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Interview: I Smile Back’s Writer & Director Amy Koppelman and Adam Salky

I Smile Back

Since its Sundance premiere earlier this year, Sarah Silverman’s performance in the brutal drama I Smile Back has been highly praised as a revelation for the usually comic actress. Although she’s done drama before, including a supporting role in Take This Waltz, she’s in every scene of this bleak look at a wife and mother struggling with chronic depression. Silverman stars as Laney, alongside Josh Charles and Thomas Sadoski, in this film based on Amy Koppelman’s book of the same name.

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Inspired by Silverman’s frank talk of her own struggles with depression, Koppelman and her writing partner, Paige Dylan, adapted the novel for the screen. I spoke with Koppelman and director Adam Salky about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is currently beginning its limited release before their VOD release on November 6th.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): I read that you basically developed the Sarah in mind from the very beginning?

Amy Koppelman: About 5 years ago, I was driving down the highway and heard Sarah on the Howard Stern Show talking about her autobiography and I think she was talking about loneness and a sense of home. I actually would like to hear that interview again, but I thought she would understand this book. It’s a little book that was published by an independent and I was only paid $750 for it. It was rejected over 80 times. But everyone only wants their thoughts and feelings to be understood, and I thought her heart would understand my heart, so I just had to get the book to her. So I got the book to her and we met and talked, and I asked, “if I am able to get a screenplay written, would you be in it?” And she said yes. So I co-wrote it with my partner Paige. But before meeting her, we never thought of writing a screenplay

Adam Salky: And a few years ago, I met with the one of the producers, Amy’s husband Brian, who gave me the screenplay to read. And I loved it and immediately found the novel and read that too. And I was just amazed by how well Paige and Amy were able adapt it, which made me excited to talk to them. And the next time I met with Brian, I had used that time before hand to create a detailed look book for the movie and explained why I wanted to make the movie and why I should be the one to make it.

TMS: Did you make significant changes to the script between the time you first wrote it as a spec script and when it ultimately went into production?

Salky: I can’t speak to the changes made before I got involved. I know there were changes made after it got into Sarah’s hands. There were some very sensitive changes made before going into production. But revising a screenplay happens all the time. A writer writes a script thinking “that’s the movie,” but when you start planning to go into production, you have to think about things like cost and locations and cast. There was a scene where they go to a fair at the school, with rides and stuff. Which was a great scene, but we could never have filmed that.

Koppelman: Or the scene when they go on a trip to Florida, we decided to just bring them to upstate New York, because that requires no air tickets or hotel stays. So those were the biggest changes we made. Trying to keep the meaning of the scenes the same, but adapt them to our very tight budget. But in terms of adapting the book, Sarah gave us a note about one of the most important scene. The second to last scene in the movie, isn’t in the book. She wanted to do something for her kids, and I have often thought, “I should go back into the book and add it to the novel,” but you can’t retroactively add something like that to a book. But in the book, you can have internal thoughts more and discuss guilt and shame. But in the movie, that scene makes her ultimate decision palatable.

TMS: Often times when someone adapts a book, to supplement what has to be altered for the screen, they will add voice over in order to include some of the language from the book and have the internal thoughts. Did you consider giving Laney a voice over at any time?

Koppelman: Paige and I thought about voice over, and had Sarah not given such a great performance, we might have gone back and added some. A lot of times voice over is added after to explain something to the audience which isn’t clear or working. Not that all voice over is a crutch or used only to fix something afterwards. But I don’t think Sarah’s character needed voice over because she gave such a great performance. She doesn’t need help explaining, it’s all on her face and on the screen.

TMS: Did you speak with Sarah about how aware Laney is regarding her behavior and why she was breaking her sobriety and seeking other men?

Salky: In terms of a director/actor relationship, I told her that I felt she is a person trying to destroy her pain and that to me was the driving factor. And that was what Sarah and I spoke mostly about. But in terms of subconscious motivations, we were really concerned with what was happening in each moment.

TMS: I know the book isn’t autobiographical, but because you were in contact with Sarah so early and wrote both the book and screenplay, did Sarah ever mirror your behaviors as Laney?

Koppelman: Not that I noticed. But she could have been and I just never noticed.

Salky: The thing which was so amazing about Sarah’s performance of Laney Brooks, was how inspired she was by Amy’s book and the Amy and Paige’s screenplay. I never thought she was trying to mimic Amy, but she brought her own point of view to her work.

Koppelman: The fear as a novel writer is seeing the three dimensional manifestation of your imagination, and being let down by it. But she was so much better than anything I could have expected. So if Sarah was studying anything, it certainly was never brought to my attention. She just understood every nuance of the character, and everyday gave everything she had to the film. I don’t know if she was watching me, but I was definitely watching her, and got emotional a few times on set.

TMS: The marriage is such an interesting part of the story, because you can see that even though there still is a lot of love between them, you sense from the very beginning that this marriage will not end well. Having had kids, who have to be the main priority, Josh Charles’s character seems very torn between standing by his wife and doing what is best for their children. What were some of the aspects of that character you wanted to explore in the film?

Salky: I wanted to show that this was a guy who cared deeply for his family, and his wife, and more than anything, wanted to keep them together. But also show that, this is a guy who wants that so badly, he is in denial about things. You can see that very clearly when he comes to see Laney in recovery, and she tries to make amends with him and be honest, and he is just not ready to hear it. He doesn’t want to see that side of their relationship.

Koppelman: There is always the hope that if you don’t say it out loud, it might not be true. Once she validates his suspicions about who she is and what she’s been doing, he can’t deny anymore. It isn’t that I think he’s being selfish, just desperate about how much he doesn’t want to know those things about his wife. He has to do that because he’s holding onto this dream that he can make her better and they can be what they are during their nice moments. Anyone who’s loved someone like Laney, knows that there are rarely people as fun and charismatic and warm as they are during their good times. So you hold onto that image of them, and try to provide the stability to make things like that for them all the time. You hope, if you prove to them enough times and love them enough, they’ll get better. We actually only had one read through before filming, but afterwards we had a conversation with Josh, who said “I don’t understand how he could let Laney do that. How could he not go to help her?” But by the time he shot that scene, he understood how his character could reach that point.

Salky: That conversation we had spoken volumes about the kind of performer Josh is. He internalized that drive his character had, to keep the family going by sheer will, so much that he wanted to discuss that moment when he is tested and reaches his limit. And we discussed it many times leading up to that scene, but when we shot it, he got it. I could tell that when he looked down, and saw his wife completely broken, his own limits had been broken too.

Koppelman: And he chose to protect his children.

TMS: And the real tragedy of the film is asking the question, are her children better off without her? And there are constantly moments when the audience goes back and forth about that idea of what is best for the kids? Did you have a sense in the story when there was that breaking point between herself and the family?

Koppelman: She has so much self-loathing and shame, that when she goes to the piano recital and sees him play, it is so overwhelming beautiful. She can’t believe something so beautiful came from her, because she has so much self-hatred, and I think she can’t handle those emotions. It isn’t until she gets beat up, that I think she feels she looks on the outside the way she feels on the inside. And that is the turning point, because she’s finally feels like she’s being honest with herself. But in terms of the kids, the book was originally called “A Single Act of Kindness” because you know from the very beginning that she really loves her kids. When she sees her own problems starting to manifest with her son, I think she feels tremendous guilt and thinks, “I’m ruining him.”

TMS: I know the film isn’t a memoir or autobiographical, but are there aspects of your own life in the book or character of Laney?

Koppelman: Subconsciously, I was writing to the fears of becoming parent. Laney’s relationship with her father is very similar to my relationship with my father, although it took me another 4 more years of therapy to realize that. But I worked very hard to start a family, and have had very bad depression my whole life and thank god for medication. But I thought, “what if I’ve inherited more than just my father’s eye color and hair color? What if I bust my family up?” So I was writing through my fears. All of Laney’s feelings of self-loathing and shame and guilt, I’ve experienced, but I’ve been sleeping with the same guy for 25 years and haven’t done any drugs not prescribed by a doctor, so all that was fiction?

TMS: We are seeing a lot more public discussion about the fears of motherhood and emotional and mental toil it can be. Did you have kids when you wrote the book?

Koppelman: I did. My first novel, “A Mouthful of Air” was written some time ago, before we spoke about post-partum depression as openly as we do now. And I had very, very bad post-partum depression, but I didn’t know that was what it was. I thought I was just suffering from more of the same. And that book was much harder to get published, because there is infanticide in it. But I just saw that Andrew Simon wrote a whole piece on post-partum and pre-natal depression, and I think people are starting to talk about the physiological changes that happen when you have children, when they are first born, but even after they get a little older. So I’m glad to see this whole area of maternal health is being looked at seriously. The idea of the unhappy suburban housewife, which is a very old idea in fiction, isn’t Laney’s problem. The reason to give her every privilege was to say, “she has every resource to get help and try to get better.” She doesn’t have to take time off of work, she doesn’t have to worry about paying for a therapy or her medications, and she can go to a private treatment center. And yet, she still doesn’t get better. And I was interested in looking at “why can’t some people get better?”

TMS: This might sound silly, but I’m always fascinated when you have to film a lot in one house, trying to get the sense that the place has really been lived in and making it still cinematic. Where did you find the home?

Salky: Actually, that isn’t a silly question, because it was one of my biggest concerns, and it is a gift if you can find one house which provides all the locations you need. It is more efficient, but also allowed us to essentially camp out. We found that beautiful home in Dobbs Ferry, and the owner was so kind and opened the house to us. And there was absolutely an intimacy in that house, which made if feel like a family, with young children, would live there. And the one things we tried to do was make the house look a little smaller than it actually was. And the team we had, who did the production design of those rooms, especially the kids’ rooms, were just amazing.

TMS: Regarding the film as a whole, it is a very tough movie to get through and people need to be prepared going into it that it is that kind of film. But for the audiences, is there something you want them to get out of the experience?

Koppelman: A lot of people talk about this idea of redemption, in movies and TV, we see a lot of main characters redeemed in some way by the end. For me, and this might be why I don’t sell many books, redemption is for those who read the book or see the movie, because they have a chance see the way things could go and make different choices. Get the help they might need, or just understand the pain someone like Laney is going through, even if they might have been hurt. I had a good friend whose mother left when she was very little, and I kept a picture of her from kindergarten on my computer, thinking “I have to do this child justice and consider what it must have felt like for her when her mother left.” And I kept thinking, maybe one of Laney’s kids broke the cycle? Maybe her daughter will be okay? It isn’t meant to be an instructive movie, but if someone can go away understanding someone in their life better or forgive themselves a bit, that would be a great thing.

Salky: I feel the same way. When we were in post-production, Robin Williams passed away, and there was so much press coverage about it. But his wife issued a statement that ended with “it is our hope that in Robin’s passing, others will find the strength to find the treatment to fight whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.” And that struck me, because if just one person sees the movie and feels the same way, we’ve done our job.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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