October 21, 2015

In Adam Salky’s harrowing new film, “I Smile Back,” based on Amy Koppelman’s searing 2008 novel of the same name, Laney Brooks (played by comic Sarah Silverman, in her first dramatic role) is an affluent housewife with an adoring husband, two sweet, young children, and a sparkling McMansion in Short Hills, N.J. But just beneath the surface, Laney remains severely damaged by childhood demons. Her father left her family when she was 9 and she continues to be terrified by the prospect of abandonment, as well as the worry that she will irrevocably harm her children because of her “bad genes.” 

Early in the film, she reveals that she has gone off of the lithium she had been taking to control her bipolar disorder and severe depression. And so she spirals downward into self-destructive behavior, attempting to curb her pain by guzzling alcohol, snorting cocaine and sleeping with a friend’s husband as well as random strangers.

“Laney can’t deal with the knowledge that everyone she loves is going to die or leave her in one way or another,” Koppelman, 45, who also co-wrote the screenplay, said in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. “She’s stuck in the anxiety of that ‘what if’ cycle. And so she is pre-emptively striking back; she will leave her loved ones before they have a chance to leave her.  She thinks, on some level, that that would be somehow less painful.

Josh Charles and Shayne Coleman in the film “I Smile Back.”

“Yet I don’t think that her father’s leaving is any excuse for her behavior,” added Koppelman, who herself has suffered from decades of depression but is now stabilized. “Laney’s not right, and she should be taking the proper steps to make herself right. She should take her medicine and do what she needs to do to get better. A person can put themselves back together, but you have to really have the desire to want to live. To a certain extent, you have to bury your own ego. I know, for me, for a long time it was just, like, the small victory of being able to get up and make a cup of coffee in the morning.”

In Koppelman’s childhood home, her parents’ marriage was fraught and, “My father is very, very similar to the Laney character,” she said. “He had none of her specific addictions, but even though he says he was not bipolar, he just had very erratic behavior and it affected everything.”

Perhaps as a result, Koppelman suffered from depression beginning in the third grade, “when it was as if a gauze came down around me, like a sluggish sadness.”

Fast-forward to 1994, when Koppelman was in her early 20s and had already married her husband, filmmaker Brian Koppelman, who is a producer on “I Smile Back.”

“I had a very bad breakdown,” she said. “I had been a very highly functioning bulimic, but once I moved in with [Brian], I knew that he loved me, and I couldn’t do that in his house. When my parents divorced soon after that, I didn’t have any mechanism with which I could deal with everything that was swirling around me, so I finally fell apart. I was also in a place that was safe enough to do that because I knew my husband loved me.”

Koppelman would wait until her spouse left home in the morning, “and then I would get in bed, turn off the lights and not leave until I knew he was getting back from work,” she said. “Then I would get dressed and ready, and for those couple of hours I would try my best to be like a normal person. But I would get terrible anxiety attacks and terrible stomachaches. Yet I didn’t want to destroy him by killing myself. And I had enough self-preservation that I never descended into addictions like Laney.”

When rock star Kurt Cobain committed suicide, not longer thereafter, Koppelman began seeing a psychiatrist and eventually started taking antidepressants. “I now pray to the God of Zoloft,” she quipped.

Along the way, Koppelman also began hanging out in the office of her rabbi, Peter Rubinstein of Central Synagogue: “He was the one who really told me that I should be a writer, and he made me go and take a continuing education class at Columbia University,” she said. “I started writing on this blue typewriter in my dining room as a way to express feelings in order to get better. My writing makes me able to be a better mom and a better person, but my characters aren’t so lucky in that they get all the sadness.”

Koppelman’s first published story, a snapshot of Laney and her affair with a cowboy, appeared in the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith in the summer of 2002.

When Koppelman went off of her antidepressants in order to get pregnant with her second child, in the late 1990s, “I spent nine months staring at the bottle of Zoloft, waiting to go back on the drug,” she said. It was during this difficult pregnancy that she continued writing her debut novel, “A Mouthful of Air,” about a mother suffering from acute postpartum depression, with tragic results.

Koppelman began “I Smile Back” some years later, after realizing that “I had worked so hard to get better and make my own happy little family,” she said. “I was so lucky because I had their love, a great psychiatrist, as well as copious amounts of Wellbutrin and Zoloft. But I worried, ‘What if inside of me I inherited a destructive force that was bound to destroy it all?’ I was writing to the fear of what could have happened if I hadn’t gotten the help I had needed, as well as if I were inevitably going to destroy my family as part of my legacy of mood disorders.”

The author never intended to adapt “I Smile Back” into a screenplay until she chanced to hear Jewish comic Sarah Silverman talking about her own experience of depression on “The Howard Stern Show” five years ago. At the time, Silverman was promoting her memoir, “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee,” which describes how she suffered panic attacks from the age of 13 and by 16 was taking 16 Xanax per day.

Koppelman had never seen Silverman’s stand-up comedy, but said, “There was just something about the quality of her voice where I thought she would really understand the character of Laney.”

When the author eventually met with Silverman to discuss a possible film, “Sarah looked at me funny and said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t suck.’ ”

And so Koppelman and her writing partner, Paige Dylan, penned their screenplay specifically with Silverman in mind.

Now Koppelman has written a new novel, “Hesitation Wounds,” about a psychiatrist who also is dealing with abandonment issues, which will hit bookstores on Nov. 3.  “This character is really the most like me,” the author said, “because by the end of the story, she knows that while life is fragile and delicate and you can be hurt, in the end, it’s the only shot you have. So you may as well try to live it.”

Koppelman has dedicated her work to writing about women battling mental health issues. “In my tiny little way, if people recognize themselves in my characters and that leads them to go get help, perhaps I can do some good,” she said.

“I Smile Back” opens in theaters on Oct. 23. 

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