Two decades after his breakthrough as a documentary filmmaker, Chris Smith is on a tear in the non-fiction realm, having directed “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” “Fyre,” and “Operation Variety Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” in the past four years, while also serving as an executive producer of last year’s pandemic docuseries sensation “Tiger King.” His latest effort, HBO’s “,” follows surfing pioneer Garrett McNamara on his quest to conquer a mighty swell in Portugal; another project revolving around Robert Downey Jr. and his late father is in the works.
Last August, the younger Downey called Smith “arguably the greatest documentary (filmmaker) around right now” while speaking on the “Smartless” podcast, praise that especially resonated given his father’s work as documentary filmmaker.
Smith’s recent output reflects a renewed focus on documentary filmmaking after years of mostly concentrating on commercial directing to the point of burnout. The director won a grand jury prize in 1999 at Sundance for “American Movie,” and scored a distribution deal just under one million dollars with Sony Pictures Classics, a large chunk of change for a documentary at that time. It was a notable accomplishment for a feature documentary debut, and Smith’s second film overall, but at the time the director said he had no desire to make another documentary. He made a handful while pursuing commercial directing the next 15 years, turning back to documentary work when Spike Jonze approached him with never-before-seen footage of Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman.
Smith spoke to Variety about “100 Foot Wave,” having a knack for choosing zeitgeisty doc material and his upcoming project about the celebrated Downey father-son duo.
“100 Foot Wave” is your first project with HBO. Did HBO approach you with the idea or was it your idea?
I was actually approached by the producer, Joe Lewis. It was an idea that he had, and he brought to me. Then we started developing the materials and took it out and HBO.
What attracted you to the project?
I wasn’t particularly attracted to surfing or surf culture films. The one thing I’ve learned though is that you never know where a great story could be. I’m very, open-minded to exploring a subject to see if I can find something that resonates with me with the hopes that it could connect to a larger audience. I did an initial Skype call with Garrett, and he didn’t seem like what I considered the typical surfer. He had his own take on things and his own way of doing things and that was appealing to me. He just seemed like an interesting character to spend time with. It was an instinctual thing. It didn’t matter whether he was a surfer or in some other sport, I just thought Garrett was interesting and that was the jumping off point.
How long did you work on “100 Foot Wave”?
We started filming about two years ago. Something we came to learn is that surfers document their lives quite extensively. So, we were able to access a lot of footage that had chronicled his experiences over the years. From that we were able to make something that was bigger in scope than we originally intended.
Was all the archival footage why you decided on making the docu six episodes?
Every project is different. For “Fyre” we cut that as a four-part series and a feature at the same time. As we got closer to finishing, I felt that the feature was stronger. In this case, we started with a feature and the first edit was six hours long. So, that’s when I took a step back and felt like we were more in series territory than we are in feature territory. There had been so much documentation of this story – and it wasn’t just Garrett’s story, but it was his story as well as the evolution of this small town in Portugal that lent itself to something that I felt warranted the time.
How did HBO feel about it turning from a one-off docu to a docuseries?
At the time we went to HBO we were going out with it as a six-part series. In development I work independently just so that I can understand what the project is. My biggest fear is setting up a project without really knowing what it is and being beholden to that when the form may be more successful, or the project may be more successful in a different form.
Was it difficult to find cinematographer who could capture Garrett as well as other surfers on the gigantic waves they surf?
There was a learning curve for sure. We quickly were introduced to the small group that specialized in (filming big waves) We were really fortunate to get plugged into that network. In Hawaii we worked with a longtime surf cinematographer named Mike Prickett. And in Portugal there’s a guy who has been there forever and knows it like no one else. So, for most of the two years we filmed in Portugal we would hire him.
This film was very different from your recent docs in that it’s a very personal story told mainly by one man. Do you consider it a departure from your previous nonfiction work?
I never looked at it that way. I am always following what’s interesting to me. So, it wasn’t a conscious decision, it was more, “Oh this an interesting world to explore.” With every project you have this opportunity to (create) life experiences and to learn and by doing that you’re creating something that allows the audience to go on that journey as well and this was definitely one of those cases.
You have been exclusively working with Netflix for five years. Why didn’t you take the film to them?
We take our projects out to everyone and we just try to find the right home. So, it really is a combination of seeing what the best fit is at the time.
When you look at the documentaries that you’ve made over the last four years, is there a through line that connects them all?
OK. But you have directed some the most popular documentaries of the last five years. You obviously have an eye for what appeals to the masses.
I’m not very complicated. I just try to follow what I feel like is interesting. (“100 Foot Wave”) was a world that I wanted to explore, and I think a younger version of myself would have just been like, “Oh, I’m not interested.” But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that you can find a great story anywhere. I would add that people that are forging their own paths is one consistent theme in terms of the people that I’ve been focusing on.
The first individual you documented who was forging his own path was Mark Borchardt — an aspiring filmmaker — in “American Movie.” After winning the 1999 Sundance Grand Jury prize for the film, which was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, you told IndieWire that you “would not be interested in doing a documentary again, because you lose sense of your personal life.” Why did you want to quit the form after “American Movie”?
That was a really hard project. I went into movies thinking I was going to be a narrative filmmaker and I think like many people I sort of stumbled into documentary by accident. I was 25 and I was trying to write a script that was not good and there was this amazing story that was unfolding in front of me. So, I jumped into trying to document that story that was unfolding and consequently was working and filming six days a week for two years. In doing that you sacrifice a lot just in terms of your life moving forward in your personal relationships. So, at the time that was something that I felt would be very difficult to do again. The documentaries that I’ve been doing recently — it’s not that they don’t take two years and a lot of effort — but in terms of being in someone else’s world entirely for two years, that’s something that I haven’t gone back into.
Are you still in touch with Mark?
I’ve been working a ton, so I’ve lost touch with many people, unfortunately. It used to be every year that Mark and I would talk, but now I think it’s been a couple of years.
After “American Movie” you made more feature documentaries but also become widely known for your commercial work directing ads for the likes of Geico, Mastercard and Bank of America. What about the behind-the-scenes footage of Jim Carrey on “Man on the Moon,” made you want to start making docus again?
It was odd. I had made a number of documentaries (after “American Movie”) that went to Sundance and had critical acclaim but weren’t seen by many people. At the same time, I was directing commercials and I was kind of burning myself out so, I decided to take a break (from docus). A film producer named Bryan Burk would always say to me, “You’re making these great movies that nobody sees. You need to figure out how to film something that you are passionate about, but also has an audience.” It took about eight years for that to actually sink in and then I got a call from Spike Jonze, who had this idea for the (“Man on the Moon”) documentary. I respect Spike’s work immensely and trust his instincts. I felt like it was a good opportunity to do something different. That was really the starting point for me, in terms of understanding how to identify something that could reach a broader audience, but still be something that I was passionate about. Since then, I’ve been very disciplined in terms of trying to find things that I care about, but that could crossover.
How has your work in the commercial space impacted your documentary work?
It’s given me access to amazing talent, especially in cinematographers that I’m able to observe and watch and learn from.
“Fyre” and the eight-part docuseries “The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann” were both released on Netflix in 2019. How chaotic was 2018?
It was a very difficult year because we were jumping back and forth quite a bit between the two stories in terms of filming and edits, but it was manageable. I had always been doing commercials and movies at the same time and at that point I had to reduce the amount of commercial work to make time for those docs. Since then, I have largely focused almost entirely on documentary.
Errol Morris used to say that he made commercials so he could fund his documentaries. Have streamers enabled you to just do documentaries?
Yes. The industry has changed entirely. (Before working with Netflix) going to Sundance with my documentaries was a success, but financially it was very difficult, so for me doing commercials allowed me to continue making movies. Now it’s a very fortunate time to be making documentaries because you can do them full time. For me it was a struggle before.
You executive produced the Netflix hit “Tiger King.” How did you get involved with that project and what interested you about the topic?
A friend and filmmaker named Fisher Stevens asked me to look at this teaser about these private owners of big cats and I looked, and I just couldn’t believe it.
The world was just so interesting, and the access (director Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin) had and what they had put together was incredible. They were looking for someone that had some experience with a series and were fans of some of the films that I had done so we agreed to work together. For me it was an opportunity to share as much as I had learned from making series. I tried to be there as a sounding board as they created the series.
Your most recent docuseries on Netflix – “Operation Varsity Blues” was hybrid docuseries with recreations featuring Matthew Modine as the mastermind of the college admission scandal Rick Singer. Why did you decide to make it a hybrid docuseries?
It wasn’t something I wanted to make a hybrid doc, but it was really about how best to tell the story. Because we didn’t have access to the parents or to Rick Singer, in exploring the subject matter we discovered these wiretap transcripts of phone calls between Singer and the parents. As a documentarian, they felt like they revealed a greater truth than we often get when you have a camera present So for me, I wanted to bring these unfiltered phone calls a way to light so the audience could gain access to that material.
On the podcast “Smartless,” Robert Downey Jr. told host Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes that you are directing a documentary about his father Robert Downey Sr. Are you currently in production?
It’s a movie about Robert and his father and anything he wants to say about it is at his discretion, but I don’t feel comfortable commenting on anything at the moment.
“100 Foot Wave” debuts on HBO July 18 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.