Dramas about alcoholism tend to be downers – sad, tragic affairs that make better showcases for actors than a fun night at the movies. But Smashed, a portrait of a couple whose marriage is threatened by their constant boozing, is different, because the film was conceived out of laughter, not despair.
Director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Susan Burke, who is also a stand-up comic, were trading stories about the craziest things they had ever done while drunk.
“Susan is a really funny person and she’s sober – she started going to AA in her early 20s,” Ponsoldt says. “But the force of nature of the stories she was telling me was incredible. Some of them were so wild, they gave me the idea that we write a script together.”
Burke, who got sober at the age of 24, had never talked about her battle with alcoholism in her comedy routines, and she became friends with Ponsoldt after she had quit drinking, so he knew nothing about that chapter in her life.
“I told him about some of the things I went through, and he kept saying, ‘That’s crazy! You need to write about it!’ ” Ponsoldt says. “But we decided from the start we weren’t going to try to shock the viewer or show the addict as this terrible, strange person. When I hit bottom and sought help, it was more emotional than anything else. I’ve found that to be true with a lot of people: It doesn’t always take some crazy, outrageous thing to make you realize you have a problem, even though we do have some of that in the film.”
The other creative decision the filmmakers made early on was that Smashed would focus primarily on the relationship between Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), who love each other dearly. Their mutual boozing is something that threatens their marriage, not the center of the movie. The 1962 classic Days of Wine and Roses, in which Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick played a husband and wife who gradually descend into substance abuse, may have been an influence on Ponsoldt and Burke. But the tone of Smashed is different; it’s not exactly a comedy but not harrowing or histrionic, either.
The movie opens with the characters deep in the throes of addiction, with Kate, a first-grade schoolteacher, and Charlie, a freelance music writer, laughing about having to sleep on each other’s wet spots in bed and swigging beers during their morning showers before work. The age of the protagonists, both in their 20s, and their obliviousness to their alcoholism gives the movie an energy and lightness that makes it easy to empathize with their dilemma.
“Most movies about substance abuse are usually about people who are quite a bit older and are dealing with emotional or physical abuse or destroying their kids’ lives,” Ponsoldt says. “We walked a fine line between comedy and tragedy. For me, the funniest moments in life are also sometimes the saddest. Humor is a defense mechanism, and it’s second nature for young people who are hyper-ironic and sarcastic and make fun of everything. There’s no big message in this movie that alcohol is wrong and that if you quit drinking, everything in your life will become right, because that’s just not true.”
For Winstead and Paul, the biggest challenge in Smashed was being able to play convincing drunks, something every actor is required to do at some point. But pulling off the role for more than half a film is a much bigger challenge.
“It’s very difficult, because being drunk feels different for everybody,” says Winstead, who previously starred in The Thing and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. “How do you put it on the screen in a way where everyone in the audience can relate to it? I had never played drunk before, and I didn’t know how I was going to make it look authentic. I used a lot of acting techniques and exercises and relied a lot on [Ponsoldt] to make sure it looked real.”
Paul, who had plenty of experience playing meth addict Jesse Pinkman on TV’s Breaking Bad but had never played drunk, took a different approach.
“I got some friends to film me, starting with talking into the camera perfectly sober,” he says. “I began with beer pong, and from there it went to chugging back beers. Let’s just say I got really, really intoxicated.”
The next day, after getting over his hangover, he watched the video of himself, which wound up shaping his performance as the happy-go-lucky Charlie. “I turned out to be a very energetic, happy, loud drunk,” Paul says, laughing. “In the video, all my friends were making fun of me. But when you’re drunk, you don’t notice any of that. I was just having a great time! We tried to capture that same feeling in the movie, which helps you understand why Kate and Charlie live the way they do, until something happens that makes them stop and take a hard look at themselves.”