Chris Smith still doesn't understand every line in his latest film. That's because The Pool, a drama set in the Indian state of Goa, is in Hindi, and the Wisconsin-born director doesn't speak the language. Plus, Smith is better known for crafting quirky, crowd-pleasing documentaries -- not narrative cinema like The Pool, a story about a hotel boy who becomes fascinated with a rich family's swimming pool.
But Smith is the first to explain that it's not as crazy a detour as it sounds. For one thing, he has always made movies about subjects that interested him, whether it was newspaper-delivery-man-cum-indie-filmmaker Mark Borchardt in American Movie or the satirical duo -- and WTO impersonators -- The Yes Men in their eponymous documentary. Four years ago, Smith went to help friends shoot a short film in Panjim, Goa's capital, and the place just stuck with him. So when he read a short story by his former collaborator, Randy Russell, he changed its setting, worked out a rough script, hired a crew of both Indians and Americans, and set about filming before the start of the monsoon.
You based The Pool on a short story by Randy Russell that was set in Iowa. What was it that inspired you to adapt this short story for a film set in Goa?
It wasn't something that I thought of at the time -- that I would definitely go back and make a film there [in Goa]. It was just something that stayed with me. It was partly the place, and the people that we met, and this hotel we stayed at, and spending time there with the room boys that worked there.
When I read the short story that Randy had written, there was something in that that I really connected with. When I thought of how to possibly adapt the short story, it somehow made sense to set it in Panjim.
I spent an afternoon in Panjim buying a train ticket.
It's a really nice little town. I guess that's what I liked about it, just that it was so manageable in a lot of ways. It was its own world in and of itself.
You started in narrative films with American Job and crossed over to making documentaries like American Movie and The Yes Men. But for many viewers and commentators, The Pool seems like a radical departure for you. Are they right?
I guess. I think everything makes sense to me, and the evolutions make sense. It's inspired by things that are happening in life and the experience of going over to India a couple years ago. Those things had an impact on me creatively. Hindi is a little bit strange, only because we didn't go over with the idea of making a film in a foreign language. It was more something that just happened once we were there, based on the casting process, where we found these kids that ended up being great for the movie. But they didn't speak English, so it just made sense to shoot the film in Hindi. On the surface, if you'd say, like, I set out to just randomly go to India and make a film in a foreign language, that does seem like quite a departure. But if you sort of know how the project evolved, it doesn't seem quite out of nowhere as it would appear.
"You have to try to find somebody that you feel understands what you're trying to convey and that they're translating it in that way."
Right. You had all kinds of language barriers while shooting: you don't speak Hindi and for your two leads, it was their second language. How did you deal with that?
As far as communicating with them, I had a really great translator that made the process as smooth as it could be. [Venkatesh and Jhangir] both know five languages each. But the ability to act naturally and flow with scenes in a language that isn't your first language is very difficult. But there's some really interesting things that happened in the movie language-wise. It's sort of the street version of Hindi that leant a lot to their characters. So, in some ways, that was beneficial.
And, in other ways, it was a challenge?
In terms of their reading things -- we were trying to do a lot of single-take scenes. And so you'd have a two- or three-minute scene. And if you've ever tried to memorize something without reading it on paper, it's very difficult. We couldn't rehearse scenes the night before. We'd have to do that on set, walk them through the scene, and then have them practice and rehearse -- and then we'd shoot. My inability to communicate quickly with them was another thing that was challenging. So much of direction is the way that you phrase things, and the language that you use to describe either an emotion or an action. And you have to try to find somebody that you feel understands what you're trying to convey and that they're translating it in that way.
Did you learn any Hindi while you were filming?
Yeah, I learned the minimal amount, but it was useful. I learned how to say again, stop, faster, left, right, back, forward. I could count to ten. I have to say that I'm amazed that, spending two years editing something, that I didn't learn more. It seems amazing that you could spend so much time on material that still sounds so foreign. I keep learning more and more, but I thought that I would at least understand every line in the film.
You've said that you filmed for 65 days over the course of five months and finally had to leave the country because of the monsoon.
We knew that we had this natural deadline approaching based on the fact that the monsoon was coming, and once it came, there wouldn't be any more shooting. It ended up being a blessing in a lot of ways, to know we had that point where we had to finish. There was a good chance that we could have been there a lot longer.
Would you film in India again?
If everything made sense, if it seemed fun to go back, if it was the right project, I'd be open to it. But right now I'm happy to have it done and take a break. And then see what seems most interesting at the time; it seems right to start working on something new.
Your two leads, Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah, aren't professional actors. How did you find them?
Venkatesh actually was in the short film that I was [filming] there four years earlier. We didn't really consider him for any of the main parts, but there was something so interesting and dynamic about him when we reconnected with him that we kept thinking we had to try and find a part for him. And the more time we spent with him, we realized that he could be the main character in the film. So we cast around him.
We cast another kid to play his best friend. A few days before shooting, that kid went to Bombay to buy karate uniforms and never came back and never picked up his phone again. So we were at this bar that was owned by the location manager that we had, and Kate [Noble, the producer] was sitting there and saw Jhangir working and just looked at me and said, "I think this kid could be really interesting." So, the next day we did a screen test with him, and you could tell the chemistry was right. And it's strange; I couldn't imagine the film existing without him.
Did any of their life experiences make it into the film?
We did extensive interviews with each of the main characters, and we tried to work some of the things from their lives into the script. So, for Venkatesh, a lot of his stories that he tells in the movie are actually stories that he had told us, either in an interview or just through spending time with him while we were shooting. The crew would go out to dinner every night together, and everyone would be talking and telling stories; so often Venkatesh's stories were things that came out of that time that we spent with him. And Jhangir -- doing an interview with him, we asked him if he could have any job, what he would want to be. And he said he wanted to be an engineer, help make bridges and buildings. And so there's a scene in the film, where they're talking about if they could go to school, what they would want to do, and he says that he would want to build bridges and buildings.
"The ability to act naturally and flow with scenes in a language that isn't your first language is very difficult."
The character of the father is played by Bollywood star Nana Patekar. How did he get involved?
In the process of trying to cast this father, we weren't looking towards professional actors or Bollywood actors. We were looking more locally with real people because it was more in keeping with what we were doing. As we got further and further into the production, and worked finding someone to play the father -- it was around then that Kate saw a picture and an interview with Nana in a local newspaper. And it was something she immediately responded to. He had really interesting eyes and seemed like he would embody qualities of the father. And [in the interview] he talked about why he hadn't taken that many projects recently, and he said he only takes interesting projects. And Kate looked at me and said, "We're an interesting project, so we should try to find this guy."
Did you take anything else from Bollywood?
Bollywood cinema in general is very different from what we were trying to do. It's somewhat of a vaudeville feel, very performance-based. We didn't really see a lot of connections with the film we were making.
Was other Indian cinema, like the work of Satyajit Ray, an inspiration?
No, it wasn't. If anything, it was '70s European art films. I had just seen [Antonioni's] The Passenger a few months before we left. I don't think there was an obvious direct influence on the film, but tonally and spatially, it was something I was very interested in. And the way that that movie was paced and moves. So, if anything, it was more inspired by that than particular Indian cinema.
How did you make sure the film wasn't an “outsider's view of India”?
We wrote the script the best we could, based on structure and plot elements, but we did rely a lot on getting there, and trying to factor in our experiences and observations and the actors' lives into the script. More than that was just trusting and working with our crew to go through everything that was in the script. That made it feel very authentic to the culture and to the place.
Our production manger [Biri Sodhi] was incredibly helpful. He had grown up in India but had lived in Canada for about 11 years, and then had moved back to Goa about six or seven years previous. He really understood the world we were coming from and what we were trying to achieve. He was also very understanding in terms of things there and how they would be portrayed. I think between him, the translator, and the crew, they would point out if there was something in a scene that just wouldn't happen in that way. It was really being fluid and open to input, so it did end up feeling very genuine.
Was that a primary concern -- making it authentic?
Yeah, I didn't want to make something that didn't feel real, whether I was shooting in the U.S. or in India or anywhere else. I generally would like to make things that feel true to the place where you're filming. Because I think that helps not take the viewer out of the story and actually gives an insight into a world that someone might not have experienced before.