Note: Please be aware this transcript is generated by AI, there will be small inconsistencies with the published podcast. Direct quotes are not attributable to the host or guest.
Hello and Welcome to Red Carpet rookies. My name is Mike battle, a film crew member turned screenwriter working in London. Each episode I bring you life lessons and stories from the people behind your favourite movies and shows to help demystify the business for aspiring filmmakers and fans alike. Thanks for joining me. Let's get started. Today's guest is something new for the show, our first film critic, beginning her career in the world of music magazine editing, she soon transitioned to freelance writing on her favourite topic movies. In the years since she's graced every publication and TV channel you can imagine from the likes of Deadline Hollywood, sight and sound, the BBC Sky News and many more. In addition to her day job, she's also co founder and host of the chart topping interview podcast goes on film, and former president of the UK Critics Circle. My guest is Anna Smith, how're you doing today?
I'm doing great. How are you doing?
I'm very good. Thank you for being here. It's very exciting. Now. And I asked all of my guests the same first question, actually. And that is what did your parents do? And did it affect your career choices moving forward?
Anna 2 1:13
Interesting. So my father was a captain in the Navy. And then when he retired, he came became chair of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. My mother was a talented artist. And she went to art college and did dress design. But then she chose to mostly not work and follow my father round it. So you know, so she could look after myself and my sister because we moved around with him being in the Navy. But she was also a librarian when she got the chance. And incredibly well read incredibly, she's no longer with us suddenly. But she was very sharp and very funny and very informed. And I like to think she did influence me in terms of her personality. My father, I think, was very ambitious, you know, he grew up in a council house, went to grammar school, and managed to, you know, work his way up in the Navy as an officer. So I think between them, but yes, I've inherited things from the both and the work ethic I inherited from my father, for sure.
I love that. And we'll get into that work ethic later on. I'm sure I've got a little few notes on that. But I imagine you moved around quite a lot, maybe with your father in that job. Is that correct? That's right.
We were in the United States several times. And I was a child for a year or two at a time. So I grew up going in between Devon, Scotland and the states and then settled down from the age of eight to 18 in Exeter in Devon. So I had quite a moveable childhood, which I think makes you flexible in some ways, and insecure and others because you're always the new kid. Yeah. So there's that to contend with.
Amazing. Devin, I imagine probably felt relatively far away from the centre of the movie industry. Did it feel like your goal was really realistic back then, if you did, indeed have the goal of working around the film industry back then.
My goal was always to be a journalist, which I am, I am a journalist that happens to comment on movies and write about the movies. But I was certainly fascinated by movies growing up in Devon. And I think like some of your previous guests that I've heard, I wasn't encouraged to watch films very much, or TV. And there's an interesting thread. I've been to dinners with film industry, people. And they've all discovered the same thing going oh my gosh, with the glamorous, exciting thing for them. And not obviously, it's not the case for everybody. But a number of people I've encountered have said the same thing. That because it was either extremely rare treat to go to the cinema, or perhaps considered, you know, not really something that you're meant to do very often and perhaps not a very worthwhile pursuit. It became this sort of glamorous, forbidden fruit. Certainly, watching TV was like that it was, you know, a Antiques Roadshow only with the family, you know, so I used to sort of quietly watch, you know, black and white movies when I got a chance on a Sunday afternoon, you know, secretly, yeah, so I think, yeah, it might, it did, movies felt like a very long way from what I was doing. I don't think I ever really even would have imagined that I would be, you know, hanging out with film stars. When as an adult, it's amazing to think that that's that's the case, you know?
Absolutely. I mean, most people don't hang out with film stars. It's a pretty cool job.
It is a very cool job.
So you studied English at university, which I guess is a kind of classic choice for many aspiring journalists. Do you think that specialisation helped or people can study any discipline at that point in their education really, and maybe do a journalism course after what do you think English specifically helped you in that regard? Well, I
did go on to do postgraduate journalism course which was helpful, but I do think English definitely helps. I mean, it's chicken and egg. Obviously, if you are interested in writing an interesting analysis, it's probably what you're going to pick. But it's also going to help you if you've got good professors, which I did have, I'm going to help you hone your skills of analysis and criticism. I did English Literature and Language at Leeds University. And one of my options was gender and popular culture which I leaped upon with great fascination. And I think that's definitely influenced my career in terms of starting the podcast girls on film, in terms of getting seriously analytical and feminist about films that laid a lot of groundwork definitely. But just the general, you know, analysis of a text can be quite easily applied to film my, you know, I didn't do film studies, but I think analysing literature has basically similar principles.
Did you start your studies at all towards film in what you chose? Maybe some of your essays I did that with my history degree.
Oh, lucky you. i We weren't really given the option very much, I would have given a half a chance. But yeah, engender in popular culture. We did. Talk about Thelma and Louise and basic instincts. So that was really interesting. And I also started writing for Leeds student, which is what the student newspaper was then called. And I think my first they asked me to write something as a test. And I did a review of basic instinct. So the the thought was there, I think Ben and I definitely was, it was Hands up for the kind of entertainment arts coverage rather than the serious news. That's always been my thing.
So if you've got that basis from studying English, you've got the analytic skills. What is it exactly? The journalism masters builds on? Because everyone I know, there's a journalist, which isn't many, to be fair, does seem to have done this specific kind of few courses, and clearly really builds on people's careers. So what are your memories of it? And maybe the sort of the overarching lessons that you take? Maybe it's just a connecting people in the same way film school does, it's more of a networking thing?
It's both, I think, I mean, I did a very good one, one of the top ones in the UK, which was postgraduate journalism studies that University of Wales College of Cardiff. And yes, I met some people that would be instrumental in giving me job and me giving them jobs, you know, you it's a hammer afraid that is the nepotism in a way. But also, it was such a good course that you knew if someone had done that course, that they could be relied upon. 100%. So incredible. I mean, it was very old school, it was sort of pre internet. So I mean, I learned stuff that I would never use, you know, cutting and pasting words and text at the end is not my favourite part at all. You know, what obviously, it was then became unnecessary. But some brilliantly old school journalistic things were drummed into me such as whatever is going on in your life, do not miss a deadline, just be 100%, reliable. Don't put too much of your own thumbprint on a news article. I mean, obviously, if film criticism that's somewhat different, but you know, this desire that people have to share their own opinions, and how to construct a really brilliant feature, or article and get all the necessary information into the first couple of lines while grabbing people and interesting, your readers. All that was was really fantastic to learn.
Awesome. You mentioned the internet there. And this is something I'm quite intrigued by, in the world of film criticism, particularly, which we'll talk about, but that's the very traditional path. And these days, there obviously, are sort of other options, maybe opening here and there. Could you speak to sort of posting your own work online utilising social media? Because it can also be hard to make a name as a professional journalist in that regard? I've heard you in other interviews say, What's the difference between a professional film critic and blogger, it can be difficult, but could you speak a little bit to that, and also people breaking in via that?
Yeah, I think if you're really talented and good, and you, you can be self taught, and you can go a long way you can go the whole way. Determination and skill is half the battle, I do think it helps to have had that training ground. But increasingly, opportunities are there online. I think social media is a fantastic tool when used well, and a lot of lot of people are only consuming film reviews on YouTube now. So if you're confident on YouTube, that's a great way to make a name for yourself. As you've established, I can be a bit cautious about some kind of bloggers and vloggers. Because certainly in the Critic Circle, it was our goal to make sure that the reputation of the industry is upheld in that when people hear or listen to or you know, or watch or read our film reviews that they know they're getting an objective opinion and I think one of the problems that's emerged with YouTubers, not all by any means there's some great ones out there but with some is that they might be a little bit in the pockets of the studios or you know, getting freebies and or saying nice things about films in order to get access to talent. And I think that that can be a really slippery slope. Like on my podcasts. We do work. We do have partnered episodes with film studios, but it's always our opinion and we don't change our opinion based on whether or not they have helped us to fund the episode. And we only work with films that We love. Right. But that isn't always the case, I think and I think the important thing is, is that the reader now has the confidence that you're telling your opinion. And in your truth, I think because there's so much out there can be now hard for people to find the ones that have that quality. So that that is a danger. But going into it, I think there are so many ways to find your audience now. And it might be through, you know, five word reviews on Twitter, it might be through Instagram, it might be on Tik Tok. There are so many ways, and that's the exciting thing. The film criticism is broadening out brilliantly. And if you love talking about films, there are lots of ways to share your view. But I do think also, it's good to keep sight of they're quite old fashioned principles that I was taught because they can be applied anywhere.
And I guess also to your point as well, there's an element where film critics that you'd hear in something like the BBC, you know, they've done the quote, unquote, hard miles in the sense that the opinion they're giving is based on the hundreds of films they've seen, whereas maybe some of the bloggers out there who blog about Marvel, like Marvel, and then they're blogging from that perspective, rather than someone that seen all of carousels work blah, blah, blah, etc.
Yeah, I mean, I'm not necessarily believe that you have to have seen the whole of an established film Canon to, to be able to comment about films, but I've certainly look at my early reviews, and look at my reviews now. And of course, now I've watched many, many 1000s more films now. My reviews are better, they are more informed. And they you know, because it is a full time job keeping on top of all different genres. Now, I love those people on YouTube who know about Marvel more than I do. I watched their videos, so I can, you know, cribbed some information off them. So that's brilliant. If you've got a specialism and that's the one thing you do, that's great. But if you want to be an all rounder film critic, yeah, you do, you do need to try to watch everything, or most things that come out so that you've got an informed position to come from the spoke
of your truth back there in the previous answer. And that relates to taste, I guess, as a film critic, and something I'm interested by I have with my own life as a screenwriter is trusting my own taste. And it's a difficult question to ask, but I will ask it, how does one learn to trust their taste? You know, you're writing in things that 1000s of people read that this is what I believe? And that's quite scary in a way, how does a film critic like yourself journalists come to that?
That's a really interesting question. I think it sort of ties into the idea of unconscious bias in a way. And I think, the more you can be aware of your own biases, some of which might be positive, not negative in this instance, that we're talking about, or your preferences, let's say your enthusiasms the better, because again, when I look at some of my early reviews, and I think I was probably skewed to positive for a general market in things that I just really resonated with me personally. Now, it's obviously important to be honest to what you love, but you can't let that fog your critical faculties. And that is that is I think, a real key. And then that is a real challenge for film critics is to go, you know, both in the positive and negative directions, they're strong feelings about a certain topic. And that might be being tackled on screen, or that might even trigger them. And it's important to recognise that, and try to look beyond that because you are writing your opinion. But you're also trying to give the reader or the viewer a sense of whether or not they would enjoy the film in general. I mean, there are some publications that just want your opinion, or they just want an essay. But usually it's whether people want to spend their hard earned cash on a cinema ticket or a download or whatever. So I think it's tried, it's important to try to think of them as well. And that's why it's important to talk to as many people possible about films. But you know, on the same by the same note, Don't be swayed, if you want to be a film critic, by others people's opinion, if you're absolutely convinced something's a masterpiece, say so. Because you might find that, in your view, everyone else is wrong. And that's your view.
Yeah. And to segue back to your career path, as you obviously did a bit of music, magazine editing, and you worked your way up through that way. And then I'm gonna skip on a little bit to your freelancing days, which is what a lot of journalists out there are currently doing. And it's a hard thing to get going with. And I saw that you approach 10 editors a day. Speaking of that work ethic, from the beginning with your answer your parents, what would that look like? Today's in today's world for journalists? Sometimes I see on Twitter, not that I'm looking for myself, editors asking for pitches on Twitter, would it be that sort of thing? Obviously, you can apply the same work ethic? How would it look like for somebody in the current market?
Yeah, I think that's a great thing you brought up because if people are actively asking for pitches, that's a brilliant start. I think sometimes you're banging your head against a brick wall. If you are sending out the same idea to loads of different editors without really researching what they're after. You know, what, what they're about, you know whether this would be the right for them, and without tailoring your email specifically to the tone of voice of their publication. What I did because I was wanting to be a film critic was is a bit more simple because it's sort of like, I'm seeing all the movies that come out, do you have an opening for a film column? And you know, that was easier to tailor to a lot of different people? timewise? Yeah, I think the generally the same rules always apply is that you just got to do your research on the publication, make absolutely sure that you get the right tone, I even used to try to match the font of the publication in my email, just to kind of unconsciously kind of influence them and make you make them think that, you know, we're on the same page. So there's lots of ways of doing that. But you know what? Absolutely. One of the best things, again, is an old fashioned thing. And it's networking, it's talking to people, it's mingling, if people have met you, and they like you, that goes so much further, because I do now I'm established get commissions from editors who've never met me based on my reputation. But when you're coming up, you could be absolutely anyone, even if your writing is okay, they have no idea who you are. So yeah, talk to people, wherever you go.
Speaking of networking, is the Critics Circle, is that something that played a large part in that view? And is that something that people who are younger can get involved with? Or is it you have to be, you know, yourself or whoever.
There are various rules in place about having been in the industry two years and having, you know, getting most of your income from criticism, I would say those have been relaxed a little in the last few years. And to acknowledge the changes that we were just talking about, you know, because those rules were written in quite some time ago. And there is also a problem with diversity and film criticism. And I think it was rightly felt in the Critics Circle, that maybe some of our very old fashioned rules was keeping some people out, which was not helpful, not fair. So that's been relaxed a little bit. But but you do definitely need to be an established enough film critic to get in there. I would say, for me, it was a fantastic thing to do. Not just because I really enjoyed it. And I like bringing people together. And I like creating opportunities for debate and for socialising, and for support. So I really enjoyed my role, the credit cycle, but also, yeah, it was it was fantastic for my reputation. And for because as a freelancer, you're not associated with one title. So it's really hard for people to go, oh, that's Anna Smith, she's blah, blah, blah, you know, if they will go, oh, it's Anna Smith from the Arctic Circle, I had an identity I had somewhere. I had a reason to be. Yeah. And I had an authority, to be honest, which I hadn't had before. And I got to have meetings with everybody in the industry, and to go on TV and radio more to represent the circle. So and to get to know, everybody, like I know, a lot of film critics now. And it's, that's great. I love it.
It's interesting as well, because as speaking of connections, I was also going to ask, almost like what a day in the life is like, in the sense that I imagine, correct me if I'm wrong, you sit around on your own a lot. And being in something like that, yeah. Right. You are your own opinion, you are your own business.
Yes. I mean, in the pre COVID, the average day would have involved at least one film screening in central London, where luckily I live. So you get out of the house, you'd see people you might have a glass of wine with people before the screening, little chitchat, maybe go to the pub afterwards, you know, whatever. Now, people are moving out of London more watching more films on links, given half a chance, they'll often people will only come in for the big event movies, which you have to see on the big screen and which they will not supply link for. So while that is convenient, it is less social. So I think opportunities that you know, for events like the Critic Circle or things like the BAFTA is, you know, London Film Festival, are increasingly important for us all to say hi, and to sort of get to know each other in person. And because talking to young film critics coming up, I think they feel the lack of those events. So I've actually been getting involved with some of them and actually setting some more up just to make sure we can all support each other, and girls on film with the podcast, we also have increasing number of screenings and events for our contributors and our listeners. And that's a really nice way for people to meet as well.
Absolutely. And speaking of as a fellow podcaster, even, we must, of course, talk about girls on film. And one thing I'd like to specifically ask is, do you think it's affected your own career as a critic and a journalist, given that not every journalist critic has such a brilliant outlet that they've created themselves? Or, you know, you've got that? I don't know, quote, unquote, advantage, how has it affected your own career and getting out there?
It's been great. I mean, I think it really helps the podcast that I was very established when I launched it with my co founder header Archbold. But also, conversely, it helped my career definitely because I was coming to the stage where I was going to stand down from the credit circle, because I've been doing it for many years, although I'm still a member, of course. So like I was saying before about that thing, having an identity having something that you do something people associate with you. Now, it's girls on film, and the podcast is is going from strength to strength over 145 episodes now been nominated for awards had countless A listers and Oscar winners on our podcast like yourself. So it's exciting. And it's, you know, what it's really helped with as well is getting a big part of my work is actually hosting Q and A's on stage with talents. And that's something I love doing. And I think most film critics would tell you that that's not for everybody. There's some of us that do it really well. But some people aren't interested in getting on stage. You know, watching films can be, you know, it can attract introverts who just really don't want to get up on stage and talk, I'm sure I'm not that person. So the fact that I can do that, and I get better and better and better at doing it after doing it for hundreds of times, is good for my career. And girls on film is a good showcase for that, because we do live episodes and we go on stage. And you know, in in every way, it's good because I'm watching the films and talking about them, I'm getting to know the talent. So like everything in my job, you know, all the different strands feed into each other, I might watch something for a BBC TV film review show, which I end up then featuring on the podcast, or vice versa, you know, it's wherever you watch it, or whoever you watch it for. It's really helpful, like writing for deadlines been brilliant, because I've been able to see films really early at film festivals. So therefore by the time it comes out in the UK, I'm all over it. And then right that's one for girls on film.
Amazing. I'd also like to ask you've had, as you mentioned, lots of huge A listers on the show, Julian Anson, Emma Thompson, people like that, for the budding critics and journalists out there the people maybe doing their first junkets, how do you stay cool interviews like that, in
the beginning, I find it quite hard, especially the filmed ones, one of the first times I did the few films online, I think there was quite petrified. So it is, you know, it is nerve racking when you start but I will I can tell you as it gets, the more you do it, the easier it gets. And I now as relaxed as I am sitting down talking to you now, or chatting with a friend in the pub, you know, literally, it doesn't matter who they are, I am not nervous, even if I admire them, even if they're mean to me, which does happen sometimes. Not on girls on film, I should add, but when I did did a lot of aliases for Metro there are some there are some I'm not gonna say which gender for people that can you know, they've been doing it for a long time. And they just get a little bit touchy, with especially young women as I was when I was starting out. So unfortunately, you have to get quite silly with that. But also you learn way you learn ways of dealing with it. You learn ways of going in with a question that is a bit as you know yourself as a podcaster is a bit different to the norm. Or proves your intelligence that I learned as I went along that those are helpful things, but also just not being too formal and being relaxed and fun, like the best interviewees are and you know, they're all mostly media trained to go Oh, I love your nail varnish or what an interesting name that one I don't get, but you know, you do the same to them. Did you comment on their outfit? you comment on something you comment on the weather, you know, any? The the old icebreaker trick? That's, you know, that's fine. And always, as you know, to always listen and ask follow up questions rather than sticking to your script. And then you'll have a much better time and say, well, they
absolutely yeah, I guess you've got to the way I like to think of it is prep as much as you can and then relax in the moment I was right so many questions, then it's somewhat heartbreaking really, you know, cuz you only get asked about three hours about three. But it's so good.
Exactly why No, you know,
one thing I'd like to ask, which is slightly different topic is, what do you feel on the position? Obviously, speaking for yourself, I'm not asking you to speak for critics and on how the position of the critic stands in today's movie industry. We've touched on it a little bit, because there's a lot of sort of Twitter discourse online, isn't there about the the notion of a film critic or or indeed, Critics generally? Could you speak a little bit, man if that's okay.
It's something that's been, you know, since I joined the Critic Circle over a decade ago has been debated within our ranks as well as outside our ranks, then I've been on many panels, what is criticism? Is there any point and I'm very mindful that, you know, I come from a different generation to a lot of people that are now consuming film reviews, and they and they, their idea of a film critic might be that we are obsolete, but I do think there is personally a great value going back to what we've said a little bit before, but to people who know their stuff, and that can be relied upon. And I certainly found when I was hosting the BBC News Channel film review, in the absence of Mark Kermode, I had an amazing reaction from audiences then, you know, people would stop me at events and in cinemas and say Gosh, I really love having one place to go every Friday at 545 where I know I'm gonna get your informed opinion. I'm paraphrasing, but yeah, this kind of things but you're informed opinion about about the movies that are out that weekend so I can decide what I'm going to go and watch. I mean, it's simple thing, but you know, that's it probably is people Well, over 30, let's say, but there are a lot of them that really seek out that authoritative voice wherever they find it, whether it's in the newspaper or the TV or podcasts, you know,
thanks for that answer. Now, before we move on to our little quickfire to wrap it up, I've got one last question for you. And, and that is other than when you took rich to a press screening of the faculty, do you have any other career highlights that come to mind? Good Lord, have
you been at every talk that I've been at? Doing or like, that's amazing. I was so like, thrown by the beginning of that question. I didn't listen to the second half. So what was my highlights?
Other than when you took rich to a press screening of the faculty, I'll do my voiceover voice. Do you have any career highlights that come to mind?
I'll tell rich that he'll be really tickled highlights well, going on the sky Oscars so far with Alex saying, you know, pulling an all nighter two years in a row. And that was just great fun having my own dressing room. That's cool. And that was the year that the of the lala land moonlight mix up. So you don't forget that in a hurry and having to respond to that live on air. After, you know, a nine hour shift on the sofa that was interesting and fun and brilliant. And God, you know, interviewing people on stage like Julianne Moore, just such a thrill. You know, girls on film being nominated the British Podcast Awards, fantastic. And also, you know, opening the stage at the London Critics Circle Film Awards and introducing the likes of Petra Almodovar and him coming up to you afterwards. And you know, Tim Burton, you know, my heroes like to have, you know, worked with them and you know, stood shoulder to shoulder with them at an event and to receive compliments from them is is amazing. But also other career highlights. When I hear from listeners of girls on film that say they'd been inspired. There was one young young woman that got in touch saying she'd been on the podcast, she was like a student filmmaker. And she'd been on our cinematic magic special and just coming on and then listening to podcasts that inspired her and she is now working on the crown. And she never felt that she could really do it until she she listened to us. So that wow, what a feeling.
That's beautiful. Thank you. So yes, to finish up, and we're going to do my own little Ode to in the actor studio, if that's okay, it's just a quick fire. Is that okay with you? I'll get going when you're ready.
That is fine. I dish it out so I can take it. That's true.
Actually, I shouldn't feel so guilty. Sometimes I do. Number one is what is one of the best pieces of advice you've ever been given.
One that always stays true is be yourself. Just be yourself.
I agree with that. Number two, do you have a favourite film?
I have hundreds of favourite films, given that I watch them every year. Portrait of a Lady on fire is a recent one. But and then before that it would have been Secrets and Lies mightily, that as a child back to the future.
Have you seen the show?
Yes, I loved it. I didn't love the music. But I loved all the performances in between because it was so reminiscent of the film, they did an amazing job of impersonating the actors. It was so much fun.
Yeah, it was brilliant. And number three, what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day for a day film, critiquing
everything about my job. You know, sharing the love of film, spreading the word. And I can even do it in bed if I want to by watching a movie on a laptop. So on a lazy day, I don't even have to get out of bed. How good is that?
That is very good. Number four is which job in the industry would you do if you weren't doing yours?
I think I would make documentaries be involved in very Shuman, documentaries, following different characters around and trying to really get under their skin.
That's cool. Haven't heard that one before. Number five, if you could interview one person living or dead, who would it be? Sorry, that's hard.
I've thought about this one. Dolly Parton.
Oh, that's a good one.
Well, I've interviewed a lot of people that would have been my dream. And I find it a bit morbid thinking about interviewing a dead person. So Dolly, she's really hard to get ahold of. And she's fascinating and fun and a very particular kind of feminist icon. So yeah, Dolly Parton.
Interesting. And number six, what is a book ideally career related, but it doesn't have to be that everyone should read.
I'm gonna give you two. One is career or film industry related. It's called women versus Hollywood. The Fall and Rise of Women in Film by Helena horror, fascinating read looking into the Untold History of women in film. And a book my friend recently wrote, it's fiction, but it is also feminist and inspiring. It's called the memory of blood, by pony louder, highly recommended.
Thanks very much. look those up. And finally, if you want an Oscar, who would you think?
I would thank my husband, Ben. I would thank my agent header. And I would thank my cat Ozymandias because he's always there for me as a freelancer.
Amazing. Thank you so much. On that note, our time is close. Anna, thank you for joining me today for leading us through the veil of the world of film criticism.