Smile: It's only the end of the world

Justin Kueber
Timeless Awards: Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
Justin Kueber: My name is Justin Kueber and I am 31 years old. I am a filmmaker based out of Edmonton, AB, Canada. I took interest in filmmaking and writing at a young age and haven’t looked back since. I have written several short and feature length films. Hoping to get a few of the feature scripts into production very soon. I am currently working on a docu-series that has taken up two years of my life. I never really considered myself a documentary filmmaker, but I’ve had a lot of fun working on this project. I am very excited to release it though – two years on one subject is exhausting and I really want to get back into fictional narrative work.
TA: Your film has been awarded for Best of Time category. So first, I need to ask you about it. What is your reflection about Time? How does the theme of Time translate into your work?
JK: Firstly, I am so honoured to have been awarded for the Best of Time category! In regards to Smile, at its core, this is a film about change. It’s a query into memory, and time and the rapid advancement of the human race. It’s a glimpse into the effects of living with a mental health disorder during worldly unrest. And, ultimately serves as an allegory for the increasing anxiety in young adults caused by our ever-changing, unpredictable world.

The most important image in this film is the clocktower. On the literal side of things, it’s the centerpiece and the tallest building in the city. It’s the main image that represents this oppressive, dystopian world. Metaphorically, the clock represents: capitalism, the constant movement of goods and services, the 9-5 work-shift - essentially a society built around a clock. If the clock (time) stops or is reset, what happens to society? That’s the question the film is asking right from the beginning.

I didn’t want to completely spoon feed you the answers, but I hope there’s enough there for you to draw your own interpretation from the film. Also, side note, the Dinosaur Scene is probably my favorite that addresses time.

For me, I have always been obsessed with time. Most of my films have some form of flashback or meditation on time. I think film is a unique medium because there’s a manipulation of time. As a filmmaker you have the ability to do what you want with it; you can create emotion, or suspense, or conflict with it. On a personal level, I think time affects you at certain points in your life. You see the world change, you see yourself change, the people around you. I’m always looking at time with a different lens. Right now I am sitting here at age 31 going where the hell did my 20s go? 9 years from now I’ll probably be saying the same about my 30s. You look at technological advancements, the rapid expansion of cities, advancements in medicine – things are moving faster than they ever have at any point in history. Time is truly fascinating and something I will continue to explore on my journey as a filmmaker and my journey through life.
TA: Why did you come up with an idea of shooting a screenplay using still photos instead of film shots?
JK: One of the biggest reasons was that shooting this as a moving film would have been extremely expensive to make. I wanted to make a sci fi but I didn’t have a proper sci fi budget. By doing it in stills, the VFX artists only have to render 1 frame instead of 24 fps x a 27-minute movie.

Another reason is because I think still photos just worked thematically. The entire film is a flashback and I really wanted to play with time and its effect on memory. When we remember certain moments in our lives it’s never exact. Usually, it’s tiny fragments, specific visuals or specific sentences or words. Each still in the film represents those tiny fragments of time and memory.

As well, which I will also mention below, La Jetee played a huge role. I just wanted to do something unique and that hasn’t been done since 1962 and see if it could work on mainstream audiences. It’s experimental but I believe it has purpose within the structure of the narrative.
TA: I feel like I need to ask you about inspirations.
JK: My biggest inspiration for Smile was obviously Chris Marker’s La Jetee. I wrote Smile in 2016 and this was when I just graduated University. One of the films that really opened my eyes to what film could be was La Jetee. So it was 100% an influence. And then from there, I think subconsciously Fight Club may have been an inspiration, 1984, and naturally, the films of Tarkovsky as well.

I think the rest just came from my own personal feelings at that time. I had a lot to say about the world and what it could look like in the not so distant future, so I just wanted to get everything I was feeling on the page. It got a bit existential but that was the headspace I was in….and now here we are in 2021 and I still cannot believe how many similarities there are between this film and this pandemic world we are continuing to live in. Very strange coincidence!
TA: So, would you like to share your creative process with us?
JK: Writing the script came pretty easy – once we went to camera, I believe the Final Shooting Script was Draft #13. Usually I am on Draft 20, 30, etc before I am happy enough to take it to camera. I think the hardest part was just cutting scenes. I had a lot to say with this film and it was tough figuring out what didn’t need to be said. I can’t really explain the process because writing it, everything just made sense. Developing the world I just kind of took issues that were happening in 2016 (with pollution, overpopulation, global warming, big brother 1984-type-state, etc) and just said “hey, lets extrapolate this several years into the future. What does that look like?”. And then from there you relate it to your main character. How can the outside world represent the feelings of your main character, Zara? That’s when the subtext of the film and true meaning of the film really developed.

From there, I had the majority of everything else planned meticulously. I storyboarded everything prior to shooting, I knew exactly how I wanted the film to look and sound. Coincidentally, with the first COVID Lockdown it delayed production by two months so I had nothing but time to plan. I was able to do read throughs with the cast, and get everything organized so that when we eventually went to camera it was one of the smoothest shoots I’ve ever had.

I will say, the only thing I was unsure about was the dialogue sequences. The first day of shooting was a dialogue scene and we shot it like each actor was modelling and pretending to speak to one another. I quickly realized that looked horrible and cheesy and we ended up shooting it exactly like you would shoot a moving film. But, like any film, it takes time to understand how it breathes and moves – fortunately, we learned that lesson day one and it made for a fantastic experience the rest of production.
TA: What equipment did you use for filming? Or, better to say, for shooting?
JK: We used a Canon 5D for most of the film. During the “Instagram” portion of the flashback sequence we used my iPhone 11 to give it that feel like it’s a snapshot for social media. That’s why those first few shots of that scene have a different look. And then for that one special moment in the film we used a Canon C200.

The nice part about shooting still photos is there isn’t a whole lot of equipment needed and we could travel light. This really saved us time during our production schedule.
TA: And postproduction? What tools did you use?
JK: For post production we used Final Cut Pro, Lightroom, and Photoshop. I am not entirely sure what program the VFX guys used but that played a big part in it as well. For post sound we used iZotope. This was probably the most involved I’ve ever been in the post production stage. Usually I like the editor to take a go at the first cut but I saw one minute of the first cut and thought it would be a much smoother process if I sat in the editing suite everyday.
TA: Can we see your film somewhere? Is it available online?
JK: It’s not available yet, but I am looking at releasing it early December. It is currently still on the festival circuit so we can’t have a public release just yet. But, if you follow me on social media @jkeebs.film on Instagram I will be posting updates on the release!
October 2021