Faith-filled filmmaking: Young director uses artistic gift "for the good"
FORT WORTH — Rob Smat can’t remember a time when he wasn’t toting a video camera.
“Filming for me was something I’d always done. It was just one of those artistic things you’re drawn to,” admitted the 26-year-old whose penchant for storytelling started with a secondhand camcorder and the backyard antics of three younger brothers.
His ability to build a story from captured images “is a gift of the Holy Spirit — certainly,” said the writer/director who grew up in Holy Family Parish.
The creator of more than 50 short films, music videos, and commercials, Smat continues to impress audiences with his latest project. “The Last Whistle,” a feature-length movie made with a budget of $100,000 and filmed in two weeks, opened the Lone Star Film Festival in 2018 to solid reviews. It went on to win Best Picture and Best Screenplay honors at the Australian Inspirational Film Festival and Best Picture and Best Actress Awards at the Deep in the Heart Film Festival.
Smat examined the failings of pride, ambition, and self-absorption in his screenplay. The story centers around a victory-obsessed high school football coach who is forced to deal with the tragic death of an all-star player from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy during a rigorous practice. The disease, caused by abnormal genes of heart muscle proteins, is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes.
A former high school football player, Smat didn’t personally experience the death of a teammate or friend from the heart condition but learned about local tragedies from news stories. During the film’s production, he worked closely with the American Heart Association to heighten awareness of the hidden disorder.
A 2017 graduate of the prestigious School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, it took Smat two or three weeks to write the screenplay and another three or four months to revise it. “I had the resources to do a movie in 2018 and wanted to do it right out of college,” said the young director explaining the momentum behind his decision. “There was no waiting for the right moment. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. God gives us today and we make the best of it.”
In hindsight, he realizes the wisdom of forging full speed ahead with the plan. Any delays and the COVID–19 quarantine would have prevented making the movie. “The Last Whistle” is currently available for viewing on VUDU.com, an on-demand video streaming service.
As a youngster, Smat’s skill with a camera was something his parents, Laurie and David, recognized at an early age. While attending All Saints Episcopal, the adolescent created a video of middle school memories and set the montage to music. The school used the project for marketing purposes because “it was so authentic and came from a student,” his mother remembered. A documentary geared toward tornado safety for children earned the fledgling filmmaker his first award.
“That’s when I learned if Rob was working on a film project, any part of my house might show up on the big screen,” Laurie said playfully. “When he showed children how to hide in a closet, that was my messy closet.”
After finishing high school, Smat followed in the footsteps of iconic director and personal hero George Lucas, a University of Southern California alumnus. “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” and other Lucas movies inspired the film buff who was also a fan of westerns and Alfred Hitchcock. At USC, the underclassman’s film professor, a former Jesuit priest, became a mentor.
“Drew Casper influenced me quite a bit both through movies he shared with me and his knowledge of Catholic filmmaking,” Smat explained.
Recipient of the first Hitchcock faculty chairmanship, the professor discussed secular topics in class but shared with the native Texan how the award-winning director’s Catholicism impacted his screenplays.
“Some of our favorite Hitchcock movies are “I Confess,” “Rope,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” — all of which dealt with personal responsibility, conscience, and the importance of family,” Smat continued. “They are themes today’s films totally avoid.”
“The Last Whistle” explores those issues with help from noted actors and a crew Smat culled from his Los Angeles and North Texas contacts. All of the game day and practice footage was filmed at Smat’s high school football field. Many of the “extras,” seen cheering in the stands, are people he knew at Holy Family Parish.
Genni Sayers appears in two scenes in the movie. The director of religious education at Holy Family has known Smat since he was an active member of the parish’s youth group and co-chair of the Diocesan Catholic Youth Council.
The youth minister isn’t surprised to see Smat’s professional career flourish. For years, he crafted the video shown at the close of annual DCYC weekends.
“In an entertaining fashion, Rob showed there are always two sides to an issue and the truth lies somewhere in between,” explained Sayers, adding the film sparked an interesting conversation about responsibility and redemption with her children. “He’s a phenomenal director with a voice that needs to be heard.”
Although the independent filmmaker is currently working on a book project, he finds time to volunteer with the Fort Worth-based Shaken Baby Alliance — an organization dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. As an advisory council member, Smat offers recommendations on marketing and social media strategies as well as video development. Producing more feature films is part of his long-range career plans provided he can steer clear of Hollywood’s dark side.
The film industry is a mix of good, bad, and crazy people, “but there’s an underlying greed and immorality to the entire system,” the movie maker pointed out. “Hollywood has an anti-Christian bent. At the same time, they like anything that makes money. The more I can do independently, with people I know and trust, the less I have to touch that greed.”
Working with Family Theater Productions is a goal. The small Catholic production company — based in Los Angeles since 1947 — was founded by Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton, whose cause for sainthood was opened in 2001. Using, radio, television, and films, the modern-day missionary encouraged family prayer and is best remembered for his message, “The Family That Prays Together, Stays Together.”
He died in 1992 but Family Theater Productions continues to produce inspiring, family-friendly media.
“Making movies with Family Theater is my dream since they are better focused on Catholic movies than the average non-denominational producers,” Smat pointed out.
Although he appreciates the critical success of his first feature film, the newlywed who recently moved to Arizona, admits the experience was stressful. Faith pushed him through creative and production roadblocks.
“My Catholic faith imbued me with a sense of duty,” he mused. “I’ve been given an artistic gift and it’s important for me to exercise it for the good.”
Smat wants the films he works on to have integrity.
“And that’s not always what sells in this industry.”