"It was just one of those weird things that happen maybe once or twice in your lifetime — kind of like when you fall in love," the author Amy Koppelman tells Bustle. She's referring to the circumstances by which Sarah Silverman came to star in I Smile Back, a new film based on Koppelman's novel of the same name. Silverman's dramatic performance in the movie has been making headlines for being a major departure from the star's previous work; until now, her name has always been associated with comedy, including both her stand-up routines and on-camera roles. But in I Smile Back , her character Laney is anything but funny; in fact, the darkness and depression that surround her are practically palpable. But Koppelman, who co-wrote the movie's script, never had any doubt that Silverman was the best person to play Laney.
"I was driving up the West Side Highway and I heard [Sarah] on the Howard Stern Show talking about her memoir," says Koppelman. "The book [I Smile Back] had come out maybe a year before that, and I remember thinking, 'Oh, she’s gonna understand the Laney character.'"
Silverman's memoir, a 2010 bestseller called The Bedwetter, discussed, among other topics, the performer's struggle with clinical depression, a topic prevalent in Koppelman's work about an upper-middle class woman hiding a secret struggle with mental illness. So after listening to the comedian's talk, the author followed her instinct and sent Silverman a copy of the novel.
To Koppelman's delight, Silverman read the book and did, in fact, relate to Laney. Not long after, the two women met over coffee to casually talk through the work. At this meeting, Koppelman had another instinct— and acted on it. "I was looking at [Sarah], and I just though 'Oh!'," she recalls. "And I said, 'If we wrote the screenplay, would you ever think about doing something like this?'" Silverman agreed, but at the time, she says, Koppelman thought the actress was just humoring her. Yet she nonetheless adapted the book into a script with Silverman specifically in mind, and a few years later, financing for the film came through. Upon finding out that the movie was actually going to be made, Koppelman says Silverman collapsed to the floor, overwhelmed by equal parts excitement and disbelief.
And while Koppelman, too, was thrilled to have the film funded, she knew that the hard work had just begun— especially for her star. The already-challenging role of Laney was made even more so by the fact that the movie's small budget translated to a grueling shooting schedule on a small set. Yet perhaps the difficulty actually helped; Koppelman says that Silverman's performance was heightened by the fact that she had no place to decompress.
"There was no trailer for [Sarah] to go to— there wasn't even in most locations her own private room to go to— so she was constantly surrounded by people," the writer says. "And it was hard; she had to get all of that done in 20 days... I can’t imagine that going home at night was great fun, you know?"
But the hard work paid off; I Smile Back hit theaters on Oct. 23, and Silverman has received huge praise for her work as Laney. Koppelman, though, has had little time to celebrate; she's busy preparing for the release of her second novel, Hesitation Wounds , out on Nov. 3. Like I Smile Back, this book also deals with the darkness of mental illness, and it features a similarly complex female protagonist, this one being a psychiatrist specializing in depression. Koppelman says that she has already adapted Hesitation Wounds into a screenplay — but unlike with her first work, she has no one yet in mind to star in the potential movie.
"I'm waiting to get that [feeling], but that might not happen again," she says. The situation with Silverman and I Smile Back was unanticipated, she says, and undoubtedly special. "That might’ve just been one of those magic moments that you can count on your hand that you’re like, that happened?”
Koppelman reflects that it all started with her efforts to just get the book in Silverman's hands. "The miracle," the author says, "was that she actually opened it and read it."
Image: Broad Green Pictures