CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
What happens to a young marriage when the thing that once brought two people together suddenly vanishes? In a new film "Smashed," the answer isn't pretty. But neither is the alternative, because in "Smashed," the thing that brings the couple together is alcohol.
The couple is played by Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The film also stars Nick Offerman of "Parks and Recreation," Megan Mullally, best known from "Will and Grace" and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. James Ponsoldt directed and cowrote the film, and he joins me now from the studios of NPR West in Los Angeles. Welcome.
JAMES PONSOLDT: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: Now, I just mentioned a number of cast members, but the movie's really centered around Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Kate. And Kate is a elementary school teacher with a serious drinking problem. We're going to hear a clip here. This is Kate attending her first AA meeting.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SMASHED")
MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: (as Kate) Yeah. I don't know if I'm an alcoholic, really. I just drink. I drink a lot. And I've always drank a lot. Everyone I know drinks a lot. So I never really thought it was a problem. But lately, it kind of seems like it is, so - I mean, I just want to be able to have a beer without it turning into 20 or wetting the bed.
It just sort of seems like every time I drink something awful happens. And then all the things that used to be funny are - aren't really funny anymore and things have gone from embarrassing to scary, so.
HEADLEE: So, James, you write this with the kind of authority that comes with real intimate knowledge. Why this particular subject matter?
PONSOLDT: Well, "Smashed" began as a conversation between myself and my cowriter, Susan Burke, sharing stories about stupid things we'd done while we were drunk. And we both spoke with a bit of authority about it. Susan, specifically because she got sober in her early 20s, started going to AA. And we talked about films that we'd seen that dealt with substance abuse or alcoholism and realized that we didn't quite relate to many of them for any number of reasons.
A lot of them felt like Scared Straight stories or social issue films and sort of lacked the humor and sense of youth and relatability that we were kind of looking for. We wanted a story about, you know, a marriage and a love story but where, you know, we really, you know, identified with the character as opposed to objectified them.
HEADLEE: Did it have to be alcoholism? Because you've called this an adult coming-of-age story, and to a certain extent, this is really about people in their 20s kind of suddenly having to deal with adulthood. Is that really what it's about? Could you have substituted something else for alcohol?
PONSOLDT: Absolutely. First and foremost, this isn't a story about alcoholism. It's a story, sort of about fidelity, you know, about committing yourself to someone, being in an adult relationship, and, you know, being willing to or not being willing to make the sacrifices that you need to do for your partner. And that can be any number of things: taking a job in another city, you know?
In this case, these are two people who are head over heels in love with each other, but they just work when they're drunk. And when that's sort of removed from the equation, it destabilizes the relationship.
HEADLEE: We talked about the cast earlier: Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, most people will recognize Aaron Paul from "Breaking Bad," obviously two people who are very used to playing drama. But let's take a listen here. This has Mary Elizabeth Winstead in it and Nick Offerman. He plays the vice principal at the school where she teaches.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SMASHED")
NICK OFFERMAN: (as Dave) I know you were drinking. This morning, I saw you.
WINSTEAD: (as Kate) What? No. What?
OFFERMAN: (Dave) Drinking when you're pregnant is really dangerous.
WINSTEAD: (as Kate) I know that. I'm not actually pregnant.
OFFERMAN: (as Dave) What?
WINSTEAD: (as Kate) Just, I'm really hung over and the kids started asking me questions. And I threw up, and I just - I...
OFFERMAN: (as Dave) Oh. OK. That's not good.
WINSTEAD: (as Kate) I know. I know. Please, please don't say anything.
OFFERMAN: (as Dave) Just go home. Get some sleep.
HEADLEE: So how was this experience of directing Nick Offerman, obviously very well known for his comedic role as Ron Swanson on "Parks and Rec," in a very different role for him here?
PONSOLDT: First and foremost, he's a great actor, not just a great comedian. And he's - the first time we met, we met in his wood shop in Glendale, and he showed me some of his canoes and tables. And we just talked about life and Wendell Berry books.
And I just related to him as a person. And, you know, he has a very human and empathetic and sort of funny perspective on life. But when you spend time with him, he doesn't sort of try to tell one-liners or anything. And those are my favorite actors, those people who, you know, don't need to force the laughs.
HEADLEE: You know, I got to ask you, James Ponsoldt, about the art of directing someone who's pretending to be drunk, because, I mean, you know, people pretend to be drunk and they're terrible at it, right? I mean, that's one of the worst things someone can try do is act drunk.
PONSOLDT: It's tough. I mean, you're right. There are some really iconic performances that we've all seen of some famous screen alcoholics, and there are some really bad ones, and there's very little in between. You know, working with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, it was really important for us to, you know, understand the triggers that she had, because there's a saying that I'm going to mangle, but essentially that someone's emotional development stops when their addiction begins.
So Kate is someone who, you know, when you meet her drunk, doing a karaoke version of "Cruel to Be Kind" by Nick Lowe, you know, she's kind of that drunk girl that you've seen in a bar that perhaps the audience, at first glance, will laugh at her, but then who'll - slowly during the course of the film will laugh with her, and then sort of want to shake her like crazy because they, you know, see themselves.
Sometimes in movies that deal with drug abuse or alcoholism, it seems sacrosanct to suggest that thing is fun. But it is, and we kind of get that out of the way.
HEADLEE: One of the themes from the movie seems to be that this couple's relationship was based on partying. And when that went away, the marriage went on the skids. Does that mean the marriage should never have happened?
PONSOLDT: No. I mean, I don't think this couple really is going to regret a second they spent with each other. And I think they'll be grateful for all of the love and pain that they shared with each other and that we share with anyone that comes into our lives.
You know, in this film one of the, you know, members of the relationship, you know, is suddenly having to deal with herself and look at herself and be honest, you know, and have to finally start growing up. Whereas, her partner is still, you know, a little bit emotionally stunted, even if he has a lot of love in his heart for her. And so I think, you know, there's a relationship to be had there, but they're really going to have to get to know each other all anew.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUEL TO BE KIND")
HEADLEE: James Ponsoldt. His new film is called "Smashed."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUEL TO BE KIND")
NICK LOWE: (Singing) Though you say you're my friend. I'm at my wits' end. You say...