In our inaugural Wunderkind Q&A–celebrating hyper-talented Baltimoreans under the legal drinking age–we interview 18-year-old filmmaker/musician Nicky Smith, who started making movies at 11, good ones.
Nicky, a 2011 Friends grad, still lives and creates film and music in Baltimore. Parents are City Paper founder Russ Smith, who edits Splice Today, and the painter Melissa Smith. Their gifted kid has known he wanted to shoot movies since he can remember, and with enthusiastic approval from Mom and Dad, began studying at Steve Yeager’s Young Filmmakers Workshop before high school; he loaded up on film at Friends as well, working closely with instructor David Heath, who plays “teacher” characters in several of Nicky’s movies.
Nine days shy of 19, Nicky has already generated a little library of clever, complex, dreamy-looking-and-sounding shorts (many backed by trippy tunes from locals Ecstatic Sunshine or Dan Deacon), all governed by a quirky vision by turns somber/poetic, sexy and hilarious — Yeager loosely compares Nicky’s work to that of David Lynch, and that’s an apt line to draw, but of course it’s complicated to compare an original. For me, unique, unconventional directors like Todd Haynes, for whom a single film like Poison can encompass three genres, and Tom Noonan and Mike Leigh, whose patience with, and huge trust in, their stage-to-screen actors results in natural long takes, spring to mind. (Not all of Nicky’s untrained actors convince, but he helps many achieve a realistic rhythm.)
Nicky’s senior project, “Vinyl Fantasy,” an ambitious hybrid short feature clocking in at 35 minutes, works like psychedelic public-access programming, the “shows” flipping out of sight when we least expect it, the manic screen throwing up previews and teasers for programming we’ll never know, then, in another dizzy switch, developing a languorous (and moving) long take between teenage lovers, after dark, in the woods. One of Nicky’s most accessible shorts, “Tamsin Bookworm,” made in Heath’s film class junior year, tracks the lonely life of a girl with stellar grades and severely limited social skills. Deacon’s soft soundtrack gives the whole thing a half-music-video feel; it’s something like an after-school special on Quaaludes. “Donald,” meanwhile, drills inside the oversexed adolescent psyche of a male dork whose visions depict him as a cocaine-sniffing pimp (but whose high-school-dating adventures prove pretty racy, too). “Donald” and “End of Vend” offer broader examples of Nicky’s comedic, winking way, the likeable ingredient present in all of his varied work, the humanistic stroke that makes it so watchable, and never (thus far) pretentious.
We talked to him about his vision, his music and music videos, his goals, how he gets natural performances out of civilian classmates, who he loves, hates, and still more.
How would you describe your mission or point of view?
I don’t want to tell stories in one particular way. I look at it like a wheel, where you can go off in these different directions and places and still have it be of a piece with everything else. I think life here on Earth is inherently sad, for a lot of reasons; life is a constant war of attrition against that insignificance…
Your films bring to mind the verité pace of Larry Clark’s Kids–scenes flow in unpredictable ways like the best docs and like Mike Leigh’s improvisations… What is your trademark directorial touch/technique/trick as of now, would you say?
Well, but I love working with non-actors in comfortable situations. Uncomfortable situations can be good…sometimes. Sometimes it’s too much of a pain to deal with. I like to inject a lot of black humor where you might not expect it, kind of like “The Simpsons.” And like that show, I don’t take myself too seriously.
How do you get non-actor kids to act?
All of the kids in “Courtship Couches” [a segment of “Vinyl Fantasy”] are basically playing themselves, with no prompting beyond, “You’re fighting,” or “You’re at a party.” In a way, it’s really a documentary of the people who are in it. I pick people I think are entertaining or interesting in real life. There was no script and no outline. I wanted to film people as they really were. It’s not about lines or plot, it’s about getting at this intangible feeling, a feeling of greatness, sorrow, purpose, connection and excitement all at once. [Senior year] is a time when the real world starts blooming for you, and you start seeing what people, adults, are actually like, and how you’ve got to survive. No more free lunch. And everything is so melodramatic…
Did you learn all the pro basics attending Steve Yeager’s workshop for five years?
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. You have three weeks to shoot a 25-minute short from a pre-written script. Kids acting, directing, doing art and design… We operated like a real film set: same equipment, lingo, pace. You learn what to do and what not, and to get what you want out of what you have.
In what capacity have you worked with Matthew Porterfield?
I worked for a few days on the set of his new movie, I Used to Be Darker, and it felt like I was back at camp. I interviewed him in 2007 for a documentary on post typography.
Talk about your experience making movies at Friends, as part of your curriculum.
David Heath teaches English, music, art and math at Friends, a real Renaissance Ralph. [Heath] is the man — I made five shorts for that class. He was very supportive and into what I was doing. Helped me out a lot, defended me. “End of Vend” and “Morris Afternoon” were shown in Collection (assembly) and the kids loved them. Not all the faculty got it, which was kind of cool. It’s nice when you can push the edges and not totally alienate people. It shifts the boundaries.
What are you trying to convey with your senior project “Vinyl Fantasy”?
Watching TV can make you feel really stupid and burnt out. Viagra spots running right after stories on Anthony Weiner, Zoloft commercials on Nickelodeon, the disappointment of a real Big Mac after the luscious fantasy of the ad… Even watching the news makes you feel like a five-year-old. Commercials are so dumb, but at the same time they’re appealing to the subconscious…so there’s this really sinister undertone to everything on TV…you’re constantly being manipulated and tricked by this dumb, loud box. “Vinyl Fantasy” does not respect its audience. It thinks it’s dumb. That’s more a comment on how condescending the media is — I don’t think my audience is dumb.
Who are your most important influences?
Kubrick, Harmony Korine, Charlie Kaufman, P.T. Anderson, Todd Solondz, John Waters, Henry Miller, William Eggleston, Billy Corgan, Kurt Cobain, Jim O’Rourke, Matt Papich, The Simpsons, Jason DiEmilio (R.I.P.), Eric Copeland, Burning Star Core, At the Drive-In, Dylan, Bowie, Fahey, James Honeyman-Scott, Paul Banks, Don Cab, Unwound, My Bloody Valentine, Van Dyke Parks, Liz Harris, Needle Gun, Teeth Mountain, Nas, Brian Blomerth, Max Eisenberg, Dan Deacon, Jason Willett, William Basinski, Xiu Xiu, Whitehouse, Boards of Canada, Suicide, Velvet Underground, Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Green Day, Bill Maher, Larry David, Matt Drudge, David Foster Wallace…
I despise homophobes, womanizers, racists, the lazy, the ignorant, and the willfully moronic. And brostep.
What’s going on with your busy music life?
I’ve got a record coming out, “Yellow Jacket,” I’m doing music videos for Co La, Narwhalz, and Roomrunner… I’m in the process of setting up an East Coast tour with Miguel Sabogal of Alexander Trust, and arranging a 7″ split with Nick Hoegberg of Brother Simon.
Will you be the artist who comes home to Baltimore for good to tell our stories?
Not exactly. I love Baltimore and the people here, but I don’t want to make films exclusively about or set in the city… I’d love the make a Baltimore film, but it’s definitely not the only thing I want to do. But for the foreseeable future it’s the only place I can imagine living and working.
What will movies be like in 25 years?
Who knows — I haven’t seen a really good big budget movie in a long time. I hate almost all contemporary CGI. It looks like garbage. I hate feeling like I’m watching a scene cut from a video game, and that’s what it is, the same process. [Kubrick’s] 2001 used models, the moon sets existed in physical space… I hope there’s a revolution in terms of how we approach movies and their possibilities. It’s amazing to me how predictable and safe so many films are, mainstream and indie. Film is light and sound for a couple of hours — there are practically infinite possibilities, mind and consciousness-expanding possibilities, I would argue, but no one’s really interested in transcendence. I’d like to change that.
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