SMASHED is one of those great little movie that packs such a punch square in your gut that it hits you straight in the soul. It's the story of a young married couple (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul) that seem to experience every enjoyable moment in their relationship while they're drunk. And if alcohol is what binds them, imagine the turmoil that is caused when Winstead's character decides to get clean and start going to AA meetings. Needless to say Paul's character tries to be supportive, but his type of encouragement does not include sobriety, which makes for conflicts between the pair that range from awkward to flat-out painful and tougt to watch.
The film is the product of director James Ponsoldt (OFF THE BLACK), who co-wrote the screenplay with Susan Burke, who drew from her life experiences to pull this story together. The movie has an eclectic cast that includes Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, recent Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Kyle Gallner, and Mary Kay Place, as Winstead's awful mother.
Winstead has had a quite the geek-friendly career since she began acting as a teenager, with roles in such films as SKY HIGH, THE RING TWO, FINAL DESTINATION 3, BLACK CHRISTMAS, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (as Bruce Willis' daughter Lucy, a role she reprieves in cameo form in the upcoming A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD), and DEATH PROOF. But with Edgar Wright's adaptation of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, she became the object of many a nerds' affections as Ramona Flowers. She followed that film up with leading roles in THE THING and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, playing Mary Todd Lincoln.
Winstead and Ponsoldt have already made a follow up to SMASHED called THE SPECTACULAR NOW (I'll let them explain), and she's set to appear opposite Charlie Sheen and Aubrey Plaza in Roman Coppola's A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III (if you aren't anticipating this one, you should be) and opposite Adam Scott in the comedy A.C.O.D. But it's primarily SMASHED that we discussed, and don't be surprised if a small amount of awards-season rumbling occurs around this title because it's desperately good, especially Winstead's performance. Enjoy my talk with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and James Ponsoldt, and I should warm you all there are mild SPOILERS in spots…
James Ponsoldt: Hey, how’s it going?
Capone: Hi, I’m Steve.
JP: Hey, I’m James. You’re Capone!
Capone: I am. That’s true. Thanks for letting me know.
JP: [laughs] Sorry, I’m just geeking out for a second.
Capone: [To Mary Elizabeth] In the three different cities we did SCOTT PILGRIM press, did any of our writers get to talk to you?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Somebody did.
Capone: In Austin or L.A.?
MEW: In LA. Who talked to me? Somebody did, for sure. What about somebody named Eric?
Capone: He lives in Austin, but he might have been in L.A. actually.
MEW: Yeah, I think I did see him.
Capone: Obviously the subject of addiction is ripe with dramatic possibilities, almost to the point where it’s been done to death. So what did you want to do differently with the subject, James?
JP: For myself and my co-writer, Susan Burke, it was definitely a world that we knew pretty well. Susan is an old friend and comedian, but she got sober in her early 20s and started going to AA, and her father passed away from an alcohol-related illness. Also, I had a number of friends that dealt, or had family that dealt with, alcoholism and drug addiction, so it wasn’t an abstraction, but also there was nothing exotic of cool about the way we wanted to portray it.
So often I think with films about addiction or alcoholism, and they’re just histrionic and they're really serious, and they're propaganda films in one way or other. You see someone, like a Bukowski-type character who’s just going to try to drink themselves to death and feels like it’s trying to shock you. But that feels kind of passé in 2012, and there’s also just no relatability, it just feels like an objectified, damaged person going through the motions where it’s like, “That’s an amazing performance, but that’s not me.”
We created a value system. In talking about it, we were like, “What are our favorite performances of alcoholics that we’ve seen?” I think hers was Dudley Moore in ARTHUR and mine is Withnail from WITHNAIL AND I, where it’s a portrait of alcoholism. But what we really love about them is the humor and the comedy and the relatability. There’s no judgment, and this film isn’t trying to be either of those films; those are their own films, just like DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES.
What we wanted to do was to make a film where the main character was female, that was really important to us. This isn't about a guy struggling and the woman who supports him. It’s a portrait of a marriage through the lens of the wife. It has comedy. It’s about booze--not heroin, not meth. It’s something totally relatable, and they're young people. They don’t take life that seriously and they're even more immature because they’ve been alcoholics for some time, but that’s true for so many people. First and foremost, it was a love story, a coming-of-age story, and a story about sacrifice and all of the boring stuff that goes into supporting your partner in a relationship. In their case, they're dealing with alcoholism.
Capone: I wrote in my notes that this is not a movie about alcoholism; this is a movie about this marriage and this just happens to be that hurdle they have to get through or not get through. But you’ve disguised it well.
JP: If it works, andhHopefully if the film does crossover in any way, I don’t think it’s going to be people taking their friend who they think is an alcoholic. I think it’s going to be because their friends are in relationships. I’ve been married two years. Mary's anniversary is today actually.
JP: So when you’re trying to find out how to be a responsible adult and how to be good to your partner, you have to make sacrifices and you have to listen to them and when they say, “Hey, I got a job in another city. It’s my dream come true; you’re going to have to uproot yourself,” that’s a kind of sacrifice. And the film really deals with fidelity and faith and the nuts and bolts of being in a relationship.
Capone: So what did you want to bring to the performance that you hadn’t seen before?
MEW: Well knowing how important it was for it to be a super-relatable performance, and I wasn’t going into it thinking, “I’m going to play an alcoholic, and this is going to be a real stretch for me, since I’m going to have to play somebody totally different than myself.” It was more, “This person is me. I need to find out how this person’s struggle is my struggle and not try to stretch myself into playing this character that’s super far from me. I’m trying to figure out how to make this my own.”
So for me, I had to work a lot on my relationships, my issues with myself, and bring that to Kate, more so than worrying about what it’s like to be an alcoholic. It was more what it’s like to be an immature adult who’s trying to grow up and be good to themselves and good to the people around them and become a better person. Along the way, I did do a lot of studying about alcoholism and going to AA meetings and talking to those people, but what I learned from doing that was what a universal struggle it is, just the struggle of being a human being and trying to better yourself and trying to grow. So for me, that was more important to bring to the character than a showy performance of “Look how far I can go” or “The depths I’ll go to be this character.” It was much more about “I just want this person to be me and to be anyone else that I know.”
Capone: That being said, did you have a version of your character when she’s officially blasted and a version of her when she’s not, and did you work on finding that line?
MEW: Well we knew in the drunk scenes that it was a childlike place that I would go to.
JP: What age were you going back to?
MEW: It was usually like nine or so--that was the age--and we would talk a lot about her backstory: “When do you think she had her first drink? When do you think she started drinking heavily?” That’s where she was emotionally stunted, when she first started drinking, and that was the age that she would revert back to whenever she was drunk. So in some ways, it’s like “They're having a blast. They're like two big kids,” and then at a certain point it’s like, “How obnoxious is it to see a 28 year old acting like a nine year old?” In the light of day, it’s not cute at all.
Capone: Even at night, it’s not that cute.
MEW: [laughs] No, but to her it's cute.
Capone: Especially the way you shoot it, because we as observer are not part of the fun. You’re shooting it from a distance and showing it like “Oh God, look at that mess.”
JP: I had a teacher in college, it was a Shakespeare class, and he was saying he thought…[Laughs] He was being tongue in cheek, but he thought the Macbeths were the most romantic couple in all of Shakespearian literature, basically saying, they are like that couple that has dinner parties a lot, and they have you over and they have such shorthand for each other. They finish each other’s sentences and are on top of each other and know each other so well, and at first glance it’s like, “I would love that extreme passionate love, but at a certain point you realize it’s totally isolating and codependent, and they're on an island and they’ve isolated themselves from all of the people in their lives and they complete each other, but they're just awful company for everyone else.
Capone: You and Aaron do have that. How did you get level of intimacy in such a short time span? It really easy to believe that you have been together for a long time.
MEW: I would love to say that we did tons of rehearsals, but it was kind of a thing that happened really easily, and I think it was actually one of more surreal experiences that I had working with another actor. Just after a couple of days of being in that house and working those scenes together, we both felt like it was absolutely really happening, that we were absolutely a real couple and we lived in that house and that that was our lives.
So when we shot the last scene, we were both really sad. That whole day we really felt like we were going through some really sad breakup, but we’d both stop and just look at each other like, “Why does this feel so real? This is so weird.” So yeah, we did have a couple of meetings beforehand. We had a lunch together and then we had a night where we went out drinking together, and that kind of brought us a little closer, a little faster than if we had jumped into it cold. It was one of those magical things that we both thought was going to be a lot harder to make that connection, and it turned out to be not that hard.
Capone: With the tight schedule of the film, couple with the emotional highs and lows of the story, was that just exhausting physically and mentally for you? It doesn't seem like you had time to take a break and step out.
MEW: It was definitely exhausting, but it was also very cathartic. It wasn’t super dark. I felt very tired every night and going to bed; I slept good. [Laughs] I can remember James constantly telling me I needed to go get a massage every time we would have a day off. We were working six day weeks, so we had a few days off. I never did. But yeah, we were all tired. But there wasn’t much time to think about how tired you were. You’re just in it and making it work.
JP: It felt for me like being in summer camp. I don’t know if that would make me the camp counselor or just one of the kids. There was a level of responsibility where it’s just like, “This is going to end.” Every moment, I was constantly aware of, first and foremost, the needs of the actors and wanting to make sure they don’t drown or “fall off the ropes,” so to speak. That was the thing, but really try to support them. You get one shot to do it, and there’s a version of the film that could be false. There’s a version of the film that could just skirt along the surface, a version where they could be really pushed to bring humor and real depth of emotion or not. So I wanted to support them, but also push them as far as they were willing to go. It’s fun to play with actors like Mary or Aaron or Nick; they have amazing imaginations, so you plant a seed, and they'll just really run with it.
Capone: Was it tougher playing the scenes where you were sober and having to actually remember and face the things that caused her to drink in the first place.
Capone: I could see the scenes where you're drinking as being a release and fun. But the scene with your mother is almost too painful to watch. Were those a lot tougher to play?
MEW: That was a hard scene. The funny thing about this script and schedule is that I’m used to doing something where you have your whole schedule and the script all blocked out and you circle the one day on the schedule where your big scene is--the scene that’s going to really push you, that you’re going to have to be ready for, and this was every day. There was not a single scene that I think was harder or easier than any other scene. Every scene was really equally as challenging and complex and layered emotionally, so that was fantastic.
That was so much fun as an actor to be challenged every single day. No matter what the scene is, you’re challenged, pushed to your limits, and there are a lot of scenes that may seem like simple scenes in the movie, but we probably did takes of them when they were pushed to emotional extremes as well. So every day was as challenging as the next day, and every drunk scene, sober scene, they equally were difficult for their own reasons.
JP: So many people that I know that have gotten sober say the toughest thing about getting sober is that 24 hours a day, you have to live with yourself; you can’t get away from yourself, and they're really struck by how boring their life is really. It’s not just that it’s hard, like coping with depression and everything. "It’s just so boring and mundane. I can’t live with myself,” and that was what was interesting to watch. [Laughs] Sober life can be boring, because your buddy, your partner, the love of your life is still a kid.
MEW: And he’s kind of still fun, and you feel like the boring one.
Capone: I was going to ask that. How do you make a movie where one person is trying to get their life together and the other is not so much. How do you avoid making the husband not look like a jerk? I don’t think you want us to dislike him at all.
JP: No, it’s always the character. I mean my favorite films, the ones that I really love are the ones from the '70s, the Altmans, the Ashbys, the Mazurskys--all the good stuff with the humanist comedies with weight. There are no bad guys, and they're really generous in spirit. It’s always the hardest though because drama requires conflict, and you need someone to want something and someone to get in their way, and Aaron had a really, really tough role.
It’s Mary’s film. It’s this portrait of a marriage, but she’s in about 98 percent of the scenes. It was really important to us that the audience doesn’t question their love. To me, this was always a portrait of an epic romance. They were the lucky ones. They met each other probably when they were 20 years old, fell in love, and they knew there was no one as cool or as fun that they would ever meet. They were blasted when they met and they've drunk the entire time, and he’s still functioning at like 18 or 19 and he genuinely wants good things for her, and it’s not about emotional abuse or physical abuse or any of that. He’s a good guy; he’s just immature and weak and hasn’t self actualized.
It’s very easy to be able to look at someone else and be like, “You’ve got problems,” especially if they are going to meetings saying “I’ve got a problem.” It’s a lot harder to look at yourself and do that. So it’s tough, and when you commit yourself to someone you’re not required to change your life if they change their life; you’re required to be a partner with them while they change, maybe inevitably you will change with them. But I think it breaks your heart, because it’s like “Dude, come on. Get it together. You’ve got this world-class lady who wants to be with you, and you’re screwing it up.”
Capone: I’ve got to ask about this bizarre supporting cast that you have assembled. Many of them would seem much more suited to something funny, although you certainly don’t take humor off the table. In fact, it’s on the table pretty frequently. Between Nick and Megan and Octavia, who I’m guessing you cast before THE HELP was released. How did you pick those people? What was the thinking there? The scene where Nick is hitting on you is one of my favorites of any movie this year.
JP: [Laughs] Cool, thank you.
Capone: He was just in town not too long ago doing his one-man show.
JP: AMERICAN HAM, yeah.
Capone: And Megan is a part of the show, and when she's not, he's talking about her.
JP: He’s got a few anal sex jokes, and she sings like an angel. Yeah, that’s like the best compliment. Something I’m most proud of in the film is assembling such a great ensemble. I had great casting directors and great producers, but I watch everything. I watch big movies, small movies, American, foreign. I watch tons of TV. It’s a cliché at this point maybe to say the best writing going on right now in comedy or drama is happening on TV. Certainly in one-hour TV, I think that’s where the great writers are, and that’s where a lot of the great actors are.
I guess a lot of the people who really inspired me with the ensembles they put together--Altman, Woody Allen, David O. Russell today--part of the beauty of it is that there’s an insularity to the world, like it reflects our own world, but there’s a logic to those films that only exist in there. These people can coexist, and it’s not in a predictable way. You don’t look at this cast and say, “Oh, this is an indie film.” Or “Oh, this is a horror film.”
Also because for much of the movie, the vibe is funny-sad, and Kate is sort of a sad clown that of course this is a world where Ron Swanson--who’s the greatest droll straight man since Archie Bunker--could go with Octavia Spencer, who a couple of months after we worked with her she won an Oscar but has been in everything from DRAG ME TO HELL and DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS a couple of months before we cast her. And it speaks to our value system that comedy and drama shouldn’t be exclusive, and this was a movie that deals with serious subject matter, but we're dealing with it in a way where of course you can laugh at it, of course you can deal with it.
People drink for a reason, because it’s fun, and you should never at any point in this movie know that, “this is a safe scene where all will be well,” or that it will be really heartfelt or that it will be funny or scatological. Hopefully there’s the possibility that it can be any of them. We did another movie together this summer, and the ensemble in that I’m equally proud of, but it’s everyone from Mary, Brie Larson, Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Andre Royo, and Bob Odenkirk. I mean “Is that a comedic ensemble? Is that a dramatic ensemble?” It’s hard to say. They exist in that film, and I think they are beautiful.
Capone: Tell me about that movie, THE SPECTACULAR NOW.
JP: Yeah, this guy Tim Tharp, who’s a really great novelist, wrote this young adult novel that was nominated for a National Book Award a few years ago. The guys who wrote (500) DAYS OF SUMMER [Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber] adapted it and did a beautiful job. It’s not super stylized, it’s very naturalistic, but it’s the best sort of coming-of-age story about adolescence I’ve ever read. I think it harkens back to pre-Cameron Crowe films like THe LAST PICTURE SHOW and SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. It’s really, really lovely.
Capone: So does it have that old-fashioned feel to it?
JP: Absolutely. We shot it in Athens, Georgia this summer. We shot it on anamorphic 35mm with old lenses. The DP of SON OF RAMBOW, Jess Hall, shot it and it’s pretty great. Hopefully when you see it, you’ll be like, “This is 2012? Or maybe it’s 1983 or 1975.” There’s not a lot of signifiers of "right now."
Capone: There seems to be this trend in the last couple of years in relationship films to take a more grown-up, sometimes tragic approach. I think of what Sarah Polley did with TAKE THIS WALTZ or what Drake Doremus did last year with LIKE CRAZY. And by the way Mary Elizabeth, the web series [THE BEAUTY INSIDE] you did with Drake is phenomenal. But people are trying to look at these romantic films through a much more realistic point of view. Do you feel like this? Do you think there’s this group of films that all exist together?
JP: I think we live in an era where famously you have someone like Judd Apatow taking about how much he loves Ray Carney’s Cassavetes book, and he tries to absorb a methodology of improvisation in his work, and then people like David Gordon Green as well, where I wouldn’t say it’s post-modern, but I would say filmmakers who maybe grew up watching Amblin movies in the '80s and then discovered Cassavetes later. Do you know what I mean?
Capone: You just described me.
JP: Exactly, right? I mean GOONIES can break your heart, and so can MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ or A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, and those movies can coexist. So I think it’s a lack of snobbery and an appreciation for emotional truth and honesty and finding it wherever you can in any story or genre.
Capone: You make it sound so easy and yet people have been avoiding it for years. Can you tell me about a couple of things you’ve got coming up? I know the A.C.O.D. is the one I’m the most excited about seeing.
MEW: Oh my God, such an amazing group of hilarious people.
Capone: With more "Parks and Rec" people.
MEW: Adam Scott and Amy Poehler, who are fantastic. Katherine O’Jara, Richard Jenkins…
Capone: What is the story there?
MEW: Well it’s this big family where Adam Scott is at the center of it, and his little brother played by Clark Duke is getting married. So it’s all about Adam Scott’s character has to plan the wedding as the best man, but he doesn’t want his parents in the same room ever, because it just brings up too much.
Capone: They're divorced, obviously.
MEW: They're divorce was jut too traumatic for him, and then he ends up finding out that he's the subject of this wildly popular book called ADULT CHILDREN OF DIVORCE, and they used a different name, but it's all about him and his childhood and it sort of sends him on this path. He just loses it, and I’m sort of the girlfriend who’s trying to help him keep it together, but the further he gets in his own mind, the more he’s neglecting the actual good things that he has in his life.
Capone: Do you have any idea when they are talking about getting that out?
MEW: It will be a festival thing. I know they're still editing it now and I don’t know when they will finish it and what it will be in time for, but yeah.
Capone: And then I know some photos came out of you in the next DIE HARD movie, but I’m guessing that’s more of a cameo.
MEW: Exactly, yeah.
Capone: But still, the fact that they wanted you back must be cool.
MEW: Yeah, it’s fun.
Capone: There was even speculation before it was confirmed: “Is she going to be in it again?”
MEW: "Will she or won't she?" I know, yeah, it was great. I actually didn’t know until like a week before I did it. It was very last minute, so when people kept asking if I was going to be in it, I was like “I don’t think so. I don’t really know,” and then at the last second, I guess they had been keeping it under wraps, because they were like “Are you available? Can you fly out?” We made it work.
Capone: That’s awesome. All right, well thank you so much. It was really great to meet you both.
JP: It was great to put a face to the name.
MEW: Exactly. It’s so mysterious there.
Capone: I’d rather you just think of the cartoon avatar, and just leave it at that.