Martin Smith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Documentary Filmmaking: Conversation with Martin Smith, 1/27/03 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Martin, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you, good to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

Southern California, actually. Riverside, California, is where I was raised, on a farm. My father grew oranges.

And looking back, how did your parents shape your thinking about the world?

They traveled. I wanted to go with them. I didn't always get to go, so I think that increased my curiosity. My brother, my two sisters all traveled quite a bit, and so I had a great curiosity. Also, oddly, I collected stamps when I was a kid, about seven years old, and I had great curiosity about the places that I was looking at on these little stamps.

Did you have any special talents in the visual arts?

No. I remember I got one of these 3-D viewers when I was a kid, and I thought it was the most incredible toy. I took immaculate care of this thing. You get those little discs and you look through. I don't know; like my own children, I think I tend to be a visual learner. I have good visual memory. It just comes more easily.

What about teachers? Any teachers, as a young person or later, that had a special impact on you?

You always can name the good teachers you had on one hand.

That's right.

After about twelve years of education, you get two or three good ones. Everybody gets about the same number.

When I was growing up, it was considered a career to go into making documentary films. People clawed their way into that profession. But there wasn't a career track. There weren't schools to go to, by and large. There were some film schools, but their documentary programs were weak. So I don't think that any teacher really inspired me to look at that, because it just wasn't on the table. Documentary films weren't something that I ever thought of doing.

What sort of schooling did you have?

You mean in college?

Yes, in college.

I went to Brown University, and I became interested in literature there. There was a small film society. I remember looking at Birth of a Nation on a Super-8, and there were about forty reels of changes, ten-minute reels, something like that. And I was starting to become more interested.

My sister had a boyfriend who was working in the film business, and I hung out on the sets and worked on some of those films. But I didn't have any education until I had kind of drifted off.

I was a Conscientious Objector during the war years. I did alternative service work, and when I came back to school, I went back to New York University Film School. I didn't think that I was going to be making documentaries, but I gravitated toward documentaries immediately, because there was an immediacy to them. You didn't wait around for people to get their make-up right or for the set to get built, and you just went out and shot things.

Was you affected by a sense that history was happening now, being a child in the sixties, a student of the sixties?

Yes, I was a child of the sixties, and I was at half of the demonstrations, and all the concerts. But I didn't think in those terms. I thought of making personal documentaries. My film that I made at NYU, at film school, was a personal documentary. I didn't ... I sort of thought I was going to go into feature films, but I was dabbling with documentary. I was interested in the films of John Cassavates, which cut across the genres. Films like Faces really impressed me.

I bounced around the industry, working as a cameraman, working as a film editor. Finally, I get a job kind of walking in off the street at CBS News as a film editor. And, slowly, over the years -- I think I was there for about seven years -- I ended up being a producer on their hour-long program, CBS Reports. I got interested in public affairs and foreign affairs. And my first documentary for them was on Guatemala, on the war -- 1982.

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