We recently sponsored a small film project (Self Portrait) for Connor Allen Smith's boutique production company, Prairie Creek Productions. We thought it'd be fun to commemorate its completion by sharing it with Chicago auteur, Jennifer Reeder. The following is a conversation between the two that started about Self Portrait but quickly sprawled out into to talk about Chicago indie, Auteur theory in 2021, & meatloaf.
(This interview was edited and condensed for clarity)
Reeder: Let me start by asking you a question. In watching both shorts that you directed and potentially wrote, I think? You're Texas Smith?
Smith: Yeah, off the record, but on the transcript, that’s my pen name. As a writer-director, I find it helps me delineate. Also, I grew up with a very conservative upbringing with very literal senses of multiplicity so re-appropriating this separation of mind and body helps me.
Reeder: So you’ve written and directed work. I watched Fletcher and that was improvised, but I don't assume that it was autobiographical, but tell me what your provenance is to where you are now as a filmmaker.
Smith: I'm originally from Arkansas– though, my grandmother would tell you that I'm a Texan that was raised in Arkansas. Nevertheless, there were definitely arts around, I grew up going to a lot of arts-&-crafts fairs. But as far as a film scene when I was growing up, there were very limited opportunities. Now, there's the Bentonville Film Festival and Geena Davis is doing great work through that, and like, I'm from Bentonville originally, but I predate all that a little.
Reeder: You were just ahead of your time.
Smith: Haha, I suppose. I was really left to myself to figure this all out. I do have some reference points, you know, David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols, and more recently, Lee Issac Chung with his beautiful film, Minari. I'm really excited about who's come out of Arkansas. But as far as the community that’s based and working there, it's developing. I'm part of the Arkansas Cinema Society but admittedly I’m remote too. I kind of came to Chicago after studying anthropology to figure it out.
Self Portrait directed by Connor Allen Smith, shot by Ross Gehm, & featuring Tania Córdova.
Reeder: That's all good to know and that all makes a lot of sense. And speaking of a specific film, Self Portrait. Did you know that you wanted to cut it so it felt like it was kind of bending time and space? So that it had a sort of surrealism, the day-to-day feeling seamless.
Smith: Yes, that was really kind of what got me excited about the idea. I was kind of seeing stuff that was made in quarantine and I know I haven't fully processed this last year and what it's meant to me artistically, but I was trying to figure that out by asking, what can I do right now? With my parameters, my limited resources. And what feels honest? And so that's where this device of self-portraiture came in. Then I thought, well, that's really boring because there's been a lot of people who’ve looked like me that saturated the market. I was trying to think how I could just make it more personal, so this conceit came to be.
Reeder: Continuing on a little bit with the way that you treat space and time in Self Portrait, but then also in Phosphorescence, that one really uses like a magical realism but it's also really self-reflexive. It's not quite right to call what you've made like a videotape. But the idea of record, pause, record, rewind, play, that that's kind of what's happening as a metaphor, not for memory– which I think it gets overused for –but as a vehicle for grief. Between those two films, how does being able to experiment with that emotion and reality serve you? I mean, it's something that I use constantly, so it's not a trick question, but, I'm curious.
Smith: [chuckles] I'll do my best. Starting with the grief aspect, I moved to Chicago in 2017 and I lost one of my grandfathers that year too. And I hadn't really figured out how I wanted to process that emotion. I had written some poetry, but that was all private. Then I found myself in the conservatory-ish program at Blackbox and one of the weeks it was basically Montessori-style/choose your own adventure thing. So, as someone who wanted to make films, I was like, "fuck, okay, well, I gotta write something new" and then to have the courage to share and produce this over the span of a week. I went to that kernel of emotion, of grief, and that wasn't even intentional at first. You've seen the short, it's definitely not about someone losing their grandfather, but it was far more about the type of things I missed about someone who was essentially the first person I had lost to death and how I was remembering him.
Reeder: I guess I'm curious about the linear path of the story and how it gets totally disrupted. That's not something that isn’t explained in the narrative. That's something that the audience has to understand is a break in the reality and I think some of that happens in the way that you cut Self Portrait, right? The way that sort of loops into itself. I don't necessarily think of those as directly magical realism, but it's related to the surreal, but grounded in absolute reality.
Smith: Ah, yes. That’s just how my brain works. I'm just not interested in straight linear narratives. I also don't know if that's what film does most effectively or even art does more effectively; it's our job to be a little bit more reflective about how we present these things.
Phosphorescence directed by Connor Allen Smith, shot by Johnny Weichel, & featuring Allyson Womack & Amy Carpenter.
Reeder: Do you remember seeing films even before you made your first, where that happened? Where there was an experimentation with the reality or the linearity of a project and feeling like into it or frustrated by it?
Smith: I mean, I think a lot of it comes from the kind of literature I like to read. You've mentioned magical realism; I tend to read a lot of this hysterical realism, so like DeLillo, and then Vonnegut & Virginia Woolf are also important to me. But films specifically, I watched Guy Maddin at a very impressionable age and so those topsy-turvy structures probably got in me and Charlie Kaufman, of course. I think those were probably two of my biggest aha-moments.
Reeder: For Phosphorescence, I was also curious about putting something– that it's autobiographical in the sense –but that you cast two women, one of which is a pregnant woman. Not to be binary, but I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” I think it's cool. I mean, with the exception of 1 of my something 53 films has only one time featured the experiences of boys and men.
Smith: A lot of which you can now find on Criterion Channel!
Reeder: Haha, It's true. You can see Shuvit on Criterion.
Because of Fletcher, I'm curious as a writer-director, are you someone, who on a set that's entirely yours, encourages improvisation?
Smith: Oh yea!
Reeder: I'll tell you something I don't. I like to; I appreciate people who do, and I have cast some spectacular Chicago-based improv actors in so many of my films and then I really ask them to stick to the script. I mean I've worked with TJ Jagodowski and he did not.
Fletcher directed by Emma Thatcher, shot by Emma Thatcher, & featuring Allyson Womack & Connor Allen Smith
Reeder: I really love being able to work with improv actors and stage actors, because of their ability to sort of read a moment and pivot. Even just on set, if there's going to be a scene that will get cut together, theater people don't assume like, who cares? I've become probably dangerously particular about my dialogue.
Smith: You being more strict to the written word makes a lot of sense to me because you are truly building different worlds. All the air molecules have to be precise. I guess a question I had for you is with Signature Move. I didn't realize until afterward that you didn’t write it. I was wondering about your process with that. What's it like directing someone else's words, when you're so used to being a writer-director?
Reeder: Signature Move was a really interesting process because it was a world that I didn't know. I am not a Muslim, Pakistani, nor am I Mexican. I have a mother that I have a relationship with, but I've also never been a professional wrestler. There was a lot to figure out how to bring myself into that world.
Thankfully Fawzia Mirza who was one of the co-writers is Muslim and Pakistani. There were a lot of people on set who could say this feels like a Mexican mother's kitchen or this feels like a Muslim home. Then working with Fazio and Lisa, who was the co-writer, were really open with having conversations before we started shooting. I think the hardest part, honestly, of making Signature Move was the fact that even though it's a really queer story, it's actually very straightforward comedy, a very straightforward romance.
Smith: Yea, that's something I loved about it! Like an 80s, American rom-com, transposed. Totally.
Reeder: That genre is not what I feel like I'm best at. In the early stages, going through the script, I kept asking Fonzie, is there a dream sequence? Does anybody sing? I got to indulge in the wrestling scenes; there was something great about being able to build that wrestling world and there’s a scene that I got to write all by myself, which thankfully a scene Shabana Azmi really appreciated, which I feel like is totally out of the Jennifer Reader world. When Zaynab’s mother is about to lose her daughter and it's the man inside the television set who gives her advice.
Smith: Ah, that makes sense.
Reeder: A character at a crossroads emotionally, and they are unable to ask for help. So it has to be something in the universe to take advice from.
I'm actually in pre-production for a new project that I'm supposed to shoot in May that I didn't write that I will direct, although I asked if I could do a pass of the script. I can't resist doing a pass. It's a tough thing to direct someone else's material.
Full Spectrum Features' Signature Move directed by Jennifer Reeder, shot by Christopher Rejano, & featuring Fawzia Mirza, Shabana Azmi, Sari Sanchez, & Audrey Francis.
Smith: Two thoughts, in addition to that TV scene, I really saw your fingerprints when the mother was sorting through things on her bed, that seemed like a specifically Reeder observation. And, and I know sometimes your work is compared to Lynch and Cronenberg, but Jeanne Dielman, it's the sense of longing the maternal character has is throughout your work, but specifically in that moment.
The other thing you mentioned, bringing in your direction to the script, but having people on the set who that was their experience and collaborating. I'm very much against perpetuating Truffaut’s auteur theory. It feels so dishonest to the process or at least to how filmmaking happens now. This hierarchy or that trope of one person being this brooding artist is just so dated. And I think your workflow on Signature Move that's a perfect example of how collaborative the medium can be and how beautiful that is.
Reeder: Well, I would say I do feel like I own my decisions. I get asked a lot about my collaborative processes with my DP and my editor– I've worked with the same DP and editor for a long time. This is not what you're saying, but sometimes I wonder if I get asked that question and it's almost always, maybe exclusively, from men who imagine that it would be impossible for a woman to have made all of those decisions. Chris Rejano, my DP, we talk through framing or lighting, which feels a little bit different than like true collaboration.
Speaking of Jeanne Dielman, in two films, Blood Below the Skin and Knives and Skin, I paid homage to the meatloaf scene and it's funny, some people they'll say, “Oh, that meatloaf scene was interesting. Do you know Chantal Akerman?”
Smith: Obviously you do haha.
Reeder: It's actually really nice when I come across another film nerd who’s struck by that. And there are a couple other film nerd references in many of the films that are little nods to films or filmmakers that I really like.
Smith: That's wonderful. That particular motif is really powerful. And haha, I identify as a film nerd and I dunno, additionally it's just fun. It's like a little Easter egg.
It's interesting you bring gender into this auteur conversation though because there was an A24 interview that Janicza Bravo mentioned similarly never hearing the word auteur given to like a female director. “Like would you call Lynne Ramsey an auteur?” was her example. So I do think that it's an interesting thing to dog-ear and have people assessing when it's used.
Reeder: I love the idea of an auteur, but it must be inclusive.
Reeder: It is the case that all the people who are honored with that title are all white men, mostly even white European men, with the exception of John Sayles or Wes Anderson or so on. I think Lynn Ramsey is a really good example. I think Kelly Reichardt is a really good example. I actually think that Eliza Hittman has established with her new film Never Really Sometimes Always has established herself as someone who's got a really specific sort of style and voice. I think Chloe Zhao's Nomadland. There's a relationship to the writer and their song– my brother taught me that. Those filmmakers have a very specific point of view and those films are really at the end of the day handcrafted. It's the antithesis of a DC, Marvel film where at some point the story falls apart because the producers said “We just need one more explosion.” I think of Chantal Akerman as an auteur, Agnes Varde. It's a funny thing that that theory begins outside of the US but I think it's because there's also room outside of the US for a more expanded idea of who has agency over creativity.
And I appreciate that in the response that I've gotten from the shorts being on Criterion from people who don't know me and who didn't know the work that they get that the shorts are connected to one another, that there are reoccurring themes. Maybe the people who think of that as lazy have just not reached out to me, which is the best idea.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxellesdirected by Chantal Akerman, shot by Babette Mangolte, & featuring Delphine Seyrig
Reeder: But you know, it's all very purposeful and it's actually not lazy. It's more like a real stubbornness. I mean, maybe that's my Midwestern-ness. I feel like there's a stubbornness about Midwesterners.
Smith: I mean, I'm from the South, I understand.
Reeder: I can’t move onto something unless I've really exhausted it. I didn’t set out to sort of establish something that felt like, “Oh, that feels like a Jennifer Reeder move,” but it just sort of kept happening. I kept trying to figure out a better way to do what I'd done previously. On some level, I feel like I've actually just made the exact same film over and over again which is totally fine.
Smith: It's a good film!
Reeder: It's a lot of them; it's a very, very, very long film at this point.
Smith: This repetition and this stubbornness resonates with me. The other thing that it reminds me of is the way Ozu would remake his films sometimes with sound or in color, et cetera. Auteur doesn't always get lend to his work.
To backtrack, being convinced a bit that we’re able to use your interpretation of auteur theory– if we’re to continue using it, it's much more about the tone of the director and after, once it's all created? It's the environment in which everything came together. When you see a Kelly Reichardt film, it feels like a Kelly film. There's no denying that. And with your films, there is such an intimacy, such a beautiful, strangeness to them. It's a tone. Maybe we can keep this idea going forward as long as we share.
Reeder: I think being able to listen and trust your crew and the cast is really important. I'm also not somebody who's a demonstrative or a yeller on set.
Smith: There's no reason to be.
Reeder: That doesn't mean some of the most tense conversations I’ve had haven’t happened between myself and my editor.
But there's never been a moment in a film when it's finally finished that I don't feel comfortable with every single decision. I give them each as much attention as I possibly can. There are constraints that I've dealt with that don't have anything to do with the content, but have to do with something beyond the content festival strategy, a distribution strategy, or something, but I've never released a film into the world that I wasn’t happy with. I've actually made films that have never been released into the world because they don't feel right.
Smith: This idea is so much more than just being on set and like having a “pure” artistic vision. It comes down to that culture that you've set in pre-production and you take all the way through the editing room and then events or festival strategy. It's really the idea of some sort of rapport that you develop with everyone at every stage and making sure that culture is carried through from beginning to end. That's beautiful.
Knives & Skin directed by Jennifer Reeder, shot by Christopher Rejano, & featuring Kate Arrington, Tim Hopper, Jim Vincent Meredith, & Maricka Engelhardt.
Smith: I know you're very busy. So I guess I just want to close with one more question: whether it's to me or other filmmakers reading this, what would you say to us? It doesn't have to be about filmmaking, maybe just about humanity right now. I dunno.
Reeder: Well, I think it's probably for both. And I think I've probably said this multiple times, but I think that anyone should be ready to say, “yes.” Be prepared to say yes. If someone says we've got this project the director just dropped out, but also think that it's the case, especially right now, if someone says my elderly neighbor shouldn't go to the store, can you go to the store for them? You should say yes. I just think that trying to say yes, in any capacity is meaningful.
Related to that, I think it's important to take some risks and to follow your instincts. But take care of yourself. You don't have to be a clairvoyant to just sometimes have a moment where you're like this is or isn't right. That's good in your real life too.
And then, especially in a really small filmmaking community, like Chicago, I just think it's important not to be a jerk. Word spreads fast. And even though it's small, there's always somebody else you can work who's not been a jerk. I like to give opportunities to young filmmakers and I always give someone, if someone asks me, an opportunity, but it's also sort of like a tough tolerance policy. Everyone's got one opportunity because filmmaking is like a tsunami. Once it’s 6:00 AM on production day, you cannot go back. You’re on the Snowpiercer and it’s moving forward, so if there's one loose cannon who has the potential to derail even one minute of the day, then the whole thing can start to fall apart. That doesn't happen very often.
So be prepared to say yes, follow your instincts– take the risks, and don't be a jerk.
Smith: I think that's a really lovely way to end this. Thank you so much for your time today.
Reeder: You’re very welcome, Connor.
As mentioned, Jennifer Reeder has a collection of shorts currently available on Criterion Channel. Her feature Signature Move can currently be rented on VOD thru the Music Box's Virtual Cinema and Knives & Skin can be streamed on Hulu. She's on Instagram as @thejenniferreeder. Connor Allen Smith can be found on Instagram (& on Letterboxd) as @kondorfalcon. Their short "Fletcher" can currently be seen as part of Cinema Femme Magazine's April Showcase.