Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller joined Antonio Mora to discuss their documentary, "TINY: A Story About Living Small," on the Nov. 22, 2013 edition of Consider This. In this Q & A, Smith and Mueller discuss how building their tiny house turned into a documentary project and how the tiny house fits into their lives now. They also reflect on enthusiam surrounding the tiny house movement.
Q. How did you first learn about the tiny house movement?
Smith: Well, individually, before we knew each other, we both read the same issue of [“Yes!”] magazine that featured one of our [documentary] characters Dee Williams — this is back in 2009.
Q. After the two of you met, how did you discover that you had read that same article?
Mueller: Christopher had always kind of had this idea of building a cabin in the mountains. I remember when I first met him he had all of these bookmarks of cheap land in Colorado that he showed me. So it wasn't until about a year-and-a-half after we had started dating he actually decided to go ahead and put a down payment on a piece of land. Then he started researching options for building a small cabin and that's when he found out that there was a minimum house size built into the zoning codes in the county, which is true for most counties in America. … He sort of realized that the reason that tiny houses are built on wheels is to get around those zoning codes. So, all of a sudden, building a tiny house [seemed] to be a really good option for that piece of land.
Smith: Definitely. I think when I was looking at land again … I remember we used to look at websites of pictures of tiny houses and things like that. … And then when it came to actually building the house, I was influenced by them, but I didn't set out to want to build a tiny house initially. But I kind of said finding out about the laws and realizing that the tiny house thing was a reaction to those laws kind of made sense, and we looked into tiny houses more seriously.
Q. What inspired you to make the documentary of the process?
Mueller: Well, Christopher has a background in film — he went to film school. My background is mostly in writing. And we both have been interested in environmental issues for a long time, even before we met. So, Christopher was kind of toying with the idea of starting a film project and looking for a subject. And I remember just watching him plan the tiny house and I said, “This is a really fascinating story, maybe you should consider filming the process of building." And then we sort of decided to embark on the project together.
Q. Speaking of that process, looking back over it, what wound up being the most challenging part for you?
Smith: I think that [both building the house and filming a documentary] would have been the hardest thing that we’d probably ever done. But, then doing them together kind of compounded how difficult each of them were. So it’s really hard to choose one or the other, but they were both really hard. I think, maybe, the film [was most challenging], only because it's still hard. You know? The house took a year, but the film's taken two-and-a-half, or, you know, possibly, three years.
Mueller: Yeah, I think that with both projects we were kind of learning as we went. I mean, obviously, Christopher had no building experience, you know, active building experience. … Christopher had a little bit of film experience but neither of us had ever directed a feature film ourselves. So, we were sort of learning about the independent film business from scratch, learning about Kickstarter, learning about all these things, and the Internet was a great resource. ... But I think one of the biggest challenges was probably maintaining the perspective to document the process even while we were so immersed in building. At the beginning, you know, Christopher would set up a tripod and then he would go and build. We had hours and hours of just building footage and as the project went on, I think we got better at being able to think both as characters and also as filmmakers, and really capture the parts of the process that were most interesting.
Q. What was it like to have that camera on you as you were building? Did that add pressure of any sort?
Smith: It’s interesting. I think when I was pretty aware of it, if anything [it made me want to] seem like I knew what I was doing more, because, you know, who wants to look bad on camera? But when we got into the editing room, that was actually the least interesting stuff and the most interesting stuff was where I didn't know what I was doing, or I was making mistakes. I think, when we were building the house and filming, we kind of thought we were making a short film. … During that phase of the project, the film kind of took a back seat a little bit, and, honestly we didn't film probably as much as we should have and when we were filming, it kind of felt, at times, a little bit like an afterthought. Which in retrospect is probably unfortunate because I wish we would have put a little bit more time into it and seen where we ended up. We could've had a little more material to work with in the edit room and, maybe, could've got some good stuff that we missed. … It's like you kind of have to focus on both things in a way that makes focusing on either one of them harder. … Remembering and thinking about what's going to make a good shot and stopping half-way through, doing something to change angles — you can't really be 100 percent mentally focused on either [task]. You kind of have to split your attention.
Q. What was the most rewarding part of the process?
Smith: I think seeing it all come together, for me, in both projects [was the most rewarding part]. Seeing the house as it was near completed and putting the final touches on it, and just realizing what a journey it had been and the accomplishment of it. The same thing can be said about the film, too. When we were in post-production, putting in the final score, and doing the color corrections … that phase where it was feeling done just felt really wonderful.
Mueller: I mean I'm still pretty awed by the fact that we built a house … and also that fact that the film is completed. I mean, looking back on it, it's kind of like, “Wow, we did that!” And, so that’s pretty rewarding — having something so physical as a testament to years and years of work.
Smith: Specifically, I remember the day that we drove the house up to the land, both Merete’s and my father happened to be in town on the same weekend, and [also] my little brother. And it was really kind of cool to finish the house up and have the open house and then drive it up to the land, and have them there for that part of the process. It felt like a pretty special bonding experience. Having them there felt like being able to share the experience of completing it with them. You know, sort of like, I get to see my dad be proud of me in a way that I don't get to see very often, I guess.
Q. If were to start the process over again, what would you do differently.
Smith: I would say just spending more time working and recording everything. Knowing now that it was a feature film instead of a short film, it would have been great to come at it with that understanding, and approach it that way and make sure to get more of … Merete and I's relationship and film more of that — and even when things got hard, to keep the camera rolling because in hindsight, you can look at that and see how great that would have been, but in the moment it was harder to think about that.
Q. How does the tiny house fit into your life now?
Mueller: After we finished building the house, we brought it up to that piece of land that it was originally sort of intended for, and it was there for about a year. We were doing post-production on the film in New York, so we were kind of going back and forth, and being able to kind of visit the house as a mountain cabin throughout the year and different seasons [was] really fun. And, then about a year later, we decided to move the house back down closer to Boulder, so that it could be closer to the amenities of town. And that was in June of 2013, so a few months ago. And then, Christopher has been living in the house full time since then, in June. I ended up staying in New York, which was kind of part of the film. While we were building the house, I had this dream of moving to New York City that I ended up seeing through. Right now, [the tiny house is] a place that I visit every so often, but I think one of the interesting things about tiny houses is that they are such flexible structures, in terms of their ability to move and then they can be used in different ways throughout different phases of your life. So, I definitely — I mean I don't really know what my future looks like and I like it that way, but I do hope to able to spend more time in the house down the line and, you know, whatever that looks like.
Q. Christopher, since I gather you're living in the house full time, how have you adjusted your routine to accommodate tiny living?
Smith: I think that the number one thing is that clearly I think about what I buy more carefully, and I buy less [of] just kind of random things, or even when things are free, or someone’s offering to give me something, I have to think about whether or not I really want or need it. I also spend a lot more time in town taking advantage of the different services that my community provides, such as libraries and the gym — places like that.
Q. Is there anything you miss from living in a larger space?
Smith: Not really, no.
Q. As you've been traveling in support of your film, what's the most interesting reaction you've gotten so far?
Mueller: I think the most unexpected thing is how many people have been really excited about the idea of tiny houses, people that you would never expect. … I feel like we’ve gotten more positive responses from mainstream audiences in the suburbs, kind of in the middle of the country, more so than from urban audiences along the coast. And I think part of that is … tiny houses really capture the imagination and there is something just so appealing about the idea of simplifying. I think we live in times that are really complex in terms of the amount of information that we're all exposed to daily and I think that sort of makes the idea of having our environment be really simple even more appealing. So, I mean, after screenings we would hear from people all the time: “This inspired me to go home and clean out my garage,” or, “My kids are going away to college and I'm thinking about selling my house and downsizing into a smaller space.” I think what's been really encouraging is that people have seen the film, not just sort of like gawking at these crazy tiny house people, but they've seen the film and [have] really taken it to heart in terms of how to integrate these ideas into their own lives, even if they’re never going to downsize to that extent. But, just thinking about how they might apply ideas of quality over quantity, and thinking about relationships being more important than material possessions. Concepts that we can all kind of integrate into our lives no matter what kind of space you live in.
Q. What advice would you offer others who are interested in joining the tiny house movement?
Mueller: Just get online and do some Googling. Go on Facebook and search "tiny house" on Facebook. I mean there are so many great Facebook pages and blogs and there's a really vibrant online community and a really great dialogue happening, a really supportive dialogue happening, of people who are just offering advice and answering questions, and people who are just so excited about this way of life. [It] really does feel almost like this weird online family of all these people who have been in touch over the last few years, who have never met in person, but everyone knows each other.
Smith: Yeah, there're also a lot of workshops that are being offered from different tiny house companies that are helpful if you're kind of considering taking the leap but you’re not 100 percent sure. It's a good way to kind of learn what's involved. A lot of times they organize a trip to a tiny house or something like that. I think going inside a tiny house is really important in knowing whether or not it's right for you.
This interview with Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller has been condensed and edited. You can get a glimpse inside their tiny retreat by checking out this photo gallery on the Consider This site. You can also follow Christopher and Merete on Twitter: @TINYtheMovie, @Christopher_C_S, and @MereteMueller.