BIFF: Smaller than life

‘Tiny’ breaks out of the fourth wall in talks about making a home

Kevin Hoth
Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller install the roof trim on their Tiny House.

“Tiny houses have gotten a lot of media coverage and a lot
of that has been based around how crazy and how extreme they are, or oh that’s
amazing, but I could never do that, and I think in some ways that kind of
misses the point,” says Merete Mueller, co-director of the film Tiny: A Story About Living Small. “In our film, we really tried to make
the story not so much about how extreme tiny houses are or really saying that
everybody should downsize to that extent, but using it as a way to highlight
the questions that we could all ask and all apply to how we live, no matter the
square footage — just questions of quality over quantity and how much is
enough, how much we really need and whether the stuff we own is actually
improving our quality of life or if it’s actually becoming sort of like a
hindrance to quality of life.”

documents Christopher Smith’s search for a home, a path that leads him to building a 124-square-foot tiny house for property he’d purchased in the Colorado mountains near Hartsell, which has since been relocated back to Boulder, where
he now lives. Smith, also co-director for the film, expected to start
construction in May and be moved in by October of the same year, and instead
saw the process, one he was largely determined to complete on his own, taking a

“I pictured it being like, it’s probably not that much more
than a TuffShed with insulation, how much harder can it be?” he says, and laughs.
“So that’s sort of where my logic went wrong pretty early on. … I really tried
to learn every step as we went along, and each step felt just as difficult as
the previous one. So I’d finish the foundation and then I’d be like, OK, now I
have to figure out how to frame a wall.”

He saw the process from the start as a metaphor for searching
for and trying to create a home, whether that’s literal or not. In Mueller’s
case, watching Smith, who she was then dating, building the tiny house meant
watching him take a giant leap after a huge dream, and it led her to go after
the image of a possible home that had haunted her — moving to Brooklyn, which
she did, shortly after Smith finished the house.

Smith and Mueller combined their backgrounds in film and
writing, respectively, to create a film that explores the tiny house movement
and the argument that if your living space is small, you tend to live much
larger — the whole world becomes your living room, one advocate argues — and even
the potential for small houses as affordable housing options, particularly when
it comes to infill development in already established cities (a particularly
interesting option in a town like Boulder).

“I would hope that the film inspires people to consider the
idea of home and where it is that they feel at home, and what makes a home,”
Mueller says. “I think that part of it is location. A lot of it is people,
relationships and experiences, and it’s not so much about physical stuff in a
house necessarily, although that can be part of it, too.”

“If you construct tiny houses, they’re houses stripped down
to the most basic elements. It’s sort of a reductionist approach then to
learning what makes a home,” Smith says. “Because if you can remove all these
elements that we have in houses, like square footage or lots of bedrooms or
whatever, and it still feels like a home, then, you can maybe put your finger
on it a little bit better.”

Tiny: A Story About Living Small is screening at Boulder International Film Festival at 10 a.m. on
Sunday, Feb. 16 and Doc Night at the Denver Film Society on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith will be at both screenings for a Q&A.