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Mumbai Film Festival: In conversation with Sundance winner James Ponsoldt

James Ponsoldt is an American independent filmmaker whose first movie, 2006’s Off The Black, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Six years later, he’s out with his new film, Smashed, that not only premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival but also won the US Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.

Smashed, which is premiering at the Mumbai Film Festival, and stars Die Hard 4’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, is a comedy-drama about an alcohol-loving couple whose marriage faces a tough test when the wife decides to get sober. Ponsoldt, who says that his love for American musicals stemmed from his love for “Bollywood’s song and dance”, talks about making American indies, the importance of humour in tragedy, and why Satyajit Ray was a major influence on him to take up filmmaking.

In your first movie, Off The Black, Nick Nolte played an alcoholic, self-destructive character, and in your new movie, Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character is quite similar. What attracts you to these characters as a writer?

James Ponsoldt (JP): I think everybody, sort of, has their demons that haunt them and that they struggle with and I’m endlessly fascinated by this struggle. (Chuckles) Obviously, there’s nothing about alcoholism that seems exotic to me, it’s just something that so many of the people I love have grappled with it, and I’m really interested in such stories about profoundly flawed characters, with good hearts, who want to fix themselves. It doesn’t matter to me if the path they are on is, you know (chuckles), the right path, in that they could be totally misguided but I think it’s very inspiring and hopeful when someone tries to be better person so he/she can give, and receive, love better to the people around them.

I’ve read Smashed was going to be a comedy earlier but in development, the story evolved to something serious. How did you maintain the essence of the first draft of the script?

JP: It was very important for us that, first and foremost, the story feels honest. We didn’t want to write something funny if it wasn’t (chuckles) funny. We knew that the story deals with a very serious subject matter, alcoholism, but our approach was always that we wanted to be very human, warm, gentle and compassionate and have empathy for the characters, and wherever there is an opportunity for humour, which basically could be good-intentioned people trying to be kind to each other but just not connecting with other people, we explored that place.

James Ponsoldt in this file photo. Image by Jim Ponsoldt

A lot of people think that a movie about a heavy topic like alcoholism is something you can’t make light of or that you have to treat very seriously, but I disagree. I think, as long as you are coming from a place of honesty and respect, you can find humour in everything. And you should. It’s important that we process pain and grief through humour, and connect with people through that.

How did you go about infusing humour in a sensitive subject like alcoholism? Was that the biggest challenge at the script level?

JP: Well, it was hard (laughs). I tend to start with characters before plot… characters that are real, and three-dimensional, and complicated. We’re all complicated, we all have our own neuroses, our own hypocrisies, and I love films that celebrate this fact. So, as long as people are truthfully reacting to what’s around them, the audience would potentially go with these characters anywhere.

And I think a part of the reason we watch films is that we get to go to places and do things we otherwise never would, and most of our films are about characters making bad choices and having to deal with the consequences. Personally, I’m not interested in passing judgement on the characters, and there’s no central message that I hope for the audience to take away. I think life can be hard but if there’s a real generosity and a central kindness and decency to people, people would enjoy spending time in the world of the film and take their own message away from it.

It’s interesting to hear your thoughts about humour, especially since I’ve read that your comedy idols are Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. But their style of comedy is worlds apart from yours.

JP: You know, I love the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton Charlie Chaplin, Harold Llyod, and others like them, and what I think is really great about them is that they were sad clowns. In fact, I think all clowns are sad clowns and they help us see the duality of life — the joy and the pain. There’s a lot of clichéd things about how interlinked comedy and tragedy are. Some people say comedy is just tragedy played twice as fast or that in films, comedy is tragedy seen from a wide shot.

What I think is that if you can identify with the character, it will hurt when they are hurt and your heart will break when their heart is broken or when they fall literally or metaphorically. And I’m very interested in stories that walk a very fine line between comedy and drama, or stories where the audience isn’t sure whether they are seeing a comedy or a drama, and I think it’s okay if they are (chuckles) uncomfortable. I like films that relish an opportunity to put an audience at a place where they might find themselves laughing at the most painful moments or empathising in the funniest moments. And I think that’s life. It’s not just a comedy or a tragedy, but both.

Off The Black was made in 23 days and Smashed was made in 19 days. With such time constraints that come as part of being an independent filmmaker, how do you go about the shoot? Did the learnings from Off the Black make Smashed easier to shoot?

JP: Yes, of course, if we could have had an extra week in both of those, I’m sure we would have found ways to use the time (laughs). And that’s what I’ve learnt from my experience — that time is the most precious commodity on a film. So I took advantage of every free second that we had in Smashed. I think, not having enough time forces you to be very specific and focussed, and to make clear decisions. Big movies think they can solve their problems just be throwing money at them and no one ever has to make a clear decision. But when you don’t have money and the clock is ticking, and the money is essentially burning (laughs), it forces you to question what your intent is, what your story is actually about and what your characters actually want, and that’s very helpful.

Also, you spend a lot of time in pre-production with the actors and crew so you are in sync with what we were trying to do. For my second film, I was just looking for collaborators and people who share my value system, but that would challenge me to do better. I try to surround myself, as much as possible, with people who are more intelligent and talented than I am (laughs), so, hopefully, it would bring the best out of me and the film.

In such a short time span, especially with a film like Smashed that depends so much on performances, how do you bring about the intimacy between the actors?

JP: I spent a lot of time with Mary, both developing the character and having her spend time with people who had dealt with alcoholism. And then I just had her and Aaron spend time together. More than rehearsals, it was them going out and getting lunch, talking and drinking and spending time the way a married couple would that helped them, and generally helps actors develop trust, which is the most important thing for me. And then I spend time with them to develop my trust with them too, and then we can all, (chuckles) sort of, go to emotionally vulnerable places together.

I also like to cast actors who are brilliant and interesting, and who have wonderful imaginations. I don’t micro-manage or tell them what to do. I look for actors from television, Hollywood blockbusters and small independent films all over the word and I think there are some great actors, who I feel may be on a particular medium or who may work in a particular genre but could be doing well somewhere else just as easily, if they get the chance. I cast Mary because for this part, I needed an emotionally strong person whom the audience go on a journey with, as opposed to pitying her. And she’s played these characters in action films who are physically strong but I thought were also strong emotionally. And I cast Aaron because he’s so brilliant on Breaking Bad.

You mentioned watching all kinds of genres on film and TV. Were you always interested in all kinds of cinema, growing up? If yes, what genre would your dream project be of?

JP: That’s a tough question (laughs). I saw a lot of films when I was young. But interestingly, the Apu films and all of (Satyajit) Ray’s films, especially Aparajito, were a big inspiration to me. I saw them when I was 17 or 18 years old, around the same time I saw 400 Blows by (Francois) Truffaut. And I was so struck by them because they just felt so mature, honest and wise, you know.

I felt like that the person telling the story understood human nature because I had found a connection to the characters. And the big fun Hollywood movies I watched as a kid me feel different, like I was seeing some part of myself and my own struggles and fears on screen. And I guess that was what excited me about making movies, you know – the way a part of me that was a lonely, confused teenager, who was trying to figure things out, connected with those movies, I hoped that I could make films that could connect with some other (laughs) confused young person who is trying to figure things out for themselves. So that they would know that they weren’t alone in the world and that they were feeling what other people were feeling. It’s so exciting to me that a film made in India in the 1950s connected to me in Georgia in the US in the 1990s, and I think, that’s the real goal of any kind of art… to convey an emotion to another person who doesn’t know you.

As for me, I’m interested in small, relationship films but I’m also interested in big action movies! I connect with movies where there are characters I can relate to and where there are relationships where I feel the stakes are high, where the stakes are life and death. So even if I make a huge genre film about aliens from outer space (laughs), I will try and find relationships in them that are meaningful and that resonate in my life and among people that I know.

What’s your next movie going to be? You must be getting all sorts of big budget offers after the amazing reception and awards at Sundance?

JP(laughs): Yes, I’m getting quite a few screenplays but I’m just grateful that I’m getting to work consistently, actually. In fact, I’m in the middle of editing my next movie that I’ve already shot over the summer. The movie’s called The Spectacular Now and is based on a brilliant and celebrated young-adult novel. It’s the most genuine story about adolescence that I’ve ever read in my life. Like I mentioned, the Apu films by Ray and Truffaut’s films were great because they weren’t really about any specific time or any specific country. They were about a transcendent time in a character’s life and simple stories about growing up, falling in love or having your heart broken. I believe The Spectacular Now’s script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, is quite like that and it’s a real honour to make that film.

Nikhil Taneja will be doing a series of interviews with directors whose work will feature at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival. Coming up next a conversation with Oscar-nominated writer-director Kirsten Sheridan, about her new film, Dollhouse.