Ya’Ke Smith is known for his unflinching and veracious style of storytelling and is a rising voice in independent cinema. His films have received world-wide acclaim, screening and winning awards at over 90 film festivals. The Director‘s Guild of America, the Student Academy Awards, HBO, Showtime, and the City of Buffalo, NY, which proclaimed February 23, 2013 as Ya‘Ke Smith Day, have honored him.
His short, Katrina’s Son, screened at over 40-film festivals and won 14 awards. The film was also eligible for the 2012 Academy Award in short filmmaking. His debut feature, Wolf, which NPR called “an impressive piece by a young director”, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and has gone on to screen and win awards at festivals across North America. The film is now available for streaming via kwelitv.com. His short film, Dawn, is currently airing on HBO, and his short Hope’s War is currently airing on Showtime. His latest film, One Hitta Quitta, won a Special Jury Recognition for Excellence in Short Filmmaking from the Dallas International Film Festival.
Smith has been featured on NPR, CNN, HLN, Ebony Online, Indiewire, Filmmaker Magazine and Shadow & Act. He graduated with his B.A. from the Communication Arts Department at the University of The Incarnate Word, where he later became the youngest recipient of the Alumni of Distinction for Professional Achievement award. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. He is currently the Morgan Woodward Distinguished Professor of Film at the University of Texas at Arlington.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a writer? Or, what would be your advice to aspiring screenwriters? Writing is a journey and a process. It’s a journey that is long and tedious and downright depressing at times. It’s a process that in certain stages makes me want to pull my dreads out. I’ve learned that in order to become successful at writing I had to embrace this journey and understand that before I struck “story gold” you’re going to have to do some hard digging in the way of research, character development, rewriting, rewriting more and then rewriting again. Also, I’ve learned that I have to set my own bar of success, which can’t be based on anyone else’s. If I base it on everyone around me, I’ll never reach it, because everyone’s success is different.
What are you working on right now? I’m currently writing my latest feature screenplay San Antonio, which I plan to shoot in San Antonio in the near-future. The script centers around a Hurricane Katrina Evacuee and a Mexican Immigrant who help one another deal with the ghosts that are haunting them. I’m also working on a few other short films that will be released later this year.
What is your favorite film or television show? My favorite film is City of God and one of my favorite TV Shows is The Leftovers. The characters in City of God could have easily been portrayed as one-dimenisonal misfits, thugs and lost causes, but the filmmakers decided to humanize them and give them dimensionality. One of my favorite scenes in the film is towards the end where after a gun battle between the cops and the favela gangsters, a few young boys pick up the guns of the dead, murder one of the main gangsters (who murdered someone the same way in the beginning of the film) and walk off into the city, symbolizing that because they have witnessed this carnage and have lived amongst it all their lives, that they ultimately will become what they’ve been exposed to. The Leftovers is such a great show because it deals with a supernatural event in a way that anyone can identify with. No matter what socio-economic background you come from, your race or sexuality, anyone can imagine the pain of losing a loved one and more specifically losing that loved one without having an answer for what caused the loss. It’s beautifully written, ingeniously acted and leaves the audience with so much to think about after each episode ends. On the TV side, I’m also very fond of Rectify, American Crime and Underground.
Do you have a favorite or memorable experience at Austin Film Festival? I have attended the festival many times and have had so many great experiences, so it’s difficult to choose one. However, I was also a participant in the Austin Film Festival’s Writer’s Ranch and this was one of the best experiences of my writing career. The mentors that year were Shane Black, Herschel Weingrod and Daniel Petrie Jr., all of whom were great to work with and all of whom gave me and the other writers very valuable feedback on our screenplays. To this day I still keep in touch with Herschel, who has generously given me me notes on my screenplays and films.