Even Without Its Namesake, Ebertfest Goes On

Although Chicago readily and enthusiastically claims Roger Ebert as one of its favorite sons, the late, great film critic spent most of his formative years in the bustling university metropolis of Champaign, Illinois. For years, Champaign has played home to Ebertfest, an annual hometown celebration where he selects several of his favorite under-the-radar films from recent years to be screened for the locals at the historic Virginia Theatre. And although this is the first Ebertfest without the man, the show will go on as planned. 

If you live in Champaign by some chance, or Chicago, or some other Midwestern city within easy driving distance and by the grace of God the weather isn’t abysmal where you are, you may want to get yourself in your car or on a bus or something and spend an afternoon at the movies. The remaining festival schedule includes Tilda Swinton in Julia tonight, the brilliant guru-skewering doc Kumare tomorrow, Randy Moore’s guerrilla-Disney film Escape From Tomorrow, and James Ponsoldt’s teens-in-love story The Spectacular Now. It’s a nice mix of fare, and after the week we’ve all had, it might be nice to escape to the movies for a while, don’t you think? 

There’s Maybe Going to Be a ‘Pippin’ Movie

No, this is not a Lord of the Rings spinoff about one of the hobbits. I’m talking about Pippin, the beloved(-ish?) musical by Stephen Schwartz where a young prince has an identity crisis and looks for meaning in his life. The music is great, but Pippin himself isn’t exactly a memorable character. Basically, if Pippin took place today, it would be about a trust-funded recent college graduate living in a large city on one of the coasts who ponders his quarter-life crisis through a self-effacing comedy vlog. For real, it’s all about the Players, the narrators of the story.

This is kind of a big time for Pippin (filed under: things I thought I would never say). After several regional productions, the show is returning to Broadway with a bit of a circus aesthetic going on and Andrea Martin (Andrea Martin!) as Berthe. Details on the film adaptation, brought to you by The Weinstein Company, are still pretty nebulous at this point. So far, the only name attached to the thing is James Ponsoldt, the writer of Smashed and the upcoming high school drama The Spectacular Now, starring Shailene Woodley and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Jennifer Jason Leigh!), who will write the script. 

Of course, we all know that none of this really matters, because ultimately your Pippin adaptation is nothing without Mr. Ben Vereen. Case in point: 

The Best of the Sundance Early Reviews

Reviews can be dangerous. Personally, I tend not to read too many of them until after I’ve seen a film—and even then, only after I’ve processed my own thoughts. What’s the point in seeing a film if you’re just going to walk out of the theater and think, Well that was a disaster, but I know I’m supposed to love it or being profoundly moved by something but knowing that critics felt just the opposite so, I’ll keep this absolute joy to myself. Come on, now. If there’s a discussion to be had about the film before its release, it’s always more interesting to learn about the person or people behind the film and how that person made this specific piece of art and what it meant for them, so you can at least learn the intentions behind the work.

But when it comes to festivals, reviews can really make or break a long-waited anticipation—they can squash the thrill of those nine years of waiting to see if one couple gets together or elate you to know that a director whose first feature you loved didn’t fall flat in their sophomore effort. And for the movies debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, most theatrical releases are still unsettled, so a long-lead review may not have the ability to hinder your perception as powerfully as it might if you knew you were seeing the film tomorrow. So for those you not in Park City this week, check out a collection of snippets from this weekend’s reviews, covering some of the most anticipated films of the festival from Linklater’s Before Midnight  to David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche.

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater

"It’s a brave, creative decision on the trio’s part, and it’ll be interesting to see how civilians in the real world react to the film. Falling in love is easy. Sustaining love with the complicated burden of life on top of it all is hard. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight isn’t the most digestible picture, but its challenging, funny, painful, very present and alive depiction of relationships at 40 is so honest and real that we wouldn’t have it any other way."—Indiewire

"The previous films’ manufactured deadlines—a train departure, a trip to the airport—are no longer with us; the pair are now together until they decide not to be. Turns out, that’s as dramatic as a ticking clock."—The Hollywood Reporter

"Delivering vanity-free turns in which no apparent effort has been made to disguise wrinkles or sagging eyelids, the actors have melded so completely with their roles as to seem incapable of a false note; rewardingly, Hawke for the first time seems to truly match Delpy in emotional stature. The lightly self-reflexive script includes more than a few references to and examples of role play, reminding viewers of the artificiality of two characters who couldn’t seem more authentic."—Variety

"Physical time has to pass for both the stories and the audience, and the resulting authenticity gives the trilogy its magic. It makes the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight unlike anything in cinema history… Every moment with the couple feels true but never overbearing. Jesse and Celine have never been symbols for all relationships; their love story stands on its own, and becomes fully fleshed out through the strength of the filmmaking and performances. These characters have never been blank slates you project your own experiences onto."—Collider

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, David Lowery

"Ain’t Them Bodies Saints maintains a strong linear approach that makes the collage of cinematic trickery more philosophically engaging than in his previous work… Lowery doesn’t leave everything up to the imagination: The tense climax, involving a superbly choreographed nighttime pursuit, breaches the subdued rhythm with supreme calculation. It’s easy to figure where Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is heading shortly after all the pieces are put in place, but the surprises of how they get there arrive in every scene." —Indiewire

"Ain’t Them Bodies Saints recalls Malick’s outlaw-lovers drama Badlands and the open-sky beauty of the fable-like Days Of Heaven. (There is, however, no voiceover in Lowery’s film.) Lowery is hardly the first filmmaker to crib Malick’s poetic aesthetic, but his clear confidence in aspiring to the same sort of enrapturing experience is undeniably impressive. When the results are this cohesive and affecting, one begrudgingly acquiesces rather than complains…In tune with the movie’s lyrical style, the performances have an elemental power that’s understated but resonant."—Screen Daily

"The film is a lovely thing to experience and possesses a measure of real power. Emerging cinematographer Bradford Young does his most impressive work yet, combining with Lowery, production designer Jade Healy and costume designer Malgosia Turzanska to deliver a kind of timeless look that feels equal parts Old West, Depression-era Texas and the slow-to-arrive modern age."— THR

The East, Zal Batmanglij

"The second picture in a fascinating collaboration with producer-writer-star Brit Marling, this clever, involving spy drama builds to a terrific level of intrigue before losing some steam in its second half. Still, the appreciable growth in filmmaking confidence here should translate into a fine return on Fox Searchlight’s investment, and generate good word-of-mouth buzz among smart thrill-seekers."—Variety

"The East is a terrific companion piece for anyone who enjoyed Sound Of My Voice… Though the script (by Batmanglij and Marling) could’ve used another polish, as a filmmaker, Batmanglij is still at the head of the class of up-and-coming directors. It’s great seeing him able to paint on a larger canvas here and provide Marling an opportunity to turn in another beguiling performance."—Indiewire

"[Batmanglij] has serious directorial chops. It’s a piece full of tension and intrigue..There isn’t enough properly at stake for the film to earn its facile pro-coporaterrorism ideas, in my opinion, and motivations feel questionable throughout. Nevertheless, I look forward to this guy’s career. He knows how to get a reaction out of an audience."—HitFix

The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom

 "Before its measure of gravity kicks in, some viewers may find it depressing in its soulless, kitschy period portrayal of immediate gratification… Though all the performances are very good, much of Look‘s entertainment value comes from an impressive tech package that captures the shifting fashions of swinger-favored pop-culture garishness over the pic’s roughly 25-year period… While it’s seldom lingered on, the large amount of fairly graphic sexual imagery may prove a ratings challenge in some territories."—Variety

"Shockingly, for all of the topless women, the movie is surprisingly bland. Raymond is always entranced by a comely naked lady, so it’s doubtful that Winterbottom was trying to show the decline of his protagonist’s libido. More effort is put into the dangers of cocaine than any thoughtful exploration of Paul Raymond’s personality."—Collider

"The script’s biggest failing is not creating a full-bodied character out of Debbie.Loaded with music—albeit some surprisingly obvious choices from the director who made 24 Hour Party People – the film is absorbing on a scene-by-scene basis. But it connects the dots of Raymond’s life in a perfunctory way, without locating a fluid through-line or gaining emotional access to its elusive subject."—THR

The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt

"Ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in others, The Spectacular Now benefits from an exceptional feel for its main characters on the parts of the director and lead actors…Looking plain, even homely and singularly unadorned, Woodley is world away from the svelte little hottie she portrayed two years ago in The Descendents but again is entirely terrific. By contrast, most of the other kids are more recognizably superficial and stereotyped. The adults, particularly Chandler as the jaw-droppingly irresponsible father, are uniformly excellent."—THR

"Ponsoldt’s picture is self-possessed, mature and deeply patient, but it’s perhaps not at the exact pace some audiences are accustomed to…Don’t be surprised if the film is sold like (500) Days Of Summer (or a similar film) when it eventually makes its way to theaters, but this picture is particularly darker, sadder and pained. The Spectacular Now is wise beyond its years, charismatic, measured and authentic in its depiction of the pains, confusions and insecurities of the teenage experience, and while its deliberate rhythm may prove to be a harder sell among the teen crowd, it’s a valuable and honest film that’s worth the investment."—Indiewire

Stoker, Park Chan-Wook

"This being a Park movie—albeit one scripted by actor Wenwtworth Miller—depraved urges and grotesque outbursts linger around every turn, but Park’s formalism positions the mayhem within an alluring cinematic tapestry… Stoker may not break new ground, but it stands firmly on an effective toolbox right through its zany finale. Ultimately a subversive take on family bonds, the movie puts a wry twist on the coming-of-age mold."—Indiewire

"…delivers what the South Korean auteur does best: moody mise-en-scene with intense moments of ultra-violence. This is a dark, dark story, yet somehow Park is able to impart a safeness that allows the audience to sit back and enjoy the thrill ride."—Twitch

"Park’s regular d.p. Chung-hoon Chung appears to be channeling photographer Gregory Crewdson’s eerily high-key Americana in his lighting schemes, while Clint Mansell’s characteristically rich, modernist score is embellished with haunting piano duets composed specifically for the film by Philip Glass. The repeated use of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra number ‘Summer Wine,’ meanwhile, is typical of the director’s cockeyed take on American culture. Long may he continue to explore."—Variety

Breathe In, Drake Doremus

"Doremus doesn’t seem particularly interested in the melodramatic aspects of his story, skipping over the arguments and fallout almost entirely…The film focuses more on states of mind, using Dustin O’Halloran’s rich piano score to amplify the collective agitation, while capturing from each character’s perspective how one can occasionally feel like an outsider even while clearly part of something. Working again with cinematographer John Guleserian, Doremus opts for a cooler palette, rendering these middle-class problems in tony blues and beiges."—Variety

"…it’s the actors who crush these intense moments of desire and longing into something near breathless…Sensuous and plaintive, Dormeus’ camera once again captures that arresting emotional truth that’s marked his relationship dramas thus far, and there’s even some moments of Malick-ian wonder and beauty… "Breathe In" may telegraph where it’s going late in the game and these irrational decisions might make for some frustrated viewers, but it is without a doubt one of the most emotionally poignant and heartbreaking movies of the festival thus far."

"If the film does have a flaw it’s that the storyline follows a fairly predictable path, but the raw performances and Doremus’ inspiring direction are so effective at getting you invested in these characters that this minor quibble is quickly rendered insignificant by the film’s haunting closing sequence. The key is in the execution, and that’s where Breathe In excels."—Collider

Don Jon’s Addiction, Joseph-Gordon Levitt

"Again, Gordon-Levitt’s confident direction stops the film from going off the rails, but the plot strains trying to make Jon becomes a mature adult… When it comes to the protagonist’s inability to achieve intimacy, Don Jon’s Addiction feels like Shame but with jokes and Tony Danza."—Collider

"…here’s a heavy testosterone-driven pushiness, rather than a deeply felt sex drive as an elemental force of nature that’s crucial to this man’s self-expressiveness, that soon becomes obnoxious, and a lack of self-reflection that leaves Jon, and the film with him, frustratingly one-dimensional.Both as a director and actor, Gordon-Levitt is switched on all the time, offering little shading or nuance."—THR

"Filled with heat, emotion, verve and humor, Jon’s journey to sexual fulfillment is certainly not the most obvious rom-com path to redemption we’ve seen on screen in some time. Replete with characters who love to challenge their stereotypes, Don Jon’s Addiction is a beguiling romantic comedy with a heart, soul and pulse that will pleasure you for a full 90 minutes with hardly breaking a sweat."—Indiewire

Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green

"What makes the performances so enjoyable and unexpectedly touching is that the parallel arcs of this twin character study are drawn with such delicacy. Hirsch is impish, abrasive and a little lost, with Lance already seeing himself as ‘fat and old’ compared to the younger, cooler guys on the dance floor. In a nuanced turn that swings from funny to angry to emotionally raw and back again, Rudd draws on stage skills that have been largely untapped in his recent films."—THR

"A somewhat surprising vehicle for smoothly commingling Green’s own seemingly unreconcilable career sides, Prince Avalanche (a title he admits makes no particular sense) has room for both very funny physical comedy and a couple of rapturous, stand-alone, near-experimental montages given superb support by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo’s diverse original rock tracks."—Variety

"So even if Prince Avalanche feels more than a bit wobbly, it does show Green once again trying his hand at the idiosyncratic style of his promising early years, an encouraging sign one hopes isn’t just a passing fancy."—Screen Daily

The Fifteen Most Anticipated Films at This Year’s Sundance Film Festival

Amidst the delirium of award season, the annual Sundance Film Festival creeps up every January to remind us each year that the scope of Hollywood is changing and being infiltrated with a host of new talent and emerging artists from around the world. The festival is a beacon for A-list talent as well as those new to the world of cinema who are getting their first premieres and chance at large-scale recognition. With an enormous slate of films, the festival will commence on Thursday and feature new work from those you already know and worship and those whose names are on the tip of our tongues.

Among the films being shown are sophomore efforts from writer/directors Zal Batmanglij, James Pondsoldt, and Shane Carruth, as well eagerly-awaited follow ups from Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom—to hint at the list. In the past few months, we’ve had a chance to see some of the films before their premieres, and it’s safe to say that this year looks to be a truly thrilling one as distributors latch onto films and prepare them to hit theaters later this year. So for those of you not heading to Park City this week, here’s a list of our most anticipated Sundance narrative features for you to get excited about.

1. The EastZal Batmanglij

Someone is attacking big corporate CEOs and forcing them to consume harmful products they manufacture. An elite private intelligence firm is called into action and contracts ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss to infiltrate a mysterious anarchist collective, The East, suspected to be responsible. Skilled, focused, and bent on success, Sarah goes undercover and dedicates herself to taking down the organization. She soon finds, however, that the closer she gets to the action, the more she sympathizes with the group’s charismatic leaders.

2. Upstream ColorShane Carruth

Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.

3. CO.G.Kyle Patrick Alvarez

David has it all figured out. His plan—more a Steinbeckian dream—is to spend his summer working on an apple farm in Oregon with his best friend, Jennifer. When she bails out on him, David is left to dirty his hands alone, watched over by Hobbs, the old farm owner and the first in a series of questionable mentors he encounters. First there’s Curly, the friendly forklift operator with a unique hobby, and then Jon, the born-again rock hound who helps David in a time of need. This first film adaptation of David Sedaris’s work tells the story of a prideful young man and what’s left of him after all he believes is chipped away piece by piece.

4. The Spectacular NowJames Ponsoldt

Sutter Keely lives in the now. It’s a good place for him. A high school senior, charming and self-possessed, he’s the life of the party, loves his job at a men’s clothing store, and has no plans for the future. A budding alcoholic, he’s never far from his supersized, whisky-fortified 7UP cup. But after being dumped by his girlfriend, Sutter gets drunk and wakes up on a lawn with Aimee Finicky hovering over him. Not a member of the cool crowd, she’s different: the “nice girl” who reads science fiction and doesn’t have a boyfriend. She does have dreams, while Sutter lives in a world of impressive self-delusion. And yet they’re drawn to each other.

5. Touchy FeelyLynn Sheldon

What happens when a family’s delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels? Abby is a free-spirited massage therapist. Her brother, Paul, an emotional zombie, owns a flagging dental practice, where he enlists the assistance of his equally emotionally stunted daughter, Jenny. Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which seriously hinders her chosen profession and the passionate love life she once shared with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s “healing touch” begin to miraculously invigorate his practice. As Abby navigates through an identity crisis, her brother discovers a whole new side of himself.

6. Interior.Leather bar.James Franco/Travis Matthews

The 1980 film Cruising, starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop investigating a murder in the New York City gay, leather, bar scene, was plagued with controversy, and its director was forced by the Motion Picture Association of America to cut 40 minutes of sexually explicit material. Those 40 minutes have never been screened publicly. Filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews set out to reimagine what might have transpired in those lost scenes in this intriguing film about the making of a film.

7. Ain’t Them Bodies SaintsDavid Lowery

Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, an impassioned young outlaw couple on an extended crime spree, are finally apprehended by lawmen after a shootout in the Texas hills. Although Ruth wounds a local officer, Bob takes the blame. But four years later, Bob escapes from prison and sets out to find Ruth and their daughter, born during his incarceration.

8. Kill Your DarlingsJohn Krokida

While he is attending Columbia University in 1944, the young Allen Ginsberg’s life is turned upside down when he sets eyes on Lucien Carr, an impossibly cool and boyishly handsome classmate. Carr opens Ginsberg up to a bohemian world and introduces him to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Repelled by rules and conformity in both life and literature, the four agree to tear down tradition and make something new, ultimately formulating the tenets of and giving birth to what became the Beat movement. On the outside, looking in, is David Kammerer, a man in his thirties desperately in love with Carr. When Kammerer is found dead, and Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr are arrested in conjunction with the murder, the nascent artists’ lives change forever.

9. May in the SummerCherien Dabis

May has it all—a celebrated book, a sophisticated New York life, and a terrific fiancé to match. But when she heads to Amman, Jordan, to arrange her wedding, she lands in a bedlam of family chaos she thought she’d transcended long before. Her headstrong, born-again Christian mother so disapproves of her marrying a Muslim that she threatens to boycott the wedding. Her younger sisters lean on her like children, and her estranged father suddenly comes out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, doubts about her marriage surface, and May’s carefully structured life spins out of control.

10. What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About LoveMousy Surya

At a high school for the visually impaired in Jakarta, Indonesia, the students are like any other teenagers: they attend classes, pursue artistic endeavors, and fall in love. The most privileged of the bunch, Diana, patiently awaits signs of womanhood and humors her mother’s attempts to mold her into the perfect girl. The beautiful Fitri has no shortage of male attention and enters into a passionate affair with, unbeknownst to her, a hearing-impaired punk rocker who is masquerading as a doctor. Meanwhile, Maya, blind since birth, aspires to be an actress and performer. Regardless of physical barriers, the students find ways to communicate and collaborate, enabling them to connect—with each other and to the outside world.

11. Crystal FairySebastian Silv

Jamie is a boorish, insensitive American twentysomething traveling in Chile, who somehow manages to create chaos at every turn. He and his friends are planning on taking a road trip north to experience a legendary shamanistic hallucinogen called the San Pedro cactus. In a fit of drunkenness at a wild party, Jamie invites an eccentric woman—a radical spirit named Crystal Fairy—to come along. What is meant to be a devil-may-care journey becomes a battle of wills as Jamie finds himself locking horns with his new traveling companion. But on a remote, pristine beach at the edge of the desert, the magic brew is finally imbibed, and the true adventure begins. Preconceived notions and judgments fall away, and the ragtag group breaks through to an authentic moment of truth.

12. Il Futuro (The Future), Alisha Scherson

When her parents die in a car accident, adolescent Bianca’s universe is upended. Staying alone in the family’s Rome apartment and entrusted with the care of her younger brother, Tomas, she struggles to hold things together as her place in her surreal new world becomes blurry. Life is further complicated when Tomas’s gym-rat friends invite themselves to stay indefinitely. Using Bianca as a lure for a heist they’ve concocted, they convince her to initiate a sexual relationship with enigmatic blind hermit Maciste, played by Rutger Hauer. But as the two spend time together, Bianca unexpectedly finds normalcy and acceptance in the aging B-movie star and former Mr. Universe’s rococo mansion.

13. The Look of LoveMichael Winterbottom

Welcome to the scandalous world of Paul Raymond, entrepreneur, impresario, and the “king of Soho.” Seeing mediocrity in the smutty sex parlors of London, Raymond unveils his first “gentlemen’s club” in 1958 and gradually builds an empire of clubs and erotic magazines that brings him vast wealth while affronting British sexual mores. It also brings a litany of obscenity charges, a failed marriage, troubled children, and personal tragedy.

14. Before MidnightRichard Linklater

We meet Celine and Jesse nine years after their last rendezvous. Almost two decades have passed since their first encounter on a train bound for Vienna, and we now find them in their early forties in Greece. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.

15. The Necessary Death of Charlie CountrymanFredrik Bond

Obeying the last wish of his deceased mother, young American Charlie travels to Eastern Europe with no plans. He lands in a truly unknown place—wilder, weirder, and more foreign than he could have ever imagined. Committed to spontaneous, explosive, and instinctive acts, Charlie now finds himself pursuing an equally lost soul named Gabi, a mysterious Romanian woman unable to shake her dark, violent past.

Brie Larson Set to Star in Bollywood Musical ‘Basmati Blues’

We first fell in love with Brie Larson when she starred as Kate, Toni Colette’s angsty and savvy teenage daughter on The United States of Tara. Since then, she’s gone on to guest star on comedies such as The League, but it’s her roles in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and 21 Jump Street that have turned audiences onto the charismatic young talent. Although blessed with an aptitude for comedic timing, there’s something about Larson that makes us hungry to see how she fares in something meatier or more in dramatic world.

This month’s Sundance Film Festival will debut two of her new projects: the ensemble film The Spectacular Now from Smashed director James Ponsoldt, as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon’s Addiction. In pre-production is her role opposite Owen Wilson in iconic director Peter Bogdonovich’s next anticipated feature, Squirrel to Nuts. And now, it looks that Larson is set to take on a role she’s won over many a Hollywood darling—including the likes of Kate Hudson—in the Bollywood musical, Basmati Blues. Directed by Dan Baron, not much is known about the film other than that it will be shot entirely in India and as the log line provides, is a "musical comedy about love, adventure, and a grain of rice that could change the world." 

We’re interested to know more about Larson’s role in Blues and just how she’ll take on what could prove a challenging new turn for her. In the meantime, check out her great Criterion Collection Top 10 picks that prove the girl has got taste.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Director James Ponsoldt Talk Their New Film ‘Smashed’

“Our goal was identification, not objectification—and the humor if it speaks to the fact that it’s really fun to be drunk and it’s not wrong to say that! There’s a reason people drink and we wanted that to be a part of the spirit of the film,” admits writer/director James Ponsoldt, whose sophomore feature, Smashed, takes the typical uninviting portrait of addiction and spews it out into a unique amalgamation of dry wit and raw emotion. There’s always a genuine sense of comedy hiding in the cracks of everyday struggle, and here, we see a story that’s more about illustrating the lighter side of pain rather than a moral tale about the dangers of alcoholism and the punishment one must bare in the face of redemption.

Beckett once wrote: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness…yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the word…yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.” And it’s Kate (played tremendously by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), that becomes fearful upon realizing that the nights she spends masking reality with a veil of booze and the mornings she has to drink a flask of whiskey just to go into work, are no longer fun anymore—the humor is gone and all that’s left is a feeling of defeat. But more than just a film about addiction, Smashed looks at the stamina of love when faced with change. At one point in the film Kate tells her husband Charlie (played by Aaron Paul) that “love is the easy part," it’s the living that’s the challenge.  

With a supporting cast of Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and Octavia Spencer, Smashed, brings a fresh perspective to a familiar narrative arc filled with characters we enjoy spending time with, that allow us to laugh at their mistakes because they remind us that no one’s perfect and we’re all just tying to get through the day in one piece. I took some time to chat with Winstead and Ponsoldt about stearing clear of making a social issue movie, creating stories with flawed characters, and the limitations of love.

What sparked your initial interest in making a film like this?
James Ponsoldt: Smashed started as a conversation between myself and my co-writer, Susan. She’s an old friend and one of the funniest people I know but she’s also sober; she got sober in her early 20s. She’s very open about that and has a very wonderful, hilarious perspective. It started just with us sharing stupid stories about things we had done when we were drunk, and I thought I had done a lot of stupid things but her stories totally eclipsed mine in terms of hilarity and almost getting killed. I couldn’t get some of those ideas out of my head and I kind of proposed the idea to Susan that we write something together that, first and foremost, was not about alcoholism; it was not a social issue movie, it was not a scared straight movie but that it was a love story and a coming of age story with characters that were young, in their late 20s but emotionally were closer to probably their teenage years. It would be sort of a portrait of a marriage through the lens of a wife, where it’s like an epic love story and they’re totally perfect for each other—except they’re perfect for each other when they’re both drunk. We were really adamant that this be something that has real humor in it. So many things that I’ve seen with substance abuse, there’s a sense of otherness where the character is like a Bukowski-level alcoholic and you sort of objectify them and watch them kill themselves slowly and you can gawk at them but you can’t relate to them. 

How did you get involved with the film?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I was looking to meet people who were doing films that were small and performance-focused and was sent two scripts and one of them was Smashed and I pretty much flipped out over it. I called the producer immediately and was like, “what do I have to do to be considered for this part,” and he introduced me to James, who I loved. So, I put myself on tape and did an audition tape and sent it to them. Yeah, it was pretty shocking and amazing that they actually cast me off the tape and didn’t audition anyone else. I feel really lucky that they put faith in me because usually that never happens. 

So once you were cast, how did you prepare to become Kate?
MEW: Well, I had close to a month to work on it, which I was very thankful for because I knew I needed to do a lot of work to really to get to the places I needed to get to. So I started out going to a lot of AA meetings with Susan our co-writer and Elyse our producer, who was also in recovery. I was always welcomed into these open meetings and I went to every different neighborhood in LA basically and tried different meetings and I would see so many different types of people and I realized that if I took alcohol out of the equation that I could fit perfectly in those rooms with those people; they were completely and totally relatable. So that was kind of the first step in relating to the character and then once I started looking at my own life and my own issues, then it just kind of went further and further into becoming her because I kind of made my problems her problems and they kind of became one. 

Was that frightening for you?
MEW: It was a funny experience because it all felt so real—the dark moments felt incredibly real or challenging and exhausting but at the same time, it was such a fun, relaxed set that I always felt comfortable and happy. It was a really surreal experience in that way because it was just my favorite place to be even though we were doing things that were sometimes emotionally hard. I always felt kind of relived and happy at the end of the day.

What’s interesting about Kate is that she feels so relatable. She appears to be so functional and self-aware enough to realize that she needs to change her life.
JP: I think we live in a hyper-aware post-modern era where 3/4 of all reality television shows also seem to be portraits of alcoholism and we’ve seen enough movies about substance abuse that we understand the traditional arch narrative. We also are in a very sort of 12-step, self-help kind of era where people understand the tropes of that. The main characters are people that are savvy and young and would probably make fun of most of those movies and don’t want to feel sorry for themselves and would make jokes about driving by a church on a Thursday night where everyone’s chain-smoking and drinking coffee and it’s probably an NA meeting or an AA meeting and they’d probably say, "God that’s not me, that’s my uncle," and make jokes. But those are the characters and that’s certainly most of my friends. 

Just as much as addiction, it was a story about fidelity and change and the question of if you’re able to still be with someone after they change. Is that what you wanted to show?
JP: Movies about social issues are really boring to me, they’re like the dreariest thing on earth. We wanted to create a hang out movie and the truth is, at a certain point, people couple off and get a partner. And being in a relationship is hard—not for the obvious reasons like sickness or whatever or—it’s all the in between stuff, all the day to day sort of sacrifices you have to make when you concern yourself more with the interest of another person than yourself and especially if they need to change.And in that way, I think the alcohol could be a substitute for a number of things. 
MEW: It’s interesting for me because I think that these characters, at their core, are good people; I think they’re just clouded by their pain and they’re clouded by the choices they’ve made in their life that have led them down the path that they’re on. But for Kate, I don’t think that she necessarily changed but that she sort of got back to her true self and the person that she was truly supposed to be and I think with Charlie, it’s the same way. Audiences like him because he is a good person, he’s made mistakes and he has pain he doesn’t know how to deal with and as long as we’re able to hold up a mirror and acknowledge our faults and our pain and decide that we’re going to work through it and put one foot in front of the other and just live our lives as ourselves, then that’s the step to make you a better person.

The film didn’t beat you over the head with any sort of message, just allowed you to get inside the lives of its characters.
JP: Again, there’s no message to the movie like: Alcohol is bad, AA is good. I just don’t feel that way. Things are complicated. Living an honest life is hard. When you stop drinking and all your friends drink, people are going to feel really weird around you and have to look at themselves and it’s harder to hang out with them. And when you start being really honest, you’re held more accountable for your actions on a day to day basis, and sometimes it blows up in your face. The reward is that you get to look at yourself and know that you’re honest, not that everyone wants to give you a pat on the head and reward you.

And everyone has felt like that at one point, like they were really fucking up and doing something wrong and they need to fix it or they’ve had to be the person who has to deal with being with someone who has changed. 
JP: Exactly. The stories that I like the best are ones that are about really flawed, screwed up people who want to try to fix themselves or make themselves better and it doesn’t matter whether they’re doing it for the right reasons or the wrong reasons or whether they’re total fools and struggling to try to make themselves whole. There’s something very human and hopeful about that—and not in succeeding, because I don’t know what success means, but it’s like trying to love yourself more so you can love other people better and just be decent to the people around you. I think a lot of stories that deal with drug abuse or alcoholism, there’s a little sadism where it’s like, they just tear people apart and punish them, and I certainly don’t see myself in those stories.

I feel like if you’re in that situation you’re probably going to punish yourself enough,  let alone having it come from other people.
JP: Absolutely, couldn’t agree more.

How did you go about finding the right people to portray these characters?
JP: You know, it was a lot of my favorite actors. I had know Mary as an actor for years and I loved her in Scott Pilgrim specifically. I thought she was amazing in it and although that’s such a different movie than this, in that, amidst all this sort of chaos, she’s this real human solid stoic center. I knew our main character had to be a strong person who wasn’t weak and fragile and felt totally broken, someone who felt like when she falls she might be able to get up, and she could have perspective on it and laugh about it and therefore we could  laugh with her. So I was really thrilled to meet with Mary and realize that she was brilliant and hilarious and would be a really great collaborator. Aaron Paul I just loved from Breaking Bad for years, I think he’s one of the best actors of the generation. Nick Offerman…I mean, I think Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec is just like one of the great sitcom characters, like, him and Archie Bunker—just two of the most wonderful curmudgeons that ever existed.

You and Aaron had a really natural chemistry—how was working with him?
MEW: It was fantastic, he’s such a talented actor. He’s also so warm and open and genuine and generous and giving as an actor. But he’s really that person you want to work with all the time because he’s such a sweet guy.

How about Nick and Megan?
MEW: They’re like the best couple in the world. I think they should win an award for Best Couple; they’re so adorable and in love and they’re both so funny and when they get together it’s just like you cannot stop laughing. I would just be crying laughing. So when you have a film like this where you have to go through a lot of dark tough scenes, it was really really nice to have people like that around that are just so joyful and fun to be around. 

Did you all spend a lot of time together before you shot?
JP: Yeah, I spent a ton of time with Mary especially, just helping create the character and really personalize it and finding the triggers and what is the alcoholism for her. And Mary and Aaron hung out and I’d be like, "just go get coffee guys, spend some time away from me!" In relationships, it’s not the big declarations of love or hate, it’s the little gestures, it’s the playing with your husband’s chest hair or like finding that thing that your wife does that’s really funny. These little things that you never think to write into a screenplay because those aren’t real dramatic moments but those are the most humanizing things about it.

Or when she pees the bed—
JP: Yup! That’s a typical morning for them. And it’s a really sweet normal.

I like how you called it an adult coming of age story because these weren’t young people but it’s like she had spent the entirety of her youth in a fog and it was a young person’s coming of age story because she was finally waking up and having to deal with everything that had been masked by being an alcoholic.
MEW: Absolutely, and when you never really deal with the pain that you suffered as a child or whatever that may be—part of being an adult is acknowledging and working through it—and when you’re drinking all the time you’re not doing that. Suddenly when you’re sober you have to feel the pain that you’re going through and you have to see your problems rather than just glossing them over with alcohol.
JP: And listen, people keep saying 30s the new 20s or whatever, which is true even if people aren’t alcoholics, but people don’t want to grow up. There’s also a saying about addicts, which is that: "Your development stops when your addiction begins." And yeah, they’re closer to 30 than 20, but they’re emotionally like teenagers. So the thing is, they’ve probably only known each other through the veil of booze so when she gets sober, she suddenly has a ton of growing up to do and has to deal with herself 24 hours a day and can’t escape herself and finds out that her husband is kind of a child—a totally lovable child—but all his dumb funny stuff she found funny before, it’s not so funny anymore.

Were you worried about how people would react to a sort of light-hearted film about alcoholism?
JP: When someone makes a movie about alcoholism or addiction in the slightest, people assume it’s going to be stone-cold serious and something that’s a downer. So to say, no this is actually going to be pretty funny but it’s not going to make fun of it, it’s going to be made by people who totally understand recovery. The co-writer is sober and is an alcoholic but I guess there’s sort of a burden on the story tellers to get the tone right because if you’re making fun of a disease, people will crucify you and you can’t, but if you take it too serious people are just going to be like, "ugh I feel horrible," it becomes a PSA. And our desire was to do something that was totally a hangout film where you love the characters and all of the aspects of being drunk, recovering, of 12 step groups, etc. were formed by real experience and real specificity and detail. My favorite film alcoholics are not in the movies that are essentially about alcoholism. Like I really love Withnail and I which is kind of a movie about an alcoholic and even Sideways is a movie about an alcoholic too! I think people adore those movies because it’s funny and you like to hang out with the people and it never wags it’s finger you and makes a moral judgement of the characters because having pity or judgement of someone is a crappy way to feel. You shouldn’t tell stories if you’re just going to judge people. If your goal is to make audiences feel pity, get into some other line of work.