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Michel Comte, Carter Smith: Fashion's New Auteurs

Comte and Smith brought new projects to the Sundance Film Festival that will surprise those who know them just from the pages of fashion magazines.

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Carter Smith

Photo By Katie Jones

Michel Comte

Photo By Ayako/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A scene from "The Girl from Nagasaki."

Photo By Courtesy Photo

Michel Comte and Carter Smith are known for their fashion photography. But they’re now venturing into film, and they brought new projects to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, that will surprise those who know them just from the pages of glossy magazines.

Smith, eight years after winning the top prize at Sundance for his short film debut “Bugcrush,” returns with “Jamie Marks Is Dead,” a moody drama about three lonely teens that was selected for the festival’s competition slate. Comte, on the other hand, created “The Girl From Nagasaki,” a 3-D “trans-opera” using Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” as the basis for a nonlinear fusion of modern dance, performance art and theater.

“The last thing we expected was to be at Sundance, because it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up here. But it’s great because we’re alongside films by Marina Abramovic and Doug Aitken,” Comte says.

Inspired by a 2009 performance by ballerina Polina Semionova, Comte originally intended to work with her in a contemporary version of “Butterfly” as a live art installation for Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills. But he thought that after pouring $2 million into the production, it should instead become a film. He convened a diverse group for his cast — Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, legendary producer Robert Evans and superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa, while Mariko Wordell plays the title role and Semionova appears as her dance alter ego.

Shot in Japan, Germany, Italy and Los Angeles, the entire production took two-and-a-half years from conception to wrap. “I think it will spawn many versions,” says Comte, who plans to mount an exhibit of the costumes, which combine traditional Japanese silhouettes with nontraditional materials and touches of bondage. He still plans to make a live performance version as well.

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Comte, who in addition to his fashion photography has gone on assignment for the International Red Cross and his own Michel Comte Water Foundation, plans to continue with his documentary work. In December, he’ll start a documentary on the rule of the Khmer Rouge called “G for Genocide,” which will follow four survivors of a prison where more than 18,000 were executed.

Smith was hired by DreamWorks after “Bugcrush” to direct a horror film, “The Ruins,” and he sought out a more personal subject for his follow-up. “My first feature, instead of being an indie project, was a big studio movie with a script that already existed. Steven Spielberg, Stacey Snider and Ben Stiller were my producers. But I did end up wondering what the flip side would be like,” he says.

While checking out books at a store recently, he came across the 2007 Christopher Barzak novel “One for Sorrow.” “I fell in love with the characters. It haunted me,” Smith says. “My ability to enjoy books and short stories is sort of shaded because I’m always thinking about what it might look like on screen. That’s a curse and a blessing, but when it works out, it works out great,” he says.

He cast teen actors Cameron Monaghan, Morgan Saylor and Noah Silver as the leads, and Liv Tyler and Judy Greer in the supporting adult roles for what turned out to be a 21-day shoot in upstate New York on a shoestring budget.

Though the film’s title involves a ghost, played by Silver, Smith says, “For me, it was really telling a story about loneliness. Jamie is a kid that didn’t have the relationships in life that most of us are lucky enough to have, and that’s part of the reason he doesn’t want to leave. It’s also about these kids who don’t really know where they fit in the world, which I think is pretty realistic.”

Smith first pursued fashion photography because it was a more accessible way to tell stories than film was at the time.

While he says there are parallels in the two pursuits, their driving forces are quite different. “In photography, whether it’s clothes or perfume or a celebrity looking gorgeous on a cover, you are definitely selling something, and it’s a very different thing than telling a story you are trying to involve an audience with emotionally,” he says.

He intends to continue with his feet dipped in both worlds.

“The fashion people who are close to me know about all this. But others are like, ‘Oh, you made a movie?’ And people in the film world are like, ‘You’re a photographer?’ It’s this weird limbo,” he says.

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