| |In 2003, Owen Smith graduated from college and began his filmmaking career in earnest. In that short span of time, he has formed 2 motion picture production companies (Kalon Media and Dogwood Motion Picture Company), produced a video series of children’s books (Sugar Creek Gang), and is in post-production for a Christmas film.
Christians in Cinema: Owen Smith
CC.com: Owen, thanks for your time. This has been a really big year for you; we appreciate your time. Tell us about your Christmas project?
Owen: It’s called “My Christmas Soldier”, and was written by Mauriel Josten, an award-winning screenwriter and historian. We met through her husband. He’s part of a group of World War II re-enactors who worked in a short WWII film I directed and filmed for the 2005 Tribeca/Amazon.com contest. (“Battaglia” was one of the 5 finalists)
After Mauriel saw “Battaglia” she approached me about doing a Christmas film together. She’d write and I’d produce. I have wanted to do a Christmas film, and it seemed like it was a good fit.
CC.com: “My Christmas Soldier” is a period piece; that can be challenging to find the right sets, costumes, etc. How did that come about?
Owen: Just 20 minutes from my house is the SouthEast Railway Museum – a warehouse full of vintage trains restored to their original condition. As long as I’ve lived here, I never saw it! The trains are all late-WWII or even earlier, and in very usable condition.
The next find was the depot. It’s in a town called Gordon, Georgia, about 3 hours away from us. It used to be a depot; now it is the tourist officer’s district office. When the town of Gordon decided to renovate it, it was very run down and a little dangerous. They fixed it up, put offices on the inside, and use the freight room as a community center. So we got in touch with the mayor and through him received permission to use it.
CC.com: Before “My Christmas Soldier”, you did 5 Sugar Creek Gang videos. Did you have some of the same people working with you on both projects?
Owen: Yes, quite a few are the same. One of the girls is from the Sugar Creek Gang, others of the cast were people that I knew, and several were referrals.
There was a film festival in town while we were shooting, which mean there were a lot of actors available for work. I cast 5 actresses as the mother, and for some reason or other, the first few didn’t work out. One even broke her foot! I’m still trying to build the “perfect” crew.
I’ve been fortunate to find quite a few who will work for the experience or are willing to get paid later. (When the movie sells) I’m trying to keep the crews very small.
For “My Christmas Soldier”, we had 10 cast members and 40 extras for a total of 50 people. And I only had one guy to do hair and make-up for all of them! They were really troopers.
We filmed during June – in south Georgia! It was in the 80s and 90s and people were wearing fur coats and wool pants. We couldn’t run the air conditioner because of the noise it created. Some days the hardest part of the project was keeping the actors dry!
CC.Com: For someone who just graduated in 2003, you’ve been extraordinarily busy. Tell us about the journey from film school to producer of 6 films.
Owen: From the beginning, I planned to go to film school. In high school, I worked on a public access television station and learned a lot of the basics of filming. Then in college I minored in film, and majored in journalism. Story-telling is the most important aspect of filmmaking: if you don’t have a good story, people aren’t going to watch your film.
After college I had a choice to move to LA and try to make it there, or to stay here in Georgia. The unique thing about the South is that people are really cooperative and haven’t been burned out with filmmakers, so they’re usually very willing to help someone who’s starting out. I
decided from the beginning that I would purchase my own equipment so that I would have exactly what I wanted when I did my own productions. I’ll occasionally rent a light, but the basic equipment is all mine.
It’s easier for the schedule of an independent production. You don’t always know when a random actor might be available to get that one last location shot that you need, so when it’s my gear, I can just pick up and go. It also helps when someone else asks me to do a project for them because I’m familiar with the gear.
CC.com: What led you to decide to film the Sugar Creek Gang books? That’s a pretty old series. What did the owners of the publishing rights say when you approached them?
Owen: I knew that as a rookie producer, I needed to do something that would have an established audience. That creates a built-in audience for the films. Also, if there is a book tie-in, then retail stores are more likely to say “yes” to putting the videos on shelves. It’s a known commodity already, and doesn’t require any explanation.
Part of my research process was to go to Wal-Mart and talk to people buying videos. I’d ask them why they purchased a particular video, and who it was for. Most commonly, I found parents buying videos for their kids. They didn’t necessarily buy because they thought the video was great, but were looking for the newest one that they didn’t have at home.
Deciding on the Sugar Creek Gang books was easy. I had read the series growing up, and because they’re set outdoors in the woods, they seemed logistically simple. I didn’t have to have a sound stage or a studio. Basically, we went out and played in the woods and filmed the videos.
The biggest challenge was to get the rights to make the videos. The publishers were surprised because the books are older and they didn’t think anyone was interested in creating videos. I think they were also surprised by my age.
CC.com: You did start really young and with a lot of responsibility and financial accountability. Why not start out working with someone else and learning from them before branching out on your own?
Owen: Doing all this myself has really helped me learn how the industry works. How to get distribution, where the money comes from, and most importantly, how to make intelligent decisions. I could easily get out of all this and get a well-paying job; I’m very confident of that. But, I feel like this is the way I’m supposed to do it.
It’s a faith challenge for me to press on and not give up. I’m doing what I was called to do. God has directed me this way, and all my life I’ve been molded and shaped to do this.
I’ve built random websites. I learned to use PhotoShop, and lots of other random things that in the past 3 years have helped me produce my own films. It’s incredible that the things I learned growing up, sometimes out of boredom, are helping me achieve success now.
I graduated from college in 2003, and every penny I have has been sunk into film production. I just broke even this year from the Sugar Creek Gang films. I’m hoping “My Christmas Soldier” turns around a little faster.
This gives me projects now to show potential investors; that I spent my own money and am now seeing it come back. I believe this will give them some confidence in my ability to turn in a good film and know that it will make money.
CC.com: Your talents can be seen not just in the direction and production, but in other areas of the film. Tell us about that.
Owen: I’m also editing and scoring all the music. Once we finished shooting, I locked myself into a room, and only occasionally come out for fresh air. I’m writing every note of the music myself. On the next project I’d like to hire this out to creative people. But it has all been part of the learning process.
The last couple of weeks have been pretty painful. You get to a point in editing where you wonder if you’ve cut enough, if it can be tighter; it can get pretty obsessive. On the other hand, I don’t want to cut things out just to hit a specific mark.
Musically, I sometimes have to force myself to do something, anything. Sometimes it’s just writing random notes and that at least gets the process started. Since “Soldier” is a Christmas film I’ll sometimes go down to the piano and play Christmas carols for 2-3 hours to get flowing again. It’s a tremendous challenge, but if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it. The end result is totally worth it.
CC.com: Who has been your biggest support during this time?
Owen: Without a doubt my family. They’ve helped with anything and everything I might need. My parents even grilled burgers for the cast! When I need really good feedback, I’ll show them the latest version and they’ll say it’s fantastic! And I know if I need really unbiased opinions not to ask them.
CC.com: What do you see ahead? Are you even able to look ahead right now?
Owen: Oh yeah. Even when I’m in the middle of production, I have to be looking ahead. If I’m not, then I won’t be ready to market the film. And if I’m not ready to market the film, it won’t get sold.
There’s a series of girls’ books that I’m looking at doing next. I have the storylines in my head, and ideas for casting and locations, etc. I’d like to have them released more in the general market. It’s fantastic to have the Christian market, and important to Christian moviemakers. But that reaches a limited segment of people.
If we really want to get a Christian message out, we need to get the films to the people who aren’t going to Christian bookstores. They need to be seen as legitimate films, not just as niche films. That’s the next big challenge for our industry.
CC.com: Any advice for other up-and-coming filmmakers?
Owen: I have to say that it’s the kind of advice I hated hearing, but has proven true. Each person has to pray for their own path and find out how they’re supposed to approach filmmaking. Some will go to film school, others will be self-taught.
The most important thing is to get involved in filmmaking any way possible. If there’s anything going on in your area, get involved; even volunteer. Keep going and working, because you have no idea who the people you are working with now will be in the future. You never know what connections will prove fruitful down the road.
There are no instruction books; if there were, everyone else would be doing the same thing. Pay a LOT of attention to what’s going on in the industry, and read a lot of books. You never know where a good idea will come from.
Most importantly, if you want a steady, unchangeable life, then you probably don’t want to be in filmmaking. You can’t plan life like that as a filmmaker. It takes strength, faith, and perseverance; that will help you reach your goals.
CC.com: Well, we better let you get back to the piano. We’re all eagerly awaiting “My Christmas Soldier” and whatever projects you tackle next. We wish you the best, Owen!