By: Shannon Page
Wylie Writes had the opportunity to sit down with director Adam Salky (Dare), as well as writers Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan, about their film I Smile Back which stars Sarah Silverman as a drug and alcohol abusing New Jersey housewife trying to keep herself and her family together. Koppelman and Dylan co-wrote the screenplay, based off of Koppelman’s 2008 novel by the same name.
“The novel was incredibly helpful in making the film,” Salky emphasized, observing that the form of the novel allowed for a more intimate description of Laney’s internal experience that wasn’t necessarily easy to transfer to the screen. “[It was] very helpful in Sarah’s process because she had this text to work from that really spoke in the voice of the character and I believe that’s very helpful for an actor to have.”
“There are some moments in the film that are specifically constructed to give us the internal experience of the character. In particular, the beginning of the film. It’s a sequence that brings you into Laney’s internal experience in a cinematic way and I believe that that paid homage to the novel.”
The film has been getting a lot of attention, particularly for Sarah Silverman’s dramatic performance as Laney. Aside from screening at this year’s TIFF, I Smile Back premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film festival where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. The Canadian distribution rights have been purchased by Search Engine Films, which will allow I Smile Back to receive a Canadian theatrical release later this fall.
But Koppelman and Dylan explained that it wasn’t a straightforward path to success. The script was written with Sarah Silverman already in mind of the role of Laney, and getting people to take the idea of her playing such a dramatic and heavy role seriously was often a challenge.
“[The most difficult part was] getting somebody to believe in it and invest it and direct it,” said Koppelman. “That’s really the truth. We always knew what we were adapting. We had the source material, we knew who we wanted to make it for. Now, when you see [Sarah Silverman’s] performance, it seems so obvious because she’s so good.”
“People like to keep their understanding of people in a box,” Dylan added. “Sarah is a comedian and thinking of her tacking this dramatic role isn’t easy. For me, I was unsure when Amy brought up the idea. I like her in her box. So, I wasn’t immediately sold. But Amy couldn’t have been more right.”
As a director, Sarah Silverman’s involvement was a big part of Adam Salky’s initial interest in the project.
“I was intrigued because Sarah is an incredibly intelligent, fearless performer in her comedy and I had never seen her do a dramatic role before,” said Salky. “I thought that this is someone who is incredibly talented and could probably do anything if she wanted to put her mind to it. That was one of the things that inspired me to dive into the material and be excited about it in the first place.”
“Films are very difficult to get made,” explained Salky. “If a film has a lead attached to it, that can be a wonderful thing because sometimes that saves you two or three years of trying to find that person in order to make the film. Of course, it has to be the right person and in this case it was.”
“We were very conscious of making the film in the independent spirit,” said Salky. “Very low budget. And just going out there and doing it with no frills because it really was just a passion project for everyone involved. There was the element of Sarah doing something that she is not known for, so in that sense everyone was taking a chance. The independent film world allows you to do that. Studio film making generally isn’t about taking that kind of risk… [but] one of the beautiful things about independent film is that you don’t always know what you are going to get.”
“I thought it was a profoundly human story and a tragic story that affects many people – either through personal experience, or friends, or family,” he said.
“Laney has a genuine struggle and she wants to do the right thing,” Dylan added. “I think that makes her likable. She makes abominable choices and ultimately you want to shake her. But, her heart is in the right place. It’s just her head that’s not.”
I Smile Back will open in select theatres on December 4.
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