Writing Smasharoo by James Howard

I found 50 Kisses via Twitter, where I usually just read and write jokes. (I once tried to write a comedy with another Twitter humorist, but didn’t get past page 30. Maybe two-pagers are more in line with the short attention span of social media mavens.)

The concept of the contest intrigued me. I knew instantly what I wanted to write about.

We’d been married three years when my wife had a car accident that sent her through the windshield, into the I.C.U. for five days, and ultimately to rehabilitation for brain trauma. Between hospital and rehab, she had no short-term memory, counted obsessively, confused words and ideas, and couldn’t keep her balance. I had to walk her around the house and keep a constant eye on her to make sure she didn’t fall. It took all the patience I had. I’m a lousy caregiver.

The most fascinating aspect of my wife’s injury was aphasia. Seeing her sense of language blown apart was scary, but weirdly funny, too. She called me by our cat’s name; she referred to objects by the names of other objects; she once greeted her brother with a cheery, “Hello, grape juice.” We had a lot of strange conversations. I based my script on one in which she asked, “Is there a bathroom in this bathroom?”—and another when she suddenly understood that she’d had a brain injury and made the leap to asking if I still wanted to be married to her. Since she often went from loopy to lucid within the space of 30 seconds, it seems legitimate to combine these moments.

When directors selected “Smasheroo,” I sent emails offering to consult and do revisions. Evan Marlowe and I went back and forth a bit, making minor changes, and he got excited about my suggestion to include flashbacks. It was his idea to shoot them in super-8, which adds a lot to the finished film. I also like the slow-mo flying glass that never resolves or tells the whole tale of the accident. All the close-ups create an intimate feel, and the lighting and music enhance that. There’s anxiety and impatience in the portrayal of the husband, as Evan and I discussed, but the “And you’re getting better every day” line gets cut, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Without it, the “For better or for worse” answer to the wife’s question may suggest a sense of being trapped rather than of active commitment. Another way to look at it is, it’s less sentimental, though the final line about the dog pretty much immunizes the scene from sentimentality. I like that Evan doesn’t try to explain everything, letting the images, actors, production design, music, editing—and finally, the viewer—do the work. He puts us inside the scene.

The other version that’s been posted, by Anne Misselbrook, hews to my original script, shot by shot, line by line. Her actors play the scene more lightly, with the wife smiling as vacantly as my own wife did as she recovered. The husband seems not so much troubled by the situation as simply attentive and even slightly amused by his wife’s behavior. Anne’s choice to have him speak directly to the camera shifts from an omniscient POV to that of the injured wife a couple of times. I’m not sure it works, but it was an interesting risk. It’s a delight to hear the dialogue in British accents. There’s a sweetness in Anne’s version, but also a kind of remove. We’re mostly looking from the outside.

It’s always strange to see how differently others reimagine things that I’ve imagined in great detail while writing them. The first film I ever had produced was a revelation when I saw it for the first time at a film festival. I’d seen dailies, so I knew every shot, but it’s really not until you see the film put together that you realize: you’ve created a world that exists only because others took your words and turned them into their own version of a story that no longer belongs to you.

There’s nothing quite like it—and nothing quite like this contest. As doubtful as I am about a coherent film arising from 50 disparate writers, stories, and directors’ visions, I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

James Howard

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