Interview: Chris Smith, director of ‘The Pool’

Chris Smith is a celebrated and award-winning American documentary filmmaker (best known for 1999’s American Movie and 2003’s The Yes Men), whose 2007 feature The Pool finally sees the theatrical light of day over here this week. The story of a young Indian boy who finds sanctity and a paradise in the palatial garden of a wealthy homeowner, The Pool is a gentle, leisurely-told tale which strenuously avoids anything resembling even the slightest trace of melodrama, and it manages to find moving moments through subtle observation. CineVue were recently lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Smith about the conception of the film and the rather unique means of finding his young leads.

Adam Lowes: How did The Pool come about?

Chris Smith: I read the original short story by a writer named Randy Russell and it was one of those things which just stuck with me and over time, I kept trying to think of a way how to adapt it into a film. I had been in India a couple of years before to help some friends shoot a movie there, and we stayed at a small town called Panjim in Goa. We lived in a hotel, and it was one of those places which always stayed with me as it housed a really interesting community of people  a real cross section of the world. Thinking back to the story of The Pool, it clicked with me that those worlds could really work well together. It was that simple.

We went over and ended up spending five or six months there. The idea for the film was to find real people to work with – non-actors whom we could base the [film’s] characters on their own lives and experiences. It was a very different process than going over there and casting actors. We wanted to use the lives of who we found to form the narrative.

AL: That authenticity is very clear. The kids you managed to find are great. How did that process work in terms of casting?

CS: [Laughs] It was a gruelling experience. It really didn’t go as we had hoped. Fortunately, we found two great kids in the end, and couldn’t have been be happier, but we started out by hiring a local production house in India and they were useless. It ended up with us wondering around Panjim looking for kids and doing interviews. [Lead actor] Venkatesh had actually been in the previous film I had worked on over there, and [co-star] Jhangir we found working in a restaurant our location manager owned. It ended up being very lucky in terms of how we stumbled across them and that they worked, because the actual process we tried to do for casting failed miserably.

AL: Jhangir’s scenes in the film of him working are clearly real. He’s a young kid doing adult’s work in a very matter-of-fact fashion.

CS: What we loved about Jhangir when we met him was that it was almost as if he was managing the restaurant, ordering all the adult employees around and really getting down to business. It was just so impressed with the maturity he showed at such young age, and he was really charming and sweet and had an interesting mix of all these qualities which made him perfect for the film.

On another level, and what I feel is really interesting about the film, is that it doesn’t come over like a film explicitly about child labour. Being over there doesn’t feel like that either, but it’s interesting that people who come out of the film and see this 11 old-year working don’t pick up on that as the focus of what the film is about.

AL: How did the coach your youngest actor in terms of on-screen acting?

CS: It was really difficult. Venkatesh was much more of a natural on camera. He seemed to embody the role of an actor very quickly, and his real mannerisms were well-suited to the character. Jhangir had a much harder time. He started out very robotic and wooden. We were editing as we were shooting, so for him to come into the editing room and see himself was what helped the most. It made him understand how to act. We tried to create as intimate an environment as possible to make the boys feel comfortable as they could so they wouldn’t feel nervous, but I think their acting abilities just came with experience. We ended up coming back after we wrapped and re-shot a lot of scenes from the beginning because, by that stage, the kids got to be much better actors.

AL: Did you approach the film like you were shooting a documentary? Was it a tiny crew?

CS: We shot on 35mm, so it wasn’t very ‘run and gun’. It was as small a crew as we could get away with. We had a producer, camera, sound, boom, gaffer, two lighting guys and a production manager. The crew would be anywhere from eight to 15 people, depending on what we were shooting. When we had Nana Patekar, who played the father character, on set, it was different. He’s a big actor over there, so we had more crew on so we could work faster and make it efficient for him. With the kids, we tried many times to shoot with as small a crew as we could.

AL: The Pool was shot way back in 2006. Why has it taken so long to reach our shores?

CS: In that time since the film came out in the US, it’s become harder to release independent films in the industry. We feel very fortunate that Joseph at [UK distributors] Blue Dolphin saw the film and really loved it and couldn’t understand why it hadn’t be released in the UK yet. He was really instrumental in championing it and getting cinemas on board. Channel 4 is also planning to screen it next year. It’s been giving a second life and we’re grateful that audiences are having the opportunity to see it. We’re really thrilled that’s its being projected in 35mm and people will see it in cinemas the way it was intended to be seen.

AL: This is your second narrative feature (following Smith’s 1996 debut effort American Job). Which medium do you feel most comfortable in?

CS: I like them both. I think what’s most important is being passionate about what you’re working on. If a good documentary comes along, that’s great. If I have an idea for a narrative film, it’s equally engaging for me. It’s less about the genre for me and more about the stories that can be told.

Read our review of Chris Smith’s The Pool here.

Adam Lowes