Chris Smith, The Pool
Chris Smith is an interesting conundrum, a filmmaker who brings a narrative verve and energy to his documentaries and approaches fiction films with the delicate restraint and remove of a documentarian. A graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s film program, Smith first appeared on the scene in 1996 with American Job, a low-key narrative feature loosely based on the work experiences of the film’s star and co-writer, Randy Russell. During the editing of that film, he met Mark Borchardt, an oddball wannabe horror filmmaker who became the subject of Smith’s next film, American Movie (1999), a crowd pleaser which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, became a major critical success and gained immediate cult status. Smith’s follow-up, Home Movie (2001), focused on a series of peculiar domiciles, and in his subsequent documentary feature, The Yes Men, co-directed with Sarah Price and Dan Ollman, he followed a pair of political pranksters pretending to be members of the World Trade Organization.
After 12 years away from fiction filmmaking, Smith returns with The Pool, co-written with his American Job collaborator Randy Russell, whose Iowa-set short story provided the film’s inspiration. The action, however, is set in Goa, India, where a young hotel worker, Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), becomes obsessed with swimming in a backyard pool owned by a stern stranger (Nana Patekar). He ingratiates himself with the man by doing yard work for him and, along with his 11-year-old friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah), befriending the man’s estranged daughter (Ayesha Mohan), however he finds himself becoming much more involved in their lives than he had expected. A highly involving and rewarding film, The Pool draws its power from the simplicity of its approach to the story. Smith, who also acted as cinematographer, elicits great naturalistic performances from his actors and distinguishes himself by focusing on the inherent, understated drama of the film’s set-up without ever feeling the need to authorially or stylistically intrude into the proceedings.
Filmmaker spoke to Smith about the challenges of shooting in India, directing actors whose language you don’t speak, and his love of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Filmmaker: When did you first read Randy Russell’s short story? And when did you decide you want to transpose it to Goa?
Smith: I’m always looking for something that looks interesting and engaging. For me, it was one of those stories that I read and then came back to. It just sort of stuck with me; it was so simple and some of the themes seemed so universal. I thought back to the experience I had when I was in India about four or five years ago helping some friends shoot a movie, where we were living at that hotel and interacting with the roomboys and getting a sense of their lives. The idea of putting those two worlds together seemed really interesting to me, and I thought the two could be combined in a way that could provide a lot of rich material to work from.
Filmmaker: How much did you have to change of the fundamentals in order to move the action from Iowa to India?
Smith: It’s a seven-page short story and it really was about taking the central theme, and from there it was completely rewritten. It was really just the idea that there’s this main character who’s obsessed with this swimming pool and decides to meet the people who own the pool in an attempt to swim in it. That’s really the only part that we took from the story. To me, the theme of the short story was that you think you want something and then when you set about trying to get there, things change along the way. In the case of the short story, it was that the relationships became more important than the desire to swim in the pool. That sort of was the leaping off point for the film.
Filmmaker: Did you have a lot of prep time for The Pool to compensate for the cultural unfamiliarity of the situation?
Smith: No [laughs]. I had been to that city before and knew that I wanted to shoot there and at that hotel. Going into the project, I wanted to believe that we were going to make something very quick and easy but, of course, I got involved in it and it started to grow and change and become something that I was passionate about. At that point, I couldn’t turn back and we ended up being in India for five months and shot for 65 days. Originally we were going over for six weeks. Kate [Noble], the producer, was pretty good about saying that at the end of six weeks, she just hoped to know if we were going to give up or plan to stay longer. We went over there and gave ourselves three weeks of prep. It was kind of an insane thing to try to do because you couldn’t prep a film in that amount of time, but if we hadn’t started shooting we couldn’t have sustained the energy to stay the [course] for something that was so unknown. There were so many variables, we could have prepped for a year.
Filmmaker: A lot of it feels improvised, but how tightly scripted was it?
Smith: It was a lot more scripted than you would think. The kids didn’t know how to read so for me it was more important to get a good performance than to get word-for-word. Generally the scenes would be written out. I was interested in going over there with a script but being completely open to experiences we had, observations we made and, most importantly, aspects from the actors’ lives and trying to integrate those into the story. So once we found the actors, we did extensive interviews with them and then took a lot of that material and worked it into the script. Venkatesh, the main character, has a number of stories he tells the father throughout the movie and those generally weren’t scripted out word-for-word, but there are a lot of other scenes that were very carefully constructed and needed to be done in a certain way otherwise the story wouldn’t make sense. Because we were shooting out of order and it was a bit chaotic sometimes, the kids had a problem understanding the entire scope of the film, so for them it was important to be clear what the scenes and dialogue were, but if it was from real life I was always open to people trying to word things their own way.
Filmmaker: How did you approach the casting?
Smith: We had a contact in Bombay who put us in touch with a production manager in Bombay who then had his team fly with us to Goa, so we had a small production unit. For the most part they sat in a dark room, smoking cigarettes and watching cricket, and after a week we realized that that wasn’t going to give us much. The only thing they showed us were photos of models from Bombay, people doing poses in studios, so Kate, myself and [creative consultant] Xav Leplae all took to different approaches. We did a lot of street casting and so after a couple of weeks we ended finding the four main characters. [Apart from the lead], the three other main characters all dropped out four days before shooting and we started with just one main character. Shortly thereafter we were at this bar and Kate saw Jhangir, the little kid, working and said, “I think this kid could be really good.”
Filmmaker: I believe you had a lot of trouble casting the role of the father.
Smith: We couldn’t find [someone to play] the father character so we actually started the film with our production manager as the father. We shot with him a little bit but we had become so excited about the material that we had shot so far that we weren’t 100% sure that this was the best that we could do. One day, this newspaper came under the door at this hotel where we were staying and Kate saw a photograph of Nana, this actor who ended up playing the father. There was this article where they asked him why he’d taken a year off from films, and he said there wasn’t anything that he found interesting and that he was only going to work when he found interesting projects. Kate was immediately keyed into that and said, “We’re an interesting project!” so she became obsessed with getting to him. [Eventually] we managed to get a meeting with him and went to his house. The first thing he said was “I’m not going to do your film but I’m interested in why you think I should.” We talked to him for about an hour about what we were trying to do with the film and he watched [footage from] the film. After watching it, he said very quietly, “I will turn myself over to you and do the movie.”
Filmmaker: How did you approach the challenge of directing actors who were delivering dialogue in a language you didn’t understand?
Smith: To be honest, the scripted scenes weren’t that hard because you could sort of understand in parts what they were saying and ultimately you’re just listening for a good performance. That’s all you can look for when you’re rolling film, and then once you’ve got a take that feels right on an intuitive level you have to get it translated and make sure that the content is what it was supposed to be. That part was challenging because you couldn’t adapt and improvise as much as you would be able to in your own language, but the hardest part was when you were improvising scenes. You wouldn’t know when to cut because you wouldn’t know exactly where you where or if things; they could be quiet but it could be this incredible dramatic pause. That was the hardest part, to try and feel the dramatic energy of when a scene was actually over. I was the shooting the film myself, so I had my eye to the camera; it was really just about trying to feel when that moment was.
Filmmaker: You haven’t made a fiction film since American Job in 1996. What made you return to narrative?
Smith: I always intended only to make narrative films. I didn’t have any hard and fast rule, I just never saw myself making feature length documentaries. I was interested in narrative, I was interested in American Job when we made it, and immediately went on to write a script with Randy that was the follow-up to that film. When I was writing, I was also getting nervous that it would be years before I would have a camera again and be shooting. I sort of ran into this guy Mark Borchardt [the subject of American Movie]. I was thinking it would be useful to continue shooting and being productive while I was writing because otherwise it felt like you could get to a point where years would go by and you would have this apprehension of actually picking up a camera again and filming something. I don’t know why, but there was something in me that just felt like if you don’t stay active in filmmaking you could easily never make a film again.
Filmmaker: Was there anything that you learned from documentaries that you brought to this film?
Smith: The thing that I learned most over the years from making documentaries that impacted the making of this film was just my ability to interview people and get stories and experiences out of them. [Also], in documentary you’re forced to react very quickly to things as they’re happening, and the way this film was made there were a lot of things that were changing on a minute-by-minute basis. Having the ability to roll with things as they happened is something I learned from documentary because you don’t have the control that you would have in a narrative film. For instance, we went to shoot at a laundry but the guy went out for lunch, had a siesta, got drunk, passed out and never came back. I was sitting there with the crew and that was the second half of the day’s shoot [ruined], but as we were driving back to the hotel, I drove by this alley and there was this beautiful light coming down. We stopped, and I had this idea for a scene between the two kids. It’s one of the best scenes in the film but it purely came about because this other scene had fallen through, and it was looking at what we had available to us at the time.
Filmmaker: What was the film first you ever saw?
Smith: The first film I remember seeing the marquee for was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I always just remember as a kid trying to figure out what that film could be about from the title, and I remember finally seeing that film when I was in high school. That was one of the films that had an incredible influence on films that I felt that I felt I was interested in making.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?
Smith: I have a very low tolerance for bad movies. I try to protect myself by not even watching them, so most of the time on planes I won’t watch anything rather than watch something bad. The best film experience I had on a plane was when I saw that film Pirates of the Caribbean – I remember watching it and thinking it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It was so well done, so entertaining and such a great movie experience. I remember just thinking I didn’t want it to be over.
Filmmaker: What was your cinematic epiphany?
Smith: I remember seeing Roger and Me when I was 18 in a mall theater in Michigan, where I grew up, and thinking how incredible it was that this guy who was 45 minutes away from me had made this film on 16mm and that it was playing at a multiplex. It empowered me to the point where I thought, “I can grab a 16mm camera and as long as the 90 minutes that I put in front of that camera is interesting, it can play anywhere that a giant Hollywood film can play.” My earlier inspiration was just starting to make films in high school, working with friends: we would go shoot these projects and then have a party and get everyone we knew in the neighborhood to come by and we’d project them on the side of the building. That, to me, was the most addictive experience. The feeling of getting the film ready and then showing it and having an audience come and enjoy it definitely motivated me to know that this was something I wanted to do.