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SxSW 2015 Interview: Meet the team behind BABY!

BABY - At SxSW 2015
by Jason Whyte

"BABY is about a girl looking for an escape. She could care less about her job, neglects her messages and phone calls, and finds some kind of solace in drinking too much vodka. The big question is what it is she's hiding from, and why it isolates her." Director and writer Samuel Aaron Bennett on the short feature BABY which screens at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival. Also joining on this interview is executive producer and star Renee Felice Smith.

Adds Renee Felice Smith: "Sam basically nailed it. I would just add that our central character is at a critical point in her life, and because of it, she's made to act like an adult. Or whatever that means. It's the struggle between feeling like a 16 year old but in actuality, you're a twenty-something and you're having to "be adult' and "deal with situations". I feel like Naomi is constantly asking "When are we gonna take a break have fun again?"

Great to meet you both! Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

Samuel: This is my first time, and I'm so damn excited. It's a festival I have been wanting to attend for a long time, let alone be a part of it. I will definitely be attending my screenings, but if there happen to be more people than seats, I would happily give away mine.

Renee: I'm so excited to attend SXSW as I have never been before. I have been to Austin, once on a cross country road trip and the other time, for the Austin Film Festival with a short I wrote and directed back in 2013. I'm looking forward to experiencing the buzz and excitement throughout the city that SXSW is known for.

First timers at SxSW, eh? What have you heard about the city's barbecue?

Samuel: I haven't been yet, but I hear The Salt Lick is the place to be! Looking forward to that.

Renee: I'm looking to hit up Franklin's; I hear they have a mean "Tipsy Texan" sandwich which I am looking forward to inhaling, I mean, experiencing. (Author note: It is as good as you have heard.)

What do you love the most about showing movies in Austin and Austin in general?

Renee: It seems to me the general attitude in Austin is a sort of laid back, confidence. I think those are some of the best audience members to have because it means they are able to watch a film, absorb it and then bring their own interpretation to it. I like people who have their own unique ideas but are not in your face, over the top about it.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker.

Samuel: When I was fifteen, I started making little home movies with my neighbor. We would put on accents and ridiculous costumes and make things. I didn't know ten years later I would still be making films, but I also don't think I had much of a choice. I was hooked. Music was also a big part of it. I loved composing, which is what I studied in college, and film scores were the reason for that. Baby is my debut narrative film, but over the past few years, most of my work has been commercial. I usually work direct-to-client and have a lot of freedom to take on multiple roles. For most, I will write, direct, shoot, edit and compose the music. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.

Renee: Like Sam, my backyard was my little studio as a kid. I was always creating something: a play, an obstacle course, a satirical Miss America pageant. Basically, I was telling stories and really enjoyed when/if people, namely my parents and general neighbourhood Sandlot kids, would laugh. I think now as an adult, or whatever that means, my taste hasn't changed all that much. I'm an actor and my current role as Nell Jones on NCIS:LA often uses that snappy sarcasm to lighten the mood of an otherwise dramatic situation, as I often find myself doing in my real life. I recently co-wrote and directed a short film entitled GO FISH, which is a comedic, surreal telling of a bad break up. All that said, BABY is definitely a bit heavier and not necessarily what I would consider "in my ball park" but I when my good friend Sam presented his idea to me I was up for the challenge. As much as I like telling my own stories, I get a lot of gratification telling other people's stories too.

Great back story! So how did BABY come together for you, Samuel?

As both the writer and director, the vision was always clear. It was mostly a matter of getting the screenplay to a point where I felt ready to bring it to life. I wrote the main character specifically for Renee. I knew exactly what kind of person I wanted her to be, and had no doubt she would nail it, which made it easy for me to focus on everything surrounding her character. Renee had a big part in assembling the rest of the cast and crew, one of the most vital being Rachel Walker, who produced the film. It was really their dedication that made this whole thing happen.

Renee: The people I made this film with, with exception to two people, were dear friends of mine. I was just so happy to work with Sam on something he really believed in. It's true, when someone believes in you it does something, something really powerful to you. Makes you believe too. Sam and I talked on the phone for hours and hours about the central character and her story, why was she like this, what does she want, what is she avoiding, and as a result, I really feel like I knew and understood Naomi. Shortly there after, I asked Rachel Walker to come aboard. Rachel is like a fairy god mother. She can make things happen with this ease and grace. She is fun and yet organized and the most productive person. I knew she was dabbling in producing and thought she would be the perfect producing partner. From there we assembled the rest of the team, again mostly close friends, and had a good time doing it!

What was your #1 challenge with this movie, and how did you over-come it?

Samuel: I learned what it really means to over-complicate screenplays with locations that can't really be achieved with guerrilla filmmaking, so finding it in the budget to rent these places out was tricky. We had very little time to shoot in each. At the same time, it added an energy to the production that forced us to stay focused.

Renee: I second that emotion and say, yes, time and scheduling was the most challenging to negotiate. Sam wrote a script where the opening scene takes place in an airplane! Are you kidding me? Yup, that's my friend Sam. No mountain is too high of a climb for this guy and that is what pushed this short to the next level; his dedication to his vision and our willingness to find a way to make all of those things become reality. And one night, we stayed up for 24 hours doing so.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Samuel: We were shooting a scene where Renee had to get quite emotional, and she blew us all away on the first take. There was a moment where we just looked at each other like "Yeah, that was the one." Then I said "Okay, let's do one more."

Renee: HA! Sam is always saying one more. Although this might come as a complete surprise to you, Sam, I would say that filming the drunk scene in the hotel room was my favorite experience. I was taking a nap and Sam woke me up to film at like 3am and I was quite the grouch but then I got to eat Cheetos in bed and it was great. I was so giddy and silly and kind of half awake. It really worked for the scene.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? Coffee?

Samuel: I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I'm a big believer in bananas. Actually, because this was the first narrative film I wrote and directed, there was a constant energy inside me, keeping me going. Half of it was trying not to miss anything, and the other half was pure excitement that we were bringing a story to life, especially one I care so much about.

Renee:I'm not a coffee drinker either! I do enjoy pizza though. I find that after a really emotional scene I just wanna eat all the bad things, sorta like when your boyfriend breaks up with you in eighth grade. You just need a little comfort. In all seriousness though I would say water is what keeps me alive while working, living life in general. I drink a lot of water.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how you brought the film to the screen visually!

Samuel: I could talk about this stuff for days. I was actually the director of photography, also! I used the Red Epic and Arri Ultra Prime lenses. It was a beautiful setup. I was hoping to use Zeiss Super Speeds for the look they achieve, but they weren't available at the time. I can't complain, though. I decided to go with a 2.39 aspect ratio because it felt more intimate and focused.

Renee: Sam is a gifted, self taught director of photography. WE talked a lot about the look and how the goal was something intimate, felt like you were in the room with this girl. I think he hit a home-run in achieving the look he set out to create.

Can I just say I love you two already? Your enthuiasm is palpable and I am sure you are excited about showing your film at SxSW!

Samuel: So far, the film has only been seen by a few people. I can't imagine what it will be like with an audience. It's something I have always been curious to experience, and the fact that it'll be an audience at one of the greatest film festivals in one of the greatest cities, that's what I'm looking forward to.

Renee: I too look forward to hearing what people react to. Hearing where they laugh, or where they are quite. There were lots of improvised bits in the film and I'm looking forward to hearing them play out loud.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen/dream cinema?

Samuel: I would love for it to screen in New York, which is where I'm based. So is Renee, actually. We're still submitting to festivals, so fingers crossed!

Renee: I would love love love to screen in mine and Sam's hometown, NYC. LA would be great too so my LA friends can see what I do with my spare time.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

Samuel: I'd ask nicely to stop, as I would during any film screening. Just the other day, the person next to me in the theater was eating a bag of chips. That might be the worst choice of food during a film. You have to respect the audience and the film itself. I'm surprised when people aren't sensitive to that.

Renee: It's one of my biggest pet peeves actually, talking loudly in a theatre. I usually mom out and ask people to stop if they're close by and really distracting me. This one time I had a teenager say, "Sorry, miss lady ma'am." I just think, "Look, you have come here and paid to see this so why not just relax your brain and take it in?". I just think seeing a film in a dark theatre can be such a relief these days, you know? No traffic to deal with or bosses to impress, literally you don't have to do anything! Your only job is to sit there and keep your eyes open. Or maybe you close your eyes and listen. Either way, it's an absolute pleasure cruise so let's not complicate it people!

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

Sam: Trust your gut. If it's imaginable, it's relatable; I have thrown away ideas in the past because I had asked for someone's opinion and got discouraged. No matter what you make, there will be those who disagree with your intentions, but there will also be those who back you up until the end.

Renee: I agree with Sam. At the end of the day, you have to make the film you want to make. Not what you think will get into a big festival. Tell an interesting story, make sure your actors keep it real, and surround yourself with people you trust and who make you the best version of yourself.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

Sam: ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. The film that made me want to make films. For that, I am thankful, not to mention continually inspired to this day.

Renee: I must say THE WIZARD OF OZ. I saw it for the first time at my Grandma's house around age 4. It really sparked my imagination. I so appreciated the magic within the story. I think a little bit of OZ is in everything I do.

Color me impressed with these two! Catch BABY at SxSW! You can also follow Sam on Twitter at @samuelbennett and Renee at @reneefsmith!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 35+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/13/15 07:48:22
last updated: 04/11/15 03:01:52
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