[EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Smith’s “The Pool” opens at New York’s Film Forum Wednesday, September 3.] In 1995, Chris Smith‘s “American Job” had one of its first major screenings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Receiving a small but respectful release, Smith’s debut feature was, until now, his only narrative. 1999’s “American Movie” followed, one of the rare ’90s documentaries to crack a million at the box office, making it a then-rare popular documentary sensation. In an interview conducted with indieWIRE that year, Smith claimed “I would not be interested in doing a documentary again because you lose sense of your personal life.” He promptly followed with another two: 2001’s “Home Movie” and 2003’s “The Yes Men” (co-directed with long-time collaborator Sarah Price and Dan Ollman). A good 13 years later comes Smith’s second narrative, “The Pool.” Bringing things full circle, MoMA is putting on a full Chris Smith retro, capped with a preview screening.
The retrospective starts Friday; the interview was Monday, and Smith was jet-lagged, having taken a red-eye to do press in New York after a day of color-correcting the actual 35mm print in LA in time for the week after. Smith was flattered by the retro: “I thought it seemed strangely appropriate. When you look at ‘The Pool,’ it’s interesting to look at these four films and see how they might have led up to that.” And what happened to account for the 12-year gap in features? “For me, when I’m done with one project, I’ll always look at what seems the most interesting thing to work on next. After ‘American Movie,’ it just happened to be that ‘Home Movie’ and ‘The Yes Men’ both came up, and they both seemed more interesting and viable than what I was working on, from a narrative perspective.” Smith doesn’t necessarily see this is as necessarily some kind of grand homecoming. “I never meant to go away from narrative when I started. It was sort of an accident,” he explained. “Right now, I’m looking at a lot of different narrative projects, so I’m hoping to stay in that world.”
Set in Goa, “The Pool” centers around hotel room-boy Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) and his younger friend, restaurant-worker Jhangir Badshah (like his co-star, using his real first name). Venkatesh’s dearest dream is to swim in a pristine-looking pool in the backyard of a millionaire’s house; he spends hours staring at it from a tree branch. By quasi-stalking the owner (Nana Patekar), Venkatesh gets closer when he gets regular work in the garden. Smith read a story by his American Job inspiration/star Randy Russell a few years ago about a similar situation in America, and thought it might be interesting to transpose it to Goa, where he’d been “four or five years ago” visiting a friend’s set.
Once he followed through on it, he shot 65 days over six months under difficult circumstances. “Everything requires permission, but the whole country seems to run in its own sort of way,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy when it comes to permissions, and it comes down to having the right sort of production manager and location manager, and their connections, to be able to make things happen within the government. My producer had a production manager that was local, and he knew how the system worked, and he had a location manager, sort of like a local thug.” Did he ask what they did? Smith laughed. “It’s easier not to ask.”
Not that anything particularly sinister seems to have happened on set: Smith’s film battled against the odds, per usual form. Example: the father character wasn’t even cast until halfway through production. Patekar is a huge star in India, although he’d acted in an independent film some 21 years before, in Mira Nair‘s “Salaam Bombay!” Getting in touch was, accordingly, difficult. “He’s a giant,” Smith said. “We couldn’t pay him comparably. We had already shot half the movie. Kate [Noble, producer] saw his photograph in the paper and thought, ‘This is the guy.’ We were going to Bombay anyway for a camera problem, so we talked to Ayesha [Mohan, co-star], who had just done a film with a director named Anurag Kashyap. Anurag was able to get us a meeting with Nana. The strange thing was, the first thing he said when he met us was, ‘I’m not going to do your film, but I’m curious why you’d think I would do your film, and what you’re doing with this film.’ He started the meeting the way he is in the film — a very tense and intimidating character — but after talking to him for an hour and explaining to him what we were trying to do, he wanted to see what we had shot. After seeing it, he said he would do the film. I think the idea seemed so preposterous, that this small group of street kids would even think he would be interested, that he was curious about it.”
When it’s suggested that a common theme in his work is a character(s) struggling to reach a goal they might not ever achieve — a film in “American Movie,” greater dividends than just getting by in “American Job,” actually halting the march of globalization in “The Yes Men” — Smith, quite reasonably, said that seemed valid, but he’d never thought about it. When it’s suggested that, in turn, that whole idea might be a metaphor for the filmmaking process in general, he laughed. “I definitely agree with that. On the films I’ve been making, it seems to take two to three years.” He keeps going with commercials; he typically shoots four projects a year, which helps financially. I shoot all my own films, but on commercials I’m able to work with really great cinematographers, so I think I’ve been able to learn a lot from that process. I think just in between shooting films it’s a really nice way to stay active. It’s also really nice because you start a project and you’re done in three weeks.”
What’s next? “The thing I’m most excited about now is I’ve been writing an animated script. I don’t know how to draw, so we’ll see.” Would he like to stay in the narrative? Not necessarily. He’s more interested in streamlining his working methods in general. “The films have always been long, exhausting processes and I think I’d like to move away from working independently as far as financing, because I think working with other people would force things to move in a way that could be a little more efficiently. It feels harder than ever right now. It’s been exhausting trying to make these things on your own with little resources and a small team of people. I think our expectations keep going up of what we’re trying to achieve. The projects keep getting more ambitious, but the way we keep making them is the same.”