After sustaining neck and spine injuries from a couple of car accidents, Robert J. Smith’s mobility became very limited for a number of years.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to continue to walk, so I thought, ‘Maybe I should think about looking at a second career,’” Smith said.
Although the injuries limited his movements, he didn’t sit idly by as he recovered. Instead, he kept himself busy by going back to school and studying film from two different schools — the University of California, Los Angeles and Full Sail University — at the same time. Today, he’s back on his feet and recently completed filming his 66th short film with his production company, Robert J. Smith Productions.
“It keeps you busy — taking two college courses at the same time, or basically completing two degrees at the same time,” Smith said. “I was busy writing and working till 3 (o’clock) in the morning sometimes. You’d have deadlines, a lot of times at midnight, so I was working probably 60 hours a week just going to school, and I was able to do that without having to get up and around and walk. I could just sit and write, so it helped (me) recover.”
Smith’s latest film is called “NEXT!” and Smith wrote, shot, produced and even starred in the film itself. “NEXT!” tells the tale of a casting director on the search for a suitable Juliet for a production of Shakespeare’s classic, “Romeo and Juliet,” but he learns that finding his Juliet may be as difficult as finding a suitable wife. The casting director finds himself in — what Smith calls — a “love square” between himself and three of the actresses who auditioned as Juliet.
“The whole premise of it is casting for ‘Romeo and Juliet” and the subtext, or the subplot, is a love story because it’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Smith said, adding that he plays the role of the casting director in the film. “Rather than the typical ‘love triangle,’ we actually did a ‘love square,’ so it’s the casting director and three women rather than two.”
Smith, 54, originally is from Detroit and moved to Florida in 1984. He moved to Windermere in 2013 and then moved to a home in Horizon West in 2018. He shoots many of his films in locations throughout Winter Garden and West Orange. In fact, he shot the entirety of his latest film, “NEXT!” inside Hagan O’Reilly’s Irish Pub off of Marsh Road in Winter Garden.
“We film here in Winter Garden,” Smith said. “We did a film that we actually shot some of it here (at Hagan O’Reilly’s) and some of it in downtown Winter Garden at Celebrity Medical (Center). We did like a ‘(Dr.) Jekyll and (Mr.) Hyde’ remake.”
Before he began filmmaking, Smith worked as a financial advisor, but he decided to change careers after the car accidents. He was rear-ended while at a stop sign in 1987. The driver was going about 50 mph, and the crash broke his neck. Ten years later, he was rear-ended again while at a stoplight by another driver going about the same speed, and that crash broke his back. While recovering from that accident, he decided on a career change and started studying screenwriting. In 2014, he got into another accident that worsened his already-injured back. By that point, he had already begun making films.
Smith said he graduated from Full Sail as the valedictorian of his class, and he’s been making films for about 10 years now. Although he worked in finance before he switched careers, he said he always was interested in writing and films.
“The writing was what intrigued me the most, and I had some stories to tell,” Smith said. “Rather than just (going down) the traditional journalism route — and sure, I write articles and we write books and things — it’s just a little more exciting doing the screen writing and bringing stories together.”
He might have just wrapped up filming “NEXT!” but he already has a sequel for that film planned, along with a number of other film projects up his sleeve. He’s had about 14 different surgeries because of his injuries and still has to go through ongoing treatment. But he doesn’t let that keep him down.
“I’m still recovering,” he said. “I still do two hours of physical therapy every single day. … It’s a lifelong process … but, man, I’m walking, I’m happy, and I couldn’t be happier.”