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A Tribute to Friend and Fellow Actor, Nathan O’Neil Smith

Nathan O'Neil Smith
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With the upcoming release of my film, Digger, I felt that I needed to write something about my friend Nathan O’Neil Smith, who passed away late last year. He was a big part of why I decided to make my own film.

First, a little background: I met Nathan on the set of Terminator: Genisys. I had just finished shooting a few scenes as a future soldier and had been booked to play a police officer for a few weeks. That was in 2014, I believe. It was mid-summer and we were jammed into a tent during 104 degree weather.

Terminator Genisys - Key Art

I vaguely remember being holed up in that tent on a dusty lot for a good 8 days total. Could have been more, could have been less – the days began to blur into each other. We’d get there early in the morning and wait all day to see if we were lucky enough to actually film. That’s the funny thing about filmmaking; you often show up for days in a row and don’t see a second of camera time for whatever reason. Sometimes camera issues, planning problems, bad weather or you just weren’t needed. Just how it is.

The first week went by and we didn’t film a single minute as I recall. I don’t think we even set foot on the bridge except for safety meetings. However, we still had to follow film protocol and get fully prepared just in case the planets aligned and we would step out in front of the camera. Imagine being rushed to put on your wardrobe, then run to hair and makeup only to be rushed into a bus with little to no air and driven to another location and dumped off.  

With the sun baring down on us, we waited and watched for them to call us over. Lunch would hit and they would disarm us and bring us to another location to eat. Once that was over – back to the holding tent. This went on for a good week and then they sent us home.

I remember being disappointed in not filming anything that week, but they called us back and we finally got to film the bridge scene. We were joined with other “police officers” who had been filming other scenes and we arrested the Terminator on the Golden Gate Bridge.

We're in there somewhere

I worked with Nathan on many other film productions after that. It seemed that anytime I was booked, he was there. He was a hard worker and a wildly talented actor. He took what he could get and threw himself into the role. The man could play damn near any role he was given.  

We had discussed making our own films each time we met on film sets. I mean, what else is there to do when you’re stuck in holding with nothing to do but eat granola bars and drink coffee?

 We both wanted more action, more lines and basically more control over our roles. I wrote a few little screenplays that he and I discussed putting into motion. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) that first screenplay titled “The Fisher Brothers,” was never made. It was a pretty cool cop story, but it never got off the ground.

Enter:

Digger was created by Jerome Andries

Digger is a post-apocalyptic short film that was meant to be included in a larger universe of films. It still may be one day, but at this point it will be released as a stand-alone little short. It stars Peyton Wich, Nathan Smith and myself (Jerome Andries).

I contacted Nathan about my little film production and he was more than willing to take part. I was fresh out of law school and didn’t have money at the time, but he agreed to drive all the way to Louisiana just to work on my film. I told him up front that there was little to no budget to speak of and I couldn’t really pay him much. He didn’t care, he immediately said he was IN. Not everyone does things like that for friends – that’s just the kind of person Nathan was.

Digger a post apocalyptic short story created by Jerome Andries

After all the conversations we’d had over the years while sitting in holding for upwards of 18 hours at a time just begging for screen time – we were finally making a movie together!

I called Nathan to give him wardrobe details and he assured me he could handle it on his own. He did not disappoint! He had probably the coolest outfit in the movie. Combat boots with a kilt and goggles; he knocked it out of the park and created one of the most memorable characters.

Natha O'Neil Smith joins the cast of Digger
Nathan joins the cast of Digger

We spent the entire day together filming in the scorching Louisiana sun. It was brutal, but we loved every second of it! Ok, maybe not every second – the weather forced us to evacuate from the rock a good 7 or 8 times and the sun was unrelenting. I had tanned so much between day 1 and 2 that our editor had to make some adjustments due to my newfound tan.

He and I had one last scene to film and the sun was going down. We had maybe one chance to get it right or else it wouldn’t match the other shots. We had a one-on-one battle where my character was trying to protect his “son.” I panicked, but Nathan stepped up and walked me through it. He choreographed the scene and kept my head in the game. (I was dehydrated to an extremely dangerous level from being tied up to a tree for hours in the direct sun). 

Nathan handled it though and showed me ways to make the scene even better than my original vision. That’s Nathan for you – always looking out for his friends. He knew how much that story meant to me and did what he could to save that last shot.

Digger is a post-apocalyptic movie starring Peyton Wich and Jerome Andries

The last time I saw Nathan was the next morning in the motel lobby. I met him there and we sat at a table and drank coffee. The rest of the team had more filming to do that morning, but Nathan was wrapped and ready to drive back home.

We sat there and discussed one day making a graphic novel featuring the characters I had written. Nathan was an amazing artist and had done artwork for other graphic novels and comics. That was our last face-to-face conversation.

I tried to stay in touch, but unfortunately, I had moved away from the film action and was too far away to film. I was getting ready to start a law practice and my life got hectic. Over the next year or so, I wrote numerous stories and books and each one had a central character molded after Nathan. One particular story even had a character named after him. The goal was to one day publish the book and find the funding to film it.

Now that book is saved in a special folder in my computer.

Zoo
AMC's Preacher

I watched Nathan’s acting career from afar. He was in TV series such as Zoo and Preacher, as well as numerous indie films. He was doing what he loved to do!

We never had another chance to film together or sit in a holding tent for hours upon hours talking about life and drinking cheap coffee. I deeply regret that.

I learned an important lesson from my friend, Nathan – do as much as you can with your friends. If you want to make films – make films. Don’t worry about perfecting the story or getting a big budget. Get your camera and some actors together and film something! Follow through with projects and follow your passion. Release your movies somewhere even if it’s just YouTube.

It still bothers me today that he never saw the release of Digger. I had sent him a link to the video to watch, but it was yet to be released because I wanted to do something larger with the story. Now I know I should have just put it into the world just it as it was. Digger is set for release this summer. I’ll never make that mistake again.

Nathan and I left a lot on the table. There were so many things I wanted us to do together. So many projects that will live in my computer folders forever.

Weird how I remember the exact first time I saw him. I was standing by one of the tables talking to a friend and he just started a conversation. He gave me his artist business card. It was him and She-Hulk standing next to each other. I kept that card for the longest and eventually lost it. I wish now I had stashed it somewhere safe.

Until next time, friend.

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