“Best Summer Ever’s” Lauren Smitelli on Making an Inclusive Musical & the Importance of Representation

Interview by Meghan Gheron 

Lauren Smitelli is a writer, director, and producer. As an alumna of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, her work has been exhibited at SXSW, Sundance, Venice, and the NYTimes Op Docs. Smitelli was a 2017 David Ross Fetzer Foundation Grant Recipient and 2018 Davey Fest Audience Award winner for her short “Visual Description.”

“Best Summer Ever” is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube Movies, Cable, and Satellite On Demand. The film is co-directed by Michael Parks Randa.

This interview was conducted in March of 2020. 

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

LS: “Best Summer Ever” is a high school musical about a girl who yearns for a more traditional life, and a boy who feels confined by the traditions of his. It’s made by one of my favorite collectives on the planet, Zeno Mountain Farm, which is a place that nurtures community between people with and without disabilities.

More than half of our cast and crew are people with disabilities. With such a lack of representation in the industry, it became a momentous feat that we made our movie this way, but Zeno has been doing this for years; this is simply the first feature-length endeavor.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LS: I’ve been a member of Zeno Mountain Farm for a while, and I would basically do anything for my Zeno family, so I was really excited that they wanted me to be involved. I was interested in showing characters on screen that have disabilities without having that ever become part of the story.

To me, it’s so important to have equal representation, and I’ve hardly seen disabled characters in stories that don’t revolve around their disability.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

LS: I’d love for people to think about what their views have been on the disability community, and how they’ve made an effort to narrow the gap in their own worlds. So much of the divide comes from lack of integration or unfamiliarity. I hope they leave this movie feeling inspired to seek out different ways to support the movement.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

LS: The film had a lot of challenges, but they were all pretty standard independent film crises. Not enough money, not enough time, the lights we rented from New York are flickering and we need to replace them in rural Vermont! Things like that. The all-inclusive way we cast and crewed up was not as challenging as people might assume; we basically merged some film professionals who were new to Zeno with our team at Zeno, and it was really wonderful to watch that cohesion happen.

We did find a lot to be desired when we went to agencies seeking the disability talent on their rosters. Representation literally starts with being represented, and if they don’t have a talent pool reflecting the full diversity of our society then they should be working harder.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

LS: We used a mix of Kickstarter, celebrity EPs, donations, and every favor we could gather. Since Zeno is a non-profit with a strong base of supporters, we let everyone know what we were planning and then just spread the message as far and wide as we could. We have a very “go for it” ethos at Zeno so it was basically jumping off the diving board and believing it would work out.

We were raising money the whole time. There were gaps of time throughout the process where we paused until we could afford to continue. The town of Bristol, Vermont being so open to us and willing to do us tremendous favors and donate locations was also a key ingredient. We couldn’t have done what we did without the support of that town.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

LS: My grandfather was obsessed with filming everything 24/7. I hated having the camera on me, so in some way it could be nothing more than childhood imprinting of a power gain. Probably that combined with the fact that I have a lot of feelings, and I want them to be heard, but have no talent musically.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

LS: Most good advice I learned from reading books. I would love to receive advice in real life, like from a mentor. I would really love to have a mentor. This question has unlocked a deep insecurity in me. I’m truly just winging it, you guys, and could use a little more advice over here.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

LS: Find your tribe and support each other. Never give up. It’s probably going to suck sometimes, and that’s okay, just keep going.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LS: That’s an impossible question! I will say that one of my favorite days of the past few years was when I did a double feature of Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” followed by Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace.” They are incredible films with so much that lingers inside of you. I was left feeling very creatively inspired with a lot to emotionally process, which to me is the apex of perfection.

W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

LS: Conversations that were once easily dismissed or reduced are now being taken seriously, but I’ve seen more lip-service than needle-moving. It seems like right now people are just hoping to not get into hot water.

For far too long — my entire life — I was used to fair and accurate concerns for equality being considered a joke or an unworthy issue, so it’s a relief just to be here, even though it’s not enough. This is an uphill battle with so many different and complex components. In order to eradicate our industry’s problem with women, we would need to eradicate the collective unconscious bias against women, so that’s a giant step and we have a long way to go, but we need to keep at it.

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