A Conversation With Tim Smit
A lot of young directors get their start with a low-budget first film that hopefully attracts enough attention and earns enough critical praise and revenue receipts to justify that director moving forward to a new project.
But how many first-time directors get the opportunity to not only turn their original vision into a feature film, but they also get to work with an actor who is about to explode in popularity and name recognition, only he or she has no idea at the time?
Meet Tim Smit -- he's a name you're going to want to remember.
A longtime visual effects artist and supervisor, Smit was handed the chance to turn a short film he created into Kill Switch, a first-of-its-kind hybrid that fuses traditional filmmaking with the first-person, point-of-view perspective typically reserved for video games.
And he landed Dan Stevens for the title role, three years before Stevens would leap onto Hollywood's A-list with Marvel's televised Legion series and Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast.
Now that Kill Switch is finally finding its way to audiences, coupled with Stevens' white-hot acting ascendancy, Smit shouldn't worry about job security anytime soon. BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the chance to speak by phone with Smith about Kill Switch, working with Stevens and finally finding the sweet spot that future films are sure to follow when incorporating POV action in a way that makes artistic sense and is visually effective.
BVB: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me for my website, which is Blood Violence and Babes, and I love using it to introduce my readers, and even a wider audience, to films and new directors that they otherwise might not have on their radar.
BVB: I was so jazzed when I finally got to see Kill Switch because I wasn’t sure what to expect. We’ve seen films like Hardcore Henry and even, I think, there was a lower-budget kind of viral contagion film last year I believe called Pandemic, where they really tried to utilize this first-person, POV-style of filmmaking that people mostly associate with video games. And while each of those films had their merits, they kind of eventually wore you out. And I was so happy when I watched Kill Switch because I found it to be far superior to both of those films, but also, it finally seemed to grasp the potential of this style of storytelling. So, kudos, man, I thought it was fantastic.
TS: Thanks. That’s amazing to hear. That’s great. I think most are obviously split between liking or disliking POV, but I do agree it took a while to get to that point where we felt this is the balance that we feel works. Instead of going all the way to a 100 percent first-person experience, this is deliberately made to be for both types of audiences. I think it works, and I’m happy to hear you think it works as well.
BVB: Oh yeah! Absolutely. And I felt like – I think what really helped to sell it was having that opening, initial sequence told from a traditional perspective.
BVB: You allow the audience to meet Dan Stevens’ character, and get a sense of what the core of the story is going to be – him being sent to fix the energy orb and all that. So, by the time you get into the POV, you’re already somewhat invested in him as a character and also in the story.
TS: Yeah. Exactly, yeah!
BVB: Now were you already – did you conceive of Kill Switch? I know Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin are credited as the writers. Did you work with them to develop this, or did you come on board after they had already drafted the script?
TS: No, so what happened is, I made a short a couple of years ago that was a 10-minute short, which was fully POV, and that was picked up by a producer and they said, ‘Do you want to turn this into a feature?’ Quickly after that, we decided, well, we want to make it into, like I said, a hybrid film, part-POV, where our character is on this mission into the echo universe, and partly traditional. But the script was not written yet, so we had the idea, but we didn’t have any – we had a treatment, but we didn’t have a script, so we got those two guys to write the script and make sure we had something to shoot. So, I was involved in the backstory of it, but I was less involved in the dialogue and the scene construction. That was all done by the writers. I tried to film it as closely as they had done it.
BVB: That makes a lot of sense. What did you – from the perspective, from the director’s chair – what did you want to bring to this hybrid that fans maybe hadn’t experienced before?
TS: I wanted to make this film as an homage to the video game, but without making it a video game. My goal in the future, I also want to delve in this more. I think we’re going to see more of this subjective film, these films where you’re literally being dropped into, especially with the up-and-coming VR possibilities. My goal was to create a film that is both an interesting experience from the story level where you’re in this futuristic world, but you’re experiencing it from this, kind of, POV, video game standpoint. So, that was not my initial goal to develop. So, what I brought to this project was that whole idea of making that raw and realistic, and adding my own visuals, because most of the visuals were done at home, by myself. When I was brought onto this, it was always meant to be – I was still the director, but I was also to do all of the visual effects. That’s kind of what happened, and from there, you develop it. And I have to say, I don’t know how it turned out, but it definitely hinges a lot on the visuals than you would have in a normal movie. It was catering to my strengths as a first-time director.
BVB: I wanted to talk to you about the visual effects, and I also want to talk to you about Tiger House, because I loved Tiger House (laughing). I thought that was a fantastic home invasion thriller, and I know you did the visual effects for that as well. When you think of these futuristic movies that introduce a different dimension or a parallel dimension, so to speak, it seems like there are some films that mirror what we’ve seen before and then there are other films that really just go for broke and try to re-imagine what that alternate world would look like. Where did you draw your inspiration from?
TS: So, it’s funny – my inspiration for that was my own name. It may sound weird, but my name is a palindrome. So, my name is Tim Smit, and if you turn it around, it still reads Tim Smit. So, the initial idea…
BVB: Oh wow! (laughing)
TS: (Laughing) …when we started to develop this, we were talking about palindromes and symmetries and the weird thing, how would a parallel world look like? We were thinking about, what if it is a palindrome? It’s a mirror image of our world, which means if you combine the two, you’d get a palindrome. So, the initial idea was to create this symmetrical world. You start out, everything is similar, but in our world, things go well, energy is being delivered, but in the other one, because that’s subject to energy harvesting, it goes the other way around. So then it becomes anti-symmetry, you know? That was our goal. The inspiration basically came from that, from the concept of a palindrome, and also my background is science. I came from a physics background. It’s not unheard of to have this notion of a symmetrical, in this case, parallel, a parallel world.
BVB: That’s awesome! Oh, that’s so cool. Now, how do you like – you’ve done a lot more as a visual effects supervisor, obviously. This is your first feature as a director. Do you enjoy this new kind of role and responsibility, or was it difficult to kind of balance both directing and overseeing the visual effects?
TS: You know what, I’ll be honest, it was more difficult than I thought. I knew that the whole aspect of this film was going to be difficult and interesting, because it was new. I’d never done this before. So I knew that this was going to be a challenge. But I never expected directing duty to conflict with the whole visual effects duty, but it did. It’s something that you don’t really think of when you start filming, but after a couple of months, or even half a year, you’re so deep into the visual effects, you do get some sort of tunnel vision, you know what I mean? There’s a reason why there usually is a director and a separate visual effects supervisor. They both need to be separate. One of them has to guard the quality, the other one has to do the creative part, so, having the two blend into one, it did become…it’s really a good experience to have done this. It did make me a better filmmaker, I think. It was challenging at times. I think I learned that most from this project. And the other thing I took away – how do you work with actors, but how do you work on a story with people that don’t share your vision yet? You have to convey that to them. That was tricky at times, but it was really satisfying too.
BVB: That’s awesome. You talked about working with actors – I wanted to definitely ask you, with Dan Stevens, he’s a guy who has just grown dynamically since he left Downton Abbey, and I have to imagine that you were thrilled to be able to get him for this project because now, since Legion and Beauty and the Beast, he’s just entered into a totally different stratosphere as far as acting goes and his brand recognition. How was it working with him?
TS: Working with Dan was amazing. I met with him quite early on and we had a shared love for science. Here’s this guy, he’s not only really talented, he’s so intellectual. Very intelligent. He knows a lot about science. He wants to broaden his horizons. He wants to do different things…it was amazing working with him. I spent not every day working with him, because a lot of it was POV, but the days we spent were really good, were definitely one of my favorites. But it’s funny, because it also occurs – we did this movie just when he did The Guest. He finished The Guest and I had a meeting with him and then we started doing Kill Switch. But it’s a totally different movie than, for instance, Beauty and the Beast. The budgets aren’t even comparable. When people see Kill Switch and see Dan Stevens, there’s a certain expectation. This is a low-budget film. Sometimes people get surprised by the fact that he did this, but he did this before he did Beauty and the Beast. It just took me so long to get all the visuals done (Laughing).
BVB: Sure, sure. I didn’t realize he went from The Guest to this because I felt like The Guest was really his coming-out party. That was such a fantastic role for him, and such a great film. That’s really cool.
TS: Yeah, it was amazing.
Editor's Note: Kill Switch is now available to rent or purchase on most streaming, Video-on-Demand platforms. A physical home media release is planned for August 2017.
Artwork courtesy of Saban Films and Lionsgate.