Filmmaker Interview #38 – Martin Smith

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Martin Smith is a filmmaker I keep hearing a lot about. I think the first film I saw of his was Tracks when it screened at Shoot First back in the day. Since then Martin has gone on to win various awards and gain support from talent schemes up and down the country, and not without merit. Martin has proved himself as a filmmaker with vision, developing his own unique voice through his shorts, documentaries and music videos. Next up will be features and it’s a step that doesn’t look too far for this talented Scottish Filmmaker.

Find out more about Martin in the interview below. Take time to watch the accompanying videos and when you are done check out his website.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you are currently working on?

I’m a filmmaker working across drama and documentaries, with the occasional foray into commercials. My two commissioned drama shorts are TRACKS (made for DigiCult and Scottish Screen with La Belle Allee Productions which won the BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Short Film) and ACCIDENTS (made for Scottish Screen with Sugartree Productions) and a documentary short JIMMY (made for the Scottish Documentary Institute, Creative Scotland and BBC Scotland, which was nominated for a BAFTA New Talent Award and won the Frankyln Marshall Award for Film at CurtDoc, Spain).

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I’m currently finishing post-production on LIAR, a short film I’ve directed for Collabor8te, made with Blue Iris Films. I’ve also been selected to develop a new short film idea for Scottish Shorts, so it will be interesting to see if that sees the light of day. Another long term project is my debut feature film SHOWS, which I am developing with Accelerator, Creative Scotland’s feature development scheme.

Who/what inspired you to embark on a career in Filmmaking?

I started as a photographer going on tour shooting acts like Nick Cave and Ice Cube. It was exciting at first, blagging photo passes and seeing artists that I loved, but after a while it got repetitive and I found the single image form of photography limiting. I also really wanted to create my own narratives and for that I wanted to explore filmmaking. My pal Richie Hume told me about a technical collage that had places left in it and I did a course in video and photography, and that was the start of the rest of the journey.

Have you had to make any sacrifices and how have you coped with that?

Getting to where I am has been an endless succession of sacrifices. I’ve been pretty stubborn in pursuing a career as a filmmaker, as its the single thing that means more to me than anything else. At film school I worked full-time in a bar and spent £10k on film stock for my projects there, but those sacrifices lead to me working literally the week I left – my first music video was commissioned off the back of my student films.

Obviously you don’t make any money on shorts, and they take a huge amount of time, both in development, but also in production and getting them out into the wider world and festivals. Also I have been developing a number of features, and that really is a passion – but one that moves incredibly slowly, so you have to try and factor in other film work that actually pays the way, to allow you to live, pay the rent, and afford to pursue the passion projects.

What is your ultimate goal/what drives you?

I want to make feature films. I want to tell powerful stories about the world today, that offer new perspectives. Through my work I’m looking to find out about human beings in a deep and intimate way and attempting to gain a genuine insight into their lives through film.

If I can fit in other types of filmmaking, such as documentaries, commercials, even music videos in between then I think I’ll have a rich and varied life.

How do you define success?

It can be on various different levels. Winning awards is great because it helps you get your next project made and it is recognition from your industry peers.

On a filmmaker level it is when I have made the film better than I imagined it on the page, which is often hard to quantify, but if it made your hairs stand on edge, you’ve done it. However that feeling is rare.

On a personal level it is when someone comes up to me after a screening and has experienced a strong reaction – if the work has affected them, really moved them, maybe they have cried. It doesn’t get much more powerful than that. They might even hate it, I think I prefer any kind of strong reaction over apathy. I know with some of my favourite films the first reactions I had were not always ‘I love that’, sometimes the film felt wrong or I didn’t understand it, but over time those things that were complex, confusing or just so new that I hadn’t seen them before are what I love about them in the long run.

How do you feel about collaboration?

Collaboration is fundamental to how I work. Next to the shooting of the films my favourite part of filmmaking is casting, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible casting directors, in particular Kahleen Crawford and Claire Catterson. I love stepping into worlds and finding the characters from my stories, and it’s important to me that I understand where people come from, their personal experience, histories – it all feeds into character. Often my casting processes will take months and are incredibly rigorous. For my shorts I have seen literally thousands of kids over the years, from youth clubs, street cast, schools – when I go through a casting process an idea of a character becomes something more, human, tangible, its like alchemy – I find it very, very exciting. And I feel that way about working with an amazing cinematographer, script editor, and a number of the other key positions on a film team. They all help a germ of an idea come to life. But at the end of the day if I’m directing a film I have to have final say, so you have to trust your own instincts.

Do you have a niche or genre that you specialise in?

I love drama and documentary, and I think both of those elements inform each other in my work. I’m drawn to real people and real lives in the present day. Also I’m often drawn to things I don’t know, don’t understand or are scared of. And I am very passionate about working with unknown non-actors.

What was the title of your first film (Your first first film, not the one you are happy to call your first film) and can you tell us a bit about it?

I made a series of short films, all on VHS, featuring my pals at parties getting off with each other. I didn’t realise at the time, but I suppose you’d call them experimental documentaries. We’d have improvised premieres for them in peoples flats, it was a lot of fun making them.

Favourite Filmmaker?

That’s a crazy question for a filmmaker surely? I could list twenty and I’d kick myself that I’d missed out the most important ones. One thing I will say, that is really important to me, is that I have always set out to make my own language, rather than attempt to ape another filmmakers work. But the ones that spring to mind at this very moment are John Cassavetes, Ken Loach, Robert Bresson, Francis Ford Copploa, Albert & David Maysles, Harmony Korine, Gus Van Sant and Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne.

All-time top 5 movies (as of this date, we all know it changes daily)?

  1. Nil By Mouth – Gary Oldman
  2. Mouchette – Robert Bresson
  3. Days Of Heaven – Terrence Malick
  4. Kes – Ken Loach
  5. Rebel Without A Cause – Nicholas Ray

What is the best short film you’ve seen?

There is a moment in Lynne Ramsay’s SMALL DEATHS that is the most powerful thing I have seen in short film. I don’t think I’ve seen a filmmaker execute the form better than Lynne.

First film you ever saw in the cinema?

Bambi? Hard to remember, cinema wasn’t a big part of my life as a kid – I came from a seaside town, and cinema was pretty expensive. I know I cried.

A random/funny story of anything you have experienced in the film world?

Shooting an early film I was working with a tiny crew – DOP, sound guy, two cast. We were shooting up a mountain. After what looked like a great take, the last of the day, sun is going down, everyone was happy. Turning around, our sound recordist was sat on the ground, reel-to-reel sound tape blowing all around him, up and away into the air. ‘I think I got most of it’ he said.

Favourite film related website?

Vimeo. I’m not a huge fan of film criticism, so a place where you can view other filmmakers’ work at a reasonable quality is great. Which is ironic, because I hate my work being online – I make my films for the cinema. Most of the work I see online comes via twitter, and filmmakers I follow on there.

What advice would you give to first time filmmakers?

Learn from your own mistakes. Always complete your project – never leave it before you have edited it – even projects that seem like a disaster may have something you can learn from. Take all advice with a pinch of salt. Take what works for you, chuck out what doesn’t & trust your instincts.

You can follow Martin on Twitter and visit his website here.

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One Response to Filmmaker Interview #38 – Martin Smith

  1. Pingback: No Excuses, Just Shoot – Advice for First-Time Filmmakers «

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