Chris Smith doesn’t set out to make films about class. “Honestly, it’s really just working instinctually to see what seems interesting to me,” he says. But class keeps popping up. His credits include the documentaries The Yes Men (2003), about a group of antiglobalization activists, and American Movie (1999), about a struggling horror director. Smith’s first feature was American Job (1996), about minimum-wage or otherwise menial labor. (Between films, Smith has his own day job–shooting TV commercials, including the celebrity Geico spots.) His latest film, the funny and very affecting The Pool, concerns a teenager named Venkatesh and his friend Jhangir. A room boy at a Goa hotel, Venkatesh becomes obsessed with a wealthy family’s gorgeous pool and gets tangled up in their lives.
How did you decide to adapt Randy Russell’s story into The Pool?
Four or five years ago, I went with some friends to help shoot a movie [in India], and we stayed at the hotel where the film [The Pool? CK] was made and observed the room boys and their interactions and their lives. That is what I was interested in, and The Pool provided me with the structure for a narrative story.
Do you think The Pool is a universal story?
Yeah, I do. Anyone can relate to working crummy jobs. And I think the humor is universal. One of the things that struck me when I was in India, spending time in this hotel, was watching the room boys have the same sort of banal conversations about, you know, nothing, and hiding out in rooms watching wrestling. There were things like that that just felt so universal to me. When Americans go and shoot India, it’s a very romanticized version or it’s poverty and slums. I felt like it would be interesting to show the day-to-day life of people working minimum-wage jobs. There’s a similar sort of boredom, and the same sort of odd things happen there that happen here.
The film deals explicitly with class and caste. What was the mood on the set like?
Our crew and the people who worked on this film, from the kids who were the stars all the way up to the Bollywood star [Nana Patekar, who portrays the pool’s owner]–when we got together it was this incredible group of people and it felt like all these issues of class sort of disappeared. But it’s undeniable that those issues are still there. You were reminded of it all the time. We were shooting this scene where [Venkatesh and Jhangir] were playing this game on a beach, which is not in the film. It was incredibly hot, and we kept asking the PAs–we had a few local kids who were helping us–to get water and food for the kids. After about thirty minutes we realized it wasn’t happening. And so we asked our production manager, “What’s going on here?” And he said, “You don’t realize it, but you’re asking these kids who are a higher class to go get water for these street kids, and they’re just not gonna do it.”