New Robber’s Dog director discusses his new feature documentary, why he’s working in Australasia and what an ex-creative can bring to commercial directing.
An expert at delivering heartfelt films with a universal resonance, Smukler has directed ads for household names such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Oreo, and Reebok. Smukler’s films demonstrate his flair for masterfully combining storytelling, naturalistic performances, and a charming, effortless sense of humour. His short film ‘The Hiccup’ also earned him Best Comedy Short Film at the San Diego International Film Festival and finalist positions at Woodstock International Film Festival and Soho Rushes Short Film Festival.
Here, Matt lets loose on his latest feature documentary, why he’s signed for representation in Australasia and what led a creative into the director’s seat …
LBB> You started your career on the agency side as an art director and copywriter. What made you decide to get behind the camera and become a director?
MS> For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in film and curious about how to bring stories to life. I was an English and film major in college and an actor when I was younger, so directing felt like a natural fit for me.
LBB> Do you find that your agency experience comes in handy as a commercial director?
MS> Having agency experience has definitely given me an advantage in terms of understanding the entire commercial production process. I look at a film from its conception. I consider everything from selling the idea through to the client, to collaborating with everyone and ultimately bringing the concept to life. I know how hard this can be, so I am always in awe when a great idea runs the gauntlet.
LBB> Your films are often touching without coming off as too heavy-handed or cheesy, thanks to the subtle direction and naturalistic performances. What’s your method for capturing these intimate and convincing performances on camera?
MS> I don’t think there is a silver bullet but I will say I like to have fun. I try and create an environment where everyone is laughing and feels comfortable and okay with failing. To get those real authentic-feeling performances it’s so important to have a relaxed atmosphere that allows people to feel comfortable experimenting and often times making mistakes. With kids, I tend to cover the performances in a way that can feel spontaneous and free. If I’m having fun and am relaxed I find that it can be infectious.
LBB> Many of your commercials have a strong musical element. What techniques do you employ to tell a story without using any dialogue?
MS> It all depends on the idea but I love music-driven pieces. If a film has no dialogue sometimes I will bring a certain music track that feels right and play it while we are shooting. I find it often gets people in the right mindset. There have been occasions when the track I play makes it into the final edit.
LBB> Your films for Cheerios (‘Gracie’) and Deutsche Bahn (‘Fan’) have attracted praise for their progressive outlook in featuring an interracial family and a gay couple, respectively. What attracted you to these projects?
MS> I love clients are who bold and willing to take chances. It’s so hard these days to break through the clutter. When something comes along that is honest and true and relevant I’m going to do my very best to not fuck it up!
LBB> How would you define your style / what inspires you?
MS> I’m not sure I have a particular style. I will say I’m inspired by smart, funny work, as well as evocative and thought-provoking ideas. I just try and bring stuff to life in a way that best suits the idea.
LBB> ‘The Hiccup’ won Best Comedy Short Film at the San Diego International Film Festival. What inspired the story and the style?
MS> A lot of the short films I had seen were either too heady, trying too hard or just plain boring. I wanted to make a short film that was the opposite of this.
LBB> Can you tell us a bit about your latest feature?
MS> It’s a feature length documentary called, ‘I Don’t Cry’ and it’s about an 18-year-old track and field star and incredible student named Christina, who is essentially raising her mentally disabled parents.
After learning of the family’s situation, I was compelled to find out more. She’s an honour student, a track star and she’s raising her parents. I was hooked.
This film actually has a dual purpose. Her situation was so profoundly moving that I wanted to use this as an opportunity to help further her education. I thought this film could help contribute towards her college application. Only 15% of the people at her public high school go onto four year universities. I thought this could be an amazing piece to showcase who she is in a much deeper way than any essay ever could.
LBB> What was this experience like as a director, compared to your previous work?
MS> It was very freeing. You can just walk into a situation and start shooting. We were a tiny three-person crew. Ultimately this was about capturing life as it unfolds. It blew my mind at times.
I think that my background working with kids was very helpful in this situation. I wanted it to be as natural as possible and tell the authentic story of Christina, her friends and track team in the most invisible way. Everyone felt comfortable enough to be themselves in front of the cameras which was amazing.
LBB> How did you learn about Robber’s Dog and what made you choose it as your rep in Australasia?
MS> I had heard great things about George [Mackenzie – Executive Producer] from several people. We had some mutual friends through Peter Martin and they were on my radar. I wanted to join a company that was small and nimble, yet still focused on doing great work.
I think that the whole process of commercial filmmaking is so collaborative. Being able to collaborate with the ad agency, as well as the production company was important to me. When production companies are really big, you’re just one of many, and sometimes you lose some of that collaboration. What I like about Robber’s Dog is that it’s a more hands on mentality. They work together with the directors to come up with the best possible solution from a production standpoint. They understand how important ideas are.
LBB> What type of work are you looking for in Australasia?
MS> I’m looking for the same thing I’m always looking for. Great ideas and working with fun, talented people. The type of comedy I see coming out of Australasia is right up my alley. For the most part it’s based in truth with understated performances. This reality-based comedy is something that I love, both as a viewer and someone who makes films.
In the past few years, I’ve been more focused more on narrative storytelling, but I miss comedy and I’d love to get back to that.
I think it’s going to be an exciting 2017. Up until now my main focus has been in the US . It’s a great opportunity to expand my reach.