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.
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.