BABE #50: SAMANTHA SMITH,
As a New Orleans-based film director, writer, and illustrator, Samantha is keen to the art of storytelling. When she was referred to me by my friend Ashli, (one of the most influential women/artists in my life,) I knew she'd be a gem. Though she humbly didn't mention this, she was recently awarded the "Jury Award for Best LA Short Film" at the New Orleans Film Festival, as well as "Best Short Film” and “Best Cinematography” at the International Kids Film Festival in Brazil. She's doing incredible stuff (while breaking down gender stereotypes along the way) and we can't wait to see what she'll create next. Thanks for chatting with us, Samantha!
Hometown: Picayune, MS
Current city: New Orleans, LA
Alma mater: Columbia College Chicago
Degree: B.A. in Film Directing
Hustle: Film Director & Writer
Babe you admire and why?
So many. Frida Kahlo first comes to mind. She has been inspiring me since I was a teenager. Her work introduced me to surrealism, leading me to Dali and MC Escher and so many others - all of which have influenced my style and storytelling. She was both a feminist and a tomboy… a combo I relate very closely to.
How do you spend your free time?
I enjoy traveling, cooking, reading, adoring my nephews and niece, drawing cartoons… watching cartoons...
Go-to coffee order?
Lately, iced coffee with almond milk & honey.
Go-to adult beverage?
A glass of Cabernet, no doubt.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
My Mom's Belizean cooking.
Three things we can always find in your fridge?
Olives, cheese, and usually some of kind of leaf.
Favorite social media account to follow?
Majasbok on IG. She's an illustrator based in Stockholm and creates the most adorable cartoons.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
Probably in Belize, hanging out with the family.
Tell us about your hustle:
I am a freelance film director and writer. My creative passion lies in fantasy and magical realism - for both adults and children. I am all about the nonsensical and the supernatural. I’m currently developing my first feature film, “Little Lying Wild,” which is a dark fantasy set in Belize where much of my family is from. On the sidelines of filmmaking, I also illustrate and write children's books.
What does your typical workday look like?
As a freelancer, I don't really have a “typical workday” (which I am so grateful for!) I might wake up and work on a screenplay, then switch to some illustrations, then go to meetings for an upcoming shoot - it just depends on the day. I try and stop working by 6 or 7PM if I can. It's hard to draw boundaries when you love what you do. Although I can work nonstop hours on various projects, I find it's always better when I don't.
When did your passion for film begin?
Aside from a brief period of wanting to be a Marine Biologist/Sea World trainer (which at age 9 I thought were the same thing), I've pretty much always wanted to be a filmmaker. Around the age of 12, I made my first film and I haven't stopped since. By the time I was 15, I was researching film schools.
Was there a specific film, show or moment that inspired you to start creating?
Yes – the moment I wanted to be filmmaker happened while watching the behind-the-scenes footage of Peter Jackson’s, “Lord of the Rings”. I was in awe and I watched it on repeat for months. Seeing hundreds of people building sets, planning shots, collaborating together – I remember thinking how it looked like a circus fused with a construction site; I remember sitting cross-legged on the carpet looking up at the TV and being like, “Yep. That’s it. I want to do that.”
What is your writing process like?
Long, tumultuous, and forever self-doubting. It takes me years sometimes before an idea is ready to be made into a film or story. I’m learning more and more that I love collaborating with other writers after I develop an initial idea or a first draft.
What keeps you anchored in New Orleans?
After graduating from college in Chicago, I moved here because I wanted to be in a smaller film community. I wanted to be certain I would get to produce my own work - I also deeply missed home and the South. I adore New Orleans. There is a magic here that empowers and inspires artists and I am grateful everyday to be swept up in it. I want to stay here but I am always open to anything – my love for any one place is not greater than my goals in this industry, so if I have to go for awhile to chase opportunities elsewhere, I’m prepared to do so. I suppose the dream would be to carve out a little nook in Hollywood with New Orleans always being home base.
What are some films / filmmakers / actors that have influenced you?
I’m drawn to the work of stylized directors: Michael Gondry, Darren Anorofksy, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, etc. These artists and many others have influenced me to stick with my love for fantasy & oddity. Through studying their work, I have learned to navigate my own unique authorship in storytelling. I also get a lot of influence from picture books and visual art. I think Shel Silverstein, Dr. Suess, and Walt Disney were the first people to teach me about storytelling. I always try to find ways to use them as references for projects now.
What is your approach to succeeding in such a male-dominated industry?
It's a constant struggle. Along with being a woman, I also look a lot younger than I am – resulting in an immensely frustrating battle to be taken seriously. I don’t have time or energy to impress those kinds of people so I choose to go off to the sidelines and build my own path. It’s more circuitous but at least no one is calling me “princess” along the way. I try and focus on the silver lining - today, more and more women are being given opportunities to fight their way to leadership roles. It's tiring, but I am so grateful to live in a time of change and growth for women. Don’t ever let someone else’s doubt stop you from what you think you can accomplish – you can’t give anyone that power. You have to find a way to push them aside and prove them wrong.
Would your advice be in terms of networking and making contacts in the industry, especially if you’re in a smaller community like yourself?
When I moved to New Orleans I didn't know anyone in the film scene – I researched and cold-called the people who I thought I would like to work with based on their bodies of work. A few of those folks are still my main collaborators and best friends. Don't be shy. If you see something that someone has done and you like it, talk to them.
How do you deal with the inevitable rejection that comes with pitching?
I try and use rejection as fuel, which is easier said than done of course. A few years ago when I started to get into the swing of submitting to film festivals, I was simultaneously trying to get a book published. It wasn’t so bad at first - I would get about 3 rejections to 1 acceptance. I thought a way to keep from feeling down would be to treat myself to something small every time I got a rejection. But after just a couple weeks, I had to throw that idea out the window as I was getting rejection letters from festivals, grants and publishers literally every day. This lasted for 6+ months. It wasn’t all bad though! I did acquire some wins and recognition that provided some really great opportunities. But beyond those few successes, I am really grateful for that time because I learned how important it is to value yourself and your work even when it seems like the world doesn’t. Getting a rejection is never a step backwards, it’s just keeping you right where you are until you find a different way to get to that next step you're aiming for.
What was your experience growing up in a smaller town? Did you have the appreciation and support for your passions or is that something you really had to build for yourself?
I grew up in south Mississippi, in one of those stereotypical towns where all anyone cares about is football and the kids hang out in parking lots because there is nothing else to do. When I caught interest in art and filmmaking, I was pretty much out of luck. Coming from a family of athletes, there wasn't much understanding on that front for many years, and I detested my school because there was no art funding or support. When you’re a teenager and you feel displaced both at home and in school, it's incredibly hard. During my junior year, I created a film club where we would meet after school and make movies. During senior year, I tried to create a credited film class but the resources just weren’t there. I was deeply unhappy until I zipped away to art school and met a multitude of people who believed in creativity as much as I did, and it’s been uphill ever since. If you are a young person in a similar situation, I assure you there are others just like you. There are people who are passionate and weird and who want to create things. You just have to push through whatever you’re in now and go find them.
Do you have any other community involvement?
If I wasn’t a filmmaker, I would certainly work in art education, and I still I try to do so as often as I can. My personal experience in an unbalanced public school has instilled in me the urge to connect with young people from similar circumstances. In the past, I have volunteered as a guest Teaching Artist for various schools and organizations and I am currently creating my next short film, “The Melancholy Man” in conjunction with a film youth program called The Cool Cooperative, based in New Orleans.
What is your favorite project you've worked on so far?
The first film I made when I moved to New Orleans was a short called “Sunday Water”, written by Joshua Mark Sienkiewicz. I met most of my closest New Orleans friends and collaborators on that film, and for many of us, I think it's remembered as a golden memory. “Sunday Water” is a really special to me because it solidified my confidence that I had made the right choice in moving to New Orleans.
Are there any other side projects that you’re working on?
Yes! I’m always juggling various projects. My main focus is my feature film, “Little Lying Wild," and the previously mentioned short I'm gearing up to make, “The Melancholy Man.” When I have free time, I whittle away at this large collection of liquid abstract paintings I’ve been working on for a few months… it’s kind of like my therapy.
With so many new technological advancements, are you happy with where the industry is headed?
I am very old fashioned… I will always read real books so I can smell and feel the paper, and I will always choose to go to the movie theatre to be in a large, dark space with strangers– it’s all about atmosphere for me. That being said, I am happy with the direction of streaming technology and online platforms. I think it’s great that folks can have documentaries, indie films & TV at their fingertips; hopefully it will diversify tastes and spread more unique stories.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I love creating a vision in my head and then handing it over to the cinematographer, editor, sound designer, costumer etc. and watching how their ideas make the vision even better.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work, and how did you overcome it?
I feel my biggest challenge is seeing that the work I create is not yet reaching the expectation I have. When I think about how to “overcome” it, I realize that they only way to get better is to continue to produce more work. Have you see “The Gap” by Ira Glass? It’s fantastic and sums up this idea with all the best words.
What motivates you every day/from what do you draw your inspiration?
Colors, shadows, and characters. All of the beautiful things in the real world inspire me to create fiction.
How do you find a work-life balance?
It’s a great challenge for me to balance my life with my work. As an artist with big goals, there are no clocks to punch, there’s no clear "time off." If I don’t show up and hustle, I’m not moving forward. Sometimes I feel guilty when I’m working so much and am neglecting social obligations… and other times I feel guilty when I’m being social because I’m not getting closer to my goals. I am always working on finding a balance. What I’m slowly learning is that taking time for just me is more important than anything else. If I am centered inside, then everything else becomes less complicated.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
My friends are a great source of solace. Many of them are hustling just as hard and it’s strong support system for me. If I am stressed out, I do breathing exercises, and potions (aka essential oils) really help. I am lucky enough to live a block away from City Park, one of the most beautiful pieces of New Orleans, so I’ll often take long walks to clear my head.
What does success look like to you?
Supporting myself by doing what I love.
What do you hope for your future?
I hope to have enough balance and time to adopt a dog.
Career and/or life advice for other women?
If you are a woman in the entertainment industry, I urge to you not to back down. Stand up to all those that tear you down or look through you. You are powerful and important, and we need your stories.
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