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AFI Fest Women Directors: Meet Sarah Adina Smith – ‘The Midnight Swim’

AFI Fest Women Directors: Meet Sarah Adina Smith - 'The Midnight Swim'

Before The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith wrote and directed the award-winning short The Sirens and co-wrote and produced Goodbye World, released in April 2014. Her latest script, The Colony, is a Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalist and is scheduled to shoot in 2015.

The Midnight Swim will play at AFI Fest on November 7 and 8. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

SAS: The Midnight Swim is an unsettling drama about three half-sisters who return home after their mother disappears trying to find the bottom of a bottomless lake. 

W&H: What drew you to this story? 

SAS: My mom used to tell us a story about seven sisters who drowned together during a midnight swim in the lake where I grew up. In the story, each sister drowned trying to save the other. I was always haunted by that notion — that a drowning person can pull you under. I think, for that reason, I’m drawn to characters who face the dilemma of letting go. I’m most interested in the fragility and strength of connections between people, living and dead.  

I’m very drawn to stories about lakes. I just got back from spending a month on Nantucket at The Screenwriter’s Colony, so I got to spend some time staring at the ocean. But the ocean is too big and grand; it’s hard for me to contemplate. It’s almost unfathomable. Maybe I like lakes because you can almost wrap your arms around them. You can see their borders. They are contemplative but also approachable — and no less mysterious. 

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SAS: Making the film was surprisingly easy. It was actually a little spooky — too easy. [My producer] Jonako [Donley] and I kept turning to each other and saying, “Shouldn’t something be going wrong by now?” This film had a life of its own from the moment it was conceived. Really, all we had to do was listen and gently help it along. 

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

SAS: I make films because I’m trying to get at a place we don’t have language to describe, so I don’t have any particular thought or debate I want the audience to walk away with. I hope that they’ll suspend their doubts and surrender to the trance of this film. It’s more ritual than entertainment. I hope they leave the theater feeling a little cleaner. 

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SAS: Oh gosh. I don’t know. Probably the same advice I’d have for any director, which is to just go make something. I made the mistake of playing the waiting game with my bigger films for years and years, only to have them fall through for one reason or another. My poor husband (and DP) [Shaheen Smith] kept begging me to just write something we could shoot on a micro-budget. It only took me seven years to listen. So my big piece of advice is to write for the resources you have so that you’re not waiting for someone else to pull the trigger. 

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

SAS: Well, I don’t think I’m well known enough for there to be many misconceptions. 

The films I make often ask for more of a “buy-in” from the audience in terms of patience and trust. Some people are understandably not willing to pay that price. 

We got great reviews for The Midnight Swim coming out of our world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, which was so encouraging. But I think people either love it or hate it. Those who didn’t like it called it a “feminine exercise.” Which, first of all, isn’t a bad thing. But second of all, just because a film has female stars and is directed by a woman, doesn’t make it a feminine exercise. I don’t even really know what that means; it just sounds very dismissive. I can’t imagine they’d ever describe a man’s film as a “masculine exercise.” 

I know some people will have a knee-jerk reaction to a found-footage film because there have been so many in the past few years. But I ask them to trust me: this isn’t a typical found-footage film. I wanted to make a movie that lets us seep into the protagonist’s head, so having her hold a camera was the easiest way to do that.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? 

SAS: Even though our budget was modest, we still had to hustle to bring it together.

I’m a painter, so I made 85 original oil paintings, and we used them as rewards for our Kickstarter campaign. The campaign at that time was for a different movie of mine, Good People, but we ended up using the funds toward The Midnight Swim instead. We then approached individual investors to pull together the rest of the budget. A lot of amazing people took a big leap of faith on me and I’ll always be grateful for that. It changed my life.  

W&H: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

SAS: We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best films ever. It’s complex and horrifying, beautiful and sad. I will watch anything Lynne Ramsay makes.

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