‘Smashed’ director James Ponsoldt talks about ‘the drunk girl,’ John Cassavetes and ‘Jersey Shore’

Smashed,” which opens Friday in selected cities, centers on Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a 20-something-year-old woman who by day teaches grade school and by nights hits the bars hard with her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul). She’s the sort of person who gets loaded at the local lounge and then wakes up a remote industrial part of town the next morning with no memory of how she got there. When Kate finally gets help and starts the slow, painful process to sobriety, she finds herself out of step with her husband, who is still an avid drinker.

Paul and the rest of the cast, which includes Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, and Megan Mullally, are excellent, but Winstead’s turn as the lead is nothing short of astonishing. You will probably be hearing much more from her and her performance in the coming awards season.

Yet this is a movie that could have gone wrong in five dozen different ways, but director James Ponsoldt shows a seemingly effortless command of tone. The movie swings from scenes that are funny to ones that are deeply affecting with such aplomb that it isn’t until the lights go up that you realize what a feat he has managed to pull off. The movie never stoops to self-congratulation, like a lot of movies that come out of Sundance these days, and it never looks down on its characters. Ponsoldt remains doggedly honest to the material.

I caught up with Ponsoldt the other day at a hotel in Beverly Hills. Bearded and dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, he looks less like an up-and-coming director than someone you might see next to you at a local dive bar or, perhaps, in line at the local art movie theater. Ponsoldt’s enthusiasm for “Smashed” and for movies in general is palpable.

[Related: Indie Roundup: ‘Wuthering Heights’ director Andrea Arnold talks about Emily Bronte, visceral filmmaking, and sheep poo]

Jonathan Crow: So, let me ask you the question that I’m sure you’re being asked all the time. You are not a drunk 20-something girl.

James Ponsoldt: No, I’m not. Appearances can be deceiving.

JC: How did you get inside this character’s head? I understand your writing partner has something to do with that.

James PonsoldtJP: Yeah, yeah. Susan Burke, my co-writer. She’s a wonderfully talented comedienne here in Los Angeles. She got sober when she was 24. Some of the specifics of the story very much tapped into Susan’s own experiences. We both have a lot of really dumb stories about what we did when we were drunk or on whatever. But Susan’s are vastly better than mine. I think when you’re drunk or high a lot, you make really bad decisions.

Often, with movies that deal with substance abuse, they treat the subject with kid gloves that you’re allowed to make fun of. They’re “scared straight” movies. The truth is, there’s a reason people drink. It’s really fun.

JC: One thing I found so refreshing about your movie is that you have this strong, complex female protagonist as the lead. She seemed like somebody you would meet in some of the hipper corners of Los Angeles.

JP: Totally — it’s really weird. Women and men are all super-complicated, and they can be really kind and compassionate and generous and thoughtful, and then really selfish and callous and petty and immature in other aspects of their lives. It’s only in movies where women are either weak or they’re bitches. You know what I mean? I’ve never have gotten that. It was really exciting to me to create an epically complicated character — someone who could be a fantastic teacher but also be really juvenile and a mean drunk. Someone who could be having a breakdown and then be really strong and ultimately who has the real strength in her marriage. And you can’t put her in a box. And yeah, I was very excited to be part of creating that character and then bringing it to the world.

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JC: Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is fantastic. How did you help shape that performance?

JP: The vast majority of working with actors is casting well, really advocating for the right actor. What I saw in Mary was a real strength and stillness to her. She’s got a real spine and real intelligence to her. She and I both knew that there is no such thing as an OK screen drunk. The performances are either really embarrassing or really definitive epic. None of the really good ones, though, have the humor and the weirdness that she gives it.

JC: “Leaving Las Vegas” is not a funny movie.

JP: It’s not a funny movie. It’s a brilliant movie, brilliant performances. But I don’t need to hang out in that world. So Mary and I spent a couple of months really breaking down that character and making it as personal as possible. She went to a lot of AA meetings with me and with my co-writer. She totally immersed herself in the character. There was no vanity there whatsoever. So, she was an inspiration — not only her work ethic but her desire to go as deep as possible.

JC: What were the other films you were looking at for inspiration for “Smashed”?

JP: Yeah, I mean there are probably too many to name. The first conversations that Susan and I had [were] that we wanted in a very sincere, not tongue-in-cheek, way to embody both “Jersey Shore” and “Minnie and Moskowitz,” by John Cassavetes. There’s something really gentle and kind of funny in that movie about two flawed people. There’s humor, but there’s also a real pain in there. You know, I can say the same thing for a lot of Mike Leigh films, like “Secrets and Lies” and “Naked.” I can say the same thing for a lot of Paul Mazursky movies, like “Blume in Love” or “An Unmarried Woman” or “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” or “Harry and Tonto,” [and] early Jonathan Demme movies, like “Melvin and Howard” and “Something Wild.”

JC: “Jersey Shore” and John Cassavetes?

JP: My goal wasn’t to make an art film that will only be seen in film festivals. I just wanted to make a film that my cousins who were just barely college age could totally relate to. We have so many depictions and glorifications in popular culture of functioning alcoholics, “Jersey Shore” being one of many. Where we create cartoon characters. Give them a lot of money to be buffoons for our entertainment. It’s kind of this comedy of sadism.

I was really interested in humanizing the “drunk girl,” and I put that in quotes intentionally, like the “drunk girl” is a type, and really wanted to create a character that you go from laughing at, to laughing with, to empathizing with. I want people to say, “Oh, my God! That’s me, that’s my sister, that’s my ex-girlfriend.”

Pity is a horrible thing to feel for someone. You can create a pathetic character, but it’s a lot tougher and more rewarding to create someone who does really stupid and self-destructive things but ends up coming off as a struggling human being.

[Related: Indie Roundup: ‘Compliance’]

JC: Tell me about working with Aaron Paul.

JP: I think it would be easy to make Aaron’s character a villain or a bad guy or just an enabler, and he is maybe an enabler. But if you didn’t like him and if you purely thought that he was bad for her, then Mary’s character’s choice would be simple: Leave him. Get sober. Move on. But he is lovable. He is a well-intentioned good guy. He loves this girl with all his heart. Aaron has maybe the toughest role in the film.

Aaron has such a gentleness and warmth and humanity to him. He is so funny, and he has those natural gifts of his voice and his eyes. He’s like a young Jack Nicholson, where it’s like you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)

See the trailer for ‘Smashed’:

‘Smashed’ Theatrical Trailer

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October 2012

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