Sam Smith wasn't looking for another career two years ago when he started designing movie posters to accompany films at The Belcourt. A drummer and staple of the local rock scene since the mid-'90s — when his teenage band Lifeboy was signed during study hall at USN by Sire Records majordomo Seymour Stein — he's had a gig now for years in Ben Folds' rhythm section, and his club-filling cover group My So-Called Band has staked out the '90s as surely as Guilty Pleasures owns the '80s.
But in 2009, when The Belcourt screened an obscure 1977 Japanese horror movie called House, Smith created a poster that summed up the film's feverish content: a shrieking demon cat erupting like a mushroom cloud of orange hellfire, with the title snaking upwards in psychedelic script. To the astonishment of the movie's distributor, arthouse titan Janus Films, the screenings drew enormous audiences — and Smith's poster caught the eye not just of Janus, but of the movie's director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, who autographed one copy for the artist (but kept others for himself).
Emboldened by the Nashville screenings, Janus put the movie on the midnight circuit with Smith's design as the official poster. Cult-movie connoisseurs hailed the film as an instant classic, and Smith found his second calling as a movie poster and DVD cover artist whose work has graced some of the most critically acclaimed releases of the past year. For leading indie distributor IFC, Smith, who occasionally writes film reviews for the Scene, did the '70s-influenced poster for Olivier Assayas' epic terrorist saga Carlos, evoking the era with a quotation-marked title font inspired by the vintage Serpico one-sheet. He also did the reissue poster for the landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah, which had to pass muster with the film's notoriously exacting director, Claude Lanzmann.
But his most coveted gig may be designing covers for the Criterion Collection, the DVD/Blu-Ray imprint that's regarded with devotional fervor by cinephiles. He did the House DVD release, followed by the plum assignment of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Most recently, he designed the cover for Jonathan Demme's 1986 cult favorite Something Wild, a movie whose neck-snapping tone shifts made it a particular challenge to capture in a single image. But Criterion art director Sarah Habibi says that's where Smith excels.
"For Something Wild, we knew we wanted something new made from an object from the film," Habibi says. "So for a film that starts as a romantic comedy and then suddenly veers to the violent, Sam started with an '80s sensibility and intersected it with the graphics of an old crime thriller novel." The result — which plays on the slyly suggestive juxtaposition of a heart and silhouetted handcuffs — avoids the obvious while making the DVD package attractive as an art/fetish object in itself.
Currently, his influences run more toward Cuban and Polish film posters of the 1960s and '70s and the lovingly hand-painted films of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Meanwhile, as limited-edition print runs of commemorative movie posters have become collectibles in cities such as Austin, Smith has seen his own posters turn into prized possessions — which he says has as much to do with location as anything.
"Nashville is an awesome print town," he says, citing Boss Construction's Andy Vastagh and Isle of Printing's Bryce McCloud among his favorites. And for anyone inspired by his example, don't wait for assignments to start working on that dream project you've always harbored. "There's no reason people can't do whatever they want to do," Smith says.