Tales of the Unexpected
Martin Smith started out as a music photographer, before working his way up to director of music videos. So how did he end up writing his own feature–length film drama? Jed Gilchrist finds out that small–time creative freedom led to big–time creative results for Martin.
Martin kick–started his career by working as a live music photographer. "I managed to blag passes," he confesses, "I would lie to the doormen and say I was with The Herald." This tactic soon paid off. After building up a portfolio, he was invited on tour with artists like Nick Cave and Ice Cube. "Initially I found it all really exciting, but after a while it became quite grating – the bands were playing the same set every night." Martin wanted a bit more action, so he decided to move into film.
A foot in the door
Whilst still at film school, Martin directed a music documentary which resulted in an interview with The Scotsman. That interview would spark Martin's big break into the music video industry.
"I randomly bumped into an old school mate after the article was published," Martin remembers, "He asked if I'd be interested in directing his friend's band's video." When he found out that the band was signed to Creation Records – home of Primal Scream and Oasis – he snapped up the offer.
An established career
This first video provided great exposure for Martin, and he's had regular work ever since, making music videos for a wide range of bands including Arab Strap, The Delgados and Thirteen:13.
What really attracts him to music video production is the creative freedom. "There are absolutely no rules... Making music videos is a real testing ground."
But it is partly due to this freedom that makes music video production such a competitive industry. "Music videos are so cutting edge so everybody wants to get involved in directing them."
To compete you have to be original and unique. "If you don't have your own style and language all you are doing is copying other people."
But having your own signature style doesn't mean churning out the same old stuff video after video. "You just need to look at directors like Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazer," he explains, "These guys never rest on their laurels. They're always pushing the envelope."
But competition can be part of the fun. "If you find out you're scripting against someone like Roman Coppola, it all becomes very, very exciting."
Selling the script
Martin admits that working in music videos requires a great deal of energy. "You find yourself without any time for other creative projects," he explains.
But before his hectic work schedule had truly begun Martin had already written a feature–length film script. "I'd put it on the back burner for a while until eventually I just thought, "I really have to do something with this."
So he sent it to The Script Factory in London. They got back in touch, and he was offered a position as a core writer. This gave him the chance to attend masterclasses and get advice from writers and directors such as Danny Boyle, Guillermo Arriaga and Stephen Frears.
His experiences with The Script Factory helped Martin develop the confidence he needed to approach producers with his work. His script, together with an impressive showreel of around 30 music videos, received an excellent response from Glasgow's Sigma Films, and Martin is now working with them to develop his debut feature The Black Death.
Inspiration from the past
Writing a film script at home on your own is very different from directing it, with actors and budgets and a very real contract. but Martin's diverse experience certainly came in handy.
"I like to write about what I know. My work as a photographer certainly made me more aware of the world around me... By doing music videos, you get a great opportunity to try things out. I quite often go back to techniques I used in my videos when I'm shooting a film."
And Martin's still as busy as ever. This month sees the Channel 4 release of four short documentaries which Martin directed for Edinburgh–based production company Sugar Tree Productions. The films discuss the impact that Scotland's capital city has had upon four very different individuals. Stuart Cosgrove, head of Channel 4 Nations and Regions, describes them as "highly creative and unique."
"I was dead set against the idea of doing a regular 'talking heads' documentary", says Martin. "I didn't want to go down the route of filming what was expected." The result of his maverick music video background, perhaps?
Read this interview at Channel 4's Ideas Factory
Photo: Reuben Paris