Director's Notebook: 'Smashed' Filmmaker James Ponsoldt on Creating the Film's Most Challenging Scene

Director's Notebook: 'Smashed' Filmmaker James Ponsoldt on Creating the Film's Most Challenging Scene

Mar 12, 2013

In our newest column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about scenes that were the most challenging to shoot in their movies.

For our first installment we chat with James Ponsoldt about his 2012 Sundance hit Smashed (out on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming today).


 

 

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul star as a couple living in L.A. whose constant drinking have caught up with them. For Kate (Winstead), it’s a sobering reality that leads to her getting help though AA, while Charlie (Paul) continues to drink. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes towards the end of the film, Kate, who’s been struggling to stay sober, finally falls off the wagon after being fired from her job. Dropped off back at home, she enters her home depressed and angry, leading to an emotional scene all shot in one take where Kate finally tells Charlie she cannot stay sober and be with him, inevitably ending their marriage.

Here Ponsoldt walks us through how the scene (pictured below) was developed from page to screen.

Depict in an Honest Way

I had talked a lot with [cowriter Susan Burke] at the conceptual stage before we were writing the script about other films that we’d seen that dealt with alcoholism or drug abuse and the typical arches and tropes of those movies. Some of which we really loved, some we didn’t love. We were trying to figure out the space we wanted to carve out and the movie that dealt in some ways with alcoholism that we really wanted to see.

One thing that Kate takes out of AA is this notion of radical honestly and becoming honest with everyone in her life. So after she tells her boss at the school she’s been teaching at that she’s been lying, I think she expects to some degree, “Well, I’m honest so the world should react in kind and reward me for that,” and of course she gets fired. There are so many things falling apart in her life—she’s struggling with her disease, she lost her job, her marriage has fallen apart—she goes back to drinking and we knew this scene really was one of the centerpiece scenes of the film.

It was a scene we knew we wanted to avoid the typical addiction and recovery, of a partner holding the other partner while they throw up in a garbage can, stuff like that. We didn’t want to see that. Almost as a statement of purpose we wanted to jump around that and really focus on the relationship. In the scene we’re talking about she comes in piss drunk and Charlie’s playing video games in the middle of the day and she’s just laughing and wants to get drinks and you see Charlie’s face is, “I know what this behavior is. I haven’t seen it in a while. My wife’s drunk and I don’t know how to process this.” And in that moment instead of being at his absolute worst and storming out Charlie is at his best because this is the moment when he really does step up and say, “Hey is everything okay?” He even says something like, “Baby, I think you might have a real problem.” I have seen at screenings audible groans from the audience at that moment. Just “FUCK YOU.” And he’s not saying it sarcastically, he means it sincerely, he’s just oblivious because fundamentally it’s much easier to point out other people’s problems. And it works her up. I think she has a lot of rage and anger towards herself. I think she feels fucked up at her core and will never be okay. So we knew this would be a scene where it all had to get really ugly and it all had to come out. This is the scene that the actress playing Kate would have to pull off a lot of emotion. It’s choosing between the love of your life or sobriety, she’s not allowed to have both.

 

Finding the One

I knew Mary from many movies, especially Scott Pilgrim which I really loved her in. That’s obviously a hyper-stylized live-action cartoon of a movie but she gives a really grounded, naturalistic and strong performance in it. And I think there’s a reason Mary has been in a number of action and horror movies: she’s tough, she doesn’t feel weak and fragile. And it was important to us that the person who was going to play Kate to be someone who could be a surrogate for the audience. It was important for us to have someone who was brilliant and had a great sense of humor; who would allow us to laugh with her and not just at her. It was a strong and complicated person. And Mary knew she hadn’t done films before where she was in every single scene and acted this kind of way. So she was nervous and shouldered the burden of the film. The movie lives or dies by her performance. I didn’t ask her to audition, but when we first met over lunch and had a long several-hour conversation getting to know each other, she offered to put herself on tape to give her take on the character. So she did that at home and did a lot of scenes, including this one. I watched them with my wife and we were just blown away by her.

 

Time to Shoot

Myself, Mary and Aaron, we were all kind of dreading shooting the scene. We knew how important it was. Independently reading the script, they both said separately to me, “That scene, that’s a bear of a scene.” And them saying it really made me realize that it was huge. And then you face the realities of physical production. It was a 19-day shoot and our first week of shooting we did all the school scenes and I wanted to push this scene back as far as I could. But the second week of shooting we did all the scenes in the house and that worked because most of the time it’s just Mary and Aaron really getting to live in that house. And they had already spent some time together before we shot. They went out drinking together and knew as people how they were when they were both drunk. So though we didn’t have much time they had a bond formed.

It was a huge amount of time to set up the scene, more than any of the other scenes. We blocked it out so that we would virtually have all day if we needed it. And the style of how we shot it was in the vein of a documentary. I didn’t want something that felt shaky and handheld, but I really wanted a surrogate in Kate that the audience could project themselves in. We wanted it to be a “oner,” shot all in one continuous take. We had stunts, she throws him down to the floor, so we had to have a stunt coordinator on set. We needed to talk it through in that regard so everyone felt safe. So we had a broad conversation about the scene, and it was kind of there in the script, but I wanted them to go off their first instincts. When we first got to the space I did a walk through with the actors and we just stumbled through the scene just to figure out the blocking. Then I brought in the cinematographer, Tobias Datum, and we lit the room so they could just walk through it naturally. I didn’t want to light it in a way where they would have to hit their marks. When you live in a home there’s a place in rooms where there are shadows, so I wanted to have that feeling.

The first take was stunning. Mary was possessed. There’s just something in her eye that’s terror and anger and self-loathing. So they walk through the entire scene in one take. The scene ends with them on the ground and her saying “I can’t get sober with you” and tosses back a bottle and we cut hard to black. We shot the scene so it kept going. I was hesitant to call cut, I just wanted to see where things would go. So it went on for a few more minutes and she was just on the ground and weeping in Aaron’s arms. I just wanted to see how far it would go. Either the first or second one I was crying. Mary was crying, Aaron was emotionally messed up. The stunt coordinator was crying! It was one of the few moments in the movie where everyone felt like intruders. We were watching a really complicated relationship come undone. We did it about six or seven times. I didn’t want to stop.

I remember going to lunch after that scene and it was really galvanizing. It brought everyone together. I think everyone thought after that that they we all were doing something special here.

The Final Touch

We knew that in the story it would jump to a year later after the scene. I did imagine that she’d say “I can’t be sober and be with you” and I’d know they’d cry, but their performances were so good and so affecting, and knowing that it would be a single take, part of me wanted to see how long I could sustain it. But while we were editing it and working with a great editor, Suzanne Spangler, I don’t know if it was her or I but at some point one of us came up with the cut to black. And for a movie where people get blackout drunk, to be very literal, it was interesting. Also, how can the editing also affect the feeling of something being cut off in mid-sentence? So talking about that, it was finding the exact moment to cut it off where the maximum audience feeling of leaning forward of what’s going to happen, and we found this moment where she’s leaning back and slamming this bottle of tequila. But there’s something profoundly violent where it looks like he’s going to bring it down on his head. Looking back at it now, it was the right thing to do, but back when we were still locking the film we had concerns if this was the right way to end the scene.

When we showed it at Sundance, at the cut-to-black moment there was an audible gasp in that moment. It wasn’t surprise, it was shock. It’s a hair longer than the typical cut to black and some people in the audience thought it was the end of the movie. But then the voiceover begins. It’s the outcome I wanted. 

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