Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith on Holding Audiences to a Higher Standard

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We chat with the Buster’s Mal Heart director at TIFF.

I never want to talk down to an audience and I think that audiences are hungry, starving for content that challenges them and makes them think…
— Sarah Adina Smith

Sarah Adina Smith is on a roll. The writer/director’s debut film, The Midnight Swim, won AFI FEST’s Breakthrough Audience Award. She is also currently set to direct a couple episodes of the Duplass brothers’ new HBO series, Room 104. Her latest film, the enigmatic mind-bender, Buster’s Mal Heart, is currently on the festival circuit (read our review here). The film, which features recent Emmy winner Rami Malek, just screened at TIFF where it was one of the festival’s most buzzed about films.

We managed to catch up with Smith while she was at TIFF promoting her movie. During our conversation, we discussed Smith’s unconventional writing approach, her movie influences, and a special tip for surviving a long work day.

Certain writers take a methodical approach to screenwriting. They map out character arcs in their head and prepare lines of dialogue long before they sit down at their computer. Smith’s approach was the antithesis of methodical. She chose a creative tactic so organic it deserves shelf space in a Whole Foods isle.

SMITH: When you begin to write a script, sometimes you start with an idea, sometimes you start with an image. And with this one I very much started with a character I really fell in love with. I wrote this script at the Nantucket Screenwriter’s Colony, which was this amazing fellowship that really changed my life. It was the first time in my life that I had a month to just be a filmmaker and just focus on my writing and not to the hustle to pay rent at the same time. It was transformative for me.

It was in the middle of nature so in the morning I would wake up and try and take a walk with the character and really just sort of… It sounds sort of crazy and kooky but just be with that character and really not force anything. I think I had spent so much of my life charging ahead at full speed. I told myself before that month that the only thing I wanted to achieve was patience. So by taking these nature walks and really letting the character sort of lead me through the story and really just really listening. That’s how the story came about. I think that’s why the script is very unconventional in form. It was something that was formed with a combination of drawings I made and sort of, lyrical scenes. So it in some ways reads more like an illustrated short story or than a traditional script.

Most of the screenwriters I interview fall into one of two categories. They write to experience life vicariously or they write as a form of catharsis. I asked Smith if she falls into either camp.

SMITH: I wish it was that concrete for me. I think I don’t have enough clairvoyant, self-awareness to sort of know this is the thing I must get off my chest. In some ways, the writing process for me is a way to figure out what is the thing I’m maybe supposed to find or deal with. This movie is really about whether free will is possible and whether we live in a mechanistic universe just sort of bumping along versus causality, or whether we have some say in our destiny. That’s a question I’ve been asking for a long time, one of the most fundamental questions we ask ourselves. It was a way for me to have that conversation deeply.

With its unconventional narrative and ambiguity, Buster’s Mal Heart feels like a movie that can step into genre cinema territory at any moment. I asked Smith if she is influenced by genre cinema.

SMITH: I like all types of movies. I never set out to deliberately make any kind of genre of movie necessarily. I’m just very interested in telling the story the way it wants to be told and also just making a movie that interests me. So sometimes, when I’m making a choice it’s just because I’m being selfish and trying to please myself as an audience member.

People go to movies for many reasons, for entertainment, for enlightenment, and even mind-numbing distraction. Buster’s Mal Heart asks the audience to ponder questions to which the answers are likely unknowable. I asked Smith how she decides how much is too much for the audience to chew on.

SMITH: I hold my audiences to a high standard because I think they are capable of it. I never want to talk down to an audience and I think that audiences are hungry, starving for content that challenges them and makes them think and asks them to be an active audience member and not purely passive. I think as I’m making the film I’m trying to make the best version of the story and listening to my own heart about what I like or don’t like as I’m sort of making choices. Along the way, you test it against people you trust. I try not to work from the outside in. I try not to say, “how are we going to tell the audience this…” I don’t design it that way, I try to discover rather than design if that makes sense.

At a glance, Buster’s Mal Heart shares similarities with the work of Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch. I asked Smith to discuss some films that influenced her.

SMITH: I love so many different types of movies that it won’t make any sense. I think about the movies that I grew up watching over and over again. We had Coming to America and Cinderella on VHS and I probably watched those a billion times. We would rent Adventures in Babysitting. Those were the movies that sort of formed me as a child. As I got older I tapped into things like A Clockwork Orange (I think it sort of did a number on my head).

I’m trying to think of movies that really shook me to my core. Dogville was one. I remember seeing that one in college. It really just challenged me. I didn’t want to agree with the worldview of that movie but it’s so brilliant and I’m so grateful for having been shown that worldview. I love Little Children, I love We Need to Talk About Kevin, I love Dogtooth.

Directing a movie is organized chaos. During a shoot, even filmmakers with 30 years in the business almost lose their mind at some point. Once a film is in the can, filmmakers walk away as cool as that iconic slow-mo shot from Reservoir Dogs. Smith opened up about what she learned while shooting.

SMITH: Each day was its own set of really beautiful challenges and I kind of loved them all.

Smith then Added,

SMITH: A thing wants to evolve on its own time and if you rush it, you end up wasting more time because you have to go back and fix it. So I think patience at every turn, that’s always been my Achilles heel so that’s something I have to keep working on with every film.

Smith is at home penning a script as well as behind the camera. I asked her if she had a preference between the two.

SMITH: The best thing about filmmaking is that there’s so many different phases and they’re all challenging and fascinating. I think writing, maybe I feel the most at home at because it’s so directly soul to pen. It’s really simple in that way. But directing is adrenaline fuelled. As the sort of former athlete, I mean like D-team in basketball in high school, not a great athlete. But that part of me that was competitive and liked to play high school sports, that’s what I love about directing because there’s a certain pressure, getting the best out of your team, and achieving a goal every day. That part is absolutely thrilling. Working with actors is probably my very favorite thing. But I also love editing. For me, editing is writing. And I love the rhythm of editing and the rhythm of working with sound. I genuinely think every part is pretty awesome.

Before parting ways, Smith shared a little piece of advice that she used to revitalize herself on set.

SMITH: There was an actor, he plays Ranger Joe (Wally Dalton), and he’s fantastic. He gave me a piece of advice I think I’ll take with me my whole life, which is when you’re directing change your shoes at lunch to a different pair of shoes. I thought that was so brilliant because it gives you a new lease on the day, and you have a new energy for the rest of the day. I thought it was really smart, it’s a way to double your energy.

Changing your shoes at lunch might not be in the Directing 101 handbook, but how can you argue with the results – or Ranger Joe?

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