What happens to a young marriage when the one thing that once brought two people together suddenly vanishes? In Smashed, the answer isn’t pretty. But neither is the alternative, because in Smashed, the thing that brings the couple together is alcohol.
The couple is played by Aaron Paul of the series Breaking Bad, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The film also stars Nick Offerman of the TV show Parks and Recreation, Megan Mullally, best known from the TV show Will and Grace, and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.
James Ponsoldt directed and co-wrote the film. He tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Celeste Headlee the idea for the movie came from real-life experiences.
On choosing addiction as a subject matter
“Smashed began as a conversation between myself and my cowriter, Susan Burke, sort of sharing stories about stupid things we’d done while we were drunk. And we both spoke with a bit of authority about it. Susan, specifically because she got sober in her early twenties, started going to AA. And we talked about films that we’d seen that dealt with substance abuse, or alcoholism and realized that we didn’t quite relate to many of them. For any number of reasons. A lot of them felt like Scared Straight stories or social issue films, and sort of lacked the humor, the sense of youth and relatability that we were looking for. We wanted a story about marriage, and a love story. but where, you know, we really identify with the characters as opposed to objectify them.”
“This isn’t a story about alcoholism. It’s a story about fidelity. You know, committing yourself to someone. Being in an adult relationship, being willing to, or not willing to, make the sacrifices that you need to do for your partner. And that can be any number of things, taking a job in another city. In this case these are two people who are head over heels in love with each other. But they just work when they’re drunk. And when that’s removed from the equation, it destabilizes the relationship.
On working with Nick Offerman
He’s a great actor, not just a great comedian. The first time we met, we met in his wood shop in Glendale and he showed me some of his canoes and tables. And we just talked about life and Wendell Berry books. I just related to him as a person. He has a very human, empathetic and sort of funny perspective on life. But when you spend time with him, he doesn’t sort of try to tell one-liners or anything. And those are my favorite actors. Those people who don’t need to force the laughs.
On directing someone who is pretending to be drunk
There are some really iconic performances that we’ve all seen of some famous screen alcoholics and they’re some really bad ones, and there is very little in between. Working with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, it was really important for us to understand the triggers that she had. Because there’s a saying that I’m going to mangle, but essentially that someone’s emotional development stops when their addiction begins. So we wanted to figure out exactly how old she was when she was really hammered. So we had her as a 9- or 10-year-old, essentially.”
“Kate is someone, who when you meet her drunk, doing a karaoke version of “Cruel to Be Kind” with Nick Low. She’s kind of that drunk girl that you’ve seen in a bar. That perhaps the audience at first glance will laugh at her, but then slowly during the course of the film will laugh with her, and then sort of want to shake her like crazy because they see themselves or someone very close to them. An ex-roommate, an ex-girlfriend. Sometimes in movies that deal with drug abuse or alcoholism it seems sacrosanct to suggest that that thing is fun, but it is, and we kind of get that out of the way.”
On mending a troubled relationship
“I don’t think this couple really is going to regret a second they spent with each other. And I think they’ll be grateful for all of the love and pain that they shared with each other and that we share with anyone that comes into our lives.”
“I think they’re on different paths, of course, one of them gets sober. A lot of my friends that have gotten sober have said that the toughest thing about being sober is you have to live with yourself 24 hours a day. And that can be really boring. And you can’t really get away from yourself. And in this film. one of the members of the relationship is suddenly having to deal with herself, and look at herself and be honest, and have to finally start growing up. Whereas her partner is still a little bit emotionally stunted even if he has a lot of love in his heart for her. So I think, there is a relationship to be had there, but they’re going to have to get to know each other all anew.”