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I Smile Back Author Essay

The Real Magic of the Movies

Amy Koppelman is the author of the novel I Smile Back, which has been adapted as a movie starring Sarah Silverman and will be in theaters beginning Oct. 23 and on demand Nov. 6. Amy's new book, Hesitation Wounds: A Novel, is available for preorder now and hits shelves on Nov. 3.

In the early spring of 1994, I fell into a major depression. That's a weird way to start this piece, but one of the ways I got better was by going to the movies. I would venture to the big movie theatres, the cineplexes, with my husband. I use the word "venture" because it would take me all day to get ready, and often, by the time we were set to go, I'd be completely overwhelmed by anxiety. When that happened, Brian would push me out the door, then hold my hand as we made our way down the street, one foot in front of the other. Back then, I was spending the majority of my day in bed, so every movie was a triumph.

It was, looking back, a good year for movies. Forrest Gump came out in July. Shawshank the next month. Pulp Fiction brought the year to a close, and tilted the way we watch film on its axis. And I was getting better. Little by little. But little by little counts.

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By the end of the year, I began venturing to the movies alone. I mostly went to The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, a very fine theatre on the Upper West Side of New York City that specializes in independent and foreign film. There used to be a sandwich shop next door. I would buy myself a turkey sandwich and sneak it into the theatre with me. Other times, I would just buy a plastic baggie of these big beer pretzels they used to sell, or a slice of their famous banana bread. I always felt especially safe there. I knew where the pay phones were, the toilets, the exits. Sometimes, the door to the front office was open and I liked that, getting to catch a glimpse of the management.

But in retrospect, I think the main reason I felt safe in that theatre was because I could identify with the characters in the films they programmed. Many of the protagonists were working out the same issues I was working out at the time. I never felt anxious at Lincoln Center Cinemas because I was never actually alone; there was a conversation taking place. Of course, I had no idea that I would ever write a book, adapt it for film, trick Sarah Silverman into starring in it, and then get to make it into an actual movie.

I did begin writing back then, mostly in the forms of faxes. I corresponded regularly with my friend's brother. He was much older than me, the son of Holocaust survivors, damaged. I felt safe writing to him. When I could. On a blue electric typewriter I kept on the kitchen table. Still, for me, there were more important things. Making a pot of coffee was an accomplishment.

Flash Forward. 2010. Married. Two children. Driving.

I'm on the way to pick my son up from middle school, listening to The Howard Stern Show. Sarah Silverman is on promoting her memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee. My second novel, I Smile Back, had come out a year-and-a-half before. The book got mostly good reviews, sold a couple thousand copies, and I was fine with that. I knew and know what I write isn't for everyone. I Smile Back had been rejected by over 80 publishers (not that I was counting), mostly because Laney was "too unsympathetic" and "there isn't redemption," which is another way of saying "we need a happy ending."

I didn't happen to agree with either of those suppositions. The redemption is for the person watching the film, the theatregoer. But that's a whole other 
essay. The point here is, as I was driving up the west side highway that afternoon, I had no intention of turning I Smile Back into a movie. I was just grateful to have Laney's story out there in the world. Until I heard Sarah.

I can't remember her exact words, but I remember the tone of Sarah's 
voice. There was something in the way she talked about sadness that resonated with me. I had never seen Sarah perform stand-up. Had never watched her comedy special or television show. And most importantly I had never even met her. Yes, this was all projection. I didn't care. For some crazy reason I decided Sarah's heart would understand my heart. I had to get the book to her. My manager, Richard Arlook, sent it. But would she read it?

Hotel. SoHo. A library stocked with Taschen books. Sarah.

Me: So I know this is going to sound crazy, but, like, if I adapt this book for film, would you, like, star in it?

Her: Sure. As long as it doesn't suck.

I called my screenwriting partner Paige Dylan and together we adapted I Smile Back for film. Sarah gave us great notes throughout the process (helping to ensure it didn't suck). In fact, she asked us to add a scene where Laney does something nice for her kids toward the end of the film and I think that scene is vital to understanding Laney's motivations. As soon as Paige and I finished writing it I thought damn, I wish I could add this scene to the novel. But a couple weeks ago, sitting in a dark movie theatre, watching the film with an audience, I realized it's not the action — it's not the specific scene Paige and I wrote — it's the look in Laney's eyes. The love she has for her children. The blistering sense of defeat. I thought Sarah's heart would understand my heart. And it did.

Flash Forward. Today.


Somewhere out there is a girl like me, the girl I was, the woman I am now, taking the escalator down into Lincoln Plaza Cinemas to see a movie. Unaware that what she's really doing is looking for answers. Maybe she's like Laney and wants to know why her mom or dad left her as a child. Maybe she's trying to figure out why she's doing lines of coke again. Maybe she can't identify the source of her pain. My hope is that Laney's journey will compel this girl to get the help she needs. That she'll leave that theatre (or who knows — maybe she's watching it on her laptop?), knowing that she is not alone. She will be, like I was, part of a conversation. A conversation that has little, if anything, to do with dialogue.

Oh — one last thing about depression. It's been 21 years now and I've been mostly good. I've had a couple little blips, times when I've needed my medication adjusted. Even fairly recently. Although for the most part, I've been holding steady. This doesn't mean that I'm not scared that it will come back. The crippling sadness will return. It's physiological. But what I know now, that I didn't know 21 years ago, is that with the love of my little family and proper medical care, I'll get through it. As Sarah did. As most of us do. Movies, books, art, and time heal. If you hold on long enough.

Image Source: Broad Green Pictures
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