I recently caught up with director Adam Salky to talk about his second feature film, I Smile Back starring Sarah Silverman. The film tackles the issue of mental illness and follows Silverman who plays a mother of two dealing with depression. I spoke to Salky about what attracted him to the film and the challenges of shooting during a bitter winter in New York.
Awards Daily: How did the project begin?
Adam Salky : I Smile Back started as a novel written by Amy Koppelman. She wrote it about ten years ago, and she had never intended for it to be a film. It was really when she was driving down the West Side Highway listening to the Howard Stern Show, and she heard Sarah (Silverman) promoting her book where she talked about her struggle with depression and her struggles with pharmacology. Amy had this feeling of connection with what Sarah was talking about and thought Sarah would understand the character. So, she got the book to Sarah who read the book, they had lunch and Sarah said, “If you turn this into a screenplay and it doesn’t suck, then I’ll do it.” So, Amy enlisted her friend Paige Dylan to adapt it into a screenplay.
AD: How did it get to you?
AS: Four years later, I met with Brian Koppleman who shared the screenplay with me. He said it was going to star Sarah Silverman. I said, “In a drama?” and he said yes. I started thinking about that and I was immediately inspired because I had read Sarah’s book and knew that she could relate to the character. As a director, if you know your lead really has a personal connection to the character, you know that you can work with them to create that character on screen. I read the script and was moved by it because it was human story and a tragic story, and a lot of people in my life are struggling with similar issues that are shown in the film. I fell in love with it and was able to convince the team that I should be the guy to direct it.
AD: We know how Sarah got involved. How did Josh Charles get on board?
AS: One of the cool things about casting this movie was that everyone said yes. It wasn’t like we went through a process, everyone who got it said yes to it. Sarah’s an artist and people are constantly impressed and surprised by her. So, this idea that she was going to do a drama was inspiring to so many people who worked on the film. Secondly, Sarah knew Josh. She had done The Good Wife and sort of knew him. He was actually my first choice. She shot Josh a text, and gave him a heads up. He read the script, we met, we talked about the character and he called the producer and said he’d do it.
AD: Josh was great. I like what he did with his role.
AS: He brought such a dramatic authenticity to his role and to the movie, and they really seemed like a couple to me. I love what he did with the character. He was so great to work with. He has so much experience and he’s also a film-maker. A lot of our conversations were about what drives his character, and he’s such a great collaborator.
AD: You’ve written and directed in the past, was it hard to not be involved this time in just directing?
AS: It’s a special privilege to be able to direct something that someone else wrote. If you haven’t written the script, I found that I could come to it with a certain level of objectivity that allowed me to access the visual storytelling in a powerful way. I really loved that. I love the process of working with writers. It was great to collaborate with people who wrote the film, and it’s not like you don’t have a voice with that process.
AD: How long did it take to shoot?
AS: It took 20 days in and around New York City, and it was a tough shoot; freezing cold temperatures, extremely dramatic material that everyone wanted to handle with respect, and there wasn’t any time to mess around.
AD: And that sex scene was shot early on?
AS: It was the second scene that we shot on the first day. You said you liked some of the shots, so thank you. Secondly, I really wanted to showcase Sarah’s performance in every part of this film, and the shot choices kept that in mind.
I planned a lot of long takes just so we could see what Sarah was doing. Sarah loved that, that she could be in the moment without having to break it.
AD: What was tough for you to shoot?
AS: The intersection sequence was hard on a technical aspect. On a half million dollar film, you just have no resources so the cinematographer and I had to figure out how to do it. The sequence was 27 shots, and Sarah was only in 6 of those shots. We really edited it on paper, figuring out what those 6 shots were going to be, and then we figured out a way to shoot those 6 shots in a completely safe environment. We did it on an empty parking lot, and we did it on streets where there was hardly any traffic, and you couldn’t see outside of the car. Sarah was never in any danger and never crossed the intersection. So figuring out how to do that in this time frame was the biggest technical challenge that we overcame.
It’s something I have a hard time watching, it’s just so terrifying.
AD: You’ve shot Dare in the past which has had over 7 million views, it was made over ten years ago? What do you think the appeal of that is?
AS: It was made over 2004, it was my end of the first year film school project and I directed it with David Brind who wrote it. We turned it into a feature and it went to Sundance in 2009. The short film has found its second life. The Dare short captures something about adolescent, connection and desire. I really think it’s in the performances of the two boys. There’s something that everyone has experience with, this feeling of unrequited attraction and connection with someone who’s out of your league. Both the short and the feature film tried to capture something about that, and there’s something in that film that speaks to people’s experience about adolescent desire.
I Smile Back is in release now