Rob Smat has always been fascinated by film.
Growing up, he would record on “toy-looking” cameras that hooked up to the VCR and the TV and would record straight to VHS tapes. Over a decade or so he moved up to handheld camcorders, eventually with audio and editing capabilities. After he reached high school at Fort Worth’s All Saints’ Episcopal School he founded the school’s film club and took its inaugural film class.
Now 23, Smat has learned that a hobby can become a career.
Though he moved west to attend the University of Southern California’s cinema studies program and has been living there since — adding 100 to 200 short movies, commercials, PR projects, etc. to his resume — Smat was back at home in Fort Worth recently to film and direct his first major motion picture, The Last Whistle.
The Last Whistle is a movie about, among other things, a small town, a high school football team, a preventable disease and tragedy. It’s cast includes former BCS Championship NCAA Coach Les Miles; Parks and Recreation’s Jim O'Heir; two-time Emmy award winner Eric Nelsen; star of Code Black Tyler Perez; two-time Emmy award winner Sainty Nelsen; and frequent Buzzfeed star Chelly.
The film follows the story of the fictitious high school Spartans football player Benny Robinson, played by Fred Tolliver (known for the She’s Gotta Have It TV series), who collapses on the field after unrelenting exercise drills and dies due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a rare heart condition that Smat notes is a common killer of young athletes in the United States.
The small town is distraught after the player’s tragic death and the player’s mother takes the football coach to court.
Brad Leland (who starred in both the Friday Night Lights movie and TV series) plays coach Victor Trenton and Robinson’s mother, Theresa, is played by Deanne Lauvin (think: Garden of Lies 2017 short film).
The idea for the film goes back to Smat’s six years as an All Saints’ football player in middle and high school.
“There was a news story almost every month about a fellow player in our area collapsing during a practice or game. It was a serious issue that struck at my core. When could this happen to me or someone I knew? And could these tragedies be prevented?”
These questions are answered throughout The Last Whistle.
“It was like okay, I'd like to base my movie ideas in real things. Let’s put this on an event that everyone has heard of or maybe experienced and then let’s ask what happened next and really examine all of the characters involved and bring in this world of high school football that everyone knows so well.”
Smat decided to embark on the journey to make a movie when he was applying to be on a TV/reality show contest called Rebel Without A Crew, based on a book about Austin-based indie filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who started out with just a camera and very low budget and made a movie using the resources available. Rodriguez put together the reality show so others could experience making a movie just like he did.
Smat pitched his idea to the show but was ultimately not chosen. So he decided to do the film on his own.
“I still had the idea, still had a very low budget, and Fort Worth was just a place where I had the most resources, the most support,” Smat explained. “Even though I had been going to school in LA for three or four years at that point, it was the thing where I said okay, ‘I've got all my people in LA, and I've got my resources in Fort Worth, and if I can bring the people to the resources I think we can make something happen.’ ”
Once he knew he was coming back to Fort Worth, he had to take stock of his resources, particularly filming locations.
Smat filmed at Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove restaurant in the Stockyards, the homes of his All Saints’ classmates and their families, at his high school alma mater itself, and other locations.
“All Saints’ has ... this mission of the artist, athlete, scholar. They really try to develop you not only as a student, but also as an athlete and an artist. So that was great for me. I was taking all the APs [Advanced Placement classes], doing all the necessary scholastic things, but I was also playing football, and on top of that I was in the film club. So it was a perfect place to go back and film the movie later on.”
Smat says he and his crew were told it was impossible to make a football movie for less than $5 million, that it had never been done and couldn’t be done. But, not only did they do it, they did it for under $500,000. A lot of the reason was because of how they used their resources, he said.
He reached out to Coach Aaron Beck about using the All Saints’ football stadium, teachers’ offices and other campus locations. He reached out to old friends from high school for houses to film in. Tim Love had a record of support for short football films that Smat had made of the All Saints’ teams and offered his restaurant as a location.
“It was just figuring out what we needed, keeping the list short as possible and filling in the blanks after that,” Smat said. “The reason we were able to keep [our budget] so low was because of all of the help that we got from Fort Worth. Everyone from the film commission to All Saints’, to the Lonesome Dove, to our locations, to family and friends of mine, to my old teachers — everybody that came out saved us a little budget here, a little budget there and it really, really added up and made it possible for us to make the project for as little as we did.”
Smat and his crew of 15-20 people, including at least 10 local team members, filmed for 13 days. The average film time for an independent sports film is about 25 days, he said, contrasting that to the studio level where filming can take up to 60-80 days.
“It was kinda funny, starting this journey we had a lot of people come to us and say how are you gonna do this? This is impossible. Almost to the point where they’re kinda' like, ‘You're idiots for trying this,’” he said. “[But] we really did do everything that we were supposed to do and we made it work in 13 days.”
When making an independent film, Smat said, the number of filming days directly correlates with the budget, so the shorter the shoot the less it costs.
The movie is now in the editing phase and Smat expects to have it completed in the fall for an October release — in theaters, on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Video. That would put the timeline for The Last Whistle at 14 months from when Smat began writing to when viewers could watch.
“With this film I hope people are able to just see a movie that isn't getting made right now. A movie that's about taking care of medical conditions, a movie about being a father, being a mother, and learning the value of redemption and doing things in a way that helps people instead of hurting them,” Smat said.
“My goal is to keep making these very high-concept, low-budget movies that really have a message to them,” he continued. “And I hope that people respond to that.”
The Fort Worth Business Press asked Smat a few questions about how the film industry impacts the local community, specifically as it concerns The Last Whistle.
Have you filmed in a lot of other cities, and how would you compare filming there to filming back home in Fort Worth?
I've filmed all over Southern California for the most part ... and what really drives me crazy is here in LA and the surrounding areas people are so used to the idea of production and movies and commercials that they're really disenchanted with the whole idea. … So it's really nice to film in place like Fort Worth, where it's not a common thing and where people share in that excitement that I still have about movie-making and those things. And then beyond that, a lot of people say how can we help? And that is just crucial because if you don't have that supportive environment you’re just going to spend all your time paying people … and getting so bogged down in paperwork and procedure that you lose sight of the project in the end. That's why I really love filming in Fort Worth.
How does your budget and filming impact the community where you shoot?
What a movie brings to a community is an equivalent to a Fortune 500 company. You're essentially bringing a community anywhere from 15 to 30 to 50 employees for the period that you’re producing there. So it's equivalent to gaining a new large business for that amount of time. And so it does filter in — we were spending money on hotels, Airbnbs, food and locations when we had to. Even things like gas, vehicles and equipment, and of course the personnel, too.
When it comes to filmmaking, when it comes to a city that's trying to get a filmmaking program on its feet, you need crew in the area, and you can only become a professional crew member when there's consistent work. The goal is to give a pool of crew that work, to be able to get on their feet, to succeed. I think that's the biggest benefit. If we were able to keep bringing productions, if I'm able to keep bringing productions to Fort Worth, everyone from the director of photography to hair and make-up will be able to make a career off of that, and that's the goal, to allow people to do what they are most passionate about.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about how the film industry can impact our local community?
The film industry is an interesting creature, and there can be a lot of things that if they're not done right can be difficult, can be frustrating. But if it just functions like it’s supposed to … it brings something to a community that most communities don't get a lot of. It’s this funding for artists, for independent artists, for things that can really bring a community together around something. It's excitement for a community. If people see a city in a movie, it does wonders for things like real estate and this idea that “I love this world, I want to go live in that world.”
On top of that, it can bring awareness to certain communities. Same Kind Of Different As Me came out last year and it's a movie about Fort Worth, it's a movie about homelessness. It's the kind of thing a city council could take to taxpayers, to other cities and say, “Hey here's an example of us and what we’re doing and here's what we think we can do with this.” It makes for a good jumping-off point for important discussions like that and gives it more legitimacy. Whether it's money, real estate or awareness, having movies in your city can really be a big thing.
Would you encourage other filmmakers to shoot in Fort Worth or Tarrant County?
I would absolutely encourage other filmmakers to shoot in Fort Worth or Tarrant County. What I love about Fort Worth is that it's very aware of its past, and I think that's something that other cities are always trying to get away from. Other cities are always trying to build the biggest, newest thing and make sure they look modern and new. But I think Fort Worth does a really good job of, while they do bring in new developments [and] new shiny things, they don't let go of the past. So Fort Worth has this timeless look to it that you can't get in most other places. In Fort Worth you can really shoot something where you've got both this very new bells and whistles look, [and] at the same time there's horse-drawn carriages coming down the street. And I love that about Fort Worth, especially when it comes to dramas, sports movies and thrillers; it's a really vibrant look to shoot a motion picture. That's something that you really can't get elsewhere. On top of that, the people are so nice and the community is so open to new projects that you're almost doing yourself a disservice to not shoot in Fort Worth or Tarrant County.