Directing Sarah Silverman as an Addict

By Dorri Olds 10/25/15

The Fix Q&A with Adam Salky, director of I Smile Back, about Sarah Silverman's star turn as an addict.

Comedian Sarah Silverman isn’t so Funny as an Addict in "I Smile Back"
Broad Green Pictures

Oh, addicts. Slippery and charming until everything falls apart. Watching Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) unravel is like rubbernecking at an Oscar-worthy disaster. Anyone who has ever been close to an addict or mentally ill person—which is practically everyone, right?—will watch transfixed.

I Smile Back won Official Selection this year at Sundance, Toronto International, and Chicago International film fests. This is the second feature film directed by Adam Salky (Dare) and both of his movies received Grand Jury Prize nominations at Sundance in 2009 and 2015.

Laney lives a cushy life in the suburbs in a big house with two adorable children: Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman), and her handsome, successful real estate hubby Bruce (Josh Charles). But Laney isn’t happy. She sneaks wine, lines of coke and pills—except for her much-needed prescribed lithium. Laney doesn’t even pretend to eat and she’s screwing her friend’s husband Donny (Thomas Sadoski). Yeah, it’s a hot mess.

When we first meet Bruce he seems cocky and overbearing and we can see why she’d want to pour herself a drink. As the story unfolds, though, our sympathy for Laney is tested. She doesn’t have to work, she lives a seemingly charmed life suffering only from the malaise of rich people. Until Salky shows us the cracks.

When Bruce brings home a cute puppy for their kids, she yells, “Fuck you!” and storms out of the room, coming across as a self-entitled brat. She barks at the staff at her children’s school when asked to follow simple parking and security rules. She’s frighteningly inappropriate with her tiny tot daughter who she pleads for reassurance from. “Do you love me? Promise you’ll never leave me.” When her daughter becomes confused, Laney tries to sluff it off with an offhanded, “Oh, c’mon, Janey, I’m only kidding.”

But she is also a loving mom who draws hearts and stars every morning on their lunch bags, and she runs in to comfort Eli when he has bad dreams. It’s impossible not to care and even root for her despite her fatal flaw of annihilating every gift she has been given.

The Fix loved the film and caught up with director Adam Salky to talk about alcohol, drugs and Sarah Silverman.

Did you ever struggle with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, sex?

I’ve got to think about how I want to answer this. I’m not an addict. Like everyone, I’ve had some experiences with those things but what drew me to the story were people in my life who are very, very close to me and struggle with addiction and that illness.

Do you mean they’re also bipolar like Sarah Silverman’s character, Laney?

The film was based on a novel written by Amy Koppelman. Amy and [her] screenplay cowriter Paige Dylan and I talked a lot about Laney’s condition. We never specifically wanted to name it because struggles like hers are not cut and dry. Mental illness and addiction are so often intertwined. We were striving to create a portrait with true-to-life subtleties.

Are you making a distinction between the traumatic experiences Laney had with a father who abandoned her versus a chemical imbalance?

We definitely felt that the addiction stuff in the movie is coming from a deeper psychological drive. Laney was also struggling with some kind of mood disorder. In the book it is explored very thoroughly but the actual diagnosis is never named.

When you worked with Silverman was she open about her own history with depression?

Yes. One of the things that let me know Sarah could do this role was her book. It’s an autobiography called, The Bedwetter, where she’s very open about her struggles with depression and psychopharmacology from a very young age.

Did Silverman stick to the script or did she ad-lib?

During production there wasn’t a lot of ad-libbing. For the most part we stuck to the script. One of the great things about working with Sarah is that she’s not only cooperative, and so intelligent; she also understood the character and had great thoughts on the story. There’s a scene at the end but I don’t want to give too much away to your readers. Laney comes home and does something for her kids and that thing was Sarah’s idea. Amy, the writer of the novel, loved it so much she said if there’s a second edition of her book she’ll revise the ending to include that.

Was author Amy Koppelman candid about the book being autobiographical?

The book is not autobiographical. Amy has struggled with very deep depression and wrote the book out of a fear of what would happen if she didn’t treat it. She drew from personal experience and has said that Laney holds some resemblance to certain aspects of her father. It’s a fictional book, but like all great writers, Amy drew from her own experiences.

Were you influenced by addiction movies like Sherrybaby with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling, When a Man Loves a Woman with Meg Ryan, or Cake with Jennifer Aniston?

I really do love When A Man Loves a Woman. Seen it many, many times. I never viewed I Smile Back specifically as an addiction movie. It’s more about how addiction and mental illness can be intertwined. I wasn’t drawing from the canon of addiction films. Movies that Amy, Paige, and I talked a lot about were Belle du Jour, The Celebration, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá Támbien. The way Cuarón takes heightened psychological situations and translates them into visual storytelling is something I found very inspiring.

As for movies about mental illness, did you draw from Alice, Silver Linings Playbook, or Requiem for a Dream?

Those were all great films, but they weren’t specifically movies that I was thinking about. When I go into making a film, I strive to create a unique visual concept for the movie. I draw from all kinds of things, not just movies but even art and photography. One thing I did when I first read the screenplay was go to the Getty museum in Los Angeles to look for inspiration. They had Dégas’ The ConvalescentI was just staring at a painting that to me felt like the movie and it felt like Laney.

I thought you were going to say The Scream by Edvard Munch.

Oh, that’s interesting! That’s also a great painting and certainly speaks to the level of struggle that someone can feel. Both paintings are about being tormented.

What was most important to you as the director?

When we were finishing the movie, Robin Williams passed away and I remember it very clearly. I know many do because he was loved by so many people. His wife Susan Schneider issued a statement, I remember we were finishing the audio of the movie and I read it. It ended with: “It is our hope, in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

That really struck me because it put into words what I want audiences to take away from I Smile Back. If there’s just one person who’s able to watch the movie and feel compelled to have a better understanding of their loved ones, or seek further treatment, or feel less alone in their suffering, then it will have been a mission accomplished for me.

Were you scared that people might see Laney as a bratty, rich, suburban woman who didn’t have to work?

When I went into directing the movie, I had a very sympathetic view of Laney because she is struggling with something inside of her that she can’t control. She’s responding in ways that are disruptive to her life and it’s not how she wants to be. To me, that’s an inherently sympathetic thing and it crosses the borders of race and class.

I find it to be an integral part of the tragic nature of mental illness and addiction, and how they can intertwine and can’t always be controlled. To me, that’s part of the mysteriousness and tragedy of the story. Laney knows what’s wrong with her and has access to high-quality care but even that doesn’t stop her from self-destruction—putting herself and her family at risk.

Do you think Laney is driven by an impulse-control problem or self-loathing?

Laney’s impulses are part of her attempts to deal with pain. They are integral to what drove the character. She is trying to destroy her pain from childhood, and pain from feeling ashamed of her actions. She tries to kill that pain in so many ways. Sometimes she tries to kill it by loving her kids, other times she tries to kill it with substances and sex.

Were you concerned about the actors, especially Sarah, after shooting such emotional scenes?

Everyone was there to tell a story that we cared so much about. The schedule was so intense that there wasn’t a lot of time to reflect after a scene was shot. We had to move right along to the next thing. Then when the days were over we had to rush home and squeeze in six hours sleep, and then wake up at five in the morning and start all over again.

For Sarah, being in the character of Laney Brooks was very difficult and it took many weeks after the shoot for her to get back to normal and just be herself. That speaks to the intense level of commitment that Sarah brought to the role.

Many comedians use humor in awkward moments. Did Sarah throw in some of her zingers?

We did have a couple of laughs but I’m not gonna lie. This was a really tough shoot. Twenty days, in New York City, in the winter, with very ambitious, emotional, psychological material. And, on top of that, all of us were touched very personally by the story so there was a pervasive sense of seriousness on set. We had so much to accomplish in such a limited time.

We wanted to shoot something easy on the first day, which is a common filmmaking strategy. You shoot something simple so everyone gets a chance to work together and feel like “Ah, we’re accomplishing something.” It’s a good bonding experience. But the opposite happened. A snowstorm was coming down on New York City and we had to suddenly change the location of our shoot. The only two scenes that we could shoot in New York City were the sex scene between Laney and her friend’s husband Donny and the scene where Laney goes to Donny’s restaurant asking for drugs.

But everyone came together and did those difficult scenes on the first day. Sarah was so committed. I’ll never forget that Sarah showed up to set in character as Laney Brooks. Everyone was like, “Holy shit, Sarah Silverman is really doing it.” It was the thing that bonded us all together and we gave everything to it.

I Smile Back opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 26, then in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco on Oct. 30. It becomes available on demand and DVD Nov 6.

Watch the trailer:

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about Laila At The Bridge and Peter Sarsgaard.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.