed, you’ve even interviewed other filmmakers for FilmMaker Magazine. What did you start out wanting to do? Do you have a master plan or are you just grabbing anything you can get?

JP: I acted when I was little in theater and stuff. My mother wrote short stories and her father was an artist who did his own art and did commercial art as well. He did book covers for Agatha Christie books, he painted movie posters. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was young and I was just interested in all different modes of storytelling. When I discovered filmmaking, everything that I loved about visual art, about performance, about music, about photography… it was like a key in a lock moment. I was like “Ok, everything I love, I can do here.” I was also already a big film addict so it just made me feel purposeful and alive. Who doesn’t love movies? Also, movie theaters are like churches for me. I spent my childhood in one. The majority of our lives we don’t want to have extreme displays of emotion. Like, if I broke down and cried in front of you, that would be really uncomfortable for you. If you just laughed spontaneously, I’d think you were insane, but yet you’ll pay 15 bucks to go into a theater with 500 strangers and you want this thing to make you cry. That’s a really beautiful thing. To be able to participate in that for me is a real gift.

2 Responses to “Director James Ponsoldt on his new film Smashed”

  1. Ah, one of the most perceptive interviews you’ve ever conducted Craig, and though I have not yet seen this film (I will ASAP) I was thoroughly engaged in Ponsoldt’s clear connection with the material of this film, and his upbringing. I’ve heard so much about the acting in the film, and BREAKING BAD’s Aaron Paul has made quite an impression on me as of late.

  2. I’d probably give the movie itself 3 1/2 stars. It comes uncomfortably close to PSA material at times, but always pulls back.Good performances and it gets enough right I’d categorize it as a good one.. Ponsoldt I think has a lot of promise and he was an engaging guy to talk to.

    It’s funny, I just threw out the REM question as an ice breaker but I wasn’t prepared for a followup on the off chance that he came back with an interesting answer. Turns out he did and I just awkwardly changed the subject when I should’ve asked him a little more about growing up in the south. Oh well!

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