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Leslie Smith

interview by Douglas Eby

A member of The Director's Guild of America and an acclaimed commercials director, Leslie has shot commercials for a wide range of clients including McDonalds, Toshiba, Sprint, Budweiser, Merrilll Lynch, National Car Rental, Kellogg, Sara Lee, Timberland, Shell Oil, Pepsi and others.

She graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena with a specialty in cinematography, but "was pretty immediately told as a woman cinematographer, no one will hire you" she recalls.

"You should be a director. But then I was offered a job as a DP [Director of Photography] in Texas, so I moved there and started my career sort of out of default. But it was really a good match to be a cinematographer and then also a director. It's been really advantageous to know camera and lighting and that side of things." She says "I wish I could have a glamorous claim of dreaming to be director when I was ten, but not at all.

"I went to the University of Arizona and looked at the list of majors: business, biology, economics, film -- yeah, that sounds good. It was one of those. And then, the more I got into it, the more I realized I really did like it and if I wanted to be serious, I had to go to a serious school and work hard."

Leslie was interviewed recently by Mollie Gregory of Women in Film for Gregory's new book "Equal Dreams: How A New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood" and Leslie comments that women of past eras in Hollywood have helped her and others: "Doors are opening more for me, and more is happening for me, as a result of other women she interviewed that are saying 'I couldn't get a job there', and 'I was laughed at in this meeting' -- so it's always opening up."

But she has experienced more help and mentoring in her career from men: "I have great women friends, and we work together," she says, "but as far as somebody helping me up, I haven't had a woman do that." Part of the reason, she agrees, is that directing and commercial production is still such a predominantly male profession.

In addition to directing, Leslie is a writer, and recently sold her first screenplay (titled "Rocket"); she's going to be the director, as well as co-writer. She thinks her career development is not especially different because she is a woman: "For me, it's been just really believing in myself, and knowing that I'm good, and that what's being done out there -- I could be doing that, and that I'm as good as anybody else doing it, and I should have the opportunity.

"Maybe I've had to work harder to make that opportunity, but I think it's by having that sort of vision and clarity and confidence, that I've made it happen. And I don't know that that is gender-specific. It's just knowing yourself and having confidence and wanting something. And I think creativity is something you practice with yourself and it's a part of yourself.

"It's when you go to plan a meal, when you go to pick out an outfit, when you see light hitting the street and a shop window a certain way. It's just something you keep your eyes open to, and it's a non-tangible piece of you that's just there, that you have to let explore, and let move and grow."

Leslie finds "When I'm happier in my life, then I'm more creative. When you take care of the basics, when you're comfortable, then the creativity comes. And when you encourage yourself, it starts coming. I've certainly had years where I didn't feel like I was very creative, and now I am feeling very creative.

"Like having lunch today, there was a bag sitting near my feet and I thought of this whole scenario and short film story about the bag as I waited for this man to meet me for lunch." She agrees that writing is a very stimulating complement to her work as director: "Writing is complete control, setting a scene and creating characters, what the drama is in a room, the dynamics of people: it's all up to you to create this and have this happen. It's amazing. You kind of feel like God. Only it's all on paper."

To encourage creative thinking, Leslie says it is important to "have the time and the space to daydream, and go down those paths that seem absurd or off the wall, but you never know: What if I moved to Hawaii? What kind of business could I start? What if I quit everything tomorrow; what would I do? Do I like to be around people? Do I like to sell things? Am I great managing? It's just sort of putting scenarios in front of yourself, and going down paths and experimenting. You learn things about yourself. Even if you never go down any of those paths, you learn what feels right, and what might become of you, or what you could be. And in that, you start having some tangible things. You can start moving on some goals."

Finding encouragement to pursue creative talents may often come through role models. Thinking back, Leslie says it's been really hard to find them: "I graduated from Art Center in 1984, and at that point, I think, Barbra Streisand had just directed "Yentl" and that was the first woman to direct a feature, I believe. And she was not very well accepted in the film community for doing that feature. There were two women directing commercials then, also.

"But I never realized, until being interviewed recently, that there weren't any women role models. I just thought, Oh, director, I'll be that." She acknowledges that there are more efforts now to actively encourage women, and notes The Directors Guild "has a mentor program for women and minorities, and it's just because the numbers are so dismal for women directors.

"The DGA came out last year with a report, and all the numbers were down for women. Nobody really conscientiously doesn't hire a woman; it's just a little harder and a little more of an effort and a risk to hire a woman director." Continuing to add to her experience as a commercial director, Leslie is also more actively pursuing her goals of feature film directing.

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Leslie Smith is represented by Dark Light Pictures, West Hollywood, CA  310.854.0406

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   interview Aug.99 

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