As TCM’s Women Make Film series winds to a close this Wednesday, it seemed fitting to revisit a conversation I had with Colorado native, now Los Angeles-based, filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith. We chatted back in 2015, when her debut feature, The Midnight Swim, played Boulder’s Boedecker Theater. Smith has since directed Buster’s Mal Heart and a handful of episodes for various TV and streaming series. Her latest, Birds of Paradise, is an Amazon Studios production and is scheduled for release in 2021. From Boulder Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 47, “Mother is the first other.”
Rashaan Salaam and Kordell Stewart!” Sarah Adina Smith cheers with delight, recalling her high school years as a University of Colorado Boulder Buffs fan.
“I was born and raised in Fort Collins, but my Mom went to CU,” Smith tells Boulder Weekly. “We were, like, totally going against our town, but we were really into it.”
Before the BW can get anywhere close to talking about Smith’s debut feature film, The Midnight Swim, football must be discussed.
“I look back on life, I can’t believe I was a sports fan, because I don’t even watch it now,” Smith recalls. “But I was so intense about it. I would paint my body half-gold and half-black.”
Now residing in Los Angeles, Smith returns not to Folsom Field but The Boedecker with her new film and a Q&A following the 7 p.m. June 30 screening of The Midnight Swim. This is a golden opportunity for Boulder moviegoers, as Smith is as intense about her work as she was about the Buff’s star quarterback.
Smith left Colorado for Columbia University in New York, where her love of football dropped off and was replaced by the arts. When she wasn’t studying philosophy, Smith was painting for hours on end or working at Kim’s Video on the Upper West Side.
“Coming from Fort Collins, Colorado—there wasn’t a whole lot of access to independent films,” Smith recalls. “We had Blockbuster Video and a multiplex, so I kind of got a film education through working at the independent video store, and realized that making films somehow combined all the things I loved.”
The pay at Kim’s Video was chicken feed, but one of the perks was taking home three movies a night. Like many other directors of the post-New American Cinema, the video store became Smith’s film studies class. In Smith’s case, her directions didn’t shift; they simply focused.
“Like philosophy, [when] writing films you have to think deeply and think out ideas,” Smith says. “It’s about questioning and sometimes closing an argument and solving problems—I really liked that about making films.”
Smith has had an impressive output for a young filmmaker:
- Directing three shorts: Madura (2006), The Sirens and One Cup of Coffee (both 2009)
- Co-writing Goodbye World (2013)
- Editing two parody music videos: Harry Potter in the Hood and Lindsay Fully Loaded (both 2007)
But she felt it was time to plunge into features and address ideas that had been brewing in her mind for some time—ideas that suddenly bubbled up when Smith visited her sister and met her newborn nephew.
“I had never really been a baby person, and still not totally sure that I am, but I held her baby, [who] was two days old, and all of a sudden it just like hit me and in this really intense way. … It wasn’t a baby, it was like this old soul, fresh of the river of forgetting,” Smith remembers. “It looked like images from all his past lives were flickering underneath his eyelids, and these really adult complicated emotions were flashing across his face, like irony and sweet suffering and things that you wouldn’t ever think 2-day-olds were capable of feeling.”
After that trip, Smith came home to write out the 25-page outline that would become The Midnight Swim.
“That script came about so quickly,” Smith says. “Which is deceptive because I think it was brewing in my brain for many, many years, and it just kind of spilled out in a week.”
The Midnight Swim is the story of three sisters, Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and June (Lindsay Burdge), who return to their childhood home after their mother mysteriously disappears in the nearby lake. The sisters’ relationship is a loving one, but it tentatively relies on peace treaties established between each sister and their individual relationship with their mother.
“My relationship to the feminine is really complicated and not something I totally understand, and maybe that kind of comes out in the portrait of their mother,” Smith explains. “I always imagine that their mother sort of had three children with three different men. … She had them almost as science experiments.
“I was almost more interested in our relationship to grief than anything else,” Smith continues. “When someone dies, there is this kind of tendency to lionize them and think of them as perfect and truly good. But our relationships in real life are certainly more complicated than that. I was really interested in how each sister has a different relationship with their mother. That was really the unifying principle in the directing process.”
It also helps to have good actors who not only look like sisters; they act like them as well.
“The three actresses I worked with are the most talented people that I know,” Smith says. “They brought so much richness and humanity.”
Those qualities are just a couple of aspects they brought to the party. Smith works from an outline, leaving most of the dialogue to improvisation that she works out together with the actresses.
“Especially in the era of reality TV and all the documentaries we see,” Smith explains, “dialogue just sounds fake and script-y a lot of times. … If you want to make something naturalistic, I really think there is no substitute for just letting people speak freely and talk the way human beings really talk.”
Smith and the actresses’ natural approach is visually bolstered by cinematographer Shaheen Seth (also the director’s husband): He gives The Midnight Swim its dreamy visual quality while maintaining a documentary aesthetic via the youngest sister, June. She is the quiet and reserved one who sees the world from behind the video camera she takes everywhere she goes. It is from June’s perspective that audiences experience The Midnight Swim.
“I wanted to make a movie where the protagonist is almost invisible and then slowly reveals herself,” Smith explains.
But June’s camera doesn’t just capture what she sees; it also captures what she wants to see.
“We wanted to always have the camera feel like a character and be in the room with the characters,” Smith says. “It was a great set of restrictions because we didn’t want to cheat. We wanted to make it like a documentary and only look where our character would look. It’s limiting because you don’t get coverage the way you do in a normal film, but it was also a really exciting way to work because it was purely character-driven.”
This first-person perspective technique incorporates the film’s aesthetic into the narrative—a narrative that becomes less and less reliable as June’s true self begins to emerge.
“My hope was to put the audience inside the character’s head,” Smith says. “I was less interested in making a film about mental illness and more interested in making the audience feel mentally ill. Or at least making the audience lose their grasp on reality.
… [I]f I’m successful, the audience feels like they’re inside June’s brain.”
Smith maintains that while the movie is personal, it isn’t necessarily autobiographical, even considering The Midnight Swim centers on a woman who sees the world through the camera lens, was inspired by the birth of a nephew, was shot at Smith’s grandmother’s cottage in Okoboji, Iowa and is dedicated to her mother.
“My moms always worried that whenever I make art, that she thinks it’s somehow saying something directly about me or my family, which is not always the case,” Smith says. “If you’re gonna think deeply about something, you have to think personally.
“I think that when women make art and women make films, critics and audience assume more quickly that it’s autobiographical for some reason,” Smith explains. “I don’t know quite why that is.
“I think all good artwork should be personal, in that you have personal things and care about it, and you like these characters, and it comes from some sort of truth you’re scratching to find. But just because something is personal doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical.”
The Midnight Swim may not be Sarah Adina Smith’s story, but it is a movie that practically exhales her personality. Smith is an energetic and passionate artist, excited and hungry to share her insights and stories with the world. The film is just the first step in what should be a long and fruitful career.
Stream The Midnight Swim on Amazon Prime.