Sarah Adina Smith is a director, writer, and editor. She directed the Mother’s Day segment of the 2016 horror anthology Holidays. Her 2014 mystery drama The Midnight Swim featured three sisters working to process their mother’s sudden death. Being one of three sisters myself, I was struck by its realistic depiction of adult sibling relationships. I caught up with the director as she was preparing for the release of her upcoming film Buster’s Mal Heart, starring Emmy winner Rami Malek. We discussed how themes of motherhood, the afterlife, and sibling relationships permeate her work and inform her creative output as a female filmmaker.
Juliette Faraone: Which came first for you, directing or writing? Or did you start out writing and directing in tandem?
Sarah Adina Smith: I was doing all kinds of painting and video art and I wanted to direct, but I just couldn’t find a script that spoke to me enough. I tried different collaborations with different writers—all of which were great—but it was almost as if I needed to start writing to find my voice as a director.
JF: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Did you have a moment as a child, when you were like five or ten, when you realized that this was what you wanted to do?
SAS: When I was five or ten I wanted to be President of the United States, or an actress, or an air force pilot. I was obsessed with Top Gun. I just remember riding in my family’s car, sitting in what we called “the way way back”—there were four kids and I was always in the way way back—and I would just stare out the window at the sky and the theme song from Top Gun would be in my head and I was like, one day I’m going to be a fighter pilot. So far from where I am now.
JF: Was there a particular movie that inspired your interest in filmmaking?
SAS: I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado and Blockbuster was where we’d go to get movies. We’d watch the same movies over and over. Which were awesome, by the way—movies like Coming to America and Adventures in Babysitting and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I still think they’re genius. But when I was thirteen a friend gave me a copy of A Clockwork Orange and it was just like…brains exploding. It kind of took movies out of the realm of just blockbuster entertainment for me. Like you find out there’s this other thing… a sort of a higher art version of cinema. That really stuck with me, even if I didn’t fully connect it to wanting to make film myself until later. I was painting a lot and I just got a little bit bored by painting or was feeling like the medium had limits for me and I wanted to make something that moved. So I went from painting to video art and from there to film.
JF: As far as acting goes, did you ever pursue that?
SAS: I did in college, yeah. It was really fun. It was great and it led me to realizing I wanted to be on the other side of the camera. I loved it a lot. I have so much respect for actors but I don’t think I was built to pursue that type of career—it’s really a tough spot and you don’t have much control at all. I don’t think I was cut out for that psychologically.
JF: Can you talk a little bit about your sources of inspiration as a director?
SAS: Right now I tend to feel like I have more things that I’m interested in than I have time to explore deeply. If you’re a curious person who listens, there’s so much to be inspired by in everyday life. For example, the story of the seven sisters that we used in The Midnight Swim was actually a story my mother would tell us growing up to warn us about swimming alone or slipping on the rocks. In Mother’s Day the use of mythology was a little more deliberate. When we were making Holidays and the producers assigned me Mother’s Day, I saw that Mother’s Day that year fell on the tenth of May, so I was like, that’s interesting—I’m gonna look back in history and see what happened on that day. And I found it was the day of the death of Montezuma II. And there’s this cult who believes he’ll come back to life again because no one really understood where his body went or whether he died or not. So I liked this notion of that and it became sort of the underlying mythology of Mother’s Day even though it’s not quite said. And I told it all through a lens of the primal fear of motherhood in the bodily sense.
JF: Because motherhood wasn’t always a positive experience for women.
SAS: Yeah, I mean, you know—it’s changed a lot obviously, but often in the past a girl would be impregnated at thirteen or women would be pregnant until they died in childbirth. Women were these perpetually pregnant, baby-making machines for a lot of human history. Because of the advent of birth control and accessible contraception a lot of us are now in control. Which is great and thank goodness, but I liked the idea of a horror film hearkening back to a time of not being in control.
JF: Speaking of control, have you ever walked out of a movie?
SAS: Oh yeah. I used to do it more when I was younger and probably a little bit more of an asshole, but yeah. You know, I do it with books too. If I don’t feel like I’m going to benefit from finishing it, I’d rather not waste my time. Now that I’m making movies I think I am more forgiving of that craft. I’m a lot gentler in my criticism now than when I was in my twenties. Everybody’s got feelings.
JF: Your relationship to your actors strikes me as so unique. For example, it’s interesting how much of an impression Lindsay Burdge made in The Midnight Swim because revisiting it I didn’t see a lot of her but I had a sort of false memory of her being in every scene.
SAS: She is in a way. We were actually really deliberate about that. I’m glad you felt that way, because Lindsay, Shaheen Seth [the director of photography] and I all decided that everywhere the camera moves we need to feel her character’s gaze. So it was actually this beautiful dance between the three of us and I made sure she was in every scene behind the camera so that her sisters were actually feeling her too. We thought it was so important that she was always there. I relied on her. I was like I want to know how your character is feeling so I know what directorial choices to make. I think she was really attracted to the project for the opportunity of getting to be, in essence, a director. So it was a really unique collaboration. Even through the editing process I would ask myself, what would June do? I wanted June to really edit the movie. Like what would June be feeling in these moments and what rhythm would she want? I was really trying to channel that into the editing process.
JF: It shows. Anytime June would catch herself in a mirror, it never felt jarring, only familiar.
SAS: I think Lindsay taught me so much as a filmmaker in making that movie. And it took us all two or three days to settle into the rhythm and I think just being aware of what she was doing as an actor it really inspired the tone.
JF: That very non-hierarchical style of collaboration strikes me as uniquely feminist. One of the guiding ideas behind ‘the garden party’ is the tradition of consciousness raising. Are there any experiences that you’ve had/things you’ve witnessed that you’d like to speak out about?
SAS: So, many things keep me up at night! But the issues that haunt me deep in my heart generally revolve around the destruction of Nature and the disrespect for the wonder that is this planet and her creatures. If I could wave a magic wand and raise consciousness about anything, it would be to give everyone perspective about our rare and lonely place in the cosmos. Perhaps that would help us put petty grievances and differences aside and focus on shifting our relationship to this place we call home.