My First Published Feature Film (Not a Review!)

6 Nov

It should have occurred to me long before that I don’t have to use this blog just for movie reviews. I’m a filmmaker too–I should be as open on my blog as I am on my own Facebook page. So, here goes: I made a micro-budget independent feature film and got it published on Amazon Prime.

It’s called “The Focusing Effect.”


The premise goes like this: A film-student (played by yours truly, Tanner Smith) wants to succeed as a filmmaker and jump-start a career with a great documentary. This documentary project is called “The Dumpers and the Dumpees,” and it’s about getting both sides of particular breakup stories amongst his classmates. With help from his girlfriend (Kelly Woodruff) and his sister/roommate (Kayla Esmond), he makes the film and decides to make it even stronger by including a new story: one involving a surly classmate (Daniel Lee Harris) and his snobby ex-girlfriend (McKenzie Stell). But when a disturbing secret is revealed and developed, things go from bad to worse as the lives of our main characters are in jeopardy…

“The Focusing Effect,” made entirely in Central Arkansas, is presented in first-person perspective and edited like a faux-documentary, with interviews, v-logs, and candid footage telling the story. In telling a narrative-fiction story using this style, this posed a stressful (which is to say, “exciting”) directing challenge, because it meant takes had to go on for extended periods of time, which meant the acting had to be on-point (and not “100% realistic,” just “realistic enough”). Casting myself in the lead role seemed like it made perfect sense, since it was my script (from a story thought up by me, Kelly Woodruff, and our friend/co-editor Nikki Emerson) and I took it to heart, so I was determined not to screw it up. (Though, that’s not for me to decide whether or not I screwed it up.) Kelly Woodruff plays my character’s girlfriend, and she was my girlfriend in real-life (and now, she’s my fiancee)–we didn’t have to worry about perfecting our chemistry, but we did have to take the time to convincingly convey the proper emotions in the scenes in which our characters argue. The other key players are Daniel Lee Harris and Kayla Esmond, both of whom have acted in several made-in-Arkansas films. These two were game, professional actors, and they helped elevate the material one way or the other. As for crew, it was mostly just my friends who were willing to help out, many of which also appear in the film as the fake-documentary’s interviewees.


“The Focusing Effect” was a micro-budget passion-project my friends and I made just out of film-school (the University of Central Arkansas film program), and I didn’t want to just make a “found-footage horror film.” I had made plenty of documentary shorts (mostly behind-the-scenes stuff) and two doc features while planning this film, and I wanted to come up with a narrative-fiction story that’s portrayed as if it was edited by a film student from his candid camera footage. (Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” was also an inspiration.) It was basically a way of using our limited resources to our advantage in order to make this movie.

At its surface is a thriller story about an amateur documentary filmmaker who risks his relationship with his girlfriend (and his life) to push the envelope for a film that could’ve just been a fun project all by itself. But at its core is a cautionary tale about how far documentary filmmaking can go in terms of finding the perfect topic, story, and resolution. Even when my character looks back at the comedic parts of his film, he realizes it’s not so fun anymore because he’s exploiting his interview subjects’ embarrassments and selfish wants/needs–and he’s in danger of falling into that same trap with his own girlfriend.

And that’s before we get to the grisly final act, in which the blood hits the fan…

The film was a lot of fun to make. We broke a lot of rules and made our own choices in the whole process of making it, because we felt we could get away with it. That feeling of freedom reminds me of why I love making movies.

But it is a horror film in a way, and one of the challenges I was glad to meet was finding new ways to use the first-person camera perspective to induce fear. I think we found a few effective ones, but my favorite one is Kelly’s contribution. It’s a scene midway through the film, in which our characters are discussing the potential dangers of continuing the project…unaware that there’s someone in the background watching them! (They don’t realize it until later when they look at the recorded footage.)

By the way, this is why the film is called The Focusing Effect. It’s a reference to a psychology term that indicates how people put so much focus on one thing that they neglect to recognize something more important happening around them.


“The Focusing Effect” is available on Amazon:

If you hate the film, if you decide to check it out, you never have to take me seriously as a movie reviewer ever again. At the very least, I hope it makes you understand my passion for both film and filmmaking.

Thanks for reading!

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