Ya’Ke Smith on his first full-length feature and the future of San Antonio filmmaking

The Cannes Film Festival, which begins May 11, will screen Ya’Ke Smith’s short Katrina’s Son (2010) in the fest’s Short Film Corner Selections event. It will be the second time at Cannes for one of Smith’s films; he already visited the world’s most prestigious film festival with Hope’s War (2005). But this time, Smith won’t be there — he’s too deep in pre-production work for his first full-length feature, Wolf, being shot in San Antonio from July through August.

Days before Katrina’s screened at Cannes, Smith talked to the Current from his home in Fort Worth.

Tell me about Wolf.

It is a story of a family that discovers a son has been molested by their pastor. It chronicles their struggles to deal with the betrayal. Irma P. Hall `who had a memorable role in the Coen Brothers’ remake of The Ladykillers` is co-starring as the grandmother.

Did you write the role for her, or she just happened to audition for it?

Actually, I wrote it with an Irma P. Hall-type in mind, not quite knowing if I could get `her`. Ironically, my wife `actress Mikala Gibson` was cast in a play alongside her, so I got a chance to ask her if she would be interested. She read the script, loved it, and the rest is history. Of course, I didn’t need her to audition because her previous work speaks for her. I know she will do a beautiful job in the film.

The theme of sexual abuse in the church has been dealt with quite a bit in the past. What’s your take on it?

Mine is a little different. All the ones I’ve seen come from the Catholic Church, but mine takes place in a sort of more Protestant, non-denominational church, and it happens to an African-American family, which you don’t see that often either. I did research and this happens in non-denominational churches as much as it happens in Catholic churches.

Your name always comes up whenever there is talk about good San Antonio filmmakers. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but, how do you see the scene nowadays?

(laughs) That’s a hard question. I’m a little far removed from the `SA` film scene. I do shoot there, but I’m almost like an out-of-towner coming back to the place I grew up in. I bring my people, because I don’t know a lot of `film` people in SA. Ralph López is my long-time producer there, and he gathers the best local people he can find, and I bring my people from Austin, Houston, and other places. With that being said, I think the SA film scene is getting better. I just think we need to make quality work that can compete with the rest of the world and send the work out. I don’t think it’s enough that we make a film to be screened in SA — we need to send the stuff out.

But aren’t people already doing that? Maybe — probably — they’re sending stuff, but it’s not being accepted.

I don’t know, that’s the thing. I know Sam Lerma and Pablo Véliz send stuff out and it’s being accepted. But everybody needs to continue making films and don’t get discouraged. The truth is, as many festivals that I screen at, I probably get rejected from triple that amount, honestly. But I do get accepted at some because I send my films everywhere I can. There is a place for everybody’s work.

I still see too many local trailers aiming for the commercial formula: drugs, sex, violence, and very little concern for risky artistic projects. But you handle that art-vs-commerce friction pretty well. Who are your big inspirations?

I always go back to Spike `Lee`. What I love about him is that he always made films on his own terms. Especially early on in his career, he made films he was passionate about and found a way to make them commercial. And he did it without losing his artistic integrity, and that’s what I want to do. I love Spike Lee, I love Fernando Meirelles `City of God`, I love Alejandro González Iñárritu `Biutiful, Amores Perros, Babel`. These are filmmakers who make important work that’s also commercial.

What’s next for you besides Wolf?

Wolf, man ... (laughs) It has consumed me, and I can’t wait to shoot it.