Growing their craft from strength to strength. That’s what the movers and shakers in local independent film have been up to. Chad Eric Smith is one of those intelligent talents who’s been doing exactly that. I had the opportunity to catch up with him to get the run down on his recent adventures as well as his latest project, where he took up the position behind the camera this time…Well I wouldn’t give it all away just yet but invite you to eavesdrop on our conversation below:
Let’s play catch-up for a bit. Please share a brief overview of your background as an actor, writer, director and producer.
Sure! First of all, it’s a pleasure to chat with you again. I was born and raised in Washington, DC. At a young age, it was clear that I had a knack for storytelling and making people laugh. The idea that I could do it professionally probably occurred at 12 years old, when my grandmother took me to see a play at the Arena Stage in southwest DC. It was my first time seeing a professional stage play and I was mesmerized. She also took me to New York City to see the musical Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. Those two experiences inspired me to become a stage performer and my mother nurtured that by enrolling me in drama summer camps. Then in High School, I became a member of Children’s National Medical Center’s theater troupe, Teens Against the Spread of AIDS (TASA), which performed all across the city.
When I attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, I majored in Psychology. Most people would have assumed I was a Visual and Performing Arts major because, while there, I performed in five stage plays and took acting classes. I went on to perform with the world renowned Kuntu Repertory Theatre, which was part of University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Africana Studies. I also performed on the stage of the New Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh. In 2010, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the African American Council on the Arts awarded me two Onyx Awards for my performances with both companies.
I then began my transition into acting in independent films. Some of my major credits include the superhero comedy Squid Man, the horror mystery thriller The Suffering and the award-winning romantic drama Last Night. In 2015, I starred in Harold Jackson III’s two-character, critically-acclaimed 8 episode web drama on YouTube entitled Counselor, starring opposite Curtiss Cook (House of Cards). For my performance, I received a 2016 IndieCapitol Award nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor’.
As a filmmaker, in 2014, I co-wrote and starred in my film directorial debut, the short vampire comedy Dark Therapy, in which I received the Gold Peer Award in the “Acting on Camera – Fiction Male” category from the Television, Internet & Video Association of DC (TIVA-DC). In 2015, I co-produced and composed the original score for the silent short film #SeeTheBoy, written and directed by Eulonda Kay Lea, inspired by the shooting of Tamir Rice.
Beyond your most recent project “Rumination”, which I can’t wait to get in to, and your role as writer and director, what other works have you been involved with as an actor recently?
2017 has been very busy! In addition to my television debut in TV One’s season finale of For My Man, I performed in four independent feature films. I played a paramedic in Nothing To Do, written and directed by Mike Kravinsky, a wife-stealing friend in Nothing From Something, written and directed by Chris Perillo, a convict in The Meek, written & directed by Harold Jackson III, and a werewolf suffering with alopecia in An Accidental Zombie (Named Ted), written & directed by Anne Welles.
Well, let’s get down to “Rumination” of which I had the privilege to view the rough cut. What is the genesis of this story? What brought it about? What is the film all about?
Rumination is about a heartbroken man who travels into the past for a second chance at a failed relationship. It was inspired by my own a personal experience with grief following a breakup.
What was the writing process like? Did the pieces all fall together at once or did it evolve gradually?
The writing process evolved gradually. I started writing the script for Rumination in October of 2015 as a creative way to cathartically deal with the grief I was experiencing at the time. During a visit with a therapist, I came across the word “Rumination” while reading a pamphlet about anxiety and depression. The word, which was unfamiliar, struck me as being a great title for a movie. I looked up the word and saw that it was defined by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the late professor of psychology at Yale University, as “compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions”. So, I began writing the script based on that idea, coupled with my personal experience. My method consisted of treating the script like a journal, having the main character, Elliott, experience and say things that were personally true at the time I wrote it. I put the writing process on hold for about a year; I let it marinate in its own words. Then, in late 2016, I returned to the script after being inspired by the FX series Atlanta, the science fiction television anthology series Black Mirror, and the psychological thriller Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele. They gave me the confidence to complete and direct my film. Plus, by this point, I had come a long way in my own healing and could turn what was personal into a universal story many people could relate to: the desire to travel back in time to set something right or make better decisions. I researched information about the neuroscience of heartbreak, as well as the concept of eternalism, the philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real.
When you arrived at the shooting phase of the project, what was the casting process like? Were there particular specifics that were non-negotiable?
At first, I considered playing the main character since I could so easily relate to him. Then, I decided I didn’t want to memorialize myself on film replaying emotions I had worked so hard to move past. Since I starred in my directorial debut, Dark Therapy, I wanted to experience filmmaking solely behind the camera. I came across actor Kelvin Drama on Facebook. I saw a video of him doing a monologue and was impressed with his sincerity. I reached out to him over a year ago to gauge his interest in playing Elliott and he jumped at the opportunity. Angus Whinfield played Elliott’s girlfriend, and Danny Gavigan played the quirky neuroscientist, Renard. Both were serendipitously cast in the film. Back in March of this year, I participated in a table read for Harold Jackson III’s “The Meek” and Danny was there, reading as the film’s antagonist. I knew Danny was an excellent actor and, as I watched him, it dawned on me that he’d be perfect for my film because of his wide range. I pitched the idea to him and he enthusiastically agreed to play the role of the quirky neuroscientist. Suddenly, while at the same table read, I saw Angus outside the glass door. She was there for a different reason. She and I had performed in an indie film together entitled Secret City Bluz. After running into Angus, it was clear to me she’d be perfect for the film. I emailed her the script and she came onboard soon after reading it. For the cast, there weren’t any non-negotiables. As an actor, I know what it feels like to have a director try to micromanage my performance. It makes me feel like they don’t trust my instincts. So, I trusted my actors’ choices, as long as they were hitting all of the emotional notes that were necessary.
The acting performances were complimentary to the story in my opinion. What was your directing experience like? What did it take to bring out the sort of emotions, inflections, expressions etc that you were looking for from your actors?
On behalf of my actors, thank you! The script isn’t very long but it was nice to hear actors, other than myself, speak my written words. We had two table reads: one for Kelvin and Angus and another for Kelvin and Danny. Closer to the time of production, Kelvin rehearsed with both Angus and Danny for their respective scenes. To bring out the sort of emotions I wanted to convey, I expressed to Kelvin many of the details from my own experience with heartbreak. He told me that Elliott was one of the most difficult characters he had to portray. He did a lot of research on depression, loneliness & torture. We also talked a lot about pulling inspiration from Will Smith’s performance in Seven Pounds, which deals with grief. For Angus, it was about exhibiting haunting grace and beauty, which helps explain, at least some of the reason, why Elliott misses her so much. For Danny, he had clear ideas right away about how he wanted to play Renard. From the get-go, he expressed that his character would be “very direct, clinical and over-exuberant about his work.” We also talked a little bit about drawing from Brad Pitt’s performance in 12 Monkeys as inspiration. There’s more ideas about his character but I don’t want to give too much away.
The center of the theme or story may have had the opportunity to travel over in to the somber side and get stuck there, but comedy is lightly woven in to it. Was this decided from the film’s inception?
Yup! No matter how serious I get, my sense of humor is never far away. Since the beginning of the writing process, I decided to have humorous pieces of dialogue that contrasted with the rest of the film’s darker tone. Just like in my film Dark Therapy, I enjoy telling stories that are multifaceted in its tone.
Please talk about the cinematic feel of the piece. Some shots were reminiscent of Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. What was your intention for the shot compositions, editing etc.
Cinematically, I was influenced by Black Mirror and movies like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, as well as an array of time travel flicks. I chose to shoot the film using mostly natural lighting and selected cinematographer Andy Evans based on his experience doing just that. I talked to him about how much I liked the look of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film, The Revenant.
In post-production, I emphasized to my editor, Kelvin J., the type of films I was influenced by. We discussed the symbolism behind the color choices for the look of the film. Kelvin was also my production sound mixer/boom operator. He was able to watch the actors’ performances in person, which I believe makes it much easier for an editor to do his or her job effectively.
The music is also a very important part of my film. My father, Jonathan Bey, is an Emmy award-winning music producer and composed the film’s original score. For Rumination, I directed him to create a score that had binaural beats and isochronic tones, similar to meditation music. Since I was telling a story that involved the topic of consciousness, I thought it would be cool to have a score that included subtle auditory illusions that synced up with the audience’s brainwaves. I wanted to play with the audience’s eyes, ears and everything in between, in order for them to be immersed into Elliott’s world.
What are your short-term distribution plans for this project? (Give as much detail as possible including how audiences can see the film in the near future.
My short term plan is to submit Rumination to as many film festivals across the nation that I can afford. Rumination will have its world premiere at the Reel Independent Film Extravaganza on Saturday, October 14th, 2017 at 7pm at the Angelika Pop Up Union Market (550 Penn St NE Washington DC 20002). Tickets can be purchased at: https://filmfreeway.com/festival/ReelIndependentFilmExtravaganza/tickets
There will also be a screening and Q&A at the Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center on October 28th, 2017 at 6:30pm.
What are your expectations for the piece in the long-term?
I’m in the early writing stage of expanding upon the story in a creative way. Folks will have to just stay tuned.
What do you want viewers to come away with when they watch this short-film?
At the heart of my story is the theme of grief, and how the multifaceted response to loss can be very difficult, sometimes eliciting rash decisions out of desperation. Whether it be from losing someone you love due to death or a relationship ending, the emotions can feel exactly the same. The five stages of grief and mourning are universal, and don’t necessarily occur in any specific order. The audience will have to discern whether or not Elliott grieved in a manner that was advantageous. However, the process of making my film was a constructive example of how one can cathartically turn pain into art. French visual artist Annette Messager once said, “Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them.” That is exactly what I did through the making of this film and I hope viewers are both entertained and inspired.
So what is next for Chad Eric Smith?
Well, all the films I mentioned that I acted in this year will be coming out over the course of the coming months. So that’s exciting! Hopefully, Rumination will be screened at film festivals all over the country and even the world. Stay tuned!
Is there anything else that you’re bursting to tell us that may not have been mentioned before?
I just want to say thank you again for taking the time to talk to me about my film. I encourage folks to “Like” the fan page for Rumination at http://www.facebook.com/RuminationShortFilm in order to stay up to date with all the breaking news. Also, fans can see what else I have going on by following my personal page at http://www.facebook.com/ActorChadEricSmith, my Instagram @IamChadEricSmith and Twitter @ChadEricSmith.