Interview: Actress Sarah Smick on Her Directorial Debut, ‘Friended to Death’

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For Sarah Smick‘s directorial debut, Friended to Death, she went the easy route: she co-wrote the film, directed it and starred in it.

And by easy, I mean, not easy at all.

Friended to Death is a dark comedy about a social media junkie who fakes his own death via social media just to see which of his “friends” will show up to the funeral. It stars Ryan Hansen (Bad Teacher, Party Down, Veronica Mars), Zach McGowan (Black Sails, Shameless), James Immekus (Once Upon a Time), Ian Michaels (also the co-writer) and Smick.

The film is very funny and looks incredible, especially for a first time director.

I talked to Sarah recently about the challenges of directing and directing herself, writing the script and more!

Friended to Death is in theaters now. Also look for it on VOD this weekend!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.

What was the budget? I’m only asking that because I thought it looked great. It had this look that you don’t see on sort of the lower budget indie films. You know what I mean?

Sarah Smick: Right. Yeah, no. Totally. I’m really glad you said that because that was a big goal, actually, in making the movie. Because we had talked about whether or not we wanted it to have more of a traditional indie feel versus doing something more cinematic and commercial feeling and it was really important to me to go in the cinematic direction just because I think the… just the tone of the film has this very fast paced kind of high energy ironic tongue in cheek vibe to it and I wanted to underscore how just completely self-absorbed and diluted Michael is. And so we thought, well, putting him in this very kind of commercial, polished, bright, saturated ridiculous world would kind of underscore how just totally narcissistic he is.

And I think there’s something about the indie world that’s too real and literal. It’s more recognizable as the actual world we live in, and I wanted Friended to Death to be the warped, ironic reflection of the social media world that we do live in. But just a lot more exaggerated and tongue in cheek.

So I’m really glad to hear that it came across as being polished and, you know, more expensive than it probably was. But I don’t wanna name any numbers, but we… it was under a million, so it was definitely in the grand scheme of movie making, it was definitely affordable.

When you guys were writing this, was it always your intention to direct?

Sarah Smick: Yes. Definitely. I had directed a web series before this that I cut my teeth on the first thing I directed and I just really enjoyed the process, the experience of it. And I acted in that as well, I play one of the leads, and due to the concept… it’s called Old Souls. And the nature of the concept is two actresses dressing up Mrs. Doubtfire style as old women and auditioning the roles to embrace their old souls even though they’re 25.

So because of that, I was in prosthetic makeup like, most of the shoot and it was incredibly exhausting and the longest days I’ve ever worked on a set because it took 4 hours to get into makeup and 2 hours to get out. Not to mention the shooting day. And then I was directing on top of it. So that was such an intense experience that… and yet I still really enjoyed it. So I thought, “Hm, if I could do that, screw it. Let’s do a feature.

I was really excited about making this movie and making a movie about social media and the concept, we found it just so compelling and I wanted to make it even though, of course, making a first feature is… it’s a big deal and it’s scary to an extent. But I just… I figured, “Well, the web series was pretty dang challenging. Why not bring on more challenges?” I’m glad that we made it when we did and I had the opportunity to direct it.

Now, the part that you played, was that always gonna be your part?

Sarah Smick: It was. Yeah. I knew that I wanted to play a supporting role of some kind if possible.

Now, when we were writing the script it was in the back of our minds to add a character that would be within the ballpark of something that I could play, but we knew that the script had to come first, so if we got into the writing and realized that the character needed to morph into something that I couldn’t realistically play then so be it. We’d sort of find out… we’d find an alternate way for me to have a small role. But I love acting, so it was kinda fun.

But it’s really hard to do both, so I would be curious to try my hand at just directing and see how that works. But, yeah, it was sort of always in the back of our minds that we would… Ian Michaels and I wrote the script together and he plays Kev, so we always wanted… knew that we wanted to be in it as actors.

I know if I did the same thing you did, I’d be like, “Heck no, I’m gonna be the lead!”

Sarah Smick: Yeah. Actually, we wrote it for Ian to play the lead because we originally thought we were gonna do a much more kind of indie… not mumblecore per say, but definitely something in the spirit of a lower budget nimbler kind of experimental movie, which is translation super, super cheap. That’s what that means.

And then as we got a better sense of the… what the script would become and then I had a sense of my vision for the movie, it became apparent we wanted to do something a little bit larger in scale and we started evaluating the characters and the cast, the ideal cast, and we realized Ryan would be so perfect… we’d been thinking about him for Kev and it occurred to us that he would be perfect with Michael because he has this kind of likeability to him inherently that we thought might help get the audience on board with his character a little bit at least even though he’s a complete jerk.

So it was good that we were flexible because while we wrote it for Ian to play the lead, we flip-flopped it and he decided, hey, I’ll try… why not… why can’t I play Kev? Why not? Let’s see how this goes. He would probably never get cast as that normally because he’s not a jerk at all in real life, but it actually turned out really a lot of fun. So I’m really happy with it. I thought they both did a great job.

FRIENDED_TO_DEATH_Ryan-Hansen

Directing yourself. I think if I were to do that, I would be the most narcissistic person. I’d think everybody else was great in the scene except for me and I would wanna keep going. “Can we do another take? Can we do another take?”

Sarah Smick: It’s tough. The greatest tools I had at my disposal were trust in my team. I had had a lot of time to work with my DP ahead of time and… or sometimes, and so he knew exactly what I wanted and what we were going for. So I was able to trust him and everybody else to tell me, yeah, that looked great or that worked or that felt from our end felt right. Or no, you’re gonna want another take, or whatever it was. Whatever they thought about it, I was able to really trust that.

And then trusting myself too. I think as actors we can tell after a take if we were present. And if we really were listening and in the moment and you can feel that, I think, if you’re… if you’re doing what you should be doing, I guess, as an actor. So I’ve been trained to think from acting classes, and I really do believe that you can kinda know when… you don’t know enough if the camera caught it or not, but you know if it felt right.

It is tough to do both, but I just tried to rely on it, on everybody else, on my own instincts, and then also to grasp the concept that perfect is the enemy of good and sometimes you just gotta kinda let it go and just say, “You know what? I felt good enough about it and as much as I would love to spend more time getting more takes, we just can’t.”

You have to sort of keep the larger production in mind and keep that director hat on at all costs when you need to. But yeah. It’s definitely a juggling act of sorts.

Did you have auditions for this? Because if you did, what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.

Sarah Smick: Yeah. We did. For most of the roles, yeah. And it was so much fun. I loved the audition process. I mean, from the other side. It’s tough when you’re the actor because you come in and you’re bearing your soul to people that may or may not actually care. Or maybe they’re distracted or they’re texting and I guess there’s circumstances under which they have no choice or something.

But I don’t know, it was important to me to create an environment in the audition room where actors could come in and safely bring their best performance, because isn’t that really what we all want?

They’re trying to give you something that’s going to make your project better. That’s really a great thing. I don’t understand why certain casting rooms give off a… why they give off a vibe of we don’t care, we’re doing you a favor. Just do your job, we don’t have to hold up our end of the bargain. No. If you want good work, create an environment that is going to illicit good work from the actors coming in.

So we really wanted to make that a priority and we did and we had a brilliant casting director whose name is Nicole Arbusto and she’s done a lot of indie films. She’s just great. We couldn’t be happier with her and her ideas. The ideas she brought to the table for casting that were outside the box necessarily of what we initially envisioned for the characters. But within… obviously within the range of viable possibilities. And she was very creative and we were really, really pleased with the talent that she brought in.

It was a really tough call on certain roles. But, at the same time, the actors we did cast were just so just perfect for the roles that we were… it was hard and yet it wasn’t hard. You kinda wish you could give a role to everybody, but the people we went with were just really, really perfectly suited.

Would you consider yourself more a director/filmmaker more than an actress now? If you had to choose one, what would you rather be known as?

Sarah Smick: It’s so tough, but I have to say director/writer/filmmaker.

And the reason being because nobody cares what you look like. It’s freeing. Not that I’m gonna go and intentionally try and look my worst or anything, but when you’re on… shooting is exhausting and sometimes you just get to a point where you’re not shooting… you’re not acting on a given day and you just feel like, “Thank God. If I had to look good today, that would be a problem.” Because you’re so sleep deprived.

That’s sort of a tangential thing, but I think mostly it’s because when I’m directing I’m also having the experience of acting in so much as I’m going through the process in a way with the actors that I’m working with. So in order for me to direct I need to know what they want and why and what tactics they may or may not use to get what they want.

You have to know all that as the director, or at least I think I need to to feel like I’m really there kind of guiding the process and saying the things that are gonna help them get to where they need to be. So that’s really fulfilling for me.

And then watching them on camera actually live it, it’s like you’re right there, it’s so visceral. And I feel like I come away from the directing experience having been fulfilled on some level in the arena of acting. And other areas as well, but if that makes sense. Directing just kind of fulfils a lot of different passions simultaneously and somehow acting is definitely a big part of it. Feeling like I’ve acted even though I haven’t, kind of an experience. It’s very strange. But, you know, it is what it is, I guess.

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