I Smile Back is making headlines as comedian Sarah Silverman's first leading dramatic role. The film, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is gearing up for its October release, and critics and fans alike are eagerly awaiting their chance to see Silverman ditch the jokes and embrace a darker narrative. In I Smile Back, Silverman stars as Laney Brooks, a married mother of two who struggles with mental illness and addiction. Needless to say, it's a far cry from the stand-up comedy that made Silverman famous. If you're a fan of the star already, you're probably wondering what if I Smile Backis a true story, perhaps a big-screen version of an actual person's life. The answer is just as fascinating as you might expect.
I Smile Back is actually based on the novel of the same name by author Amy Koppelman, originally published in 2008. It wasn't until a few years later that Silverman came across the book. Koppelman was in her car, listening to the comedian's interview with Howard Stern about her memoir The Bedwetter , and was struck by Silverman opening up about her own experience with depression. On a lark, Koppelman sent her novel to the comedian. "I just thought her heart would understand my heart and so I just wanted to get the book to her," Koppelman told the Los Angeles Daily News.
After reading the book, Silverman was hooked and contacted Koppelman directly. "She got the book to me and I read it and liked it. I was surprised. I'm always surprised if someone can imagine me in a way that I have not already been seen," the star told Deadline. "There's not many people who can imagine you outside of what they've already seen you do."
The moment Silverman expressed interest in the project, Koppelman and her writing partner, Paige Dylan, began working on adapting I Smile Back for the big screen. "I didn't decide to adapt the novel into a screenplay until Sarah read the book and agreed to be in the film. Paige and I wrote the screenplay specifically with her in mind," Koppelman said in an interview with No Film School.
They slowly got funding for the film and two years later finally got the green light. Director Adam Salky was brought on to the project, and worked closely with Koppelman and Dylan in its making. During filming, Koppelman and Dylan were both presences on set — a rarity for writers in Hollywood. (Granted, the rules are a bit different for authors having their work adapted.)
I Smile Back may not be based on a true story, but the filmmakers certainly wanted to be faithful to the source material as if it were. Salky praised the writers for their work and noted their importance on set in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, saying,
"Amy has a deep insight into the human condition. She knew this character so well and takes her through the novel and the screenplay to some wonderfully complicated places. Paige has a very contemporary, cool sensibility and a real fluency with dialogue.... They are a fun pair. Together they wrote a very modern portrait of a tormented, psychologically complex woman that really leapt off of the page for me."
I Smile Back has received mixed reviews — it has an even 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — but the response to Silverman's performance has been mostly positive. "There's no questioning Silverman's commitment to this harrowing role, but there are also too few reasons to invest emotionally in her character," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney. Silverman fans will get the chance to make up their own minds when I Smile Back hits theaters on Oct. 23.
Images: Broad Green Pictures