Whistler Film Festival Filmmaker Interview: Cate Smierciak on MUDPOTS

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Cate Smierxiak’s Mudpots is about two inseparable friends who are, due to forces beyond their control, about to be separated. The film is a coming of age tale about being a teenager who is old enough to be aware of changes in life but not able to control or even influence the most impactful events that form the future. Mudpots is among the short films nominated for an AWFJ EDA Award at Whistler Film Festival 2019. Here’s what Cate Smierciak has to say about the making and meaning of the film.

Jennifer Merin: 1. What your film is about — both in story and theme?

Cate Smierniak: Mudpots is about two inseparable friends who are, due to forces beyond their control, about to be separated. It’s about being a teenager, old enough to know what’s happening to your life but often not able to influence the most impactful events. I wanted to tell a story that captured the intensity of feeling that has no place to go in those situations in your youth, but in a tone that feels real, lived-in, not melodramatic. Their story is small and they know it, but it’s the biggest thing going on with them in that moment and they don’t let it pass without event.

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

Smierciak: Mudpots is set against the backdrop of the Salton Sea, a desolate, beautiful area in the desert in Southern California that once held promise as becoming the next big resort town in the 60’s before a series of floods, ecological events and the ensuing economic fallout left it littered with old tires, independent misfits and passers by.

I wanted to make a worthy portrait of this incredible place and set real-feeling humans inside of it. The shooting style is rough and lively, the handheld camera improvisational at times, but shot with beautiful Panavision G-series anamorphics on an Alexa classic. My cinematographer, Travis LaBella, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker in his own right, and I love the way we worked together designing moments that we could then capture by feel. We also put a lot of our resources toward a day of shooting the biking sequence with a gimbal, the one deviation from our handheld style. I love how the contrast between these elements of grittiness and polish came together in the end.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and to the main characters in it?

Smierciak: I stumbled accross the mudpots themselves on a New Years’ trip to Joshua Tree in 2015 with my girlfriend at the time. We were staying with friends in a nearby town and someone mentioned that a drive by the Salton Sea was worth an afternoon. They also showed us a PBS doc narrated by Jon Waters called Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea which gave a bit of background of the salad days of the resort town (incredible movie, definitely worth a watch, and free on YouTube!). I was immediately entranced by the landscape and the atmosphere. We stopped around the sea itself, met some great people, and ended up on a bit of a leap of faith, driving miles and miles down dirt roads through an agricultural area to find these wild little volcanoes at the foot of a geothermal power plant. The light was incredible, I was in love, and the land was literally erupting with pent-up energy.

I got home and wrote a draft very close to the shooting script in one sitting – the metaphor of the churning energy, the odd humor of the burping earth, the feeling of being with someone who made me feel like me. I wanted to fold all of this into a story about what it would be like to grow up queer in this huge, sublime space with a tiny community in everyone’s business.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

Smierciak: The script sat in a folder for years after I wrote it. I didn’t have the resources to do it properly at the time. A friend saw the title on a list of “things to come back to” and asked to read it. He convinced me to get the troops together and make it happen. We did a kickstarter campaign and gathered our most talented and generous friends, some that I’d known for over a decade. Friendship itself became a much stronger theme than I had originally considered, through a moving experience of collaboration and mutual support.

While I set out to make a film about the alienation of a tiny community of queer acceptance in a wild landscape, I realized along the way that this story was really about friendship and love – what they have in common, what makes them each so complicated and delicate and unique, both from one another as well as from each iteration. I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be making work, or even to be around, in a time when a story about queer gals can become a story about friendship and not have the former overshadow the latter.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film.

Smierciak: Shooting on location hours away from home, we had to put up the cast and crew on site. Everyone bunking together in a summer-camp vibe was one of the best parts of the whole experience. We stayed at an incredible spot called the Glamis North Hot Springs Resort, which is a popular destination for ATV afficionados and hot-springs-loving RV snowbirds. We booked their biggest cabins, which all happened to have delightful themes (Pirate’s Cove may have been the highlight) and shot abbreviated days for light, which left us with relaxed evenings, soaking in giant hot springs hot tubs and eating the impressive array of meals whipped up by my very own mom.

I’ve been on hundreds of sets as a crew member, and always try to get a handle on how the tone arose on set. The way everyone feels when we’re all trying to be competent, vulnerable, efficient AND friendly so directly affects what you get on screen. I learned how important it is, particularly on an indie shoestring adventure, to take the time to feel like a family. Though all that hang time off set, we were completely comfortable and trusting of one another, cast and crew alike. I will definitely try to replicate this in some way in the future, though I’ll probably have to figure out how to do it without kidnapping everyone to the middle of the desert for four days.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

Smierciak: I was initially drawn to the location for it’s remarkable light. In the winter, “golden hour” can last all afternoon. A filmmaker’s paradise! But alas, it rained on our most technically challenging shoot day, capturing all of the car and bike scenes. The team, all working for gratitude and IOUs, was in the highest of spirits and we made the best of it, devising makeshift rain covers for the car rig, getting pretty muddy ourselves. The actors’ spirits were particularly impressive – I was so wrapped up in getting the scenes shot that it didn’t occur to me that I’d had them biking around for hours on end.

Merin: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

Smierciak: I think vulnerability and nurturing generosity are some of the most important ingredients for making an honest film, later connecting with an audience, and finally feeling personally satisfied with the whole process. I don’t think that being female makes one particularly vulnerable or generous, but I think that people tend to be more open to accepting that kind of energy from a woman. I see it more as an extra challenge for male filmmakers rather than a particular benefit for women. Most of the rehearsals with the girls consisted of our talking about feelings and teen crushes and exchanging embarassing hook-up stories. Our relationships are mutually adoring – there is no weird power dynamic. For me, there can’t be. I want actors’ ideas, however spontaneous, to be as much a part of the creative storytelling as my most meticulous plans. It’s difficult to get people to feel comfortable being their most exposed selves in front of dozens of people scrutinizing their performance on set, not to mention getting them to trust you to produce an edit that doesn’t make them look silly. This is purely anecdotal, and I am certainly more grateful for it than proud of it.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

Smierciak: Funnily enough, I’m becoming increasingly interested in examining masculinity. In a way related to the access to vulnerability, I think there is so much to explore about our social gendering in male-ness, in masculinity as dogma, how it’s really screwing with all of us. I’m finishing the edit on a new short called Men Crying, a very dark comedy about consent, and in the very early stages of producing a feature project by another writer/director about the pitfalls of masculinity through a 1997 Los Angeles lens. I’m very stoked about both projects.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Smierciak: I am very aesthetically and tonally infatuated with Andrea Arnold. Her movies make me feel so in line with the characters, the emotional point of view is so strong, but I never stop wondering what they’ll do next, regardless of how much I feel I understand them. I also love Kelly Reichardt for a similar skill – for some reason I can’t help but care very deeply about her characters without knowing them at all. I spent my first five years out of school in Berlin and love the work of Berlin School filmmakers of that time – Maren Ade is a standout. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the incredible contemporary artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean on her most adventurous projects since 2011. I love the texture and mood of her abstract work, and I think I always have her voice in the back of my head when looking for compelling shots or ways to approach a scene visually. The train in the movie is absolutely for her, by the way.

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

Smierciak: These are very dark days by some metrics, but I think it’s a very exciting time to be a female filmmaker. People are listening. People want to hear what you have to say. If you don’t know how to say it yet, or even what you want to say yet, just keep throwing things against the wall. It helps to know how to make a movie before you know what movie you want to make. Get on set. Learn a technical skill. I worked as a camera assistant for many years and learned so much from both being respected as a technician on set and being next to the scene literally every time the camera was rolled. I rolled it! I think set can be an intimidating place for anyone who isn’t familiar with the culture and atmosphere, and anything you can do to make it feel like home will serve you down the line. On hundreds of projects over ten years, I think I only worked with three or four female directors. But it never made me feel like women couldn’t direct, it made me feel like women needed to get in there and have some confidence, because plently of those guys had no idea what they were doing.

ABOUT CATE SMIERCIAK:

Cate Smierciak is an LA-based filmmaker and co-founder of Wanderkino Productions. Claire, her previous German-language short as a writer-director, premiered at the Nashville Film Festival and screened at many others. Her producing credits include the short films The Opportunist, which premiered at Cannes Critics’ Week, Everything & Everything & Everything, starring Shane Carruth, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and My Last Film, starring Lola Kirke, Rosanna Arquette and Mac DeMarco, which premiered at the New York Film Festival. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and a DAAD Artist Scholar.

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