Via Skype, FinalBoss talked to director David Walton Smith from his home in Charleston. With a five hour gap between us, David came off as open and frank about his work; the industry as a whole, and was refreshingly down to Earth as he spoke with a voice that jumped between an American accent occasionally peppered with a Scottish burr.
Having worked for many major companies over the last decade (Google and Subaru all feature in David’s CV), FinalBoss originally reached out to talk about a dumb minute-long Bill Murray featured video, simply called “Walking In Slow Motion”.
The chat that follows took in humble Scottish beginnings, a determination to make good film, viral successes and the US/UK divide.
FINALBOSS: Where in Scotland are you from?
DAVID WS: I was born in Glasgow and then I moved to the states when I was 14.
FB: Why did you move?
DWS: Dad’s job. He’s worked for the same company his whole life. It’s a Scottish company.
FB: So do you come back often, or are you a US citizen?
DWS: Duel citizen, but I come back quite a bit. I freelance in the winter, when it’s quiet. Flights are cheap because no-one wants to go to Scotland.
FB: That must be a commute, right?
DWS: It’s not so bad actually. I’ve flown all over the world, and going to Scotland from America is nothing.
FB: Well, spoilers, Brexit is shit. Did you study? I know you as a filmmaker. Did you go to college?
DWS: Yeah, originally I went Undergrad for Advertising because I didn’t really know anyone in the film industry. I didn’t even know how to get in to it. I didn’t even know it was something regular people could do. So I thought I’ll go into advertising and I’ll sneak in the back door and do adverts. The good thing is you can get your hands on the gear. In essence I signed up for two semesters just so I could check out the equipment.
FB: Was the route always into creative pieces?
DWS: I always wanted to lead the creative in any way I could. Nowadays I’m a director and a DOP (Direct of Photography) so it just depends on the gig. But either way, being in charge of a department is a sweet spot for me. I don’t do well taking orders, if I’m honest! I thought it would be a means to learn the trade, but the goal was always to do narrative stuff. So advertising – sort of local, regional, crappy commercials got me doing narrative stuff. Freelancing means I get to work a little bit and pay the bills but then the downtime is dedicated to a couple of feature items that I have.
FB: Looking at your back catalogue, you’ve worked for some unbelievable brands – how does that compare in terms of you doing your own short film or your own piece of writing vs, you know, a car advert?
DWS: When I started doing the commercial stuff what was really exciting was you get a budget, you got the backing of a brand, you’ve also got the exposure – the stuff you make, people see it. A lot of people would assume that if you do an advert, that’s a nice segway to doing narrative, but while they are similar things that require the same sort of skillset, they’re actually parallel to each other. They don’t ever cross. What I found was that all the effort and time that it took to do all these adverts and do them well meant that when I had done them the last thing that I wanted to do was develop my own stuff because I was just exhausted.
FB: Would you say you’ve learnt much from doing the ads?
DWS: Oh yeah! I’ve learnt an awful lot. The one thing that you’re missing from narrative ad stuff, depending on the type of ad that you do, is that you’re not working a lot with “actors” – at least not narrative level actors. Your actors are really just models, they’re expected to say one or two lines. Or you’re working with real people. The trend now is this branded content, it’s researching real people and shooting content that looks and feels more like a documentary than an ad.
You either know what you want, or you figure it out and stick to it. And that’s sort of what I’m doing.
FB: Seeing your work online, even through your ads, I saw a lot of it to do with humanity – is that something that you purposely drive into your projects?
DWS: Up until recently it was never really purposely human-driven. I didn’t realise until maybe two or three years ago. We were having an end-of-year screening of everyone’s best work and then it dawned on me the way that people reacted to the work I did. Apparently I’ve got a knack for this real emotional, human story. I never went into it deliberately, I just sort of realised, and I think that happens. You either know what you want, or you figure it out and stick to it. And that’s sort of what I’m doing.
FB: I reached out to you with an email that said something like “Bill Murray Interview”, and as we got talking you didn’t necessarily distance yourself, but you were cautious. First off, how did that happen?
DWS: The way that that happened, I was in grad school at the time, and a friend of mine, who is in the video, John, called me last minute, probably 9 o’clock at night, and said “Can you come up tomorrow and do a spot for me?”. I was unsure and then he says: “I didn’t mention yet… Bill Murray’s in it” and I was like “Yes. Okay”.
we gave Bill the script and he threw it out and just ad-libbed the whole spot
I drove up that same night and slept on the sofa. It was really low key. It was like a five man crew, very simple. Bill lives in Charleston. I’m sure he’s got houses everywhere, but his main residence is Charleston. He’s kind of a local celebrity. He owns some restaurants; he owns the local baseball team. And so his kids were going to this school, and I guess the school had reached out to him. Bill was probably an hour and a half late. He came in and requested we turn all the lights off, said it was too bright. I mean, it wasn’t… but it was too bright for him, and we gave him a script and he just threw it out and just ad-libbed the whole spot.
John and I worked up the courage to ask him if he’d be in this video. It looks terrible, because we gave it to someone who’s not a film guy – he’s, like, a model – and then I slapped it together with The Kinks and put some titles on it and that was it. And it sat online for a year and it had like 200 hits and it wasn’t having any traction. I was thinking to myself, there’s Reddit posts with no evidence that go viral talking about how Bill Murray did this, Bill Murray did that… and I had this video of Bill and nothing’s going on with it.
And then about a week later, we got all these alerts from Vimeo. It had been viewed, like, two-hundred thousand times. And then it just kept going.
FB: When I looked at it, it’s got, like, a million views, or something crazy.
DWS: I think the one that I’ve got on Vimeo has close to two (million views).
FB: You talk like it’s a very positive memory, is there any negativity to it? What was the caution?
DWS: The only negativity was that because it was on my social, on my Vimeo, all the attention got attracted towards me.
FB: Was it just too much attention then?
DWS: At the time, it really was not my cup of tea to get that kind of attention. Plus, with the other guys, I think there was a tinge of jealousy as well. There were all these write-ups, and all these different blogs… you name it. Even more mainstream stuff, like Time Magazine, had blurbs on it and it was all focused on me. But some really cool stuff came out of it, there was a cover article about Bill in Rolling Stone, and I got a mention in that.
FB: Has that evened out then? Are you still the “Bill Murray Guy” at parties?
DWS: It’s not really been a thing in a long time. Occasionally if I’m in a new company, or with a new crew, or something like that. Maybe a couple of days in, someone will go “were you in this thing with Bill Murray?”, because lots of people saw it. It’s sort of worn out…
Bill’s sort of a nut job. He ended up doing some other local ads. He’s in some local music videos, people just see him and they’ll go up to him and “hey man, you wanna be in my thing?” and he’ll go “maybe” and then a few weeks later, lo and behold, Bill shows up and he’ll be in your music video. Whatever!
FB: Do you buy in to these urban legends?
DWS: Oh yeah. That’s 100% him, yeah.
FB: In your own way you are a famous person. With creating the viral short, and working for some of the biggest possible companies on the planet, even you coming from somewhere like Scotland, does the size of it all ever get a little daunting?
I definitely smell the roses sometimes, but I don’t do it that much because I want to achieve so much more
DWS: There’s definitely moments where it dawns on me how different my life has turned out from my expectations, from, say, two years ago, then a decade, then a kid in Scotland. Moving to America has changed me a lot. In the UK you’re allowed to be a shy kid, in America it’s seen as a deficiency. In school I was shy, but also had this thick, Glaswegian attention-grabbing accent… it was just very difficult. I think it’s served me well, because if I didn’t have that experience I never could have been a director. I would have never had the confidence… To answer your question; definitely. I definitely smell the roses sometimes, but I don’t do it that much because I want to achieve so much more.
FB: How do the UK/US industries compare?
DWS: I worked for a company that had a US and a UK branch. We didn’t have to go to the UK very often. But just because it was the same company meant there was a lot of cross-pollination. More often than not I would say – and this is with my limited experience working with British crews – in Britain it’s treated more like a job, and also it’s treated sort of as a privilege.
FB: By the people doing it?
DWS: By the people issuing out the work: So like, if you’re a disgruntled employee there’s 100 people that would kill for this job [so by the employer it gives a sense of] “I’m going to work you to the bone, and you can’t complain”. You don’t get that in America. I feel like in America it’s more “I’m a good director. Don’t treat me like shit. And I’ll make your company look good”. From what I was exposed to with British production companies and crew, when they would come to America it would be a freeing experience for them. I think ‘cause it’s harder to break in.
FB: That’s because we have to shoot in places like “Luton”.
DWS: America still has this “anyone can make it in New York” kinda thing… “You can do what you set your mind to”… Britain doesn’t have that. It’s just a smaller pool, so I guess it’s a lot more competitive.
FB: You realise that inadvertently you’ve described the American Dream. You’re living the American Dream.
DWS: (Chuckling) The American Dream is still alive!
For me filmmaking is the craft of it, but also a little bit of talent is required – just like any art form
FB: In a sentence, what is filmmaking?
DWS: To me filmmaking is, at its core, it’s visual storytelling. But good filmmaking requires technical knowledge and a bit of God given talent. For me filmmaking is the craft of it, but also a little bit of talent is required – just like any art form.
FB: What are you doing next?
DWS: I’m trying to shoot this short film that’s been sitting on my shelf for three years. There’s always been an excuse not to do it and now there’s not. But it’s really just a warm up to a feature film I’m developing at the moment.
FB: Are you planning to direct as well?
FB: You must just be itching to do that after doing all these ads.
DWS: You gotta just do it. I think the longer you put it off the harder it is to get back in to it.
David Walton Smith can be found and followed at www.davidwaltonsmith.com