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Is there a crisis among America's film independents? Are indolence, indifference, and commercial stagnation sucking the lifeblood out of U.S. movies? Chris Smith may have the solution: Leave the country entirely. Cast non- actors. Let them speak Hindi.
You can call it cinematic outsourcing, but even if The Pool doesn't reverse the passion with which audiences have been ignoring independent film, no one can call it the same old thing. Based on a short story by Smith's co-writer, Randy Russell, the film was shot guerrilla-style in Goa, India, on the street, in the native language of the biggest filmgoing/filmmaking country in the world. And in no way did it go according to plan.
"In hindsight, it seems like a fairly naïve idea to think we were going to go over and make the film in English," Smith said during an interview at Film Forum, where the film opens September 3. "I had been there four years earlier and never thought of language being an issue. I never thought we'd find kids who didn't speak English. As we got into the casting, there were plenty of kids who did, but the ones we found most interesting didn't. It soon became incredibly obvious that the film wasn't going to be in English. But the idea wasn't to make a foreign-language film."
The idea for Smith—whose nonfiction résumé includes American Movie, Home Movie, and The Yes Men—was to get back into feature filmmaking, something he'd been away from since 1996.
"I never meant to make documentaries," Smith said. "I went to Sundance in 1996 with the narrative American Job and sort of fell into that world of people saying: 'What's your next feature?' So I started writing something, and went to the Sundance writing lab. But at the same time, I felt, being 23, that a year was a long time to go between filming something. I was getting anxious. So I started this side project about a guy trying to make a horror film in Wisconsin."
That project, which became the cult-doc American Movie, concerned Mark Borchardt and his efforts to make a film called Coven (which Borchardt mispronounces throughout). It was a film that walked a fine line between derision and genuine pathos, and it put Smith on the map.
As for American Job? Never seen it. "Not many people have," Smith laughed. "The negative got damaged at the lab, and we've spent seven years getting it back together. In fact, the HD master just got finished last night." Smith finally screened the film last week, as part of the Museum of Modern Art series "Chris Smith: American Original." MOMA also previewed The Pool, which premiered last January at Sundance. Smith has had a long relationship with the festival, both playing his films there and serving on juries. And the festival lobbied hard to get The Pool. Smith's sales rep, John Sloss, lobbied hard for him to stay away.
It's easy to see both sides of the argument. Foreign-language films regularly get dissed in Park City, both by buyers and the press who follow their lead; anything that doesn't fall into the category of "the next Napoleon Dynamite" exists in its own private vacuum. At the same time, there's no reason why Sundance wouldn't want to show one of its own and expand the horizons of U.S. independent film. And a movie in Hindi sort of fits that bill.
As Smith readily admits, the film went nowhere at Sundance. And when The Pool didn't get into the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, which had been the plan, Smith became receptive to the charge that it was too long. So he made some cuts.
It's now nine minutes shorter, but it still contains memorable performances by Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah as the young boys surviving on the streets of Goa by selling plastic bags and doing odd jobs; by Ayesha Mohan as Venkatesh's maybe love interest; and by Bollywood legend Nana Patekar as Ayesha's father, the man who owns the swimming pool that Venkatesh dreams about.
Patekar wasn't cast until three months into production. "We kept trying different fathers and trying to make them work," Smith said. "There are even a handful of scenes we filmed with our location manager." One morning, when the newspaper came sliding under the door, producer Kate Noble looked at it, then looked at Smith. "She said: 'This is the guy.' "
The paper had a story about Patekar, who was taking a year off and who also said that he only wanted to do interesting projects. "Kate said, 'We're an interesting project . . . ' "
What they set out to do then, according to Smith, was the equivalent of someone from another country showing up in Hollywood and trying to track down George Clooney.
"The look on people's faces when we told them what we were trying to do was complete disbelief," he recalled. "The idea that he would come to this incredibly low-budget film with street kids just seemed completely unbelievable to people."
When they finally managed to meet Patekar, he only confirmed those doubts. "The first thing he said to us was: 'I'm not going to do your movie. But I'm curious why you think I would be interested, and what you're doing over here in the first place.' He was interested in what business we had making this film."
But they talked. They showed him 45 minutes of the film.
Patekar watched it in complete silence and then, according to Smith, said: "I will give myself over to you."
It's a commanding, charismatic performance, balanced by the naïveté of the movie's younger stars. Guilessness, in fact, seems to inform the entire film.
"My whole intention was to go and let our experiences and observations factor into the movie," Smith said. "The biggest thing was to find the actors or real people and incorporate some of the aspects of their life into the story. There were things I knew we could never create sitting at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I wanted to make something that felt very authentic and true. In India, people are just so excited to be in a movie—it reminds me of when I was a kid, when someone pulled out a video camera and everyone wanted to be on film.
"If you catch someone on-screen here," he added, "they're going to call a lawyer."
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