Last year, audiences couldn’t find two more distinct movies dealing with alcoholism than Flight and Smashed. While Robert Zemeckis‘s film dealt with an all-out reckless drunk, big dramatic plot points, and John Goodman, director James Ponsoldt’s Smashed approaches the matter with a more character-driven and religion-less narrative, with the assistance of the film’s co-writer, Susan Burke.
Burke, who also works as standup comedian, didn’t want the lead character in Smashed, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, to suffer simply because she’s an alcoholic. It isn’t a movie that punishes its characters or says with a million exclamation points, “Drinking is bad.” Smashed isn’t grim in the way we generally associate movies featuring alcoholism, but a dramedy that isn’t built around misery porn and, as Burke says, indie quirks.
Screenwriter Susan Burke made the time recently to discuss with us the advantages writing a film over standup can have, avoiding dire plot points, and more:
I imagine that it must be interesting as a comedian getting a response to a piece of your work pretty immediately versus, for a film, having to wait for it. Was that your experience?
It’s not so much the time response that’s weird. What was weird for me was sitting in theaters watching it. As a comedian, if you don’t get laughs every few minutes it’s going terribly wrong. But this movie obviously has some funny parts, but it’s mostly drama. So it’s just kind of weird waiting for responses and have an audience be totally silent. We know that’s good; they’re paying attention. But then, in some crowds they would laugh a lot. It was always really interesting to see audiences that laugh at the funny parts and just some audiences that are silent the whole way through and you are like, “Oh, man.”
So if it seems like that doesn’t get a laugh in the theater, does the comedian side of you kinda freak out, or do you just think it’s a different sense of humor?
Yeah, I’m just kinda like, “That’s what kinda crowd this is.” I remember going to a screening at SAG and it was mostly older people there. I was like, “This is going to be terrible. They’re all actors. They’re not going to laugh at anything.” And it was great. They laughed a ton and were super engaged. I was like, “Okay. Well I guess I can’t judge an audience.” But like the academy screening that we had, it was like silent the whole way through, and that was like super old people. I was like, “Man, they don’t find any of this funny!” [Laughs] It was a little bit uncomfortable, but then they were all very positive. It was just like…they just weren’t laughers. They didn’t think anything was funny, which I can understand. You probably shouldn’t think that stuff was funny.
So they wanted Flight, basically?
Did you see that film?
Yeah, I saw it.
What did you think of it?
It’s hard to say. I was not a fan of it and I feel like because Smashed is also about alcoholism…it would seem like, “Oh, well you just don’t like it because it’s a more successful Hollywood version.” I just felt like…Denzel Washington’s character was really one-dimensional. He was just a bad person until he got sober and, I guess, found God, which the really religious undertones bothered me, too. And then he was just a good person, like there was no gray area between that, which, I mean just because someone’s an alcoholic doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person. Alcoholic doesn’t mean that they’re a terrible person. They’re still a person, just a flawed person. And just because someone’s sober doesn’t mean that you’re a great person all of a sudden. I think that was something that we really wanted to show in Smashed, was that the person who is an alcoholic is a lot more than that; that they are a person first and that they can be relatable to people that don’t have that problem, where I feel like Flight was more showing the otherness of it, like this is not someone we can relate to; this is someone with a severe serious problem and it’s really dramatic and really crazy, and it’s not a problem that we see within ourselves or that we see in the other people that we’re around.
But I mean the actual scene where the plane was about to crash was awesome. And I loved John Goodman.
For Smashed, you actually show her charming when she’s drunk. Were there a lot of conversations about that at the beginning of how to portray her when she’s drinking?
Yeah. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have anyone to drink with if she was just a terrible person. I wanted to show that there’s different degrees of that, too. It’s been interesting, because different audiences have had certain reactions to Aaron Paul’s character. Like, if he’s an alcoholic himself, or if he’s just kind of a normal guy, or if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. We really wanted to leave that up to the audience, too, and not be like, “He’s a bad person. He has a problem.” We keep that kind of gray and let people make up their own minds, because I think there’s a lot of people like him and her. They’re normal people.
Do they usually say he’s an alcoholic?
I think it has a lot to do with the person themselves, which is funny, because so many people will be like, “Do they get together? What happens afterwards?” There are people who have been in sort of bad codependent relationships are always, “Oh, God. I hope they don’t get back together. I hope she stays far away from him.” And then people who are sort of more like hopeless romantics are people that just haven’t been in a crazy codependent relationship, they’re like, “Oh, I love them together! I want them to get back together!” So I think it says more about the viewer than the characters themselves. And then, yeah, some people definitely think he’s an alcoholic. I don’t know if, in fact, he is an alcoholic or not.
He’s definitely a harmfully passive character. It’s nice he doesn’t yell at his wife for smoking crack, but his reaction is comically nonchalant…
[Laughs] I think for those characters that experience, it’s a crazy night, but it’s not something that they haven’t heard of people doing. I think definitely different groups of people have different experiences with that [Laughs]. But to some people that’s not that big of a deal. And I think to him he was shocked because that’s his wife, but he should have been more concerned with her not coming home period, I think.
That could’ve been a scene that punishes that character for what she did, but there’s really not much bleakness to the film. Did you never have an interest in making that story?
Yeah. A lot of it, too, is sort of loosely based on my own experiences. I got sober when I was 24. I wasn’t married or anything like that. It’s not as dramatic and as exhausting as how it’s approached in films. Terrible things sometimes happen from very normal nights. So the nights that, in movies, are portrayed as…it could have been like, “Oh, she got robbed and raped,” and all these horrible things could have happened. That would have made, obviously, a much different, much, much darker movie. In reality, that experience in itself, we want it to be about what it did to her internally and not externally, like what it does for her own moral center to realize that, like, “Oh, she spent the night smoking crack. She completely lost control,” instead of like sort of gleaning her surrounds or all the bad things that could happen. Of course a million bad things could happen from that. People drive drunk and horrible things happen all the time. I think people know that. I don’t think it needs to be spelled out over and over again.
If you did have that character get raped, it would be a pretty easy plot point to follow.
Yeah. A lot of people use the term “bottom”, like people need to find their bottom before they get sober, make a big life change. What I found within my own experience and talking to other people that are sober is that there isn’t necessarily a bottom that you hit. For me it was like I sort of hit a bottom and then adapted to it. And then that’s just life. And then you sort of hit another bottom and you adapt to it, and that’s just life. I think it’s a lot more natural to be like, “Yeah, these things happen, and there’s sort of these terrible plateaus, but you still adapt to that and you still live.” I think it’s really rare that people are like, “Oh, I had this one horrible experience and then just completely changed my life after that.” That’s a lot more dramatic. And I guess in a movie like Flight, that’s sort of what happened. That sort of obvious, like, “Well, yeah. He did something. He got caught drinking while flying a plane. That’s a really big deal.” But, in reality, it’s like the things that turn into big deals often aren’t big deals.
Going back to the start, did you see yourself as a screenwriter first? Or was it always as comedian?
I’ve always written. I got into standup to do acting and to do improv. I really like doing standup because it’s very portable and I get to speak my own words and don’t have to really rely on anybody else to get their lines down or anything. And if it goes badly I only have myself to blame. If it goes well, I can be like, “Oh, I’m great.” Writing has always been just an extension of standup or sort of the reason that I do standup. Now I’m a lot more interested in writing for the long term than performing. I love performing, but I like telling stories that aren’t just funny and that aren’t just jokes. I think that standup is really great, but there’s a limit to it. With screenwriting you can really tell a full story and fully develop characters, and there isn’t that like there needs to be a laugh every two minutes or every 30 seconds thing. With performance, I’m not really interested in doing sad monologues or anything like that [Laughs]. There really isn’t that equivalent to storytelling in a live venue. But standup, I think it definitely helped develop my writing and has made me a lot more disciplined with writing.
Have you ever attempted a sad monologue while doing standup?
Yeah. Actually, I did a one-person show at UCB right around the time that Smashed came out that was kind of like my story of getting sober, but it wasn’t all focused on that. And it was a lot more dramatic. I sort of did it because it felt weird to be honest about the fact that, like, “Oh yeah, we wrote this movie and it’s about sobriety, and I’m sober and a woman.” But then the confusion of like, “Oh, it’s not a biographical story.” I wanted to actually tell my story, like just for me, and kind of get it done. Then I did it and it was fun and weird to do. But then I just felt like, “Okay. I did that. That’s done. I’ll just tell more jokey jokes now.” [Laughs] It’s funny, because every one person show that I’ve seen, they always start out with being like, “This isn’t…” You know, like making fun of how bad one person shows are. Like, “This isn’t one of those one person shows,” but then it always is. The goal of that was, “We know that it is one of those one person shows, so we want to make it a good one and not a ridiculous one.”
That felt really good to do. At the same time, is that fun for the audience? I didn’t get any complaints or anything, but, I don’t know. It seemed like self-serving. It does feel self-indulgent. I think there’s a reason why people go to see comedy, and it’s sort of to take themselves out of where they are, and to laugh at serious things, but to look at that from a funny perspective. When it’s more dramatic storytelling, that’s just sort of like, “Ugh! I don’t need to know everything about this person!” I’ve gone and seen shows where I’m like, “Well now, when I see them in day-to-day life, I’m going to be like, ‘I know this horrible thing that happened to you. That’s weird.’” [Laughs] How do you talk to someone after that? I don’t think my show was that, but it was still kind of uncomfortable talking to people right afterwards, like, “I just told you all this weird stuff and now we’re going to go get grilled cheese sandwiches! That’s weird!” With film you are given a lot…there’s just a lot more options. You can tell a full story with drama and comedy. It doesn’t have to necessarily feel good.
When you are doing standup, what is usually our judgment of how a show went? Is it based purely on laughter?
Well, it’s interesting. I’m not like a one-liner comic, so I don’t have that laughs per second or anything like that. But if no one is laughing the whole time, it’s going badly. I do find because I tell more stories and things like that where it’s just important that people are engaged and listening and sort of laughing at the parts that they are supposed to laugh at and listening for the rest. The weird thing is, when people are just sort of engaged and looking at you, they’re not laughing. It’s like, “Oh, this is weird because they’re paying attention.” That’s the worst.
[Laughs] Does that kind of stick with you long after or do you get over that quickly?
Yeah, I get over it really quickly. I think most comedians are kind of very sensitive people who go out and do something that destroys them all the time or completely picks them up. It is a really black and white thing. I don’t understand comedians that perform every single night, because it’s just exhausting.
So now, having a film out there, how do you judge if the film is successful or not? Is it your own reaction or how people are talking about it?
With Smashed, I’m really happy with all the reviews and reactions we’ve gotten. We’re just so happy for us to get into Sundance and then to do well at Sundance and to get a distributor and have it be in theaters. It was small steps, but I was really excited with every step along the way. There is a part of me that wished it had a huge opening weekend and stuff like that and that it became the indie darling film of the year…
The 500 Days of Summer.
Yeah. I mean it’s not one of those movies. We kinda knew that, too. I feel like it sorta found its audience. And I’m pretty confident that it’s a pretty universal story and a story that people will relate to. It’s not just like, “Oh, it’s a quirky indie” that people will go see on dates, because it’s not that. And we didn’t make it to be that. But I definitely want more people to see it. And it would be cool if I made money from something that I did…[Laughs]
[Laughs] The comedy world isn’t booming with cash?
[laughs] No, not…I don’t know. Not like the alternative comedy world. There’s definitely money to be made in standup. But that route sucks, like touring and all that. Being a road comic is the worst. I consider myself more a writer now and working on other projects and stuff. I’m mostly just writing now. Performing is just something I do more for fun. That’s something that I will probably always do, just because, like, most of my friends are comedians, and so I can go and see them perform. But I’m not planning on being the next Zach Galifianakis or anything with comedy.
As a screenwriter, does Smashed represent the type of movies you want to make?
The last thing that I’ve written is my friend AJ [Bowen] and I wrote a movie that’s kind of a dramedy. It’s funnier. It’s more comedy than Smashed, but it still has some dramatic elements. It’s about a family in the ‘80s. I’m actually going to act in it and direct it, too. So it’s going to be another small-scale thing. It’s a story kind of loosely based on his childhood experiences. I want to make movies that I’m interested in and write stories that I relate to, and probably not a huge portion of the population relates to, but hopefully enough do that it is sustainable and that I can keep writing and keep making stuff.
Smashed is now on DVD and Blu-ray.