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Interview: Chris Smith on “The Pool”

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09022008_thepool1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Wisconsin-born filmmaker Chris Smith’s 1996 debut feature, “American Job,” got his foot in the door at Sundance, but it was 1999’s “American Movie,” about a luckless amateur filmmaker in production on a low-budget horror flick, that earned him the Grand Jury Prize in Park City, putting his star on the indie-film map. Two more funny and moving docs, “Home Movie” and “The Yes Men,” followed, and then Smith threw a game-changer into his oeuvre: a a Hindi-language narrative. Nominated for a Spirit Award and winner of yet another Sundance trophy (the Special Jury Prize this time around), “The Pool” is a neo-realist chronicle of entrepreneurial young Venkatesh (non-pro Venkatesh Chavan), a hotel “room boy” in Panjim, Goa who ingratiates himself to a wealthy family in hopes of swimming in their luxurious pool. Adapted from a short story by his long-time collaborator Randy Russell and exquisitely shot by Smith himself, this deeply humane and moving story couldn’t be more deceptively simple. Just before NYC’s Museum of Modern Art held a career retrospective for Smith as a run-up to the theatrical release of “The Pool,” I chatted with Smith about India, being classified as a documentarian, and what he thinks about Todd Solondz’s on-screen condemnation of his best-known film.

The original short story took place in Iowa. Why did it make more sense to relocate it to India?

I don’t know if it made more sense. It made more sense to me, which I guess is why anyone makes films; you have your take on a project and what works in your head. I went to India four or five years ago and spent a little time in the city that we ended up filming in. We were staying in the hotel where we ended up shooting “The Pool.” I was struck by a room boy there that we ended up basing the main character on, and we spent a lot of time with him, [researching] the dynamics and relationships of the room boys who worked at that hotel, and the way the city was laid out. It wasn’t until I read the short story that it seemed like these things could be combined to create something bigger than both of them on their own.

You continually tweaked your script as you were filming, and also edited on the fly. What kinds of moments or scenes were you looking for?

I didn’t want the film to be the reality that an outsider had of this world. I didn’t want to impose my views of what I thought India was like. I wanted to be as authentic and true to the place as possible, and that was going to come from being there, rather than being in Wisconsin, trying to imagine these scenes. I worked on the general story structure here, but left a lot of the character development and situations to evolve while we were there. The [most important] factor was trying to find the actors or non-actors who played the main characters, and collaborating with them to bring some of the elements of their lives into the film.

09022008_thepool2.jpgYour cinematography is really striking, and I love how you present a dense amount of visual information in a seemingly unfussy way. How did you approach the film’s look?

One of the challenges, but one of the most rewarding things, was figuring out how the blocking and choreography could work to pull that off, and [still] retain all the story and emotional elements that we would want from a scene. We used camera lens that were around in the ’70s, just because I was looking for something from that ’70s art-film world. I’d seen “The Passenger” shortly before we left, and liked the tone and feel. Also, the way they shot “Y tu mamá también” was really interesting, and I thought it was incredibly successful in terms of the way they were able to capture a lot in long takes.

Do you agree that documentarians don’t care enough about their cinematography?

Coming from a background of doing documentaries when they were still shot on film, it forces you to have a perspective where you have to take the cinematography seriously. I think it’s different today, where kids are given a TV camera, and they just go out and film something. Back then, you had to be conscious of light, exposure and composition in a way that isn’t as crucial today because of the technology. I find cinematography as interesting as directing, so it was such a dream to be able to work on 35mm and have that flexibility and freedom. I was trying to take the look and feel of the film further than I would’ve been able to if it was a documentary.

It almost seems easy to shoot in locale that’s so point-and-shoot beautiful.

Yeah, the country has such an organic quality. Here, it seems like people try to remove any sign of weather or age. There, with the monsoon coming every year, there’s a sense that people just leave things and let nature be a part of the environment, even in the city. It adds such a visual beauty to everything. You’re starting off in a place that’s already so cinematic, and from there, it was just figuring out how to best capture the story in a natural way that complimented what we were trying to achieve. For me, it was trying to make things beautiful but not feeling self-conscious or drawing attention to itself.

What qualities were you looking for in that pool? Was there a casting process?

09022008_thepool3.jpgWe were literally a day away from giving up on the film because we didn’t think the location existed in Goa. We spent two or three weeks scouting, and we couldn’t find anything remotely similar to what we had hoped for. We were a day away from leaving, and a friend of ours from Bombay said we should try this guy, this “fixer,” basically, you call him when you’re at the end of your options. We sat down with him, explained what we were looking for, and immediately he was like, “I know three places, but two of them you won’t like, and one of them is the spot.” We had already been told [that] about a hundred locations. We’d show up in the back of an apartment building that was all cement with an empty pool. But this guy was so confident; he said it was about an hour away from where we were shooting. We almost couldn’t bear the idea of going to another place: “Okay, this will be the last thing we try.” So we drove an hour south, pulled up to the place, walked around the back, and we immediately knew it was the spot.

As someone who as directed docs, narratives, docs about narratives and, in the case of “American Job,” a narrative that looks like a doc, how do you feel about the growing trend of scripted films that try to pass themselves off as documentary truth?

I’m not a big fan. I’m traditional in the things that appeal to me in a film. I’ve always liked documentaries because I can invest myself in people that are real. I’ve always liked narrative filmmaking because I can invest myself in characters, their lives and situations; it’s a construct I can give myself over to. This mockumentary world, I’ve actually never understood, because it feels like actors self-consciously playing real people, and there doesn’t seem [to be] a way to invest myself emotionally in these people. You could say that my films have functioned as hybrids. I’ve never looked at them that way, and I hope that other people don’t, but that’s not something you can control.

Will “American Job” ever see a DVD release?

It will. We’re working with Cinetic. We had a deal to do a DVD in 2000, and we went back to the negative to make a final transfer. The negative was in a vault, and a water pipe burst. The negative got wet, and I never made a copy of the film. Basically, we’ve spent the last seven years slowly, painstakingly restoring the film. The new HD master literally got done yesterday, so the first screening will be at MoMA, and then from there, we’ll go back to all the people who wanted to release it on DVD, and hopefully it’ll be out soon.

09022008_thepool4.jpgI’m not sure if you’ve ever gone on record about Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling,” which could be partly interpreted as a pointed critique of “American Movie,” right down to its Mike Schank cameo.

You’re right, I’ve never actually been asked that. I didn’t have a big opinion on it, to be honest. If that’s something he wanted to spend his time on, that seems fine. I wasn’t sure what exactly the point of the film was in regards to “American Movie,” but you could make assumptions. [Solondz] had written me a letter after “Storytelling” came out and said that he was frustrated with the reaction the audiences had towards [my] film. He felt that they misunderstood it, and I thought that was valid. I barely even remember “Storytelling,” but it wasn’t anything I spent a lot of time thinking about.

[Photos: “The Pool,” Vitagraph Films, 2008; director Chris Smith]

“The Pool” opens in New York today.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.