'Smashed': James Ponsoldt aims for audience identification in poignant drama of alcoholic teacher

The series of incidents that make Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s schoolteacher character, Kate, decide to stop drinking in Smashed are both horrifying and darkly funny. Intoxicated one night at a bar, Kate gives a ride home to a stranger who offers her a hit of a crack pipe and leads her, babbling and high, to a homeless encampment. Kate comes home the next day with a dent in her car. Laid out in prose, the scene may not sound particularly funny, but just as HBO’s “Girls” found the humor in an uptight character’s accidental brush with street drugs, Smashed, which Sony Pictures Classics will release on Oct. 12, mixes humor with drama, creating a film with unexpected potency. You may think you’re drinking a mojito at times, but then the impact hits like shots of tequila.

Winstead plays an alcoholic who “makes a really specific and sometimes scary and compelling drunk,” notes director and co-writer James Ponsoldt. “Mary’s character, when you first meet her, maybe you laugh at her. Later, you find yourself wanting to shake the shit out of her."

Most of the film chronicles not Kate as a drunk, but her initiation into the world of AA and her attempts to deal with life without a drink at the end (or beginning) of the day. Although Kate’s “bottom” does involve a crack pipe, this is not the kind of addiction movie that involves gratuitous scenes of substance abuse in seedy surroundings. That’s because that’s not the kind of film Ponsoldt and his co-writer, Susan Burke, who is herself sober, relate to.

“The goal was to film a movie that doesn’t give you a sense of otherness, where you are observing people like animals in a zoo and they’re objectified,” Ponsoldt says of his approach. The director is 33 and he found most stories of addiction and recovery to be about people who are old enough to be his parents, or presented as a “hard-luck story of woe. I don’t relate.” Instead, Ponsoldt and Burke “wanted to make Mary’s character feel like a cousin, ex-roommate, sister, someone you would know and love. Our goal was maximum identification and empathy.”

Most of the legwork for the movie was done well before cameras started rolling. In the month and a half leading up to the shoot, Winstead went to AA meetings around L.A., accompanied by someone who was sober or regularly went to specific sessions. “Out of respect for AA and the sober community, we were always honest and clear about our intent. It was about creating and engendering compassion and specificity,” Ponsoldt explains. “We were welcomed into the meetings, and also respected the anonymity of those people and that process.”

People who were sober also served as advisors before and during the film. Along with the research, there was a “sense of trust that we were really going to be collaborators and create a character together. I wouldn’t make her look like an asshole, and I would push her to be deeper and more honest.”

Once on set, “everyone knew from day one she was doing something real special,” Ponsoldlt says of Winstead. “She just delivered way beyond whatever we could possibly imagine.” Besides Winstead, the film features a tremendous lineup of talented supporting actors. Aaron Paul, the Emmy-winning co-star of “Breaking Bad,” has a larger role as Kate’s husband, also a problem drinker, but even the small performances are memorable, a combination of great casting and Ponsoldt’s ability to write actors great parts. Ponsoldt explains he has a “catalog of actors” on his wish list, and he likes to give unique performers “a role that captures their specific energy.”

Octavia Spencer, who had not yet won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help at the time of filming, plays Kate’s sponsor. “For 15 years she’s been a scene-stealer in everything she’s been in,” Ponsoldt says of Spencer, so her recognition is like “winning one for the good guys. She’s just pure and vital talent.” Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) plays a teacher colleague of Kate’s and his real-life wife Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”) the principal. Offerman’s improvisation skills had the crew cracking up in laughter, while “his wife Megan is even filthier than he is.”

Although he’s a writer, Ponsoldt says he’s “not precious at all about the dialogue that I write.” He encourages his actors to try different things or alter their lines if necessary once on set. Because he does so much character work with his actors before the shoot, “we come to a place where we see the character in a similar way, Once we get to that place, I don’t think they can do anything wrong in front of the camera.” He’ll shoot four or five takes with different deliveries, which gives him a lot of choices in the editing room. His rule is that “I tell my actors they can do anything they want to in front of the camera, as long as they’re willing to do anything I ask them to do. It’s a foundation of trust.”

Besides trust, honesty figures heavily into both the story and Ponsoldt’s creative process. In Smashed, Kate decides to tell a hard truth to her principal, one that comes with serious consequences. When Winstead and Ponsoldt were working on Kate’s character together, their litmus test was always “Is this honest?” The question ended up being applied every step of the way, even down to costuming. With Winstead and costume designer Diaz Jacobs, Ponsoldt spent “days going through tons and tons of clothing choices,” trying to find outfits that toed the line between hipster casual and unkempt. He wanted her to be the girl you look at on the street, and think, “Is she so cool and doesn’t care, or is she a little gross?” At the same time, they nixed anything that looked too “funny” or “crappy-looking” that might detract from the story. Kate’s mix of hoodies and long skirts feels true to her trying-to-hold-it-together character and the hipster neighborhood she lives in. Winstead also “barely showered for the duration of the shoot, had no makeup really,” Ponsoldt reveals. “She was completely game for it. She has no vanity. She just wanted to look honest to our character.” Her look pleased Ponsoldt, and turned heads among viewers. “People always talk about the way she dresses,” Ponsoldt notes, “that’s something I’m proud of.”

Shooting, originally scheduled for 22 days, went so quickly that the production was able to cut days as they went, “which never happens, and will never happen again for me,” Ponsoldt laughs. Ponsoldt and Burke wrote with a low budget in mind. The Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, an up-and-coming hipster destination, gives a personality to L.A. that’s often not present. The first week was shot in Mary’s workplace, a school, usually a cheap and easy location to secure. The next week production moved to the couple’s house. Ponsoldt, on his second feature film after 2006’s Off the Black, knew to write “a story that can do really well so you don’t feel the financial strain.”

Early on in the writing process with Burke, he showed the script to Jennifer Cochis, who he knew through Sundance. In turn, she showed the script to the producers at Super Crispy. The company’s producers, Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling, “read it and loved it,” setting it up with a half-million-dollor budget.

Going into the Sundance Film Festival, where Smashed had its premiere, Ponsoldt had two main concerns. One, was the movie “going to depress the hell out of people, or are they going to find the things I find funny funny?” Two, how would people who were sober or dealt with substance abuse respond? “It would have broken my heart if they called bullshit—if it wasn’t true or honest,” he says. At the first screenings, people laughed right away. It also became clear that the movie not only felt real to people who knew a Kate—it made some people realize they were too close for comfort to the main character. Strangers came up to him after screenings and told their stories. Even close friends have revealed things he never would have expected. Making a movie like this, it appears, has opened the floodgates at a level he’s unlikely to experience again. He tells a few vague anecdotes about what he has heard, his voice modulated with emotion. “People have made themselves extremely vulnerable about the struggles they’ve had or been having, and that’s incredibly moving,” he confides. Not only does the film hit notes that ring true for people who have dealt with addiction, it ends on a question, something Ponsoldt says happens in “a lot of my favorite movies.” This opens up dialogue even more. “This movie gives people permission…it can be a mirror for them to see themselves.”

By going to an honest place and not passing judgment, Ponsoldt ends up creating something more moving and thought-provoking than most message films, a category he and Burke explicitly sought to avoid. When people make message films, he states, they become “self-important” and “about the message, not the characters.” Message films also tend to avoid the ambiguity of Smashed. As Kate tells her first-graders a whopper to cover up the fact that she just threw up in the trash can, or as her sober co-worker awkwardly confesses his love for her, it’s easy to cringe at the same time you let out a shocked chuckle. And that’s what makes Smashed work. “I think humor is a wonderful tool,” Ponsoldt declares. “You can go to darker places if you find that redemption in humor.”