Meet the Makers: Josalynn Smith
Meet the Makers is an ongoing interview series highlighting current Columbia University School of the Arts Film Program students and faculty.
Josalynn Smith is a 2nd year student in the creative producing concentration. Her thesis is scheduled to shoot in St. Louis November 2018.
Where are you from and what is your film background?
I’m from St. Louis, Missouri. I went to undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. I also studied abroad in England in my 3rd year. I studied English literature and French and anthropology.
I think my first experience with making films was during high school. Toward the end of my sophomore year, I was interviewed for a project called Jim Crow to Barack Obama, and I expressed that I wanted to be a filmmaker, so the director let me work with her for the next two years—interviewing people, researching… The movie premiered at St. Louis International Film Festival in 2013.
I did many internships, mainly editing footage. I worked at a museum, and a local PBS station in St. Louis, which was a great experience because they are really into community producing, so I would be there to help any producers edit their documentaries about their community.
I also helped shooting B-roll for some documentaries and interviews, which was more intuitive experience compared to how we shoot a narrative film. There, I basically kept rolling a camera for smaller shots, trying to catch the details of a person, trying to get more floating stuff, the way a person would tighten their hands or touch their face.
After graduating from college and before I came here to Columbia, I worked as a writer for a celebrity news and travel sites.
Did studying anthropology affect the way you make films?
Yes, I am definitely interested in video ethnography. Theoretically there’s a strong emphasis on once your body is in a space, you change the nature of the space. There’s no such thing as a true fly on the wall. Even if you’re not in the room with a camera on you, the camera is on, people change their behavior. I’ve been considering video installation—I’m currently exploring what I need to express outside of narrative film.
When did you decide to make narrative films instead of documentary?
It wasn’t really a decision. I think there are more documentary opportunities in St. Louis, but even in high school I felt like every project was video based project. And they really emphasized that to us in English literature classes. I made modern re-interepression of Hamlet and Midsummer’s Night Dream for my French and Italian classes. We had a facility including cameras and editing rooms.
What particular phase of producing do you enjoy the most?
Development—working with a writer, giving notes, re-writing.
What kind of films do you enjoy producing?
I’m discussing a couple of projects right now and they either touch on immigration or a refugee population.
Have you ever felt it was challenging to fictionalize current social issues?
No. The thesis I wrote is about a real water crisis in St. Louis. There was lead in the water in the St. Louis public school district where the majority of people are African American. It’s underserved because the city is not receiving high levels of personal property taxes to be able to have a school as nice as the ones in the county where privileged kids live and go. Some of the schools closed down because of educational performance even after the water crisis. My thesis is about a girl investigates this case. I didn’t have to fake the situation, I had to make a character help us to figure it out. The given circumstance is something real that people are facing, and by adding a fictional character I hope to bring the audience to the social issue.
What was your challenge in Columbia and your turning point?
My first year was challenging, moving to a new place, my personal life, culture shock and everything. I think 8-12 [8-12 minutes short film assignments] is where I built strong relationships with my classmates. I found some people I work with over and over again, which made my 2nd year much easier.
You are also a photographer—does that influence how you think about filmmaking?
Yes. I like to start every scene as a photo, and let things move out of a place. I always look at corners—I think corners are the most important part of composition. Even in the landscape it is about finding your edges and corners.
My first film at Columbia, I story-boarded everything, but I didn’t find it particularly helpful. I think it’s more helpful to be there and look into the camera. I thought I could plan it all, but I really couldn’t. In photography, I can mess with stilllifes, arranging pieces, no acting. The shotlist, along with the script, looking at a monitor help get the composition right. That was new for me. I am learning so much just from being set. Composing a film is not only about how it looks. You have to get a performance and story out of a moving image.
Is your thesis a vehicle to a feature?
Yes. I am writing a treatment for a feature based on my thesis film.
What kind of story you are interested in telling?
I think feature length films are about to become a museum art, unless it’s about superheroes. I think mostly, feature films are going to be smaller, indie and personal or going to exist for the purpose of film festivals instead of wide distribution.
I am more interested and passionate about TV. I would love to be a showrunner. Right now, my TV pilot is comedy and all the characters are women and people of color. Very experience based, awkward human interactions, etc. I like the experience when I watch something and feel they are telling a story about me or someone I know. I want my audience to feel that way—the instant recognition. I don’t like to stick with traditional plot points necessarily all the time, but I do want to write a character that’s real and instantly recognizable if you’re a certain age and from a certain community.