Chris Smorto, a Virginia native, has won several awards as a producer and appeared in many highly rated films. If he looks familiar it may be because he portrayed the lawman in Harriett, and the restaurant patron in Glass. His production company, CineVentures, recently won two 48 Hour Horror Film Awards for the short film It Comes At Night in the categories of “Best Use of Prop” and “Best Use of Line.” He is currently working as Ethan Hawke’s stand in on the upcoming series The Good Lord Bird.
Your movie “It Comes At Night” won two “48 Hour Film Project” Awards. One was for the use of props. You created excellent juxtaposition with the dainty, beautiful teacups and the heavy, ugly bricks. Why are props so important to the making of a good film?
Naturally the time element of a 48-hour competition forces filmmakers’ hands with every aspect of the film-making process. It’s critical in the writing phase to get the required elements into the film organically and, really, that’s part of the fun! A required prop, when used organically as part of the story, can deliver relevant character information, thematic significance and plot exposition without the use of any dialogue. As a director/editor I find props are great opportunities to make match cuts which give you really energized transitions between scenes. We won best prop in the regular 48HFP this past summer by using a pair of sunglasses to do a cool match cut with VFX.
As one of the writers of “It Comes at Night,” we established a visual motif of the character exerting control over everything in her environment, from the clean coffee ceramic to the broken bricks. That motif really lets the short evolve into a more subtle cinematic experience.
Do you feel that most film makers understand the importance of props?
Interesting question. I would say that, as a filmmaker, I always play to my strengths. The number of ways to tell the same story is countless. Embracing the power, a prop can bring to a story opens the creative door to uniqueness. Think of a scene where someone is sitting at a desk clicking a pen impatiently. The viewer is brought instantly into the situation or mindset of the character in short order and without the need for expeditious dialogue. Everything in-front of the camera tells a story.
You also won an award for best line of dialogue. How hard is it to write good dialogue?
I believe it is a natural tendency for filmmakers to feel like they must tell the story of their film through dialogue; as if everything has to be spoken in order for a viewer to follow along. The best approach we have in a competition with a required line is to not deliver it in a way that is expected. Defying judges/audiences’ expectations in a simple way that authentically ties in with the plot, as a writer it’s a great place to start. In the format of the 48-hour film competition, ideally the required elements would feed into the genre in a creative, unique way.
What is the most challenging part of making a film in just 48 hours?
Time! Ok, well perhaps the second most challenging part would be scratching the surface. For us as a team, we stick with extremely tight restrictions on every part of the process. We establish time limits on the initial creative collaboration phase. Next, we limit both time and the number of writers to finish the story. The story itself is restricted to only a few actors and locations. We limit company moves to only one and avoid that if possible. The concept here is that we establish boundaries early on in order to keep each subsequent phase of the process efficient. The challenge is to have this idea embraced and followed by everyone on the team.
How important are opportunities like the “48 Hour Film Project” to artists entering the film industry?
It’s vital! It’s a great pollination of people with experience in the film industry with new people trying to establish experience or learn a new aspect of the film process. In The Seventh Kind, we cast JaVante Hargrove from the 48 Hour’s open casting where he won Best Actor. Don’t think about it, just do it. The lessons learned are invaluable!
You also work as a stand in and extras, most notable “Harriett” and “Glass”. What is a day on the set like for an extra?
Patience is the key. Trust the production to get you through what is needed of you. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the extras’ world from both sides. Watch and learn. Being part of a film set is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Enjoy the time!
What is the job of a stand in?
A stand-in literally stands in during the set-up of a scene for a principal actor in a production. Without a stand-in, the principal actor would have much less time to relax and rehearse lines. On larger productions, there is a great deal of time and care spent on setting up cameras, lighting, props, wardrobe, hair & makeup, etc, etc, etc. An actor who matches the principal actor’s physical attributes can be a very important part of filming.
Did you meet M. Night Shyamalan during the filming of “Glass”?
I would use the term “set-met” — which is to say that we were both on set at the same time but did not formally engage. But it was an amazing experience. I was an extra on the last day of filming and it was such a blast. One would naturally expect the last day of filming to have a few frayed nerves, but he was amazing! Just hearing him communicate his vision for the scene was like a film-school class.
Which do you prefer; acting or producing?
I’ve developed a passion for every aspect of film making. While I do enjoy acting, I love very much the ability to collaborate and develop creative ideas. There are not many bigger thrills than pulling together amazing people and giving each person a chance to thrive at something they are passionate about. Everyone brings such a unique perspective to telling a story through film. I attribute this to why older films are remade. You watch a film and think “Wow that was awesome! But what if they did this instead?” I always answer with, “Go make a movie.” Use your phone to tell a simple story. You’ll surprise yourself!