James Smith was born in 1965 in Surrey, England and brought up in the USA and South Africa before his family returned to Essex in the late 1970s. Following college stints at Chelmsford and Leicester, he embarked on a career in the computer business. This, however, was short-lived as he spent much of his time indulging in travel, outdoor sports, and creative pursuits, including music, painting and stills-photography.
Taking advantage of the digital video revolution, Smith began making sports promos and documentary films in 2004, developing a mix of hand-held techniques melded with evocative static compositions that hallmark his style today. When directing actors, he often employs improvisation to add realism and dynamism to his work. His award-winning documentary Gentlemen of the Night (2006) was screened theatrically, the latest on its tenth anniversary to packed venues. His short film Keep Up If You Can (2009) was selected from 3500 entries for Rutger Hauer’s “I’ve Seen Films” International Internet Contest in Milan, whilst his début feature Do Something, Jake (2018) was premiered in September 2018 to rapturous applause at a packed Odeon Cinema in the Midlands, UK.
Who or what was it that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I have always loved films and remember my earliest experiences as a child watching ‘movies’ with my family in Cape Town in the 70’s. We had no television back then, but took regular trips to the drive-in movies in the summer – this was exciting indeed. I never really ‘planned’ a career in film. I gradually moved into the business having dabbled in software, music, photography and video. Film now seems a natural place to be, despite the battles.
Are there any filmmakers that influenced your approach or style?
I like a sense of realism and drama, and so I have always loved Tony Scott’s work, especially his collaborations with Denzel Washington in films such as Man on Fire. I also like Kathryn Bigelow’s approach to filmmaking, and many other great directors, however, I do not feel overawed in any way by these fine artists – I believe that the challenges they undertake with these films are attainable with hard work and perseverance, and I’m sure they’d want aspiring filmmakers to feel the same.
Do you have any personal philosophies towards your filmmaking?
I like to do the basics well and become an ‘audience member’. By this, I mean that I try to adopt the viewpoint of the person in the cinema, or watching on the phone, laptop, etc. So, regardless of industry trends or gatekeepers’ demands, I’d like to deliver what the audience might wish to see. Although it is a great craft and art form, I’m dubious of over-intellectualizing the process, the result of which I see as essentially intended to entertain or perhaps educate in some way.
This is not to undermine the discipline of filmmaking, but I prefer to keep my feet on the ground – I’m not sending
humans to Mars or presenting theories on genome organisms. I think there’s an arrogance, and perhaps oversight, with directors who feel they can radically ‘change people’s lives’ with their films – I’m not convinced that people are highly impressionable in this way.
In addition to being a filmmaker you’re also a published author. How do the different mediums express certain elements of story – the strength of the literary versus the strength of the cinematic?
Writing long-form novels is such a vastly different discipline to screenwriting, and I must say that I am quite comfortable in the former, which I believe has wonderful latitude to explore all sorts of levels and intricacies in terms of plot and characterisation. The crux of course is time – we can read a novel over practically any period, and yet film imposes a demanding, and cruel, constraint on the writer. Both literary and cinematic forms have wonderful individual merits, but require distinct and specific skills – it is traditionally rocky territory when authors of fine novels meet Hollywood directors. Down here at the ‘indie’ film level, however, I know my limitations – I’m no screenwriter and I leave the clever stuff to a person who knows the craft: Caroline Spence.
You also have experience in other fields outside of film. Has this wider experience benefited your approach to working within the film industry?
Having a background in other businesses prior to entry into film is really valuable. There are some fundamental skills that you learn simply by having a wider ‘reach’ and experience than merely film training. For example, my work in stills photography was a grounding in compositional skills I would draw on later, and a former career in software stood me in good stead for dealing with the many technical aspects of post-production. I also like to work with people who have experience in other
fields and are level-headed about filmmaking, it makes a big difference – there’s nothing worse than crews straight from college, heavy on the buzzwords and desperate to impress.
You co-founded Raya Films with Caroline Spence in 2004. As a company (and individual) you appear to be enthusiastic about zero-budget filmmaking. What do you think are the benefits of zero budget filmmaking?
Zero-budget filmmaking is a somewhat vague definition, but I tend to define it as having no additional funds for production other than what one would normally spend on petrol, food, and so on. For example, for Do Something, Jake, we just paid for insurance and went for it into production otherwise unpaid to gain feature film credits and experience. In this sense, it was a great success and many people benefited. Of course, we’d love to have a full production budget, and this is something we’re working on, but you can’t wait forever – much of the money, certainly in Britain’s film business, is tied into certain channels – and so zero/low-budget filmmaking is an option. It’s incredibly tough of course, but there are no excuses for people who want to make a film.
Your film Do Something, Jake has found success winning awards and shown at film festivals across the globe. Can you tell us a little about the film and how long did it take make?
Do Something, Jake was shot in around 22 days in November 2015, but due to many headaches in post-production, it wasn’t completed until 2018. Some people had given up on it, perhaps believing that it had been canned, but we proved them wrong with a sell-out premiere in Loughborough’s Odeon.
Looking back, this was a remarkable event and a great achievement for all involved. The film was essentially made as a stepping-stone to bigger things. What was originally written as a simple drama-thriller with a few characters somehow escalated to a production involving a large international cast and multiple locations! Perhaps it was a little overly ambitious, but the lessons learned and experience gained were invaluable, and simply cannot be acquired through short form projects, music video productions, and so on.
2020 is set to be a prolific year for you with three films nearing completion, these being Cyberlante, Surveilled and Agent Kelly. How are you finding post-production during lockdown and what are the distribution plans for the films.
After many production battles, it seems that post-production of three features (Agent Kelly, Cyberlante and Surveilled) has somehow bunched up together in 2020, and now with a pandemic lockdown to add spice to the challenge! In fact, we flew out to Spain, initially for two weeks, and have been unable to return to the UK due to a series of flight cancellations. At the time of writing (week seven), we continue to wait for news of possible return flights.
Fortunately, Agent Kelly had been completed some weeks before our trip and Cyberlante was in the ‘online editing’ phase, so just requires coordination of tasks, which can be done remotely. Surveilled is a different challenge and requires a full offline edit, and so we’re undertaking this on a laptop and external hard drives, which we packed for the trip. So, the upshot is that we haven’t been affected by the situation. Cyberlante and Agent Kelly are likely to have premieres and then go to online VOD/streaming. Surveilled, however, seems to be attracting more attention from sales agents due to the genre and our ongoing marketing, so this film could be signed up and go far. Let’s hope so!
What do you most enjoy and least enjoy about the filmmaking process?
With all of the ups and downs and battles – and often negativities – in this business, one sometimes asks what we do it all for, but for me there is an underlying desire to create something special and artistic that will perhaps one day break through for millions to see. I most enjoy that challenge and also the ability to channel all of my creative energies into a field that can readily absorb anything I can throw at it. Although zero/low-budget filmmaking has many advantages, I find that as we progress, the limitations in terms of hiring professionals is becoming more frustrating – this is natural for any filmmaker, of course, and there is a time to step up!
Is there anything you’d change about the film industry?
In the UK film industry, there is much I would change in terms of creating a level playing field for indie filmmakers. So much is driven by specific groups and individuals in terms of funding and certainly promotion, which makes it practically impossible for many films to break through that ‘standard’ network. This, however, is likely to change as we move forward through this pandemic with all of its tumultuous effects and consequences. At Raya Films, there are many ways in which we will adapt and cope – this kind of flexibility and foresight has enabled us to keep going through many struggles and setbacks in the past, so we’re ultimately positive.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out as a filmmaker?
I would advise aspiring filmmakers to be calm and work to their strengths. I see many people in this business running around with blood vessels popping out of their heads, adamant that they will lift the Oscar next year to hordes of admiring onlookers. In fact, ‘surfing the wave’ is not a bad philosophy – hop on the wave and see where it takes you. Those with specific and inflexible notions of where they’re going and will often remain frustrated.
What’s next for James Smith?
I’m looking ahead to working on two feature films: The Finca and Last Good Deed. The former is an exciting project set in southern Spain, which we’ve been developing for some years, and so it is moving forward nicely with an advanced draft of the screenplay. Last Good Deed is a more recent idea, with some way to go in development, but is no less exciting. In the meantime, it’s all post-production!