New York based film director, Lewis Smithingham was in the UK last week to showcase his latest video short, “My Mother The Flatiron” as part of the annual Raindance Film Festival in London. Born in the UK and brought up both here and in the States, Smithingham – who has grown from music documenter to futuristic-painting-influenced director – talks to us about his experiences of film, his Raindance effort created as a dedication to his mother, and his first full-length feature which began production in the US this week.
What is your earliest memory of film?
Watching “He Man” at my grandmother’s house, a council flat in Bournemouth, sitting on top of a sheepskin rug. Naked.
That’s very erotic!
It’s very Brigitte Bardot in Le Mepris. My earliest memory of actual film – shooting film itself – was so intensely erotic. It felt like I had been wearing protection before and this was the first time going without because the camera shakes a little and you can feel it going past the shutter and it feels so raw and real and vibrant and sensual and wonderful.
When did you realise you could be a director?
When I realised I wasn’t going to be an actor. In high school I got put into a programme because I was assigned as an “At Risk Youth” because I was a punk. So they had these programmes which said you wouldn’t make it into college so they’d teach you how to make cabinets or become truck drivers or do video production.
How is your cabinet making?
Shit! Ask my wife!
But the film making?
Yes, I went into video production and I loved it and it was a way for me to get into [music] shows for free because I could film the bands.
You’re short film is called My Mother The Flatiron – what is the story behind it?
My mother died and I started this film of a dancer dancing on either side of the Flatiron Building. My mother was a dancer and we read this story about a cat who got caught up on the Flatiron hanging from a kite and so I had fond memories and it‘s a beautiful building. I had the dancer dance on either side of it and filmed her on super 8 and I purposely didn’t expose for sunlight so it’s over balanced blue – which was her favourite colour and I think it’s a very emotive and expressive. I feel it is a really tangible way of expressing living with a terminal illness that makes you sort of half way between life and death. I got my aunt to sing the Mariachi song, “Volver, Volver” which means “Return, Return” in Spanish. My mother died of congestive heart failure – you drown and suffocate at the same time – so I drowned the recording by submerging it in two fish tanks in a bathtub, but it was too clean so I suffocated it with a pillow. I later discovered a note that made my eardrums almost pop so I worked that into the final edit and I felt this was an interesting way of pushing the tension of being uncomfortable.
Who are your influences, as a director?
Werner Hertzog is a huge influence with his writing and approach to myth. I have assisted Guy Maddin, who is a big influence on me, who I assisted on his Hauntings project and his Keyhole film and I’ve assisted Nathaniel Kramer, who was a fashion photographer in the 80s and I admire his kaleidoscopic eye.
You’ve worked with Isabella Rossellini – what was that like?
She was on set for [Guy Maddin’s] “Keyhole” – which just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival – where I was rear projection technician. I was so intimidated because she’s Roberto Rossellini’s daughter but she’s just so nice and genuine, professional and sweet and nice and not famous acty at all.
You’re working on a full-length film – what can you tell us about that?
It’s a film about my grandfather in law who tried his best at absolutely everything he did – from experimenting in pig genetics, to contributing to the human genome project. He also became first director of the Fish and Wildlife Association in Albreta but ended up doing a great deal of harm – his campaigns decimated coyote populations throughout Alberta and he later regretted that. So it’s told from the perspective of my father in law who was 6 at the time and it’s about how we create heroes out of our fathers. A boy’s first real hero is not He Man, it’s his father. Guy Madden is helping me out with it, and Amy Talbon is signed on and she’s probably the greatest living film critic and it’s wonderful to have somebody who terrifies you that much cry after reading something you wrote.
The Raindance Film Festival 2011 is on until October 9th.
Interview: Seamus Duff