a Screenmancer exclusive

ScreenTalk presents
Becky Smith: on the passionate art of filmmaking... and other ambitions

 in an interview conducted by ScreenTalk producer Robinson Rea

Becky Smith is an independent filmmaker/writer based in Los Angeles. Over the
past twelve years she has directed over forty films and videos and several stage
plays, including two of her own.

Smith wrote, produced and directed In The Game (Frontline), a '94 release about a
female collegiate basketball teamís championship-winning season. It garnered
numerous awards, was selected as one of the twenty best
documentaries world-wide in 1994, and continues to be used
as a teaching and inspirational tool in athletic
departments all over the country.


Rea: Back in the early 90ís, womenís collegiate basketball was not was it is now, in terms of media exposure and public interest. What drew you to the material?

Smith: Itís the late 80ís, Iím working in San Francisco, and a friend tells me Stanfordís womenís basketball team is playing that night, do I want to go? Now, I grew up in a very small town in Iowa, and the only source of entertainment my five sisters and I had was basketball. I know the sport, the difference being when I graduated from high school, there was no chance of a basketball scholarship.

So, Iím feeling some ambivalence, maybe some anger, around the issue of
women in professional sports. But that night I have what can almost be called a spiritual experience. I see the most graceful, skilled athletes on the court and 7500 cheering fans. For womenís basketball! Iím hooked. I donít waste any time in selling the idea of a documentary to Stanfordís coach.

Rea: Tara Vanderveer, who went on to coach winning teams at The Goodwill Games and The Olympics.

Smith: On my own money, with a friend on camera, we film the teamís entire season, and out of about 265 teams in the country that are division one, they go all the way to the Final Four, and win the National Championship.

Rea: After seeing the documentary, I was really impressed with the intensity and focus of these young women and their coach. Itís a challenge to anyone who  wants to go the distance.

Smith: Thatís what fascinates me -- passionate, obsessive people who are very good at what they do.

Rea: Talk about post-production blues, youíre editing the raw footage in your closet?

Smith: Literally in my closet.

Rea: While routinely being turned down by grant organizations?

Smith: I wasnít concerned, because I was so hooked on the story, I knew there had to be an audience. What really stung was being turned down by the regional PBS station in San Francisco. I mean, this is the teamís city. But in retrospect, itís probably what motivated me to contact Frontline. I said forget them, Iíll go right to the top.

Rea: Frontline funded the rest of the post-production process, paid for Alfre Woodard to narrate, and debuted it on national television with huge publicity. Were you surprised by the acclaim that followed?

Smith: No, because I knew I had told a story that had compassion and complexity, and I think people picked up on that. They saw it as more than a basketball story, but as a metaphor for the struggle for equal opportunity in any kind of field.

Rea: It certainly is a compelling portrait of female athleticism.

Smith: My Associate Producer [Michael Hawley] was on Cape Cod last summer and he met a woman who coaches basketball on the east coast, and she said the film is now considered the bible for every female coach she knows. She kept telling him the story was way before its time. I like to think it plays some role in female athletes being taken more seriously today.

Rea: Did this success open up your options or peg you as a documentary filmmaker?

Smith: I think when you have something that looks like a success, the things that come out of it are never what you expect. The documentary was a wonderful calling card. It allowed me to be taken more seriously for grants; it certainly got me my teaching job at UCLA . But did someone call and say, looks hereís a lot of money, go make the movie you want to make? No. But you have to start from the beginning with every new project. I think if youíre not realistic about that, it can be very depressing.

Rea: More recently, you were only one of six women selected to shoot a film in AFIís Directing Workshop for Women. What was the the workshop experience like?

Smith: Intense. One of the best things about it is you can feel so isolated in this town, and suddenly youíre working 10 to 12 hours a day with other aspiring female filmmakers who, to some degree or another, have the same goals and obstacles. One of the real challenges is that they give you a token amount of money.

I used up my savings to complete the film, but I felt pretty strongly that it was now or never.

Rea: Death by Vertigo, your thirty minute narrative short that came out of the  workshop, revolves around the sudden death of a young woman, but for me it was a very funny, poignant rendering of friendship, its cruel shifts from adolescence into adulthood. I appreciated that we got to glimpse the complexity of female relationships.

Smith: Thereís a certain audience that seems appalled and surprised by the story of little girls I chose to tell, and I find that curious, because that tells me people very much expect and demand a certain female stereotype in film.

Rea: I liked that the actress, who was cast in what might be called the ďbitchĒ role, was not posturing like one of those creatures from ďMelrose PlaceĒ. She kept us interested by playing the contradictions in her character.

Smith: Jacqueline Samuda is the actress, and by the way, sheís a regular in Atom Egoyanís films. We talked a lot about how to play the role. We both felt strongly that in film, women are represented in very limited ways with access to a very limited range of emotions.

Rea: Your film has competed in major international film festivals, and was presented by Sony Pictures at Cannes this year. Any words on the whole experience of promoting a short?

Smith: This is wickedly ironic, but when you send your short film overseas, you have to write in big letters on this special green label: ďOF NO VALUE.Ē That pretty much sums up the financial reality of short films. There is no money to be made in them, even if you get them on the Sundance or Independent Film channels. Yes, theyíre a calling card, and if you have the kind of film that fits well into the format of a festival, you may get some buzz. But I would still argue that you have to be an extremely good self-promoter to really get much mileage off your short film.

Rea: Yet it appears more and more women are making short films to use as calling cards.

Smith: Yes, but are you seeing a proportionate number of women filmmakers in the festivals? No way! There was an article in the Christian Science Monitor a couple of months ago that featured the work of Women Make Movies, a 25year-old organization devoted to nurturing films by women and about women. The executive director of WMM pointed out that although there are more female filmmakers, their work is not being equitably represented in the festivals.

For instance, and my numbers may be off but not by much, Sundance got 1300 short film entries, but had only 60 to 65 slots to fill. Of those films that were selected, I counted maybe 5 to 8 female directors, and only Sandra Bullock got any attention.

Whatís encouraging is that as a film production professor, I get to see all the short films students are making, wonderful short films, and right now, our classes are pretty much  fifty- fifty, women to men. So, it is inevitable these numbers will change.

Rea: Whatís your latest project?

Smith: I got my first grant for the dance documentary I shot this summer about nine principal dancers from major companies, ABT, NYC Ballet, Bolshoi, Kirov. The unique thing about all of these dancers is that they were in their middle to late thirties, which in classical ballet is considered the end of your career.

Whatís heartbreaking is that all of them said, in terms of their understanding of the music and their ability to express it, they were better dancers now than they were in their twenties.

Rea: Itís interesting that in both the world of basketball and dance, you choose to focus on an elite set of athletes and the sacrifices they make in order to maintain their extreme physicality.

Smith: I recognized those parallels when I was filming the dancers. I saw similarities in how the athletes use their bodies and handle injuries, and even in the attitudes of the coach vs the choreographer. I was really taken aback that in a way I was telling the same story, but maybe thatís what drew me to both of them.

Rea: You were a playwright first, then moved to screenwriting, then filmmaking. Whatís the bedrock of your teaching when it comes to these different disciplines?

Smith: There are a couple of bullet points I tell my students to keep in mind each time they start creating the germ of an idea, and this goes whether itís a short film, feature or play. One of them is that there has to be a lot of passion behind the idea. I donít care what itís about, you better love it or no one else will. The other thing is to find a way to tell the story, even if itís a familiar one, in a fresh and unique way. Give your characters specificity; donít rely on cliches. Think harder.

Rea: Why do you teach?

Smith: I teach for selfish reasons. Itís very helpful for me as a filmmaker to have to articulate what I believe and why I believe it. The students donít tolerate people who pose and posture and donít know of what they speak. Itís very challenging and keeps me feeling in the middle of the creative process.

Rea: What do you see your students bringing to film in the next five, ten or fifteen years?

Smith: There is an incredibly rich, vibrant Latino culture in Los Angeles, which I cherish. We have so many young Latino filmmakers who are telling meaningful, poignant film stories about the immigrant experience.

Rea: Will these stories be made?

Smith: Yes, because these are very determined filmmakers. Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, The Secret Garden, Washington Square ), just said to a friend of mine that survival of the fittest is the bottom line of film. The most determined filmmaker will prevail.

I was an invited participant in the most recent AFI TV Movie Writerís Workshop, and  when a guest lecturer, a television executive, insisted that there would never be a movie for television centered around a Latino woman, I couldnít let that go without a fight.

ďCome on,Ē I said. ďYou canít mean that!Ē He thought I had a hard time accepting the truth, but I was really challenging him. Iím in the middle of the struggle, and I see things changing, so I didnít let up. ďWhat about in ten years? Or twenty?Ē

There was a young Latino woman in the workshop who had written just such a story, and he turned to her, and pointed her out, saying she had an easier time accepting this ďneverĒ than some of the other women around her. And this woman smiles very sweetly and says, ďIíll just wait til all you white men are dead.Ē

Frontline: In The Game can be ordered by calling (800)332-2039.
UPDATE:
Death By Vertigo Director Becky Smith is now an Emmy-nominated director whose work can be seen in the Carson Kressley hosted series "How to Look Good Naked." She continues to make films and serve as a role model for women everywhere. Watch for Becky Smith to win an Emmy, Oscar, or both soon...

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