Celebrating his feature film documentary debut While They Watched, producer/director Jake J. Smith is currently promoting his film around Korea. The documentary, which is set in the future in a fictional world where the Kim dictatorship has collapsed, mixes interviews and news footage to present first-hand witness reviews and provide tear-jerking testimonies on experiences with the regime.
Groove Korea caught up with Smith as he takes some time out of his busy schedule to share his own experiences on being an expat filmmaker and making his first feature-length documentary.
Jake J. Smith works proudly as a producer and director in Seoul and London. The ex-pat, who was born and bred in the depths of Hackney in East London, had a childhood filled with multi-cultural memories which now influence his filmmaking. Jake, a young man in his 20s, reminisces about his East London days, describing how, “At a very early age, I was exposed to different kinds of people and their stories, or problems they faced within their own culture” – a view which he now tries to integrate into his own documentaries.
Jake was always passionate about film and television. Quentin Tarantino famously said that he “didn’t go to film school, he went to films” and, although Jake went to Arts University Bournemouth (AUB), there was still a lot of watching movies before any of the students attempted to make any. After plenty of movie watching and experimenting with script-writing, it was only then that Jake tried his hand at films.
A fan of sci-fi and horror, the filmmaker tried lots of different areas before actually discovering what he wanted to do. With an impressive resume including location stints on feature films Philomena (2013), I Give it a Year (2013) and Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) in the UK, Jake has also directed and produced music videos, including “The Love We Had” for Joss Stone. However, the most educational roles, he confesses, were the distribution jobs held at Revolver Entertainment and Metrodome working on films like Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). Jake believes distribution is an important role for any potential moviemaker to understand in order to appreciate the ins and outs of the business. As the producer/director explains, the landscape of distribution has changed so much in the last 5-10 years that some indie filmmakers have decided to self-distribute and, although it results in more work and risk, this approach does come with maximum rewards “not just financially – but also in understanding how to build your audience for your next film.”
Aside from all the fame and glamour that the film world brings, Jake stresses that most of the jobs he has held done so whilst studying, combining interning with some paid positions. After working at Raindance in London as tech support for their evening classes, some more behind-the-camera experience was gained before going on to study documentary filmmaking.
Jake’s first short production was actually his graduation film from two years ago, a 23-minute documentary called The People’s Kitchen. The production even ended up on National TV in the UK and was the only film at AUB to achieve a screening that year. Ultimately, it combined all the professional skills learnt at college and from his placements and was undoubtedly a satisfying moment for the producer/director.
It wasn’t until this year that Jake achieved his first directing/producing debut in the feature film documentary While They Watched (2015). On the back of his graduation debut, the director emphasizes that this production was his biggest personal challenge. Jake reveals how having a combination of writing, producing, and directing skills were all needed to create a successful film.
Now that his first feature film has wrapped, Jake has discovered that he has really found his calling in making films of all types but especially human-interest documentaries. He has many ideas for his next production, including some offshoots of While They Watched. The producer/director is also interested in exploring communism and historical elements in other countries like Cambodia and Cuba in perhaps an extension of the crew’s North Korean work. For the immediate future and with the release of the documentary imminent, Jake’s main actions will be of the vacation kind. Now, that’s a wrap.
After proposing the making of his first feature-length documentary While They Watched, Jake was not fully aware of what he had just signed up to do. “I had never made a feature film before. I just thought some things will be more natural than others but you have to be pretty good at most things to get you through.” The producer/director recalls that there was rarely any shortcuts throughout the whole process and if things serendipitously went to plan, then that could just be called lucky.
Jake believes filmmakers have to play to their strengths and also have a solid pre-production ritual. Having a plan efficient in terms of both time and money was as important as deciding upon the shooting style and different aesthetics used to accompany the varying narrative and the interviews, which were more like conversations. Jake believes pre-production, research, and knowing what you need from individual scenes is essential for a flawless production.
Describing the process, Jake says, “There were many times it felt like an endurance race. You could compare it to a decathlon actually. You’re going to face many different challenges and, if you’re working on a documentary, new obstacles can appear at any time”.
And appear they did, with many of the difficulties an intrinsic part of the subject matter. The people selected for interviews in the documentary were either very busy, unwilling to talk to the crew, or just not interested in making or appearing in a film. Jake and the team had to be persistent (which managed to get them some way toward getting interviews), but many of those they spoke to thought the film was too provocative and declined to be involved. The South Korean government, the Ministry of Unification, and the Chinese Embassy also didn’t want to participate and refused to speak to the production team.
The language barrier was also another difficulty, almost insurmountable at times. As half of the film is in Korean, selling an idea about a collapsed North Korea to people who used to be North Korean soldiers with a suspect history wasn’t the easiest task for Jake to accomplish. Also, professionals and academics who showed some interest wanted to know how the filmmakers intended to end the documentary and wanted to leave no doubt in the audience’s mind that the problems discussed were current and not fictional. The time frame also caused more confusion for the director; setting the film in the future and asking people to speak in the past tense made it difficult for some people to digest as participants asked “So, this is a documentary or something else?” Jake reiterates that everything in the film is real – bar the news reports at the beginning; it’s just told in the past tense.
Finance can also be a sticky point, with Jake recognizing that asking funders for money was a fairly uncomfortable experience. Between missing deadlines, not fitting into the eligibility criteria, or completing the never-ending application forms, the producer/director states, “It’s easier to just make it with no money, which seems impossible… So we crowd funded the money, which got the ball rolling. Also I had a full-time job at the time to pay for the film. We shot the film at weekends or the scarce day off.”
This perhaps sounds ominous for the wannabe filmmaker in all of us. However, there’s a small group of expat filmmakers here in Seoul, with an even bigger expat community who are willing to help out with potential projects. For Jake’s documentary, editor Neil P. George approached him about making While They Watched a reality, after watching a smaller version of the style of film that Jake had posted on his fundraising page. Additionally, writer Hope Kim, whom Jake met at a networking event, helped get the ball rolling in the beginning, with many other translators and interpreters working on the production just out of the goodness of their hearts – which is a common occurrence here on the peninsula.
However, the film has not put the producer/director off future filmmaking by any means. In fact, Jake’s advice for any aspiring filmmaker is to stay positive. He adds, “As I mentioned earlier, a good metaphor is a decathlon. I think it takes some sacrifice, a lot of dedication, time and passion to finish. I’d leave myself notes in places that kept me focused on what I needed to do.” Jake also believes that keeping a firm vision of the film close to you throughout the production helps so recordings don’t go off on a tangent, or let you become distracted. Ultimately, he states, there’s very little that beats hard work. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, no matter how experienced one is in this field. As Jake advises, “It’s the creative people I surround myself with constantly improve my ideas.”
Keep up to date with Jake’s movements on Twitter @jjsmithlondon or www.sqep.co