Sarah Adina Smith is the first to admit that a career as a filmmaker wasn’t the most obvious path for her life.
“It took me a hot minute to realize that I wanted to be a director,” says the Fort Collins native. “I didn’t really understand what went on behind the camera.”
But Smith clearly knows what she’s doing now. Over the last decade she’s written and directed four feature films — The Midnight Swim, Buster’s Mal Heart, Birds of Paradise, and The Drop — and has overseen episodes of Wrecked, Room 104, Legion, Hanna and Looking for Alaska.
October marked the release of Lessons in Chemistry, the latest television show featuring episodes directed by Smith. With an upcoming finale set for Nov. 24, the Apple TV+ adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling novel stars Oscar-winning Best Actress Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott, a fired lab tech chemist who becomes the host of a 1960s TV cooking show. She uses this as an opportunity to teach housewives about science.
Smith’s journey beginning in Fort Collins is all the more surprising considering that her father is originally from Queens, New York, and her mother is from Iowa. “I’m not exactly sure what brought them out to Colorado,” Smith says. “I think it was just the natural beauty and them feeling like it was a wonderful place to raise kids — which it was. It was an amazing place to grow up.”
A self-described “weirdo art kid” who often showed up to her Poudre High School wearing “surgical scrubs, a fedora, and rainbow suspenders.” Smith might not have yet been aware of her filmmaking skills, but she says her Front Range community was essential to finding her voice.
“My education in Colorado didn’t squash my spirit. I was supported; that was really nice,” she says. “It was a place where I was allowed to be [myself]. It wasn’t really until college that I put it together that I wanted to write and direct films.”
The college in question was Columbia University. The video store Kim’s Video, where Smith worked during her studies, helped equip her with a crash course in film studies. “They let you take home three VHS tapes a night in addition to your pay. That’s really where I got my cinema education.”
As she first began to write scripts and make experimental short films, including a shoot at the Silver Grill in Fort Collins, Smith wondered what she really wanted to say with her projects.
“I studied philosophy at Columbia. My first film scripts were terrible because they were just these philosophy essays,” she says. “I got into filmmaking because I felt like it was a way to think deeply about life’s big questions, while also making art and opening up the conversation to a much broader audience.”
That’s something Smith has continued to strive for throughout her career. But as she’s achieved success and begun to work with major Hollywood studios, balancing her creative efforts with financial stability has become a bit of a challenge.
“I have to admit it’s not easy. The films I’m perhaps most proud of are the two independent movies I made outside of the Hollywood system, The Midnight Swim and Buster’s Mal Heart. They allowed me to be my truest self and explore philosophical questions the way I wanted to,” she says. “To be honest, I’m still trying to navigate how to have a career in Hollywood while pursuing the art and more challenging questions that are the reason I got into this in the first place.”
Working with major production companies has thrown a few curveballs, though. When Smith was first approached about directing Lessons in Chemistry, she was hesitant.
“My first impulse was to roll my eyes and write it off because it was a fictional story about scientists in the 1950s experiencing sexism,” she says. “But it’s about so much more than that.”
Through the character of Elizabeth, who studies a field of evolutionary biology known as abiogenesis, Smith was able to explore the origins of life and the “ever evolving and changing manifold of existence,” she explains. “It’s very odd and inspiring. I think the show really celebrates awe and wonder in the context of a modern scientific worldview.”
While Smith is in the process of writing a psychological thriller, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl In Landscape, and another TV series, she’s making sure to take lessons from working on Lessons In Chemistry. “I want to stay really open to what life brings me next,” she says.
Once that opportunity arises, you can bet Smith will be the first to send it down the proverbial mountain — a skill she picked up during her time in the Centennial State.
“Me and my brother used to race each other down [the slopes of] Steamboat Springs. That feeling of letting go and flying, even in the face of your fears, is actually something I bring to my work every day. Particularly when I’m on set directing,” she says. “People from Colorado are addicted to an adrenaline rush. That is still very much in my bones and is something I use all the time.”
ON SCREEN: Lessons in Chemistry is streaming now on Apple TV+.