The Midnight Swim

 Interview with director Sarah Adina Smith

By Alex Teitz

The Midnight Swim

            The Midnight Swim is a creepy and foreboding indie film about three half-sisters returning to their mother’s house on a lake after the mother disappears. The film stars Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino. I caught the film at the 2014 Starz Denver Film Festival where it won the American Independent Award for Best Feature Film. FEMMUSIC was honored to get an interview with the director, Sarah Adina Smith. Smith has also worked on the feature film Goodbye World and on short films, video art and music videos.  For info

FEMMUSIC: How did the idea of The Midnight Swim come about?

SAS: I made a short film called “THE SIRENS” about three sisters and a lake, and the lake where we short that film was said to be “BOTTOMLESS.” I liked the idea of a lake that no one’s ever found the bottom of… That was the genesis of the idea and the gravitational center of the story.

FEMMUSIC: Tell me about the production. Just some basics. How long were you filming? How long was post? 

SAS: We shot for something like 14-15 days. Post was maybe 5-6 months, but not all consecutively. I have to work while I work on films, so post can sometimes take longer.

FEMMUSIC:  The House & the Lake are characters in the story. How did you find them? 

SAS: Yes, that’s very true!

The house has been in my mother’s family for a long time and was one of the key sources of inspiration for the project. Having that location made the film possible on our tiny budget.

FEMMUSIC: Tell me about casting. How hard was it casting the 3 sisters June, Annie & Isa? Had you worked with anyone before?

SAS: I didn’t know any of the actors before they came to the set, other than Jen Lafleur, who I had seen audition for another film of mine.

Casting was surprisingly easy. The whole process of making the film was surprisingly easy. It was humbling… It made me feel like my biggest job was just to listen and be patient. I tried to be more of a doula than a dictator, because this film had a life of its own.

The Midnight Swim


FEMMUSIC:  What was the biggest challenge making The Midnight Swim?

SAS: There was a dark and lonely valley in the post process where I nearly lost my mind,  but other than that it was all pretty smooth, in large part due to my amazing producers: Jonako Donkey & Mary Pat Bentel. Getting to the point of finally making this movie wasn’t easy, however. I spent a lot of time trying to get projects off the ground that would fall through. I look back on that now and realize that those projects just weren’t ready, or I wasn’t ready.

FEMMUSIC: The Midnight Swim is your first feature length film as Director. What things do you like in the long form & what was more difficult?

SAS: I much prefer the long form. There’s more room to breathe and discover. I think short films are inherently more difficult because you have so little time with the audience to establish a connection and take them somewhere.

FEMMUSIC: How did you get into film? 

SAS: I’ve always like storytelling. When I was in the first or second grade I put on a  play in our tree house and invited all the neighbors to watch. I think I even made them pay for tickets too.

In college  I was doing  a lot of painting and other weird art projects. I was also doing some acting in New York and at my school (COLUMBIA). I really liked hanging out with the graduate film students and acting in their exercises. I think it slowly dawned on me that I wanted to be on the other side of the camera. I’m more at home there, but I still feel stories from the inside-out, which is why I love working with actors so much.

FEMMUSIC:  Women Directors are rare but they need to be common. What obstacles have you faced as a Director? Have you faced discrimination in the industry?

SAS: I think making movies is hard for anyone who isn’t born into connections or money. I don’t know that I’ve even been directly discriminated against… but I also do think it’s probably true that women have a steeper slope to climb to earn trust from the forces  that be.

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem for women and people of color, on both sides of the camera. They want you to already be proven before they’ll give you a chance to prove yourself, and so the problem is self-perpetuating.

FEMMUSIC:  What one thing would you change about the film industry?

SAS: Diversity casting is a real source of frustration for me because investors want “NAMES” to help make their investment safer, but there are so few people of color in the pool to choose from to justify a budget. We need more programs to develop diverse talent and we need some way to subsidize indie films to make it possible for us to cast beyond the pool.

SAG has a decent diversity incentive, but we need to do more. I even think there should be a federal tax incentive to help bring diverse voices and stories to the screen

FEMMUSIC:  Who have been your biggest influences & who would you like to work with?

SAS: I studied philosophy in college and I was lucky that my parents had a great library and always encouraged reading growing up. I actually didn’t see very many great films as a kid because I was from a place where there was only a Blockbuster Video and a multiplex. In college I worked at this great indie friendly video store – Kim’s Video – and employees got free rentals so I watched a ton of movies. I also probably took the subway down to Lincoln Center and The Film Forum at least once a week to see all kinds of films

I like creepy Polanski (The TenantRosemary’s Baby), Dreamy Kubrick (2001Eyes Wide ShutThe Shining), nearly everything By Lars Von Trier, and I’m obsessed with Picnic at Hanging Rock. I was really pissed that I didn’t make Dogtooth. That movie is pure genius. I have a huge respect for those filmmakers.

I’d like to work with so many actors, but I’m dying to work with Javier Bardem. I have the perfect project for him too. Javier, if you Google yourself and somehow find this…call me.  

FEMMUSIC: I’m going to end on a lighter note. Just a couple more questions. 

FEMMUSIC: The “music video” in The Midnight Swim is a lighter moment. How did that come about?

SAS: My sisters and I always did lip syncs growing up, so that scene seemed perfectly normal to me as a way they’d reconnect. But I also wanted to show a crazier side of June…to shock the audience for a moment to send them deeper into her brain.

FEMMUSIC The ending is different. I was curious if you’d seen Left Bank which is the only other film I’ve seen with that ending. 

SAS: I haven’t seen that but I’ll have to check it out!

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