The new political thriller Smoke Screen will play as part of the Winter Film Awards 2018 in New York on March 1. It was previously an official selection at the NewFilmmakers New York’s Fall 2017 Screening Series.
Smoke Screen revolves around the intrigue and conspiracy of an attempt to assassinate the US Attorney General to cover-up corporate and government corruption. It is the first feature for filmmaker Sean Buttimer who wrote, directed and played “an alcoholic hitman who never misses his mark.”
I spoke with Buttimer about how he got his start, making the film and whether he had advice for other filmmakers who are just starting out.
You spent 4 years in the Marine Corps, including time deployed in Iraq. Was it during this period of your life you decided to pursue filmmaking?
I became interested in filmmaking after a family vacation to Universal Studios Florida in 1994. I was so impressed by how immersive each attraction was, and how they made the riders part of the experience, like being injected straight into that world. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with creating my own miniature worlds.
Why did you choose to base yourself in New York instead of Hollywood or Austin?
I chose New York over LA and Austin because I knew a few people who lived in the city and had visited a few times, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. I’ve actually never been to LA, if you can believe that.
In your 2013 film, The Pilgrim, you cast the EPA as a 1984-like villain. In Smoke Screen a solar power scam involving the feds is key to the plot. Is government involvement with energy and the economy a big issue for you?
It most certainly is. Everyone pretends to dislike corporate welfare until it involves a cause they like, even when that cause is a money pit. It was the Solyndra scandal of 2011 that inspired the idea for Smoke Screen.
Smoke Screen is your first feature-length film. What challenges did you face making it that you did not encounter with your previous short films?
Funding, funding, funding! That’s a battle we all face as filmmakers, and always will. Aside from that, there’s always a lot of moving pieces that need to be at a certain place, at a certain time, because you only have a location for a certain amount of time, etc, etc. At times like that, you feel like more of a traffic cop than a director.
Were there any major unplanned changes — location, plot, casting — that you had to make during the filming?
When we originally tried to get the project off the ground in 2014 we had an entirely different cast. Because of the lack of any substantial funding, we had a two-year lag where no filming was taking place, so naturally some people moved on. But with that being said, I think we have a much stronger final cast now, so that two-year lag was a blessing in disguise.
Were there suggestions by your actors or anyone else during the production that you incorporated into the film?
Aesha Waks was instrumental in a lot of ways; in particular, she styled all of the actors’ looks for the camera, which really added an extra element to the production. And each actor brought something to the table. As much as I had everyone get as close to the original dialogue as possible, I also gave each actor a lot of freedom in how they approached their roles. I wanted everyone to be as natural as possible, like it’s coming from a real person, and I think that comes through.
You used Indiegogo for some of the financing. Where did you raise the rest of the budget?
Oh boy. While we did originally have an Indiegogo campaign in 2014, I think we raised roughly $3,575 total of a $40,000 goal. That really was only enough to sustain us through an ill-fated overnight shoot in March of that year that was ultimately unusable. You will not see any of that footage in the final cut. However, about a month before that overnight shoot, I slipped on a patch of ice one morning while leaving my apartment. I broke my wrist and had to have surgery to put it in place. Long story short, the impending settlement that came about as a result allowed me just enough money to make the film, which wound up being a good deal more than my projected $40k. But breaking bones is not something I would recommend to anyone, especially since my left wrist will never be the same.
Did you learn any lessons from the feature-film experience? What advice would you give to other filmmakers just starting out?
Well, first and foremost you need a compelling story. Without that, it doesn’t matter how much financing you have or who is attached. You also need a professionally made poster. That really helps when it comes time for distribution. And don’t go cheap, expect to spend about $5k. I would personally recommend LA-based Designworks. They did the awesome poster for Smoke Screen.
Besides writing, producing, and directing you have some acting credits: hit man, policeman, Army ranger — you and guns. Why are you getting this type of role?
I suppose with my time in the Marines; it just comes naturally. When those types of roles become available, I always say, “Hey, I know how to do that!”
There’s always something to be learned just by being present on a big set. In the case of The Last Song, I was still attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, and needed that exposure to a big operation, just simply to see how it’s done. But hey, it’s a job like any other, and in this instance, you might rub elbows with a celebrity!
What message or lesson, if any, do you want people to take away from Smoke Screen?
Well, first and foremost, I want people to be entertained. That’s always priority number one, and I think the story is fun enough to keep people glued. But when it comes to a message, I want people to think twice when a company or industry is being spotlighted to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies. There’s usually a lot of graft and corruption involved.
What’s next for you as a professional story teller? Do you have another feature in your back pocket?
I’m branching out into horror. Cosmic horror, to be more specific. The central idea of the project is that there is a vast network of tunnels in the Earth’s upper mantle, leading to a centuries-old necropolis, occupied by a Satanic figure. And of course, there is a quasi-governmental body that is probing these tunnels in the hopes of discovering more about not only Earth, but mankind’s origins.
Are there any distribution deals in the works for Smoke Screen when it finishes the film festival circuit?
Smoke Screen will be distributed through Fox Hollow Features, a video distribution company that opened its doors about a year ago. We’re looking at a June 5 release date, on multiple digital platforms, as well as a DVD run.
How can people connect with you and stay informed on your future projects?
The Smoke Screen website is the best place to go!