INTERVIEW: Won't You Be My Neighbor?; Chris Smith Returns with Another Honest Doc
by Jacque Lynn Schiller
(indieWIRE/ 02.26.02) — So much for pre-fab houses and manicured blocks of “Truman Show” conformity. Chris Smith, director of “American Movie” (the doc everyone wishes they had shot), has now turned his lens to five unparalleled homes and their equally original inhabitants. In “Home Movie,” Smith reverently introduces us to Ben Skora, who has turned his house into a suburban hybrid of James Bond inventiveness and Ma and Pa Kettle’s house of the future. Then we meet alligator farmer Bill, living in a one-room floating houseboat reminiscing about his numerous freak accidents. Although the film only runs an hour, by the end you feel like the cat-crazed Walker couple, the Peden family snug in an abandoned missile silo, and Japanese cult actress Linda Beech living high in the trees of a remote Hawaiian rain forest, have laid out the welcome mat for years. Cowboy Pictures will release “Home Movie” on May 3 in New York, expanding to L.A. on May 24. And in a most appropriate pairing, the underground classic short “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (Jeff Krulik, John Heyn) will open all screenings.
indieWIRE: Where the hell do you find these people?
Chris Smith: It’s people that I come across in my daily life that I just find really interesting. Whether it’s at the grocery store or walking down the street, they seem intriguing and I just want to know more about those people. I think the people in the films I work on have those same qualities. The first narrative film I did was called “American Job” and was [about] all people from my daily life that I worked with or I just saw and got their phone number and asked if they wanted to maybe be in a film.
iW: Has that ever creeped anyone out? Like they thought you were a stalker or something?
Smith: You know a lot of people are pretty open to it. I just reassure them it’s a really low-key, low-stress environment and that basically they’ve just got to be themselves. For “American Movie.” I just ran into Mark [Borchardt] and starting filming him going to Toronto, with no idea where it would go. I don’t believe anyone or I could have foreseen the two years we spent with him. I didn’t know his family. I didn’t know his friend Mike [Schank]. I didn’t know all these people who really ended up making the film what is was. The important thing was to recognize that these people were great in their own way and appreciate that and try to integrate yourself into their world. In a lot of ways I felt lucky to come into that world.
iW: Where Mike and Mark could have come off as just ridiculous, they actually seem like funny guys anyone could relate to and even share a beer with.
Smith: We showed them the film and they laughed and enjoyed it. That was the audience we cared about most. Some people get it and some people won’t — but they were comfortable.
iW: The production of “Home Movie” must have been quite different.
Smith: It was really a much more researched project with more people involved. The other two were very small, minimal productions. This was the opposite end of the spectrum — we had a budget, a full crew, and we traveled around the country and looked at like a thousand homes. We found leads on the Internet or just from people we knew and then we had someone in those cities go out and videotape. I had a list of questions to ask the owners and got a quick tour of the house. From there we narrowed it to 100 then down to the five we used.
iW: And the people are just as interesting as the homes.
Smith: To me, that was the most important element. It was not just making a movie: you are showing a home. There may have been houses that were more interesting, but the people were perhaps deathly boring or in a lot of cases the home was great but the original owners had died or moved on. I wanted people whose home and lives had become so inseparable.
iW: Some of the storylines really went off on a tangent. Like the guy with the all-electric home and the sudden appearance of his “assistant.” Did you know about his, um, psychic leanings?
Smith: No. The questions that I had initially were basically general questions of who these people were. But at the same time, I didn’t want to go too deep so I could discover that fresh while we were filming. You don’t want to go so far so that you’ve already started the documentary.
iW: How long did you spend with each person? They all seemed so comfortable.
Smith: Two days. Two very long days. I feel like I have an ability to put people at ease to some degree. I think I can make them understand I really appreciate them and their homes. One strategy I had, because so many people have stopped to look at the house, I was much more interested in their daily lives. At Ben’s electronic house, we spent the first four hours with him just cutting a little piece of mirror out to replace one in the hallway. It was so mundane and didn’t make it into the film, but it kind of wore him down so that he wasn’t performing. It was like, “Oh, if you’re just gonna watch me do this stuff, that’s fine.” From there we became comfortable with each other and naturally evolved.
iW: Did you have funding from the start?
Smith: I actually was contacted to direct it for a company called homestore.com.
It was a project that was supposed to be a combination where they could cut commercials out of the footage and I could take the rest and make a film out of it. I didn’t know what would come of it, but they were really great and let me do whatever I wanted. As I got into it I began noticing all these connections of the people, and they opened up in a way that I hoped they would but didn’t know. I don’t believe the commercials ever ran.
iW: What was the concept of the ad? I hope it wasn’t “these are homes in need of improvement.”
Smith: No, no. It was like, “there’s no place like home.” It was great, literally 30- and 60-second short documentary films. And it was really well done and tasteful.
iW: How do you know with any of your films when you’ve got enough footage? The whole “when is the painting finished” thing?
Smith: I’m not one of those people who really knows that. I kind of feel like you go collect all this stuff and I couldn’t tell you if there was a film there until we get it into the editing room. And I told them that and they were fine with that. It was a really unique situation.
iW: Sounds like a dream client. Plus commercial work pays the bills.
Smith: It does. It allows us to work on our next documentary that much quicker. We don’t have to worry about finding funding or to wait on an idea.
iW: Back to work. So I guess no big premiere for “Home Movie”?
Smith: Oh no. I’m really happy the way it turned out, but it was kind of a side project between features — never something that was intended to be a big film.