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Double vision

How two local boys got their feature film into Sundance

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When Alex and Andrew Smith, twin brothers from Potomac, were cut from the Hellgate High School freshman basketball team in 1981, it bruised their pride in the same manner as any adolescent boy or girl the world over. Because they still wanted to play hoops—and perhaps because they felt they had something to prove in terms of their athletic ability—they agreed to join an independent men’s league when one of the team’s coaches recruited them.

Soon after they started practicing with the team, they began to hear strange rumors about this coach. He’s an oddball, they would say, and we hear that he likes boys. Really likes boys. Although they never saw anything in the coach’s conduct to give substance to the rumors, the brothers say they felt uncomfortable about the situation. After a dismal start to the season, they quit the team and left the coach behind as they progressed through their lives.

But the coach, and the concepts of male intimacy and the power of gossip, remained stuck in their minds. During a conversation while they were in college—both had chosen different literature programs to attend, Alex in northern California and Andrew in southern California—they discovered that each had begun a creative project with the coach as the central character.

“I was writing a short story about it and Alex was doing a short film, both about this coach guy,” says Andrew. “That’s when we first decided we needed to share that story.”

That story was the creative seed that germinated into a full-blown artistic bloom in their minds, a story that will be on display at the Sundance Film Festival next week when the Smith’s debut feature-length film, The Slaughter Rule, vies for top honors in the dramatic film category.

Given their combination of obvious intelligence and a propitious upbringing, the Smiths have attained an elite level inartistic narrative that is hardly surprising. The sons of two creative powerhouses—mother Annick is a renowned author and filmmaker, and father David was a literature professor at the University of Montana before he died in the early ’70s—Alex and Andrew were surrounded as children by accomplished written and visual storytellers.

In addition to her acclaimed written works, Annick produced 1980’s Heartland, a seminal independent movie about homesteader Eleanor Stewart. She also produced and directed Kicking the Loose Gravel Home, a film portrait of the godfather of the UM creative writing program, poet Richard Hugo. Hugo had invited David Smith to teach at the University and was a familiar presence around the Smith household. Some time after Smith died, Annick and Missoula author Bill Kittredge began the personal and professional relationship that produced, among other things, The Last Best Place anthology, often regarded as the bible of Montana literature.

“We grew up with a lot of film stuff around the house,” Andrew says. “Mom had an editing bay and moviola in her room that she used on Heartland and the Hugo documentary. There was a lot of editing going on.”

The brothers took advantage of the equipment laying around, putting a Super 8 camera to good use. “We made lots of little movies growing up, and in high school we made Happiness is a Warm Gun,” says Alex. “It was our version of a James Bond movie.”

“Man, that was a good one,” says Andrew. “It had snowmobile chases and all kinds of stunts.” Alas, the film stock they had used was old, and Kodak could not develop it. “I think it’s still sitting around somewhere at the house,” says Andrew.

By virtue of her work on Heartland, Annick was one of the inaugural members of the Sundance Institute’s board of directors, a position she held from 1982 until 1985. Created by actor and director Robert Redford, the Institute is designed to assist independent filmmakers in transferring their visions from the mind to the silver screen. Every year, Sundance sponsors a select group of screenwriters and directors in a series of workshops to help budding artists hone their craft.

During college and for several years afterwards, Alex and Andrew worked at the Institute, first as volunteers and then as interns. Although their jobs entailed various menial tasks needed to make movies happen from a production standpoint, the brothers now realize that the experience they gained there helped them immensely when they became filmmakers.

“I did art department, grip, and sound at first. I used to do the boom [microphones]. They put the tall guys on the boom,” Alex says. “Then I started working as a camera assistant, and worked for two and a half years at that. That was the best preparation for directing, because you’re right in there with the actors and the DP [director of photography] and the director, so you can pick up a lot.”

“I worked mostly as a grip and in electric,” Andrew says. “I also did video assist, which is the world’s most boring film job. But it gives you the most time to watch what’s going on, because you’re sitting there hitting record, stop and play as they’re recording on a VCR connected to the camera. It’s a way for the filmmaker to watch the take after it’s over.”

The Smiths both worked on Little Man Tate, Jodi Foster’s 1991 debut film as an actor/director. Andrew did video assist for the film, and says “Jodi was acting in the film and, as director, didn’t know how the takes came out. My job was to provide that tape for her. The best part of the job was just being on the set and listening to all the decisions being made.”

Despite their integration into the industry, the Smiths never regarded their work as a golden path to future careers. “Neither of us were grooming ourselves consciously for filmmaking, I don’t think,” says Andrew. “I know I didn’t consciously think I was going to become a filmmaker at the time.”

That realization came slowly, as the brothers worked through what became a 10-year process in making The Slaughter Rule. It was an odyssey that would test their mettle, their perseverance, and their resistance to temptation.

With a script for The Slaughter Rule completed sometime around 1993, the Smiths began looking around for a filmmaker to take on the project. They caught what they thought was their big break when a director, whom they had met through their work at Sundance, expressed a serious interest in shooting the movie.

“He was enthusiastic about the script but he had big, sweeping changes in mind for it,” Alex says. “We were gung-ho about it at the time because it was so great just to have someone interested.”

At the director’s suggestion, the Smiths moved the film’s setting from Montana to Texas, where they found the inspiration to change the film’s dramatic impetus from basketball to six-man football, a sport played in large rural states like Texas and Montana. The title of the movie comes from a rule that ends a game if either team is leading by 45 points or more by the second half.

Although the collaboration with the director never panned out, their Texas detour provided a vital element for the film’s development. “It turned out he wanted to be writer and director on it, and just give us story credits,” says Andrew. “We were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ But that was the point when people started saying that we should either turn it into a novel direct it ourselves. When the whole thing fell through, we thought ‘Hey, they play six-man in Montana. Let’s bring it home.’”

They continued to rework the script through the mid-’90s, while both attended graduate writing programs. Things broke loose for the twins in 1997 when they were accepted into the Sundance screenwriter’s lab in January of 1998 and a production company out of New York picked up an 18-month option on their script. The company was not able to find financing for the project, though, delivering yet another indignity to the Smith’s perception of their movie.

“We had this actor, David Morse [Proof of Life, The Crossing Guard], who we wanted for years to play the coach, and we got him on board,” says Andrew. “It was a great moment for us. But he’s an actor’s actor—phenomenal, but a little under the radar. So when we said, ‘We’ve got David Morse,’ [the production company] said, ‘What about Ted Danson?’ We were like, ‘ooof!’”

When the option expired and the Smiths had completed both the screenwriter’s and director’s labs at the institute, they found several producers who were willing to give them a shot making the movie they wanted to make. Through a system of piecemeal fundraising, the producers and the Smiths were able to raise enough cash to shoot the film themselves.

Shortly before shooting began, HBO approached the Smiths with an offer to double the budget and make it into a cable TV movie. The brothers had already figured out a way of shooting the film in an affordable, wide-angle format (similar to the technique used by Sergio Leone in his spaghetti westerns of the ’70s), one that would emphasize the wide open spaces of Montana. This time they stuck to their artistic guns— “after we stopped our producers from drooling,” jokes Alex.

The Slaughter Rule was finally shot in Great Falls in November and December of 2000. While the Smiths were ecstatic about shooting the film in Montana—“the film is a lot about exposure, both physically and metaphorically,” says Alex—they and the crew got more than they bargained for. The intense, 25-day shoot was marked by a serious confrontation with the elements. During one eight-day stretch, the temperature in Great Falls never rose above zero.

“It was the last ten days of the shoot, so we didn’t have anything else to do,” Andrew says. “There are scenes in the film when we were shooting in temperatures of 8 to 18 below. You see a lot of breath in the film.”

Whether or not their movie wins the festival’s grand prize, the Smith brothers have a firmer grasp on the magnitude of their achievement in getting this far. And they know their good fortune at having a kindred soul with whom to work.

“I think if it was just one of us, we wouldn’t have pulled this off,” says Alex. “There were many times when one of us would get discouraged enough to abandon it, but the other would be like, ‘Hey, fuck it, let’s try again.’”

“It’s been a lesson in perseverance,” adds Andrew. “But being in Sundance is enough of a payoff.” 

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 10-20. The winner of the dramatic competition category will be announced Jan. 19.

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