I Smile Back serves up one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of the year: a searing and undeniably impressive dramatic performance from comedian Sarah Silverman. The film about a depressed, drug addict, self-destructive housewife and mother gives Silverman a chance not merely to delve into her most challenging character to date, but one of the most difficult characters to appear on screens in recent years. It’s a punishing, yet fascinating movie that should shift the perception of the actress’s abilities for everyone who sees it.
One of the first people to have their opinion shifted was obviously Adam Salky who directed Silverman in the movie. A film professor who made the intriguing 2009 indie Dare, Salky took on the project specifically to work with the comedian in such an unexpected role. Dork Shelf got the chance to chat with Salky while he was in town for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. We picked his brain about everything from working with Silverman to his visual approach, the difficulties of working of a project with such challenging subject matter, finding ways to include children in the story, and the delicate balancing act of presenting such a difficult character at the center of a movie.
Dork Shelf: So how did you get involved with this project?
Adam Salky: I Smile Back is based on novel written by Amy Koppelman about ten years ago. About five years ago, she adapted it into a screenplay with her writing partner Paige Dylan and about 3-4 years later I was meeting with Brian Koppelman, one of the producers. He showed me the screenplay and told me that Sarah Silverman was already attached. I said, “In a drama?” and he said, “Yes.” I was immediately intrigued because Sarah is a tour de force in comedy. I thought that someone who is clearly that talented and quite often draws from very dark places for her comedy would probably be capable of a strong dramatic performance. So I read the script and was profoundly moved by it. It’s about something that profoundly affects everyone either directly or indirectly through a friend or a relative. And then I was fortunate enough to be able to convince them that I should be the director (laughs).
DS: So you didn’t know Sarah before this? I’d noticed that you were a producer of the Uncabaret show and I know that she was a part of that scene. So I wasn’t sure if maybe your paths had crossed through that.
AS: Well, we actually had. I don’t think that Sarah would remember it. I saw her do a set at one of the Uncabaret shows and she was hilarious. But it wasn’t something that we filmed I didn’t actually meet her that night. I was just in the audience as a fan.
DS: I was really excited to even hear that she was doing a drama because I’d always felt she was very underrated as an actress. Even in something like School Of Rock or certainly in Take This Waltz she always committed to her performances and showed of a talent that was never really properly used until this film.
AS: I’m glad you said that. Because when I got the script I went back to watch a lot of those movies. I was always aware of her talent as a comedian, but it wasn’t until then that I started to dig into the things she’d done as an actress. There were three things that made me certain she could do it. The first and foremost was her autobiography The Bedwetter, which is about her coming up in the business, but also about her struggles with depression and psychopharmacology. Immediately I knew as a director that if an actor has some relatability to the character, then they can get there. They can understand the character and do it. The second thing was actually School Of Rock. Because if you go back and look at those scenes, Sarah is not playing Sarah Silverman. She created a character. What you’re seeing is a talented young actress play a role, not Sarah Silverman the comedian. And the third thing was…are you familiar with The Graham Norton Show?
DS: Yes…and I’m assuming you’re referring to the episode she was on with Mark Wahlberg.
AS: Yes. In that episode everyone was drinking and one of the guests, I won’t say who, was maybe drinking a little too much. Sarah was just very gracious towards him, almost motherly. I remember seeing an off the cuff moment where she was just being herself and there was clearly much more there than she usually puts forth as her comedic persona.
DS: Did she have any training as an actress? How did you work with her?
AS: You know, it’s interesting. We never had a conversation about her background. I just basically worked with her as I would any dramatic actress. I think that gave her the freedom to turn her considerable insight into the character inward as opposed to what I believe a lot of her comedy is about, which is projecting it outward for an audience. So during the filmmaking process it was mostly Sarah and I and the writers sometimes talking about this character and directing that focus internallt. Making it about Laney’s experience specifically as opposed to playing for an audience. It was all about context and I think that context was freeing for Sarah.
DS: There’s a tricky line to walk with this sort of character because you want to create some sort of audience empathy towards her, but at the same time if you try too hard to redeem her, it can start to feel like an after school special. So I’m curious what sort of conversations were had about where that line is and how to walk it?
AS: It was very important to Amy and Paige and Sarah that we show in a very clear way that this is a character who has a tremendous amount of love in her. One of the ways that manifests, probably the central way, is through her kids. We get the sense that she loves them so much and is terrified that she’s going to negatively affect them and that they’ll grow to struggle with the same things that she struggles with. It was our belief from the storytelling side that would create some sort of relatability for Laney who is also doing these incredibly complex and damaging things to other people.
DS: Along similar lines, I appreciated that we get enough of her backstory to gain an understanding of her without it ever feeling too overwrought. Did you get any more in depth than you showed in the film on your own or did you maintain that air of ambiguity even amongst yourselves?
AS: There were certainly some conversations about backstory. Every actor works a different way. There are some who will want to sit down with you for six hour sessions and go through every detail in the character’s history. To me, I’m there as the director to figure out how that person wants to work and be what that person needs in order to feel safe. There were some of those discussions with Sarah, but certainly nothing approaching a six-hour session. That’s fairly normal. I had many more of those discussions with Josh Charles, but other actors didn’t need that. It’s a case-by-case issue.
DS: How did you find working with children? Because they have some complicated scenes, particularly the older boy, in which I’d imagine you’d have to introduce certain concepts to them to play the scenes.
AS: It’s an interesting thing. With the kids, they don’t read the whole script. These kids might be in very dramatic scenes with potentially damaging things happening to them, but I tried to find ways to shoot the scenes so that they aren’t really getting the context of everything.
DS: So were you shooting around them?
AS: Sometimes. For example, there’s the scene in the bathroom where the kids catch Laney using. In the shots of Laney using, the kids weren’t there. But then when the kids come in we had Sarah on the other side of the camera to help them, but she wasn’t actually using. So what they were seeing was mommy on the floor upset with a bloody nose. That’s what they were reacting to. The bloody nose, not the drugs. So, there are ways to make it suitable for kids. It’s tricky sometimes. But it can always be done.
DS: Since you’re a film professor and are obviously schooled in movie history, did you have any touchstone films or influences that you used to show to your crew what you were going for?
AS: Well, yes. But I’ll also say that it’s very important for a film to have a design and an aesthetic. I’ve made two features and I tried to make each one with a unique design and aesthetic. So I try not to talk about it in terms of other films. But that being said, it is a useful tool. I encourage my students to watch everything and use it. Don’t copy, but use other movies as inspiration. So, for this film there were a few that were very inspiring to me. Y Tu Mama Tambien was one. The visuals behind it and how Alfonso Cuaron was able to create a very naturalistic and heightened world. I don’t think my movie is like that, but I looked at that and some of the ways he shot things for inspiration. And also Belle Du Jour was something that Amy and Paige and I talked about a lot as a portrait of a woman struggling with her past in some very unique and disturbing ways. So there were references.
DS: And what drew you to the handheld aesthetic. Was it a sense of intimacy that you were going for?
AS: The film has some very specific design principles that I worked very hard with my cinematographer Eric Lin and production designer to achieve. I hope this isn’t too film nerdy.
DS: Uh, our website is called Dork Shelf. You’re fine.
AS: (Laughs) Ok. The film in some ways is in three parts. It begins with Laney on a descent that lands her in a recovery place. Then she comes out and tries to keep her family together before there is another decent. Basically, we assigned a color to the decent. That color was varying degrees of the color orange. So as Laney is using, you’ll notice that the color gets more and more intense. I hope audiences don’t notice that to be honest (laughs). That was more for us designing it. And in regards to the camera work, there are two things going on. The first is that while Laney is using, we use a lot of handheld and what one might call deep space. There’s a lot of depth in those shots and the reason is that it’s how I felt the world feels to Laney when she’s off her medication and using. The world feels manic and bright and energetic. And then alternatively, in recovery and when she’s not using, it’s all locked off shots and flat space. The reason being that when she’s not using and on her medication, the world feels flat to her. For me, it speaks to the truth of some people suffering from mental illness. They don’t like to use their medication because it flattens their world and numbs them.
DS: How was the experience of working on something this emotionally intense for 12 hours a day? Did you need to decompress?
AS: I know that Sarah did. It was very hard for her and it took some weeks for her after filming for it to die down. For me, the answer is “yes” but there was no time to decompress. It was a 20-day rush. That’s something I tell my students. You have to come to set with an aggressively detailed plan. We would shoot and it would be very intense and then we would rush home try to get six hours sleep and then start again. I usually can’t sleep the night before the first day and then every other day I sleep like a baby, because your mind is rush all day and then you have to crash whether you like it or not.