ismileback-posterLaney (Sarah Silverman) is an attractive, intelligent suburban wife and the devoted mother of two adorable children. She has the perfect husband (Josh Charles), a pristine house, and a shiny SUV for carting the children around to their next activity. However, just beneath the façade lie severe depression and disillusionment that send her careening into a secret world of reckless compulsion. Only very real danger will force her to face the painful root of her destructiveness and its crumbling effect on those she loves. Now, with the destruction of her family looming and temptation everywhere, Laney makes one last desperate attempt at redemption. Based on the novel by Amy Koppelman and written by Koppelman and Paige Dylan, I Smile Back was directed by Adam Salky. In addition to Silverman and Charles, the film features Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, and Chris Sarandon. I talked to the director about this very moving film.

Danny Miller: I thought this was such a powerful movie. I know the project had been kicking around for a while. How did you get involved?

adamsalkyAdam Salky: I had the chance to meet Brian Koppelman, the film’s producer, who shared the screenplay with me. The first thing he told me was that Sarah Silverman was already attached to play the main character and that it was a drama. I said, “Really? A drama?” That got my attention right away! I remembered reading Sarah’s book in which she speaks very openly about her struggles with depression and psychopharmacology and I thought about how Sarah has many more sides of her than she’s shown to the public. For a director, to have an actress with specific, relatable experience to the main character, that’s the gold standard.

I remember seeing Sarah Silverman in the movie Take This Waltz a few years ago and thinking, “Wow, this woman is an excellent dramatic actress.”

Yeah, Sarah’s great in that. As I prepared to meet with her, there were a couple of other things I saw that spoke very clearly to me that she could do that. Have you seen School of Rock?

Of course, I love it!

Remember Sarah’s small role in that film? She plays Mike White’s girlfriend. When you watch that performance, even though the film is a comedy, you think, “That is an actress playing a character, it’s not Sarah Silverman playing herself.” She had great acting chops in that film. Another thing that really impressed me, oddly enough, was an appearance Sarah made on The Graham Norton Show, this talk show that comes out of the UK. One of the guests on her episode clearly had too much to drink. Sarah realizes this at a certain moment and her reaction was so gracious, almost motherly. I just started seeing all these sides of her that I felt would contribute to her performance as Laney.

Were there any moments where you had to reign her in from being too “Sarah Silverman-y?”

No, Sarah really came into the making of this film with an openness and with her guard down, I loved working with her. On the first day of shooting, because of a huge snowstorm in New York, we ended up having to shoot a scene that you’d never want to start with—

Oh God, the sex scene?

Yes! You’d usually want to start with something easy since no one really knows each other yet but it ended up being a very bonding moment for everyone. Sarah really rose to the occasion and everyone was like, “Holy shit!”


I felt empathy for Laney throughout the film but she really does some awful stuff in the course of the story. Did you ever have the worry that you were going too far and audiences might completely turn on the character?

I set out to stay true to Amy Koppelman’s novel. She adapted it into a screenplay with Paige Dylan and it’s a story that strives to be very real. I just wanted to tell the truth about these characters so I didn’t think too much about whether people would judge Laney. It was Amy’s idea to cast Sarah and I think there’s something inherent in Sarah that brings people in — the sensitivity she brings to her performance in this movie gives the audience permission to go on what is going to be a very rocky, dangerous, and difficult journey.

I think it’s because you don’t shy away from showing her dark side that certain moments in the film become even more poignant. That scene at her son’s piano recital really killed me, I can’t even think of it without tearing up. 

The piano recital is my favorite scene in the movie! Usually you do a film in little pieces and out of order and the real feelings of a scene aren’t always clear as you’re shooting it. But that scene was completely different. There was something about Sarah’s openness and rawness in that scene with the whole family together and the boy who played Eli, Skylar Gaertner, really playing the piano — it felt like the recital was really happening with that family and we were just there documenting it.


The two kids were wonderful and had such a great rapport with Sarah and Josh. When you’re working with children on such heavy material, do they really get the full story?

No, the guiding principle is to protect the kids. In this case, they don’t get the full script, only their parents do. The kids just got short pieces of it with their dialogue. But those two were such pros. That little girl, Shayne Coleman, was such a wonderful ball of energy and has some of the best ad-libbed moments in the film. Remember the scene when Laney gets up from the dinner table and starts guzzling wine out of view from her family? While that’s happening, Shayne is in the background talking about the kinds of food that they eat and how healthy it is. She just made up all of those lines in the moment but the contrast of what is going on with Sarah makes the scene all the more powerful. Sometimes you have to give kids very specific direction, but sometimes you just have to let child actors be kids and you get the best results.

I think this is an important film to see for people who are touched by mental illness in any way.

There are people very close to me who are struggling with mental illness and addiction and there was a sense that nearly everyone who worked on the film had those kinds of relationships in their lives, too. I remember that as we were finishing the film, Robin Williams passed away. His wife issued a short statement that ended with, “It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing is that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to deal with whatever battles they are facing so they feel less afraid.” That really struck me because it put into words exactly what this film means to me. If someone is able to watch this movie and get some level of understanding about their own struggle or the struggle of a family member or friend, that would be the most amazing thing. I really hope the movie touches the people who need to see it.

I Smile Back is now in limited release and will be opening in additional cities soon.