The Film a House Built

January 29 2014, 3:30 PM

On an uncharacteristically hot Boulder day in fall 2011, I met an overwhelmed Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller in front of their then-unfinished 129-square-foot home. After we reported on their tiny-house mission in our March 2012 issue, Smith and Mueller kept working feverishly to not only finish the house itself (which they did, in May 2012), but also to film, edit, and produce their corresponding documentary, TINY: A Story About Living Small. The 62-minute story has its Front Range premiere on February 16 at the Boulder International Film Festival and on February 18 at the Denver Film Society. 

“The highs and lows of this project were so extreme,” Mueller says. At times, neither knew how they’d find the money to work on the next phase of the house, which had a final cost of $26,000, or fund aspects of the film’s production. And foibles like buying windows that were the wrong size for the house, or the cute wood stove that turned out to be “a completely unrealistic and inefficient way to heat the house” only added to the stress, Mueller says.

But, Smith adds, “The toughest moments were actually some of the things I enjoyed most. Building the house was hard but extremely rewarding, same with all of the filming and editing.” In March 2013, TINY premiered at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

The pair were once a couple—but now it’s a bit complicated, they say: Mueller has moved to Brooklyn, New York, to continue promoting the film and work on a novel. Still close friends who speak daily, Smith and Mueller insist TINY grapples openly with the idealism of tiny-house living and addresses the fact that neither ever planned to live in the house full-time. (“I think the bathroom in the tiny house is actually bigger than my bathroom in Brooklyn,” Mueller jokes.)

Smith currently lives in Los Angeles and is working on another film, but stays in the tiny house when he comes back to Colorado. It’s no longer on the original five acres outside of Hartsel, Colorado, that Smith had purchased and envisioned for it; since mid-2013, the home has sat outside Boulder. “The land up in the mountains was just too remote to live on for long periods of time,” Mueller explains, and adds that the great thing about documentary filmmaking is that is chronicles real life. “In real life, dreams and ideals don't always work out exactly the way that we expect,” she says. “But that process of having an idea and making it reality is so complicated and fascinating. Our film really follows that process, and the real-life outcome surprised even us.”

If you go:

Boulder International Film Festival at Boulder Theater: Sunday, February 16, 10 a.m.

Denver Film Society at SIE Film: Tuesday, February 18, 7 p.m.

—Image courtesy of Kevin Hoth