JN
John N. Smith

John N. Smith

After earning his undergraduate degree in political philosophy, the Montreal native joined the CBC as a researcher in 1968, soon working his way up to become the producer of a public affairs program "The Way It Is" the following year. Leaving CBC, Smith began producing independent TV series including the Emmy-winning public affairs program, "The 51st State," for NYC's public TV station. He joined the National Film Board of Canada as a staff director in 1972, where he became known for his work in "alternative drama" which DAILY VARIETY described as "seemingly derived from the school of dramatized documentary popular in Hungary [in which the filmmakers] take non-professional actors and have them play roles very close to their own experiences." Improvisation and documentary techniques also characterized this style. Often producing, scripting and editing the films he directed, Smith's Canadian output included the dance documentary "Gala" (1982), which showcased performances by seven leading dance companies, both modern and classical; the docudrama "The Masculine Mystique" (1984), which applied some of the stylistic conventions of women's movement agitprop to the then nascent men's movement (e.g., individual oral histories, group consciousness-raising and role-playing); the drama "Sitting in Limbo" (1986), about immature Black English-speaking teens coping with the new realities of encroaching adulthood in primarily French-speaking Montreal; and the crime docudrama "Train of Dreams" (1987), which told the disheartening story of a young repeat offender. Smith's first Hollywood assignment was directing the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer production, "Dangerous Minds" (1995). Based on Louanne Johnson's nonfiction account, "My Posse Don't Do Homework," the film told the story of a white, female former Marine (Michelle Pfeiffer) teaching high school English to largely minority students in an inner-city high school. Though the subject matter seemed well-attuned to Smith's interests and previous work, he had little part in the screenplay. So, while the film offered strong performances from a predominantly inexperienced cast, it lacked the subtlety and sophistication of "The Boys of St. Vincent." Behavioral pathologies were not contextualized within the larger social fabric, situations were simplified and the project took on the air of a "tough" liberal fairy tale. Nonetheless, due to canny marketing, a hit theme song and the glamorous Pfeiffer, "Dangerous Minds" was a surprising success that established its director in Hollywood. Smith subsequently helmed the made-for-cable movie "Sugartime" (HBO, 1995), which purportedly told the story of the romance of Mafia don Sam Giancana and nightclub singer Phyllis Maguire. While the film featured strong performances and boasted atmospheric sets, costumes and cinematography, it was derided by Maguire as pure fiction and met with a mixed critical reception.
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