By 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.
Your 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 mamÃ¡ tambiÃ©n” 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?
We 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.
I’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.