Interview with director Emma Smith

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

It feels like I always just new that I wanted to make films. I’m lucky my dad has a creative heart and is very into cinema so he always encouraged me to follow it as a career. He says I’ve been questioning the creative decisions in films since I was like 5. I love hearing that because it feels like this was my calling, like I was always going to make films. Even now, knowing how tough the industry can be, I’m so content with the fact that I’m here and I’m doing something that I respect and admire.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

I guess I don’t really know the answer to this as I am lucky enough to have gone to film school. It was definitely a huge help having the facilities of the college to make films. We all know how expensive equipment is so having that at your disposal definitely gives you a huge amount of creative freedom that is hard to come by outside. The other amazing thing about college was the people you meet. The entire crew of Starry Night were people that I was lucky enough to have met in College. Great people who all have a love for the same industry. That creates a good working environment where everyone is able to invest in projects.
In saying that I think that the most important thing involved in becoming a successful film maker is passion and drive and if you have them then there is little that can stop you from doing what you want to do.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

I mean I’m really just getting started now! In terms of Starry Night the hardest part was probably settling with an idea. When you know that you are going to be living with a project and a story for a long time you have to make sure it’s the right one, but you also have certain limitations. When Rachel and I first started writing this script it was set in the 70’s and was based around the story of the contraception train. We were very adamant that we were going to make a film with a strong female voice and so what better environment to set it in then the journey to bring back contraceptives by the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement? Unfortunately, we realized that we did not have the budget to do this story justice. We really toyed around with different scripts and ideas for a couple of months before Rachel came to me with the first draft of Starry Night and I knew that was it! Once we agreed on the script everything started moving and fast, which was easy to do because we knew where we were going.
It wasn’t until the edit that I felt things got hard again. The first week after the shoot when you look at the rushes and die inside because all you can see are the mistakes you made and not the things you did right. That is hard!

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

I learnt so much from this experience but the main thing I came away with was to trust my instinct. If the script doesn’t feel right yet, that’s because it isn’t. If you know there’s something missing in the edit, there is. The reason you are making a film is because you have an instinct towards it so don’t be afraid to voice that. A lot of the time that instinct is to get advice and listen to the people around you. You just have to know when to take their opinion on board, and when not to.
I found it hard to push for different things on this project but I learnt that people will respect you more for being honest, once you do it in a positive way!

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

Money, money, money.. Oh lord do I have a student debt. In saying that I am concerned about making a film as a real person because being a student meant that people empathized with us and gave us better deals.I guess the scariest thing was approaching people, knocking on doors and asking people ‘Can I take over your house for a week’. That took guts. But we ended up shooting in the loveliest community in Dublin, O’Rahilly house. It created the warmest atmosphere and I am so grateful. Also the flats were small and shooting in February was COLD. The crew spent a lot of time outside and they hardly complained.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

Anna, the incredible cinematographer, and I decided on a visual style that could make us or break us. Long, tracking shots is not the usual go -to for a student film as they take a lot of time to plan and capture but we felt we needed them to create our world. We really wanted to stay away from social realism. It was important that the camera movement was romantic and surreal. We didn’t tell any of our lecturers our plan, for complete fear they wouldn’t be on board with it, and we just went with it. (They were happy with the finished product). I remember being terrified at several stages during the week of filming when we could only get the long shot and nothing else. We had very little coverage, so no back up. It was a huge risk as it meant that the pacing had to be right within the scene, as well as the performance and camera movement. We had no way of covering up our mistakes. Now, I regret nothing obviously, as I feel that the visual style is one of the most interesting factors in the film but it was very hard to make that decision to leave ourselves with such little wiggle room. After the shoot some people were concerned that we had really screwed ourselves over. Every time I met Anna for the 3 weeks post shoot she would say ‘At least we tried something different’, and she was right! I think I’d be happy even if it didn’t work. It’s so important to try new things, our fear of failing is what holds us back.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I am so lucky to have worked with the loveliest, most talented group of people on this project. Everyone that I asked gave me 110%. Asking for favors and being polite is something that is very important to me. A lot of people who worked on this got no credit in college. They did so to further their own knowledge and experience but I am eternally grateful that they picked Starry night to work on. I think showing gratitude and keeping moral high is one of the most important jobs I had. I recruited some people who I knew I would work well with. Others were recruited by other departments but the crew became one big family. I think we tried to keep any problems between us away from the knowledge of the whole crew. If something wasn’t working, we just involved people that needed to know. This led to a less stressed environment where we could help it.I approached Rachel and Anna, the writer and cinematographer very early on in the year as I knew I wanted to work with them. Then I bumped into Saoirse in the hall of college and just started chatting, and she showed me some pictures of the project she was working on. Next thing she became our production designer! I was already good friends with the lead actress, Hazel Clifford and I knew how talented she was. Then she saw our open auditions on Facebook and the rest is history. (It pays to be sociable Mammy)

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

This is a good question and I know a lot of people with very different answers to this. I would agree that different audiences want different things. Some to be entertained, some want to be emotionally moved and others want to be informed or educated. I guess I think about it in the way that I want to make films that I would want to watch.For me that happens to be films that provoke questions surrounding childhood. This topic fascinates me. The different stages between being a young child to becoming a fully formed adult is so interesting but what’s even more interesting is how every single person experiences them in a completely different way. Some are nurtured and some aren’t, and whether you’ve been nurtured previously has such an impact on your ability to pass that on. It can save or ruin lives. It sets out peoples paths. So with Starry night we really wanted to present this topic in a story that could capture the emotion of that situation. Usually people would take this story and create a really gritty, realist film, but what is amazing about childhood is that kids don’t think in reality like adults do. They still explore their imaginations. They life through a colorful lens. That’s what we wanted to show with starry night: The world that two kids and a teenager have created in order to deal with a harsh reality.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Film festivals are the reason people get to see me film. Unfortunately I can’t make it to New York although I would love to be there but (cough student debt) it wasn’t an option for me at the minute. I have however travelled to Galway, and Cork with Starry Night and Caoilinn has been great at getting to Festivals. She has been to London and Kerry and is travelling to Limerick this weekend! I am very grateful to the festivals that are screening it and recognizing it. I have had so many people message me, or come up to me and comment on it. I love hearing how it affected them emotionally or reminded them of a story from home. To know that someone has seen your film is exhilarating.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

Always try something that’s original and fresh! That’s how we progress. However you have to understand the classic in order to create something original.