The last time I spoke with the writer/director Sarah Adina Smith, she was in the midst of willing her first feature into existence one bird painting at a time. Spending many a lonely night applying brushstroke after brushstroke to various winged creatures to fulfill the rewards for the film’s Kickstarter campaign, Smith painted 85 oil portraits only to learn that the film wouldn’t take off because the company that was supplying the rest of the budget was soon to go belly up. It was then she discovered these things tend to take on a life of their own, a lesson that wouldn’t go to waste once she did finally reach the set of “The Midnight Swim.”
““I kept telling myself, ‘Be the doula, not the director,’” says Smith, envisioning herself as the midwife rather than the mother to her directorial debut, which morphed from a rewrite of her intended debut “Good People” into something else entirely. “I felt like this movie’s going to be born, and it’s my job to just listen, take my ego out of it and very calmly bring it into the world. Whenever I got out of my own way, I feel like the movie naturally happened the way it should. I hope I continue to be that kind of director.”
She should get plenty of opportunities if “The Midnight Swim” is any indication. An unsettling psychological thriller set in the Midwest, the film centers on three half-sisters – June (“A Teacher”‘s Lindsay Burdge), Annie (“The Do-Deca Pentathlon”‘s Jennifer LaFleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) – who reunite after their mother (Beth Grant) passes away from drowning in the nearby lake, leaving behind her house on the water and the eeriness of such an inexplicable fate. Told from the first-person perspective of June, an erstwhile documentarian whose increasingly fragile mental state begins to bleed into the frame, it cleverly plays with perception, both in terms of the characters onscreen who begin to question each other after a series of peculiar events happen as they go through their mother’s things and the audience’s relationship to them as the motives of the one holding the camera grow more suspect.
Shortly before Smith headed to Montreal for the film’s premiere at Fantasia Fest, she spoke about how she and her husband, cinematographer Shaheen Seth, packed up all her film equipment and their two dogs for an intimate shoot in the place where she grew up, how she benefitted from the unexpected on set and what it’s like to be sending the film out into the world.
For those familiar with your work, the premise bears a superficial similarity to “The Sirens,” the short film you made with the Chapin sisters involving siblings and a lake. Is there actually a connection?
Maybe the lake was like a central connection because [another film I wrote] “The Colony” also takes place on a lake, [because] we had this location which is my my family’s cottage where I would go every summer, growing up. I just tried to think of an idea that we could do for very little money on a lake, and for some reason, I’m not sure why, themes of [being] lost and wanting to be in touch with the other side and this notion that there’s something in between life and death, some third option — I love that space, tonally.
How did you put these three actresses together?
They’re so good. I just feel like we got completely lucky. I had written a 25-page treatment and we just started sending it around and making cold calls, hustling and seeing what happen. I actually found Aleksa [Palladino] because I was a fan of her band, Exit Music. I had been thinking about her for other parts and I was just totally intrigued by her, and actually I’d first met Jen Lafleur because she had auditioned for “Goodbye World” [which I co-wrote]. We didn’t end up casting her, but I really liked her. Lindsay was a total find, and I feel like people took this huge leap with faith because there was no full script, there was no money, and people were willing to get on a plane and go to Iowa for a couple weeks and try this thing.
When I met Jennifer at a press day, she was singing to herself, which I noticed you took advantage of in the film. Was that actually something that she brought to it?
I think she did add the singing! The actors brought so much to this movie. We had this dense outline, but we really dug into characters and it was really one of the most truly creative collaborative environments. It feels like one of the benefits of low-budget movie making is no one’s watching, so it just feels like playtime. We would all get together and bring all kinds of ideas. But she’s hilarious. Every time the camera was off … Actually, even when it was on … I need to cut together like a second movie of just Jen Lafleur outtakes.
She and Aleksa also seem to share a resemblance that Lindsay doesn’t, which adds to what’s a pretty interesting dynamic.
It’s so true. In the movie, it’s not really explicitly talked about, but they’re supposed to be half-sisters and there’s this interesting distance between them, with this lake as the joining force, and the mother who’s no longer there. In a way, the half-sisters notion was a gateway for this in-between space [of life and death]. There is a distance and yet there’s a connection.
Did you always envision this being told in the first person perspective of June? It was impressive that you were able to build a character that almost entirely existed off-screen.
That was really important to us, and actually, I think that was one of the reasons Lindsay was excited [to play June]. We were both really compelled by this idea of the force that’s not seen, and how her character becomes more and more visible as the movie goes on. Sometimes you forget she’s there, which is very much June, and we wanted to let the camera be the character as much as possible. She and I thought about [how we’d] set up shots, [according to] where is June right now and how she’s feeling.
Before “The Midnight Swim,” I was never interested in making an improv movie or a found footage-type of movie. Partly, it was by necessity because we had no money. But somehow by giving myself those restrictions, it freed me up in other ways. I was interested in making a film that wasn’t like a traditional found footage horror movie, but more about mental illness and being inside someone’s head and seeing the world through their eyes, using the POV for emotional storytelling rather than to capture what was happening. I liked the idea that every choice we were making was reflective of the psyche of the protagonist.
Since there are a few good old fashioned scares in this, were you actually conscious of genre in making this?
I was conscious that we were using certain expectations in order to tell the story. I’m actually very interested in thrillers, sci-fi and horror. That’s my playground for a lot of what I make, so I wanted to play with expectations a little bit to give people a gateway to this strange world and to leave little pebbles on the ground that they could follow – [something they’ve] seen before — then hopefully, bring them to a very different place and subvert and surprise them.
Since you grew up there, did filming in a familiar location make things more comfortable for you in directing your first feature?
It did in some ways. Actually, the first week of shooting, it may have been the reverse of that because that cottage means so much to me and my family that I was tense just that we were going to break something, so it was more uncomfortable than if we had been in a completely different location. But the community was so supportive. Neighbors opened their home to the crew and let people stay there and did all kinds of favors. In that way, it felt totally comfortable.
Where is that lake?
This was filmed in a place called Okoboji, Iowa. That lake is actually called Okoboji and I wasn’t interested in telling the story of Okoboji or of my childhood because that’s a completely different story. It’s not autobiographical at all, but the one thing that is true from my life is my mom told us that story of the seven sisters growing up, so I’ve always been really fascinated by that story of the seven sisters who drowned in the lake. There’s another lake called Spirit Lake, which we didn’t actually film [at], but I just thought it was a better name [for the setting of this film] than Okoboji, which I love [since] almost by calling it Okoboji, it would have ended up feeling so autobiographical, I would have felt compelled to make it a much different kind of movie.
There’s an unusual credit in the film, but one I felt was really apt — Ellen Reid is credited with soundscape. Was the creation of the sonic atmosphere so important you had to figure out a different way to name it than sound design?
Ellen is an amazing composer, and she does operas and all kinds of amazing things, and it was really important to me on this one that there not be a line between what’s considered atmosphere and sound design and score. We really wanted to mix those things, and to let everything be from nature, so it was very organic. I felt like soundscape was a better word because we’re really looking at anything that is uttered, whether it was dialogue or a noise or a door closing, so we were hyper-conscientious of all sound as a whole.
How did you go about creating the visual look? Obviously, you were very conscientious of maintaining a strong composition and yet it needs to look like someone is naturally holding a camera.
Shaheen [Seth, the director of photography] and I decided early on that June is an artist, so she has an artist’s eye and that gave us a lot of freedom to make artistic choices and compositions that we loved too. But at the same time, it was very important that the camera only captures what June would be interested in looking at in the moment. [Shaheen] and I watched “Grey Gardens” before making this, because stylistically, I liked that as an example of a documentary filmmaker who’s present and capturing what interests them in that moment rather than being in the right place at the right time for every moment.
Sometimes it was more interesting to us if we didn’t see something than if we did. It was also fun to shoot that way because as a rule, I didn’t believe in coverage, which is a weird thing as a director. You normally want to get as much coverage as possible. I was really interested in doing as many [long takes] as we could and making it feel really real, forcing ourselves to think of this as a documentary rather than like “Okay, now we’re going to go in for a close-up here.” It made us make more interesting choices.
It’s also a dream scenario getting to work with your husband as a DP because it’s like I get to talk to him all the time about shots. He’s my closest creative collaborator, and he had such an impact on the story as well as the shot choices. It’s not like we have to set a meeting. It’s great. I can bug him whenever.
What was the first day of shooting like? Is that a special feeling on your first feature?
It was. I don’t know what to count as the first day of shooting because we did one shoot day with Beth Grant in Los Angeles before we left [for Iowa]. That felt awesome, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like day one because you’re not in your location. Before the actors got there, Shaheen and I got to Iowa early to shoot B-roll and anything that we didn’t need actors for. Then the actors arrived, and the first thing we shot was the dock shot [featured in the film’s poster], but we shot it at night and quickly realized “Oh fuck, this is not what I was thinking. This is not going to work.”
All I can say is week one was really good but very hard – we had to get off-course a little bit, but I tried to go in roughly chronological order because it was easier for everyone’s brains. But by week two, it was like magic. I think in part, that’s because I hadn’t shot anything for a while, and we’re also getting to know each other and just working out the kinks of like what this movie is. At every step, I was figuring out what the movie was as we were making it.
If you shot the scene with Beth Grant first, since her mother character lingers over the whole movie, did that help set the tone for you?
She definitely set the tone of who this woman was. It’s interesting because when the actresses came to Iowa, I asked them, “Do you want to see your mother or do you want to wait until when we’re filming it?” Everybody wanted something different. I think Aleksa wanted to wait until we’re shooting that scene whereas Jen and Lindsay wanted to see the footage because I had already created that weird little video before we even started. That was another thing. To keep everything real, I didn’t want to just put some [random video tape] in and then green screen [the video of the mother that they find in the house]. I wanted to make the thing and actually pop in the VHS, and that VHS actually plays.
I feel like that character was a combination of people who have inspired me over the years, and of all the characters, I feel the most connected to the mother. This is going to sound so bad, but I’ve never necessarily been interested in having children, and I felt like if I ever did, they would almost be these scientific experiments. Amelia was that kind of mother. She loves her kids, but I don’t think that she approached motherhood in the way that maybe 99 percent of women naturally are prone to do. She had them with different men and there was this distance between her and her children. She was interested in them as people, not as children, and she was interested in learning from them about the universe more than like throwing birthday parties for them. She’s a really fun, odd character for me – she’s a super environmentalist, which I totally relate to, and has a scientific mind, but also is very spiritual. I almost want to make a movie just about her.
As the doula of this film, what’s it like to be sending it out into the world?
I’m very proud of it. It’s out of my control right now. Because it’s a different kind of movie, I just hope people will give it the proper chance. I think it requires ten to 20 minutes of patience and letting yourself sink into this strange and unusual world, and I just hope people don’t see the first 5 minutes and shut it off because it’s not your typical genre film. I do think there’s something truly horrifying and interesting and compelling in there.