The thought process behind how Chris Smith chooses the subjects of his documentary work is rather simple. "It's just a natural curiosity," he says. "That's the only thing that unifies them is that there's something in each of those films that I was curious to learn more about."
That curiosity has taken the filmmaker down some wide-ranging paths, from working with Jim Carrey on 2017's Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, into true crime territory with 2018's Fyre and 2020's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (as executive producer), to the thrilling world of big-wave surfing with 2021's 100 Foot Wave. (All of which earned Emmy nominations, either for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series or for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, with Smith receiving a Directing nod for Fyre.)
His latest project is Sr., which Robert Downey Jr. conceived as a documentary about his father's legacy as a counterculture filmmaker in the '70s but, with Smith onboard, became something much more personal. The film is an oddball portrait of a father and his son, and a poignant meditation on the difficulty of saying goodbye to a loved one. (Downey Sr. died in 2021.) "They didn't know me, and it was incredible how much trust they put in me to help tell their story," says Smith. "When we got to the Hamptons to film with Robert for the first time, he came out and he said, 'Just be aware that nothing is off limits.'"
There was, however, one restriction: Smith was told that he couldn't bring a crew. "Luckily, they let me bring my girlfriend, and I taught her how to do sound," says the director. "I tried to teach myself in a day how to shoot again, because I hadn't picked up a camera in over 10 years. I didn't realize how far away I had veered from where I started, and I don't mean that as a negative — I think it's evolution. The business has changed. I've changed. But it was incredibly liberating to be back in an environment where I was able to be shooting again. That's carried forward since then. My next film, I ended up shooting a lot of it, which I don't think I ever would've done had it not been for Robert and his dad sort of forcing me back to pick up a camera."
In that way, the movie was also a reminder of why Smith took up documentary filmmaking in the first place. His feature debut, American Job, was a narrative mockumentary about a young man working minimum wage jobs, but as Smith set out on his sophomore effort, he met the man who would become the subject of his breakthrough documentary, American Movie. "I didn't have aspirations of being a documentary filmmaker, but what was unfolding in front of me was a lot more interesting than the screenplay I was writing. And that changed my whole path." American Movie, about an aspiring filmmaker's attempts to make a low-budget horror film, won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
"Every film is a window into another perspective, another life, which is an opportunity for you to learn and grow," Smith reflects. "I feel so fortunate to have spent time with the people I've been able to work with. It's not the time that you're filming, but I think it's the year, or two years, or three years that you spend in the edit where you're really immersed in their psyche that you can pull so much wisdom out that you hope transfers over and makes you a better person."
Below, Smith shares with A.frame the films that have made the biggest impact on him, with an apt new angle: "Senior had these seven rules of filmmaking, and the last film was to break all the rules. So, in keeping with him, I've ignored the 'five' law and made some groupings of five."
Written and Directed by: Errol Morris
The first grouping would be Errol Morris films, which includes The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, and Vernon, Florida. All of them had an incredible profound impact on me, because I'd never seen anything like them. I didn't even know what a documentary was when I saw Thin Blue Line. My brain was trying to understand what I was watching, because I was in high school and we didn't have any framework for what it was. Obviously, Thin Blue Line feels like the blueprint for all modern documentary, in terms of the way that he put that together with the interviews and the recreations. They're all so different, yet they all inform a different part of the way of what I love about documentary.
Vernon, Florida, the story has it, that he wanted to make a movie about a town in Florida where people cut off a limb to get insurance money, and he failed because no one would talk to him. He ended up going to the neighboring town, which was Vernon, Florida. It's that idea that you can find a story anywhere if you're looking and you apply the right lens. Looking at Sr., we went in not knowing what it would be, yet by spending time, something unfolded that was magical and beautiful.
Written and Directed by: Michael Moore
I grew up 45 minutes from Flint, and I remember seeing Roger & Me in a theater. It completely empowered me in the sense that this was somebody that just picked up a 16 millimeter camera and went and made a movie that was being shown in the movie theater where I grew up. It was somebody that lived 45 minutes away from me. There was something very empowering about that, because you didn't think movies were made by people that lived in Michigan. That definitely was a light bulb moment, that it was something that wasn't necessarily out of the reach of somebody that grew up in the Midwest.
Written and Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
The next grouping would be Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise [both by Jim Jarmusch]. I don't think I realized how similar most movies were until I saw it Down by Law, and the structure of that movie — where you're introduced to one character, then another character and another character, and you don't know that they're all going to meet — was so unusual and surprising and different that it sort of broke the idea of what a movie could be to me, in terms of a narrative film. Stranger Than Paradise was also made in the Midwest and has no reason to be as entertaining as it is, because so little happens, it's black and white, there's not a lot of edits. Yet, it's relentlessly watchable, in the sense that it's so compelling and there's no reason other than it's just a brilliant film. Those two recontextualized what movies could be for me.
Directed by: Ming-liang Tsai | Written by: Ming-liang Tsai and Pi-ying Yang
It's a Taiwanese film I saw it in college, and kind of like Stranger than Paradise, it's very few shots but each one is perfect. Every frame was like a photograph. It's just an incredible film. We went and did a film [The Pool] in India in 2006, and that film, along with The Passenger, was incredibly influential in terms of trying to make my version of one of these movies that I loved so much.
Directed by: Hal Ashby | Written by: Jerzy Kosinski
We can end with Being There and Shampoo, which I don't know how you could lead that off. I remember Senior said that Hal Ashby had seen Greaser's Palace and there's a scene in Being There that's reminiscent of a scene in Greaser's Palace that involves walking on water. I don't know if that connection is literal or not, but I love the idea that on one of my favorite films, the best part of that movie may have been inspired by some irreverent brilliance that Senior came up with.