In 2006, Maine-native photographer-turned-filmmaker Carter Smith made waves when his 36-minute movie “Bugcrush” won the top short filmmaking prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie garnered a lot of attention for Smith and helped land him his first job directing a feature film — the much-anticipated adaptation of Scott Smith’s best-selling horror novel “The Ruins.”
It was a first-time director’s dream come true.
This year, Smith, 39, returned to the Utah festival — arguably the most prestigious in the country — with his new short film “Yearbook,” and he came without any pressure placed on him. In fact, when he began making “Yearbook,” he didn’t necessarily intend to submit it to Sundance. It was made purely out of his interest to be creative.
“It was a short that I made last year just out of the spirit of wanting to do something really small, and it totally didn’t require anyone else to say ‘Yes,’” the Mount Ararat High School alum said in a recent phone interview.
Smith said his favorite part of the festival, which was held Jan. 20-30, was just getting the opportunity to watch his movie with an audience and to see their reactions.
“Yearbook,” which Smith filmed in about two days in his kitchen, takes place entirely in front of a high school senior portrait backdrop. The setting feels more like a confessional, where several students openly discuss their social experiences, sexual exploits and drug use at Rockdale High School. As the overarching story begins to take form, “Yearbook” spirals into dark and supernatural territory, something that Smith has become familiar with.
Asked what draws him to a project, Smith replied: “It’s usually dark and it’s usually, in some way, mildly unsettling — or extremely unsettling.”
The twisted worlds Smith constructs in his movies are a far cry from the glamorous world of fashion photography where he has made a name for himself.
When Smith was 17, he moved from Maine to New York to pursue fashion design. Soon, he found himself taking photos and building a career out of it. His photos have appeared in magazines such as Vogue, GQ and Allure, and his career has taken him across the world to shoot for some of the most prominent names in the industry.
Smith said that he has benefited as a director from his years of experience in photography.
“A lot of times you’re really putting a lot of thought into every single thing that goes into a picture. The clothing, the makeup, the props, the styling, the light, all of it,” he said. “That, obviously, is exactly the same thing you do when you’re directing,” with the addition of movement and dialogue.
Smith continues to keep one foot in both professions, finding the time to juggle photography and filmmaking without sacrificing either. Tuesday he leaves for India to shoot a Louis Vuitton campaign, while he continues to develop his second feature film, a ghost story about a murdered boy titled “Jamie Marks Is Dead.”
Although he lives in New York, Smith maintains a cottage on Bailey Island, a place where his busy life can slow down for a bit. The slower, calmer pace of Maine is something that Smith has come to value.
“I appreciate it now a lot more as an adult than I did as an adolescent.”
Joel Crabtree is a Bangor Daily News copy editor and guest blogger for BDN film critic Christopher Smith’s WeekinRewind.com.