An Interview with Vernon Smith – By Philip Smolen

Back in April, I reviewed a wonderful and potent drama called “Davis Farm” which tells the story of a brother and sister (Joseph Rene Herrera and Marci Journey) who find themselves caring for their widowed cancer-stricken mother (Mary Anzalone) while preventing the bank from foreclosing on their farm (for my review, please go here). Both siblings decide to try and raise the money themselves and wind up getting in over their heads, which leads to tragedy.

I loved every minute of this movie from the beautifully composed vistas of the Texas landscape to the awesome acting. So I reached out to writer/director Vernon Smith to find out more about this great indie venture. Smith has an impressive IMDB page and he’s been a location manager for many great major films and TV shows. But “Davis Farm” is Vernon’s first full length feature. He kindly agreed to take time out from his schedule and answer all of my questions…

RC: Vernon – you’ve got an impressive IMDB page! How did you wind up working in films? Was film where you always wanted to be?

VS: Thank you! I’ve been pretty fortunate to work on some pretty amazing movies and TV shows over the last few years. I got into film by interning. I interned at the Austin Film Society and Richard Linklater’s Detour Film Production. Not to sound cliché but during my internships I just worked my butt off whenever I needed to and did what I was told. I met some great people along the way and fortunately those people noticed my work ethic and gave me a chance to day play from time to time and eventually I started getting calls to work full-time. I’d be lying if I said film is where I’ve always wanted to be. I grew up watching a lot of movies and I’ve always loved movies but I never saw it as a career. I saw it more as a hobby or a way for me to get creative but for the sole purpose of scratching that creative itch.

RC: Tell me about your shorts “Business Trip” (2009) and “Moving On” (2007). Were these stepping-stones for you, moving you closer to feature directing?

VS: “Moving On” is about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend and he’s devastated about it. His friends on the other hand can’t be more excited about the breakup. But still, they are his friends and they don’t want to see him hurting so they each try in their own way to help him move on. “Business Trip” is about a guy who lives a secret life and he uses his business trips as a way to cover up and keep his life secret. When I decided that I was going to pursue film, I promised myself that I wouldn’t rush anything. Even as much as I love making movies, I told myself I wasn’t going to put just anything out there for the world to see. I believe in quality, not quantity. “Moving On” and “Business Trip” were films I used for learning and emulating my idols. I took what I learned from my day job, because I’m on set everyday pretty much and I’ve got to see some big name directors work and I practiced with those two films because I knew when I felt it was time to do a feature, I didn’t want to waste any resource. “Davis Farm” was hard to make, but not as hard as it could’ve been if I hadn’t done “Moving On” and “Business Trip” because I learned from the mistakes I made making those films.

RC: “Davis Farm” is awesome! When did you get the first germ of the idea for it?

VS: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Well, “Davis Farm” is about a family losing their house. And I didn’t get the idea for the film until I actually walked into the house. You see, I worked on a TV show called “Friday Night Lights” and the house we used in “Davis Farm” is a house we used in “Friday Night Lights.” So the first time I walked on set for “Friday Night Lights”, I fell in love with the house and I immediately told myself that I was going to write something for that house. At the time, it was an old house on a huge piece of land surrounded by really nothing. I knew what I wrote couldn’t be an action or horror type of film because the house didn’t have that look. So I knew it was going to be some kind of drama. By time I actually started writing, the whole housing market collapse was going on so I wrote somewhat around that. This was the first script I’ve written around a certain location. Usually I just write and worry about the locations later but I really wanted to film at that house.

RC: How long did you work on the screenplay until you were satisfied with it?

VS: Off and on, it took me about 6 months to write a rough draft. I rarely have time to sit down and all out write. I usually have to write a little here and a little there because of work. Then I write a very rough draft and let a couple of my friends that I trust read it and give me feedback. Then I take the notes and make changes. So 6 months for a rough draft, maybe another 6 months before I had a script I was satisfied with. I was so satisfied with it that I never had to do any major rewrites and we cut maybe only 3 tiny scenes from the script while filming.

RC: The central dynamic in the film is the close relationship between Steven (Joseph Rene Herrera) and his sister Samantha (Marci Journey). It’s amazing how their love for each other shines through all the turmoil they’re going through.
VS: It seems more common that we see siblings fighting on screen nowadays and that’s fine, but the relationship between Steven and Samantha had to be different. There are a couple of scenes where they throw little jabs at each other like brothers and sisters do but for the most part I wanted to show a strong set of siblings. These kids have been through a lot and it’s each other that they’ve had to depend on so there isn’t much time for fighting. And I think the first scene they share together helps give everyone an idea of who Steven and Samantha are.

RC: Steven and Samantha each try to come up with a way to get the money they need separately instead of working together and they are both drawn into the dark side. Was this corruption of their innocence an important part of the story for you?
VS: Yes. I wanted to show that even though Steven and Samantha are strong individuals, I feel like everyone can only take so much before they eventually break down. For Steven, it was working on a guy’s house, which was not much older than him. Then coming home after not earning much to find a pile of bills waiting for him. For Samantha, she wasn’t trying to do anything corrupt. An opportunity just presented itself and she took it. Steven and Samantha show us that we will do whatever it takes for our family, no matter what. Even if it means going against everything we believe in.

RC: The character of Cooper (Stevie Hendrix) is great. He’s supposedly Steven’s friend, but he helps him cross over to the dark side, and yet, redeems himself at the end.

VS: The character of Cooper is my favorite character I’ve written. I think we all have friends like him or maybe we are him. He’s confident, smart and can talk his way out of or into anything. Sometimes he comes across as selfish, but really he’s just too cool to show he cares. And he’s loyal. I mean it was Steven who approached him about a job and Cooper didn’t want to get him involved, but Steven kept asking. Cooper just saw it as way to help a desperate friend. The best thing about the Cooper character is having Stevie Hendrix play him. He played him so well and I could never imagine anyone else playing that part.

RC: One terrific aspect of the script is the way Steven and Samantha’s plans cross paths at the end. It really carries an emotional wallop.

VS: I think it needed to carry an emotional wallop. The two of them have worked with each other with all the other problems they’ve had, it only makes sense that the one time they try to do something on their own, that it would turn out the way it turned out.

RC: Did you ever envision another ending for the film, perhaps not so tragic?

VS: (Laughs) I was talking to a friend from Paris one day about movies and she brought up a good point that Americans love their happy endings. Well, I’m a fan of foreign films. I can spend hours watching them. And most of my favorites are the ones without the happy ending. There’s just something I don’t like about seeing characters go through so much in an hour and twenty minutes and then the last ten minutes it works out for them. That’s just me. I don’t like it. Yeah, it works for some stories but not for everything that’s out there. In “Davis Farm”, these two kids have done everything “right” to survive so far. Of course when they step out of the world they’re use to you have to think something bad is going to happen, right? There’s no way I could see another ending for this film.

RC: Your locations (Austin, Texas) really help sell the movie. What were you looking for while you were scouting?

VS: I love filming in Austin! It has everything you could possibly be looking for. With locations being my day job, it wasn’t too difficult finding what I was looking for. The locations just had to help tell the story. For example, when Cooper tells Steven, “you’ll be delivering packages to all kinds of people, even those you wouldn’t expect”, I wanted that location to not be an average location where you would see an exchange of packages go down. Instead we filmed it in a neighborhood park with beautiful, colorful houses as the backdrop. Also, we just tried to keep it simple. There were better places in Austin that might look better on screen but really didn’t fit in with the simplicity of the story we were telling. I don’t think many people who watch films pay attention to the locations like I do and I love when the locations actually help tell the story.

RC: How long did you shoot for?

VS: (Laughs) Originally, we were going to shoot the entire movie in 2 weeks. But then I got a job so that didn’t happen. We filmed for 7 days straight at the farm. Everything we needed at the house we shot in those 7 days. Mary Anzalone, who plays the mom, was the first to finish up because she had nothing outside of her bedroom. Well, once I started working, I told everyone we would shoot over the next couple of weekends. Well, that didn’t happen either. (Laughs) Believe it or not, it took a year and a half to shoot “Davis Farm.” Sometimes we would meet for just a few hours and film. Other times it would be for the entire weekend. Whenever anyone was available we tried to film.

RC: What difficulties did you have to overcome (besides budget)?

VS: It took a year and a half to shoot the entire film. Over that time I had to keep everyone interested in the project. I knew I wanted to finish the film and I had to let everyone know on a weekly basis that the movie will be finished. It wasn’t going to be one of those projects that gets started and then disappears. Also, with that much time going by, people change physically and I was worried about that. Luckily we didn’t have any problems there. But there was a point when we wrapped Marci, and then went back and decided to do a re-shoot. Well, thinking she was done, which she was, technically, she cut her hair. I mean really cut it. And the scene we had to reshoot was the scene with her and Joseph at the beginning outside of the house. So, we put extensions in her hair and put it up in a ponytail. When we originally shot it, her long hair was flowing with the wind. But to hide the hair cut for the reshoots we just put it in a ponytail. Movie magic.

RC: Tell me about your great cast.

VS: Everyone who has seen the movie all rave about the cast! Even those who don’t enjoy the movie still have nothing but great things to say about this amazing cast. I could go on forever about them but I’ll try to keep it short. Joseph Rene was and is an amazing actor. He brought a work ethic to this film that I hadn’t really seen from any actors I had previously worked with. He has an accent and once he was cast, he worked a few hours a day before filming and during filming listening to CD’s that helped him hide his accent. That dedication was something I hadn’t seen before. Marci (Journey) is a young actress who not only surprised herself but surprised me too. I knew she could play Samantha when I cast her, but it was amazing the way she brought that character to life. This was her first film and you would’ve thought that it was her tenth. She’s a natural, talented actress. Then there’s Mary Anzalone. Everyone loves Mary. She’s great. I think most actresses wouldn’t be drawn to a character that lies in bed for the entire film, but I know the character of Mrs. Davis, the mom, hit close to home for Mary so she wanted to do her best. And she did. Flat out great performance for someone who never gets out of bed. Stevie Hendrix is someone we’re going to see in much bigger projects very, very soon. He’s that good. And when I see him I just want to call him Cooper because he played that character so well. The cast as a whole was amazing. Mary, Joseph and Marci were like a family on and off the set and I think that shows on screen. Michael Sorrells, who plays Will, was phenomenal as well.

RC: Who were your MVPs during the film’s production?

VS: Everyone who helped. I know that’s a standard answer but like I said, it took a year and a half to film this movie but everyone, cast and crew, were onboard the entire time. I honestly couldn’t have made this film without everyone. When we were filming at the farm, we had crew in the kitchen cooking lunch while we were outside filming. Since it took so long to film, we filmed during all four seasons. (Laughs) But no one complained and everyone showed up when they needed to. Overall it was a fun production to work on and the cast and crew worked so well together. There was no one MVP during this production.

RC: Now that “Davis Farm” is completed, would you do anything differently? What did making the film teach you?

VS: If I had to do anything differently, I would film it in a shorter time span than I did! (Laughs) Seriously though, I’m proud of how this film came out. It would’ve been nice to have a bigger budget so I could’ve shot some scenes differently. But for only spending a few thousand dollars, I think it came out pretty well. Doing this film did teach me to believe in myself a little more. My confidence has grown so much since filming and now I’m ready to take on bigger projects. “Davis Farm” is a simple story and it was shot very simply. I’m ready to test myself and kick it up a notch. Tell a more complex story.

RC: The music by Gareth Thomas is incredible. How did you get him to compose the score?

VS: I agree! The music is great. Gareth did a wonderful job and I can’t wait to work with him again. Gareth and I actually met on Twitter. I don’t remember exactly how it went down but I think Gareth messaged me that he was interested in the script because I had tweeted about it and he had seen some stills that I tweeted from a couple of days of filming. I don’t have my Twitter anymore by the way. Anyway, so I told him I would keep him in mind. Well, then we cut the trailer for “Davis Farm”, so I sent him over a few clips and he sent back music right away and it sounded great. We ended up sending him the entire trailer and he scored it in just a week or so. So of course we used him for the actual film. Funny thing is, Gareth and I have never met in person! I live in Austin, Texas and he lives in the UK. So we just tweeted, emailed and Drop Boxed files to each other. And even with the time difference, he was able to get things to me in a timely fashion. I never had to wait on him for anything. This film was very lucky to have him involved. I was lucky to have him involved.

RC: What’s in the future for “Davis Farm” and Vernon Smith?

VS: Unfortunately, the future as of now for “Davis Farm” is out of my hands. All we can do is submit it to festivals and hope people enjoy it as much as you do and it gets in somewhere. The cast is too great not to be seen by audiences. So I hope we get to screen it somewhere. If it doesn’t seem like something festivals want, because like I said it’s a simple story and festivals aren’t too keen on simple, then we’ll make it available online. People should follow me on Instagram @the_ves where I’ll post if / when it’s online. As for me, I’m writing something new that I won’t go into to much detail about but I will say it’s about a female character who is trying to get out of a career none of her friends and family knew about so she can start a new life with her boyfriend. That’s all I’ll say for now. (Laughs) I am pretty excited about it though. It’s much different than “Davis Farm” and should be fun to make. Also, my production company, Rascal Agave Films, is working on building a team. I’ve made these shorts and “Davis Farm” with some pretty talented people and they’ve gone on to do other things or are just not into making movies anymore. So now we at Rascal Agave Films are trying to find talented people we can make great movies with from here on out. I mean DP’s, production designers, sound mixers, hair and make-up personnel, everything. People who when we say we have a project they say when do we start filming? I feel if I could work with the same people project after project then we’re not going to do anything but get better. Rascal Agave Films has a pretty good resume with the corporate videos and shorts we’ve done but now I’m ready to take it to the next level. Any actors feel free to email us resumes and headshots too at rascalagavefilms@gmail.com because we’re always looking for actors and actresses for test shots and little projects. People who are interested in joining the Rascal Agave team should email us at rascalagavefilms@gmail.com. And of course follow me on Instagram to know what’s going on in my world.

RC: How can Rogue Cinemaniacs find “Davis Farm”?

VS: Hopefully in a festival near you soon, but until then you can subscribe to the RascalAgave channel on YouTube. Right now that’s where you’ll find the trailer for “Davis Farm” (http://youtu.be/wxPkMS0UpFY). You can also find the trailer on Vimeo (http://vimeo.com/63984086).

RC: Vernon, thank you so much for your time. Everyone here at Rogue Cinema wishes you the best of luck with “Davis Farm.”

VS: Thank you and everyone at Rogue Cinema. It’s a good thing you guys do for small filmmakers like myself.