THIS LIFE - Film director Martin Smith breaks the rules about working with children and animals. In fact he breaks lots of rules
“I think almost everyone who works in films wants to direct films. That’s why you’ve got to be passionate because if you’re not there’s a queue of people wanting to step up and do it as well. There are many different types of days. There are shooting days, there are casting days, then there are festival days. A shooting day will be a very early start, getting up at perhaps 4.30am to shoot because of the light. Getting amazing light is really important. Getting up early is not a problem for me. Not that I’m an early riser normally, but on shoots I’m pumped up with adrenaline.
I am not part of the short-filmmaking world. I’ve only made two short films since I left film school, both in the last few years: Accidents, which was on at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and Tracks, a film about the cruelty of children, which will premiere at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival.
When I left school I realised if I was going to do this properly I would have to make big sacrifices, and I have. My income over the past seven years has been dreadful. I went straight into making music videos, though I always had the ambition that I was going to make feature films. The week after I left Napier I got a £15,000 music video commission for a first-time band. That’s unheard of now. I didn’t want to be a cash whore and I did want to be able to make passion projects. Music videos weren’t allowing me to do that. What really got me out and back on the path to feature filmmaking was the Script Factory. Some people put me in touch with them and soon I was writing scripts and making short films. Working on a music video you’re using about 10% of your brain, whereas working on a drama it’s 100% of your brain.
I’ve actually used kids from Glasgow schools in both films. When Scottish Screen commissioned my film, I contacted Ken Loach. I was interested in how he worked with non-actor children. I’d heard that Ken worked with an approach which involved not giving people scripts until very late. We had a conversation on the phone for about an hour. It was him that put me in contact with the casting director Kahleen Crawford.
Casting is an important part of what I’m doing: to get the authenticity, the right physicality, the right look, things that are so individual to a project. Kahleen tapped into that right away. We did street casting and went into the schools. Actually the wee guy, Ryan Wallace, the lead role of Accidents, we noticed him fairly quickly. He was slightly different from the rest of them. He was just sitting waiting and Kahleen had the camera on him and I said just keep it on him, and just him waiting coming to the casting was essentially all we wanted, all we needed. When he was being filmed he seemed like a coiled spring. It was that intensity that I really needed to know.
If you’ve got a good producer who can bring everything together, an amazing cameraman and really strong casting, there’s not really a lot of things to go wrong. My filmmaking doesn’t rely much on script. Often when I’m shooting I feed the actors lines on set and let them improvise a bit. The grammar can be wrong, but as long as it’s in their own voice and it’s real then you go with it. If what they say is not the right story then I’ll go back and say it again, but basically if it’s real then that stays. I don’t have big rehearsals.
If it’s a night shoot we go to set at 6pm and work through till 6am, when light starts coming up again. It’s normally up to 18 hours. It’s relatively low budget and you’re just trying to get as much as possible out of it. Because I edit my own stuff I’ll probably have an assistant editor loading in the footage from the day so I go and see the footage. If you find out about problems early enough you can do it over again.
When I’m working, life is 100% work and there’s no personal life outside it. I think everyone outside my work understands that when I’m working that’s all there is. Essentially when I’m on a shoot I’m off and sleeping on producers’ floor or wherever the shoot goes.
I’m supposed to be working on the Victorian Gate House in Leith Docks I bought with my partner. It’s completely dilapidated like a bomb site. You could literally put your arm through the wall. But I really wanted to do this because I’ve always rented houses and I don’t want to have all that hassle of six-month leases so I can concentrate on filmmaking.
INTERVIEW: VICKY ALLAN
PORTRAIT: MALCOLM COCHRANE
Tracks is screening at The Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, September 11.