Comedienne Sarah Silverman showed up at the Chicago Film Festival showing of her serious drama “I Smile Back” on October 16th and answered some questions from the audience following the showing of the film that was one of the best indie films I saw during the 51st Chicago Film Festival.
Silverman portrays Laney Brooks, a mom who is so devoted to her children that she draws pictures on their lunch bags, but so screwed up from her own unhappy childhood, that her attempts to forge a solid nuclear family are sabotaged by self-loathing, addiction(s) to drugs, sex and alcohol, and the fear that “Every moment of beauty, it goes away, it fades…Nobody tells you that it is terrifying to love something so much.”
Director Adam Salky (the film “Dare”) assembled a top-notch cast, headed by Silverman but also featuring Josh Charles (“The Good Wife,” “Masters of Sex”), Thomas Sadoski (“The Newsroom,” “Life in Pieces”) and Chris Sarandon (“Dog Day Afternoon”). The source material is Amy Koppelman’s novel “I Smile Back”, which Koppelman adapted for the screen with the help of her writing partner Paige Dylan (wife of Jakob Dylan). When Koppelman heard Silverman on Howard Stern’s radio program talking about her own experiences with depression, she sent Silverman the novel on a whim. “I write these really small dark books and I just thought she would understand what I was trying to say… It was a miracle she opened it,” Koppelman said in an interview with “Variety’s” Allison Sadlier.
Silverman, herself, came out to introduce “I Smile Back” attired in a tight red dress with small cape-like sleeves and to accept the Breakthrough Award. Her introduction to the movie was, “I don’t like it when people talk before a movie. I think it taints the film.” And then she left, apparently to change into more ordinary clothing and eat spaghetti and French fries.
When she returned, following an impressive performance onscreen as the pill-popping wife, Laney Brooks, of Bruce Brooks (Josh Charles)—a woman who is bi-polar and off her meds— the audience had watched a woman in deep psychological trouble try to deal with her inner pain through self-medicating with pills, cocaine, alcohol and sex with Donnie (Thomas Sadorski), the husband of her pregnant friend and neighbor. She also finally is driven to try Rehab. But, throughout, she attempts to also play the role of perfect suburban wife and mother to two adorable children, Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman).
Laney’s comment, “I don’t see why anyone bothers loving anything. Don’t act like everything’s gonna’ be okay when, nothing is gonna’ be okay” gives a good idea of the film you’re going to see. It’s a film about depression. As we gradually learn, Laney has had issues for years, going back to when her father (Chris Sarandon) abandoned the family and never bothered to contact her after leaving. It is only later in a visit to dear old dad that we learn that her father left her mother because Mom had the same black streak, the same issues with substance abuse.
My only criticism of the film was the “Sopranos”-like ending, which I found unfulfilling. Up to that point, Silverman and the excellent supporting cast were riveting in their roles and held your attention throughout the depressing but realistic film.
As the film progresses, we learn that Laney is feeling dead inside. Without her lithium, she seems incapable of following Nancy Reagan’s advice to “Just say no.” She also feels shut out of her marriage, saying, “We used to be in this together. We used to be on the same team” to husband Bruce. [Silverman is currently in a real-life relationship with Michael Sheen of “Masters of Sex” —and talking about it much less than her previous widely-publicized relationship with television host Jimmy Kimmel).]
Here were some of Silverman’s candid answers to questions asked of her following the Chicago premiere of “I Smile Back,” which opened in select theaters October 23rd and will be available on demand on November 6th. It’s worth a look, containing one of the strongest female performances this year; the film was a sensation at Sundance.
Q1: How did you approach playing Laney?
A1: How you feel about Laney depends on the prism of your own experience—you may feel empathy, compassion or pity. (Silverman then cracked a joke that she now felt “sluggish” after downing spaghetti and French friends while the audience enjoyed the film.)
Q2: How long was the shoot and what was its budget?
A2: It took 20 days to shoot and the budget was $100,000. (The school scenes are shot at Five Towns’ College in Dix Hills, New York) I’m glad it was 20 compact days. It would have been really rough to do that for 3 months. I don’t have easy access to my emotions. I had convinced myself that between scenes it would be fun, but it wasn’t like that. The emotions were on my lap all the time. (Joking: “Try to go to sleep with the gentle tones of soft core murder.”)
Q3: How much did you rehearse beforehand?
A3: We rehearsed before each scene. We didn’t really have dedicated rehearsal time.
Q4: Was your work in comedy a past influence?
A4: Everything I’ve done before this sort of informed everything. It has to do with skills—timing. In my comedy, I’ve enjoyed playing the arrogant, self-involved idiot. Laney is self-loathing. She is self-obsessed because she is living in that future of “what if?” The only thing she really has control of is her own bad behavior.
Q5: How does the family in the film compare to your own family?
A5: I grew up in a house with few boundaries and almost too much freedom. I didn’t really learn to be guarded, to have the traditional family dynamic. I feel that Laney is a woman who gave up her job to marry. She is bored and depressed. Nothing is as idyllic as it seems. This is life behind closed doors.
Q6: What was it like working with the child actors?
A6: I loved working with the kids. Skylar (Eli, the son) is like a young Ron Howard. He was never bored. He was fortified by the set. Shayne, the little sister Janey, wasn’t aware of anything. The conversation she has with Josh Charles about sugar and how it’s bad for you was all Shayne just chatting.
Q7: Do you think you will be doing more serious roles in the future? (Silverman’s cousin asked this from the back of the room).
A7: I’m getting discovered and I’m only 44! (laughs)