Interview (Part 4): Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan

The movie I Smile Back is rolling out in select theaters this week. Starring Sarah Silverman in a breakout dramatic starring role, I had the opportunity to talk with Amy Koppelman, who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based, and co-writer of the screenplay adaptation along with Paige Dylan.

Today in Part 4, Amy and Paige share some thoughts on the craft of writing:

Scott: To my reading of it, Janey – whose named rhymes with Laney – represents an untarnished version of Laney, a projection of Laney as an innocent child before Laney suffered trauma as a youth when her father left the family. Does that interpretation resonate with you?

Amy: That’s a really nice idea.  I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it that way but yes-Janey is an (at least at the start of the film) ostensibly untarnished version of Laney.  I think by the end of the film you start to see her unravel a bit.

Scott: And Eli is a kind of ticking bomb, Laney concerned that the boy is starting to exhibit the kind of anxiety and social awkwardness that Laney did, again an object of Laney's projection, her deepest fears at screwing up the people she loves.

Amy: Yes.  I don’t think that Laney has ever been able to accept that something so beautiful (her children) could come from her decay.  Because that’s how she feels about herself, that behind the mask-the smile-she is concealing a monster.  And that’s why, in a way, she’s relieved when she gets banged up against the wall because she finally looks as ugly on the outside as she feels she is on the inside.  When Bruce looks down at her from the top of the stairs it’s as if Laney is almost lifting the mask-finally unveiling her true self.  It’s a self fulfilling prophecy.  She’s so scared of being hurt that she hurts first.  And yet, the person she’s hurting the most is herself because, and this was super important to Paige and I, Laney loves her family.

Scott: Both of you are parents. Paige, you have four children, Amy, you have two, is that right? What of your own experience as parents did you connect with in Laney's character?

Amy: Yes.  I have a nineteen year old son and a fifteen year old daughter.  I have never done coke (I knew I’d like it too much) and have never cheated on my husband.  But all the fears in the film I relate to because I’ve had them all.  I think every mother, to varying degrees, lives in abject fear of hurting their children in some way.  So we try to control what we can control.  Make lunches, drop off at school, make sure they don’t catch a cold, “Eli, dry your balls”.  But what we know-and must force ourselves to deny each and every day is that we have no control.  There is no way to protect our children from a dangerous world but equally alarming-more alarming perhaps-we can’t protect them from the terrorist within.  Eli’s ticking validates Laney’s fears and this is really upsetting to her but it’s also comforting in a way, or rather than comforting it’s expected in a way.  I th ink what ultimately destroys Laney is Eli’s beauty.  When she sees him play the piano she just can’t understand how something so beautiful came out of her and it’s just too much for her to bare.  The fragility of it all.  Of life.

Scott: Okay, some craft questions for you. How do you come up with story ideas?

Paige: I don’t generally seek out story ideas, I think that they usually find me. It could be an elaboration of a newspaper article that catches my interest, or even something as simple as a moral dilemma that would seem more interesting if it involved different characters. For me, it usually starts as this small seed of an idea that I sort of nurture in my head for a while until it’s a round enough idea that I can sit down and really develop it.

Scott: How much time do you spend in prep-writing (i.e., brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining)? Which of the aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most time and focus to?

Amy: I Smile Back was different than the other projects Paige and I have written together because we were working from source material so we knew who the characters were and the story we were telling.  Spec pilots are different. With those we spend a lot of time talking through story and character.  For us, it always begins with the characters:  who are they and what do they want.

Scott: What about dialogue? How do you go about finding your characters' voices? How can a writer develop their ability writing dialogue?

Paige: We find a character’s voice after we develop their specific traits. Who is this woman? Is she weak? Strong? Does she have hobbies? Is she secretly unhappy? Once we have a strong sense of who that character really is, not just what they want to project, finding their voice is pretty organic.

Writing dialogue is a different story and unique to the project. Amy writes novels and tends to use dialogue sparsely, often mostly internally. When writing a screenplay, I’ve always drawn from watching actors. There’s a rhythm to dialogue. When it’s written properly, it feels almost like dance. Written badly, people’s toes get stepped on.

Scott: How would you define theme? How important is it? Do you start with themes or do they arise in the context of developing and writing the story?

Paige: Theme is extremely important for us, and I would imagine for most writers. When we write, we hope to say something important. That message has to be a result of the theme, or that theme has to be built around that message. Either way, there is a direct correlation between theme and content.

Scott: What do you think about when writing a scene? What are your goals?

Paige: The goal in writing a scene is always to further the storyline. I think about what needs to be achieved. What do we need to know? We work hard to leave gratuitousness out of scenes and dialogue. The goal is to be sparse, flourishes can always be added later.

Scott: What do you love most about writing?

Paige: I love words first and foremost. I love the way they look, I love stringing them together. The inside of my head looks like one of those word magnet sets that you put on your refrigerator. When I string words together in a way that I like, it inspires me to write. I also like staying in my pajamas all day.

Scott: Finally what advice can you offer to aspiring writers about the learning the craft and breaking into the business?

Paige: When I was a teenager I had a life changing conversation with a  wise but very cynical old writer. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him that I too wanted to be a writer. He said that would never happen, that writing requires too much discipline and I would never have what it takes. He urged me to let go of that dream and figure something else out. I was so angry and heartbroken at his skepticism and lack of confidence in me. I think part of my pursuit of writing was a direct reaction to his words. When I got a little older I realized that he told me those things for a reason. I needed to look at his advice beyond face value. He warned me of the intense discipline it takes to be writer, he tried to weed me out of the profession, and he rejected me. If you can’t handle those three things, constantly, you shouldn’t be a writer.

Here is a clip from the movie I Smile Back, screenplay by Amy Koppelman & Paige Dylan, starring Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles, directed by Adam Salky:

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

The I Smile Back website is here.

An excellent thought-piece in Elle on the movie.

Amy and Paige are repped by the Arlook Group.

Amy's third novel "Hesitation Wounds" debuts November 3rd and you may learn more about that here.

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