Interview: Screwdriver writer/director Cairo Smith dishes on his debut thriller

Cairo Smith - Courtesy Buffalo 8
Cairo Smith - Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

Screwdriver is one of those rare little gems, a thriller that’s thought-provoking and unsettling, a conversation starter for after the credits roll. It’s a debut feature that at times feels like a stage production, a moody chamber piece that goes down a rabbit hole of paranoia and a few shocking moments. AnnaClare Hicks stars as Emily, a recent divorcee who moves from rural Nebraska back to California, where she’s taken in by the unsettling couple Robert (Charlie Farrell) and Melissa (Milly Sanders).

We chatted with writer/director Cairo Smith about his inspiration for the film, his theater background, and some of the film’s most harrowing, cult-like sequences.

1428 Elm: Can you tell us about the process of creating this film? Where did the idea originate?

Cairo Smith: The original sketch document basically revolved around two people who use an isolating domestic environment to absorb a third into their… thing. One thing we joked on set is, “What is the minimum number of people you need for a cult?” The rest sort of grew from that.

1428 Elm: In another interview, you mentioned that while writing this movie, you read a lot about total control institutions. Can you talk more about that?

Cairo Smith: Sure, I think it’s something I’ve always been extremely resistant to. Boarding school, boot camp. But there’s also a very base allure to it, especially when your needs are being filled, emotional needs, base needs. What makes submission worth it?

Screwdriver – Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

1428 Elm: Part of what works so well about this film is the cast, especially AnnaClare Hicks as Emily and Milly Sanders as Melissa. Care to explain the casting process?

Cairo Smith: We knew from the start we wanted to be a union production, even though at the micro budget level it brings challenges. We got about four thousand submissions, and Miranda and I watched every single one. I knew the film would live or die in the hands of the cast. From there we read about thirty actors, and eventually did chemistry callbacks to try out different combinations until we found our cast. The rapport outside of the auditions played a role in that final stage as well.

1428 Elm: What advice did you give the cast during some of the more intense moments, especially a particular scene near the film’s conclusion involving Emily?

Cairo Smith: AnnaClare came to me before a more freeform handheld take and asked, “Can I just try sh*t and see where it goes?” She ended up eating soap in that take. It was awesome, and gross. At the most intense points, it’s not about instructing the actors, it’s about figuring out what works alongside them, and creating an environment where they can do their best work.

Screwdriver – Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

1428 Elm: Some of your background is in theater. A lot of this film feels like a stage production, in a good way, especially the interactions between the three main characters. What influence would you say the theater world had on you as a filmmaker and the process of creating Screwdriver?

Cairo Smith: Theatrical writing teaches you how to make the most of a contained location, which is important for low budget filmmaking. The nature of having to get off book and run a whole show through forces actor and director to do a huge amount of prep in advance, and often times that’s where the story’s heart is discovered. These are valuable practices for creating a performance worth watching.

1428 Elm: Most of Screwdriver takes place in a single location, the house. It also feels so entrapping and at times, claustrophobic. Can you talk about where you filmed this?

Cairo Smith: We filmed in a rental townhouse in Van Nuys. It was a last-minute change after the previous location fell through. The townhouse was a lot more vertical than the original plan, and that led to us re-blocking a lot of the scenes to take advantage of all the levels and relatively cramped floors. We tried hard not to make it feel like an apartment, even though we were sharing walls with other households.

1428 Elm: Screwdriver is your first feature film. What did you learn from the process?

Cairo Smith: I learned how each step of the process tangibly feels and functions. The first time, you’re always going to be going off gut decisions and book smarts. The second time, you don’t just know the process, you know who you are while you’re doing it. That’s what I’m looking forward to next time around.

Screwdriver – Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

1428 Elm: Without giving away spoilers, did you always have the ending in mind for Screwdriver? It’s pretty memorable! 

Cairo Smith: Yes, there was only ever one way that it was going to go. I like to say that everybody gets what they want at the end of the film. At what cost, I guess that’s up for debate.

1428 Elm: What’s next for you?

Cairo Smith: I have about six feature scripts ready to shoot. A wide range of styles. Whoever ends up funding the next one will not be disappointed. I just finished directing the pilot of a very fun military sci-fi podcast I wrote. There’s always something new in the works.

Screwdriver is available on VOD.

Screwdriver: One unnerving little thriller. dark. Next