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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.