“TINY” co-directors Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller
Merete Mueller, co-director of the documentary “TINY: A Story About Living Small,” talked to The Film yap about making the film and her personal journey. For Indy Film Fest showtimes, click here.
The Film Yap: What first drew you to the concept of tiny homes?
Merete: Christopher and I had both heard about tiny houses many years ago, way before we even knew each other or had any inkling that we might one day build one. I have a background in sustainability and environmental writing, and I’ve always been interested in architecture and design, but, to be honest, the size of homes wasn’t an issue that occupied too much space in my brain. What drew me to the topic was Christopher’s personal story.
He was approaching his 30th birthday when he impulsively decided to buy a plot of land in the mountains and make a lifelong dream of building his own cabin a reality. Watching Christopher ask questions about home and place, and seeing how building the house was so tied to his process of growing up and finding out what was most important to him, made me realize how necessary having a sense of home is to all of us.
What is “home” anyway? It’s this magical word that we all seem to know and want, but it’s very hard to define what exactly makes a place feel like home. Tiny houses are perfect case studies to explore this because everything in them in condensed to the most basic essentials.
Once Chris decided to build one, when did the idea enter to also make a film about the process?
Merete: I have a background in writing and Christopher has a background in film. He was finishing up grad school at the time and, in the midst of planning the tiny house project, he was also thinking about starting a film project and looking for ideas. I was watching the whole thing unfold and suggested the process of building the tiny house would make a great story for a film. He asked me if I would be involved, and so we embarked on the project together.
At first, we really thought we were just making a short video about building a house from scratch. We thought maybe we would post it on YouTube or enter it into a few film festivals. It wasn’t until we began learning more about the tiny house movement and the issues and the community surrounding tiny houses that we realized the story was much bigger. And so the film grew from there, and eventually became a feature-length documentary.
Christopher, I have to ask: Did you REALLY think you were going to finish in 3 to 4 months? Do you think the documentary would’ve been less interesting if it had actually been that easy?
Christopher: Believe it or not, I really did think that I could get it done that quickly. When I looked into other people’s tiny house builds, I kept thinking to myself that I would go quickly and it can’t be that hard. But it turns out that building a tiny house is just like building a big house but just a little bit smaller. You still have to include all the same systems and features of a big house.
In terms of the film, it certainly did make a more interesting film that it was much harder than I anticipated. But when we filmed those earlier interviews, we had no idea we were even going to make a feature film out of it, so we didn’t have some master story arc in mind. Luckily, Merete had the foresight to ask that question knowing that I have a tendency to underestimate everything.
Merete: Haha … I remember when he first started building, Christopher kept saying that he would be finished within a few months and I was thinking, “Yeah, right!” So when I asked him that question, I sort of knew that the building would probably take much longer than he expected and that would be a big part of the drama of the story. Of course, I had no idea exactly how long it would take!
The longer it dragged on, the less I was thinking about how it would make a good narrative for the film and the more I just wanted it to be done already. That said, looking back on it, despite our crazy schedule, the act of working on the house together was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done, so I suppose the lesson I learned is that sometimes you have to drop the schedule and just enjoy the process.
Your interviews with tiny home owners were so varied, with a mix of young and old, singles and married people, offering all sorts of different perspectives. What do you think is the unifying thread between them all that makes them want to pursue this lifestyle?
Merete: I think quality of life and the idea of “quality over quantity” is one thing that everyone we interviewed has in common. All of our characters arrived at tiny houses in very different ways. Some wanted to lessen their environmental impact, others were trying to get out of debt or just wanting to spend more time with friends and family rather than on working and upkeep on their bigger homes. But the message that we heard from everyone, over and over again, is that not having as much stuff freed them up to focus on the things that really matter to them in life. We learned that “the good life” is much more about the experiences and the relationships that people have rather than the material things they own.
This documentary is as much about the two of you as about building a small house. How did you get over the idea of essentially interviewing each other in addition to tiny home dwellers? Was there any hesitancy about exploring your lives and relationship on film?
Merete: We knew from the beginning that the personal story of building the house would make an interesting film. So often in documentary filmmaking, filmmakers want to capture an issue or a problem but don’t always have a compelling story to keep the viewer invested. We were lucky in that we had a full story arc figured out from the beginning — the beginning, middle and end of this process of building the house.
That said, even though we had a clear idea of what our story would be from the very beginning, we were still surprised by it as events unfolded. When the project started out, building the tiny house was mostly Christopher’s project. Even I thought that the film would be focused mostly on him and his process of finding home. But as things started to take longer than expected, and I began to step in more and more to help finish the house, our relationship became more a part of the story.
The first cut of the film that we edited was a short, 40-minute version, and it didn’t include anything about my decision to move to New York City. Initially, we thought it would be too complicated to dive into all of that, but we eventually realized that the complexity and relationship tension made our story more interesting, and that my own questions about where I belong and where my home is added to the depth of the questions that we were asking in the film.
We wrote and edited the film ourselves and it was definitely a challenging process — to find the perspective to tell our own story, even while we were still in the middle of it. By the end of it, we were referring to ourselves as “Character A” and “Character B”; I’d say, “We need to develop Character B!” instead of “I need to be on camera more!” It was sort of funny, but it helped us to put the story first and to keep in mind how to develop our characters and tell our story in a way that made a better film rather than taking things personally.
I thought the cinematography and music added so much to “TINY.” Talk about working with your team to achieve the beautiful look and sound of your movie.
Merete: “TINY” was a true DIY effort, and Christopher and I did a lot of the work on the film ourselves, but we were incredibly lucky to have a few very talented friends working with us. Timothy Cleary wrote the score for the film (and also performed much of the soundtrack himself). Tim and Christopher have been friends since they were teenagers — they actually used to be in a band together — so it was fun for them to collaborate again. Elliot Thompson did our sound design, which was a huge help because Christopher and I had recorded all of the on-location sound ourselves with pretty basic equipment.
And although Christopher actually did a lot of the cinematography himself (in the early days, he would set up the camera on a tripod and just let it roll as he was building), Kevin Hoth also contributed some incredible cinematography. Kevin is a still photographer by trade and his eye really captured the texture of the landscape and the light in Colorado, and the interesting shapes of objects at the building site.
So how has the tiny home existence been since you made the film? (If you’ve since bought a 5,000-square-foot McMansion and the tiny home is parked out back being used as a shed, I’ll be VERY disappointed!!)
Merete: For my part, I feel like the tiny house has affected my life in ways that I never expected. Watching Christopher work through questions about home and place forced me to ask myself where I really wanted to be. And helping him to achieve one of his lifelong dreams encouraged me to to pursue one of my own: to move to New York City (where my living space is still pretty small…). Having the tiny house helped me to take the leap because I knew that if all else failed, I would always have a place to come back to.
I’m still figuring out exactly where I want to be, but the process of building the house had a huge impact on me and has made me feel more connected to the landscape of Colorado than I ever had been before. I’ve always been a minimalist — I’ve moved and traveled a lot, so I haven’t had too much of a chance to accumulate things — but now I think about the amount of space and stuff I’m consuming in a completely different way.
Christopher: We recently moved the tiny house from where it was located up in the mountains back to Boulder. With all the traveling we have been doing promoting the film, it seemed like a good idea to have the tiny house closer to a town where we could use it more. I am currently living in it full-time and I can say that it is every bit as amazing as it seems like it would be in the film and I am in no rush to move out of it!
Like Merete, it is still forcing me to ask really good questions about my values and what is important in a home and in life. No McMansion has ever done that for me in the same way, so I am incredibly grateful for the learning experience that building and living in the tiny house has been.