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Interview: Joyce Chopra on Creating a Believable Teen Movie with Smooth Talk

Chopra discusses the joys of reappraisal, and why she doubts John Hughes could believe in the universes he created on screen.

Marshall Shaffer

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Interview: Joyce Chopra on Creating a Believable Teen Movie with Smooth Talk
Photo: Janus Films

“The teenagers in Smooth Talk would love the romantic notions of Pretty in Pink, but would die before admitting it,” wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby in 1986. His piece bridged the gap between two teen films that opened in theaters within close proximity but otherwise shared little else. Smooth Talk director Joyce Chopra cites the review as a favorite interpretation of her work, namely for the way that Canby properly contextualizes the measured realism of the film as swimming upstream against the sugary pop fantasies of so much Reagan-era youth cinema.

Though Smooth Talk debuted to favorable reviews and won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 1986, the film has fallen off the radar somewhat in recent years. An academic textbook that’s among the most authoritative compendiums of the American youth cinema after 1980 made but one passing mention of Smooth Talk—a fact that Chopra found amusing when I informed her of my own unfamiliarity with her debut narrative feature. Thanks to Janus Films, however, Chopra’s voice will be a much more prominent part of any future conversations about the decade in youth film. A new restoration of Smooth Talk debuted at this year’s New York Film Festival on its way to virtual cinema engagements and, presumptively, a Criterion Collection physical release.

The film represents a welcome expansion to the genre’s then-overwhelmingly male gaze as it explores the experience of young Connie (Laura Dern in a breakout performance) as she tentatively probes the limits of her nascently blooming sexuality. Smooth Talk depicts the joys of self-discovery, sure, but it’s also uncommonly attuned to the accompanying pains and dangers. By expanding Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole grant refreshing dimensionality to Connie’s antagonists—both her conservative mother, Katherine (Mary Kay Place), and an alluring but menacing suitor, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). It’s jarring to see a film from the ‘80s that adequately recognizes the thin line between male seduction and coercion.

I caught up with Chopra shortly before Smooth Talk began its exclusive virtual engagement at Film at Lincoln Center. Our discussion covered how she and Cole built upon Oates’ slender source text, the joys of rediscovery and reappraisal, and why she doubts John Hughes could believe in the universes he created on screen.

How does a film like Smooth Talk fall off the radar, and how did Janus Films and the Criterion Collection get involved with resurrecting it?

Criterion got involved at first through our producer [Martin Rosen]. He produced a film called Watership Down, an animated film. I think almost two years ago, he told me that Criterion was going to be restoring Smooth Talk. For the longest time, I didn’t hear anything, and then suddenly this year they got very active. I can’t honestly tell you more than that about it.

Why did it fall off the radar is a good question. Well, first of all, it [came out] 35 years ago. It went through different distributors. For streaming, it was on Netflix for a long time. Somehow, even that stopped, and I don’t know why some people couldn’t find it except by buying a DVD. I think what’s happened is just tremendous interest in Laura Dern.

Well, you’ve also gone through some reappreciation of your own with your documentary short Joyce at 34 getting revived at the Metrograph last year and now playing on the Criterion Channel.

A few weeks ago, a friend texted me to say go to the New Yorker website. Richard Brody had an article on 62 films that shaped documentaries, something like that. In the introduction, he listed Joyce at 34, which he’s included in that list. So, suddenly, I’m being revived!

What does that kind of reappraisal or rediscovery feel like?

It’s very pleasant. [laughs] I’ll tell you, the thing that I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of all, actually, was the New York Film Festival had us in their Revivals section. They showed it at a virtual festival where you could rent it, but they also showed it at a drive-in cinema in Brooklyn. I never in a million years imagined Smooth Talk playing at a drive-in movie theater.

The New York Film Festival is how I first encountered the film, which I found surprising because I’d just done a lot of research on the teen genre in the ‘80s this summer and Smooth Talk barely came up in my reading.

You’re kidding me! Let me ask you this, how old are you?

I’m 28.

Well, that would explain a lot. No, seriously. It had tremendous attention, it got great reviews. I think people who are probably 20 years older than you—anybody starting in their mid-50s—would know the film if they were aware of films. Do you know Vincent Canby, then the critic for The New York Times? He loved the film. But then, a week later, he did an articled—Pretty in Pink had just come out. And he did an essay comparing the two films and why Pretty in Pink fit the fantasies of young girls. Smooth Talk would never do that! Teens didn’t want to go see the movie. They’d probably never even heard of it.

Funny enough, I watched Smooth Talk after I’d done a big rewatch of a lot of the John Hughes films and others from the era. Smooth Talk stands as such a contrast to that era where you’d see predatory male behavior either excused or sometimes even glorified. Were you at all conscious when making the film about how it was going to be in conversation with other films that portrayed adolescent sexuality that played into rape culture with their aggressive male characters?

I don’t think I was thinking about that. I wanted to make a movie, and my focus was entirely on how to do this, how to raise the money. I didn’t even think about what would happen after I made it. It was just a dream to do that. It’s so different from those films, my god. I got to work with Molly Ringwald after, years later in a film for television. It felt very strange to me because she lived in my mind as [those characters].

Looking back now, do you see the contrasts? Or at the very least, do you appreciate that Smooth Talk represents a perspective that was so rare and underrepresented at the time of its original theatrical release?

The Canby essay clearly represented what I think now, still think. Different universes completely. Tom [Cole], my husband who wrote the script, and I just wanted to create something believable about this girl. I don’t know if you read the short story, but it’s very brief. A large part of it the confrontation with Arnold Friend. We had to create a whole universe for Connie, who’s almost unreal in the story. She’s referred to, she has a name, but the first line is: “She was a familiar figure in the malls.” The story so frightened me when I read it, I read it years before we made it. What kind of world did Connie live in? Who is she? Could we believe that the confrontation with Arnold Friend would take place? And so with that, we just chose little hints in the short story. The father didn’t exist, and there were very undeveloped characters. We created a whole world that we wanted to believe in. I can’t believe that John Hughes believed in the worlds of the films that he made. I mean, that was part of his ambition.

To your last point, in so many ‘80s teen movies, the parents are such stock characters who really exist only to further their children’s journeys or to represent some sort of ideology or authority that they rebel against. Mary Kay Place as Connie’s mom, Katherine, in Smooth Talk, however, has such dimensionality.

I can see looking back on that why that wasn’t very popular. Why is it popular now? People are just much more open to it. I think things have shifted with so much more awareness of what women are going through and what they feel. And that’s a completely different world. There were hardly any women directors making feature films. We were rare creatures, exotic creatures. You’re so young, take my word: It was a very different world. I could see the film, were it released now, sticking more. I’m delighted Criterion is releasing it, it’s great.

Did you see Joyce at 34 ever?

Yes, I just watched it on the Criterion Channel!

That film has always remained…I don’t want to say popular, but it’s been shown in festivals over the years. The subject is still the same: How do you work and be a parent? It’s still out there, and I’m very pleased that Richard Brody posted where I always knew it belonged. I was the first to use documentary techniques to make a film [set during pregnancy] about a person, rather than a big event. That was shocking.

At Smooth Talk’s NYFF Live talk, Laura Dern mentioned that people take different messages out of it. Since ambiguous morals were very uncommon in teen movies at the time, did you ever face pressure to make it more explicit or instructive in either direction? Or was that a benefit of being outside of the larger Hollywood ecosystem?

Exactly. We did it for a program on public television called American Playhouse that lasted all through the ‘90s. They gave chances to first-time film directors, you could have been a writer, an actor, making documentaries. They didn’t interfere at all. It was the only film I’ve ever made where I didn’t have producers nipping at me.

Do you think it’s a success that people can have such polar opposite opinions about it?

Yes. I showed the film to one group, and half thought Connie had a dream about Arnold Friend. They thought the scene wasn’t real. That was the most extreme form of it. I still treasure, in a way, a review in The Village Voice by B. Ruby Rich, who excoriated me for promoting that I was saying, “girls, don’t venture out!” [She thought] I was moralizing, I was a throwback to a dark age. She also reviewed Joyce at 34 and said that I shouldn’t have been allowed to make the film because, clearly, I was able to afford a nice apartment. She’s a very extreme feminist.

Well, another thing that stood out to me is how Smooth Talk walks such a fine line of being timely and timeless. There’s the time capsule element of mall culture that’s very specific to the time that you made it. But the film also has something that transcends time in the borderline allegorical centerpiece confrontation between Arnold and Connie. How did you go about striking that balance and making sure that, when the film shifts, it didn’t feel too jarring?

Yeah, it was a problem, and some people have pointed out that it’s two stories. But I hope most people don’t feel that way. If we’ve done our job right, it shouldn’t leap out at you. We tried to create a situation so that it would be believed that when Connie stayed home alone, this could happen. But also, her flirting or just trying it out, she didn’t really know! Laura expressed it very well in that interview, [that her character] was testing the waters. So, to me, it was believable that this whole scene would take place. And this character, Arnold Friend that Joyce Carol Oates created [sighs]…there are a lot of lunatics around.

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