Director Cairo Smith joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss his Neo-Gothic psychological thriller , Screwdriver, ahead of its premiere at Dances With Films.
Screwdriver will premiere at 6:30 pm on Sunday, June 19th at TCL Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood.
Tickets available online at: https://danceswithfilms.com/screwdriver/
Hello Cairo, welcome to Close-Up Culture. First off, can you tell us about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
Hey there. Sure. As far as my background, I grew up primarily in Los Angeles. We moved here when I was four from Northern California. My dad had ambitions to act full-time, and now he does, so I would consider that a good investment. On my mom’s side, I come from Egyptian and Sri Lankan roots. On my dad’s side, English and French with some Welsh, but they’ve been in the US at least as long as it’s been a country.
I’ve made films for about as long as I can remember. At least, I considered them films at the time. Running around with a camcorder, filming ducks at the park. Writing over DV tape. Putting together stop-motion with LEGOs or whatever I had around. One thing I’ve learned over the past couple years is how important it is to play and experiment with your passions whenever you can. You never know when you’ll find yourself in a professional situation where something you did out of passion is suddenly foundational knowledge. And, in that moment, you’re really grateful for all the ‘hobby’ hours you put in.
I started making short films in high school. I was offered an opportunity to make a short film in Latin class as an alternative to a certain exam, which I gladly took as I was not that great of a Latin student. I remember offering a couple of kids a deal where, if they gave us twenty bucks each for production, we’d add them to the credits as executive producers and they’d get a share of the extra credit. I’m not sure if I was aware at that moment how closely we were emulating the actual film industry. But, we had a great time and I haven’t stopped making films since.
I also come from a theater background. I did a lot of theater in college. Oregon has a very strong theater culture, and it was great to dive into that world, especially as an actor. I’m not a particularly exceptional actor, but I think it’s so important for a director to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of that relationship. From there I wrote a few plays, directed a few plays. Did a combination of the two. Won a few awards and gained a lot of experience that I try to apply to my film work in a meaningful way.
Your directorial debut, Screwdriver, has been compared to films such as Queen of Earth, Dogtooth, and Rosemary’s Baby. Can you tell us about the film and your inspiration for it?
Those are all pretty great comparisons, and I do think we certainly strove during production to live up to the tonal and atmospheric examples set by those films. There’s a lot you can do in a small space, especially a domestic space. At the time that I wrote the film, I didn’t know what it was like to be confined to one house for weeks and weeks on end. Now, of course, I do. And I think a lot of people in the world do too.
As far as the inspiration for Screwdriver, I guess you could say it came from a few different directions. One was a general sense of the place we were in, spiritually, as a country in the moment it was conceived, which was March of 2017. I very much consider the film to be rooted in that time, and in the place I was personally at that time. I had also gone from living in Los Angeles to a fairly small, much more comparatively rural town, and thinking about the strained relationship between those environments was one of the things that formed that initial seed.
Another way into the story for me was the concept of a total control institution. That being somewhere where external forces control where you sleep, what you eat, what you do throughout the day. You can think of a prison, or a boarding school, or a rehab, or any number of things that follow that model. And, the thinking for me was, if you can control all those things about a person’s circumstances you can eventually control what they think. And that’s true no matter how self-assured or intelligent or neurotypical the person may be. And I think that’s a little unsettling as a concept.
So, one thing I wanted to focus on was the idea of defamiliarizing total control institutions, and the best way to defamiliarize something is generally to show its concepts in an entirely different context, to get people to shake off their cultural programming and consider it again for the first time. I think that’s what Star Trek tried to do a lot, in a rather clumsy way at times. But, it’s important. And reflecting on total control institutions and the types of people who enjoy creating them was something I wanted to make sure we did in a thorough way.
Can you tell us more about Emily and the journey she goes on through Screwdriver?
Sure. Emily is a person with a new, sudden set of circumstances and hardships which she’s doing her best to power through, hardships which are quite different from the ones she expected to confront at this stage in her life. She’s facing a social contract with the country and with a former partner which was very much not honored in the way she was implicitly and explicitly told it would be. And she’s in that position now with very little recourse, and not a whole lot of external social or judiciary systems which can help enforce those terms.
So, she’s pretty stuck, and she’s at a moment in life where she’s reevaluating a lot of things, and she’s trying to do it while maintaining what she thinks is most important to her — her dignity and her humility. So she’s a person walking this tightrope where, on one side, she doesn’t want to betray the way she’s been socialized to behave, and on the other side she also needs to completely reinvent herself to survive in a new and uncertain chapter. So, she comes into the world of Screwdriver with a lot at stake and a lot to socially juggle.
Now, as far as Emily’s journey — I think what happens to Emily over the next few weeks is either the worst or best possible set of circumstances she could run into, depending perhaps on your values and what you might consider to be a positive outcome. All of a sudden she goes from being adrift to being very tightly kept and guided through an emotional and mental labyrinth, at the hands of her hosts in this suburban Los Angeles home.
In a way she is cleansed, and gets a chance to break with a lot of things that were creating a lot of drag on her mind and her psyche. In another way she is absolutely stripped of her ego, her sense of self worth, and arguably her grip on reality. And, figuring out how all that’s gonna go for her, well, that’s the movie.
The trailer alone for Screwdriver is a gripping experience. What kind of experience can audiences expect from Screwdriver?
Wow. Thanks. What can you expect from Screwdriver? That’s an interesting question. I think we do try to answer that question for people as much as we can with the marketing materials, be that the poster or the synopsis or the trailer. Truly surprising audiences, not in terms of plot points but in terms of tone, is kind of like doing a stunt without a safety net. You really need to know what you’re doing, and you’d better have a really good reason. Speaking of social contracts, there is a social contract between filmgoers and filmmakers, and one of the ways you fulfill your side as a filmmaker is to help audiences understand on a subconscious level what they’re about to see.
Back to the question itself. I think an audience member can expect to spend a long time in an environment that comes to be both familiar and deeply uncomfortable. I think this person can expect to enjoy some fantastic, really evocative, really eerie music and see some performances imbued with a really high degree of spontaneity and authenticity — which are still somehow stilted in this very calculated, deliberate, uncanny way.
I think a particularly moralizing or sententious viewer will spend a long time grasping for pieces of dialogue or interplay which might betray some deeper ideology of the filmmaker, something they can process and sort for either praise or condemnation. I think some viewers will find themselves laughing with the film’s warm permission, and others will find themselves startled by the laughter around them.
This is a great cast with AnnaClare Hicks, Charlie Farrell, Milly Sanders, Matt Munroe. How was your collaboration with this team?
The actors are the reason I direct. The relationship you build with them through filming and the work you can create at your most aligned are some of the most extraordinary things I have ever encountered in my time on this planet. With Screwdriver, we were somewhat absurdly thorough with our consideration of talent for these roles. I think I personally watched over eight thousand acting reels during the casting process. We were also lucky enough to have those efforts be rewarded with a really peerless cast. I
’m very indebted to our casting director, Miranda Einy, for helping guide those decisions. I believe this was the first lead role in a feature film for each of our three leads, and it’s an absolute crime that it took as long as it did. They are absolutely world class.
Screwdriver will have its world premiere at Dances With Films. What are your hopes for the film?
I’m pretty astonished to be premiering at Dances with Films. It’s a great festival, a real indie festival that walks the walk when it comes to programming quality work from industry newcomers. It’s also the Chinese Theater, which is a venue with a lot of Hollywood history. I’m working on a project right now that really explores the New Hollywood era, especially George Lucas’ early years, and to be premiering where Star Wars premiered is kind of unreal.
Obviously we’re working toward distribution. Whatever form that takes, be it a limited theatrical run or a VOD deal, depends on the relationships we form and the path we take in finding a distributor. A festival is a fantastic place to showcase a film for both distributors and sales agents, and obviously the fairy tale ending is to meet someone there who’s going to be just the perfect fit. Outside of that, my hope is to be able to enjoy the film with a passionate audience in a quality space, and I think that’s pretty much guaranteed. So I’m pretty happy.
And lastly, what are your plans and ambitions for the future?
Wow. So many plans. That’s a big question. Where an ambition becomes a plan and vice versa feels like a bit of a murky spectrum, so I suppose I’ll group them together. In the next ten years, I’m looking to write and direct at least two more feature films. The first one I’ve already written, called Stygiana, is a grounded and contained action-thriller with some supernatural elements. Kind of classic Carpenter, kind of classic Nolan. Actually a spiritual successor to Screwdriver in a way. So I’m looking to move that into production within the next year.
I’ve also got an audio drama I’ve written that I’m going to direct, a narrative fiction podcast around twenty hours long. Totally unfilmable, at least for now, which is one of the reasons why the audio medium is so appealing. Mostly just keep writing, keep directing, keep telling stories in whatever format I can get traction to tell them, in a way where people care enough to pay attention.
Tickets available online at: https://danceswithfilms.com/screwdriver/