This earnest, socially conscious Canadian filmmaker gained international attention as the helmer and co-writer of the admirably controlled, intelligent yet ultimately devastating TV miniseries "The Boys of St. Vincent" (Canadian Broadcasting Company, 1993; shown in limited theatrical release in the US in 1994; aired on A&E cable network in 1995). A courageous investigation into the abuse of power, the film told the fact-inspired story of a orphanage in Newfoundland wherein young boys were physically and sexually assaulted by the Catholic brothers who administered the institution. Set in 1975, Part One chronicled the abuse and the collusion between the forces of Church, State and commerce that motivated a cover-up. Set 15 years later, Part Two depicted the emotional aftermath and long delayed legal process. Smith elicited strong naturalistic performances from the young boys and showcased a powerhouse portrayal of the driven and terrifying head of the orphanage by Canadian stage actor Henry Czerny. Though brooding and thoughtful, the film served as an effective Hollywood calling card for both director and star.
After earning his undergraduate degree in political philosophy, the Montreal native joined the CBC as a researcher in 1968, soon working his way up to become the producer of a public affairs program "The Way It Is" the following year. Leaving CBC, Smith began producing independent TV series including the Emmy-winning public affairs program, "The 51st State," for NYC's public TV station. He joined the National Film Board of Canada as a staff director in 1972, where he became known for his work in "alternative drama" which DAILY VARIETY described as "seemingly derived from the school of dramatized documentary popular in Hungary [in which the filmmakers] take non-professional actors and have them play roles very close to their own experiences." Improvisation and documentary techniques also characterized this style.
Often producing, scripting and editing the films he directed, Smith's Canadian output included the dance documentary "Gala" (1982), which showcased performances by seven leading dance companies, both modern and classical; the docudrama "The Masculine Mystique" (1984), which applied some of the stylistic conventions of women's movement agitprop to the then nascent men's movement (e.g., individual oral histories, group consciousness-raising and role-playing), the drama "Sitting in Limbo" (1986), about immature Black English-speaking teens coping with the new realities of encroaching adulthood in primarily French-speaking Montreal; and the crime docudrama "Train of Dreams" (1987), which told the disheartening story of a young repeat offender.
Smith's first Hollywood assignment was directing the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer production, "Dangerous Minds" (1995). Based on Louanne Johnson's nonfiction account, "My Posse Don't Do Homework," the film told the story of a white, female former Marine (Michelle Pfeiffer) teaching high school English to largely minority students in an inner-city high school. Though the subject matter seemed well-attuned to Smith's interests and previous work, he had little part in the screenplay. So, while the film offered strong performances from a predominantly inexperienced cast, it lacked the subtlety and sophistication of "The Boys of St. Vincent." Behavioral pathologies were not contextualized within the larger social fabric, situations were simplified and the project took on the air of a "tough" liberal fairy tale. Nonetheless, due to canny marketing, a hit theme song and the glamorous Pfeiffer, "Dangerous Minds" was a surprising success that established its director in Hollywood. Smith subsequently helmed the made-for-cable movie "Sugartime" (HBO, 1995), which purportedly told the story of the romance of Mafia don Sam Giancana and nightclub singer Phyllis Maguire. While the film featured strong performances and boasted atmospheric sets, costumes and cinematography, it was derided by Maguire as pure fiction and met with a mixed critical reception.
Director (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Editing (Feature Film)
Joined Canadian Broadcasting Company as a researcher
Promoted to producer of public affairs program "The Way It Is"
Joined National Film Board of Canada as staff director
Directed and co-scripted the acclaimed and controversial CBC miniseries "The Boys of St. Vincent"
"The Boys of St. Vincent" given a limited US release
"The Boys of St. Vincent" aired on US cable TV on Arts & Entertainment network
Directed first US feature, "Dangerous Minds", a surprise hit starring Michelle Pheiffer; also first film produced for theatrical release
US TV-movie directing debut, "Sugartime", an HBO fact-inspired period gangster drama starring John Turturro and Mary Louise Parker