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The director and star of 'Smile' on crafting one of the year's most 'unnerving' horror movies
Director Parker Finn and star Sosie Bacon explain how to make a smile so scary.
There's something inherently creepy about someone smiling at you without provocation or familiarity. Smile, the buzzy new horror film from writer/director Parker Finn, is very aware of this, and weaponized the creepy, distant, dead-eyed smile as often as possible in its two-hour runtime. But for Finn, who built the film on the success of his similarly themed short Laura Hasn't Slept, none of it worked if he couldn't find the person at the heart of the story.
"The short really was a springboard, and while I was in post on the short, there was something about the idea that kept nagging at me, and this larger story formed," Finn told SYFY WIRE the day after Smile's world premiere at Austin's Fantastic Fest. "And I see them as spiritual siblings rather than a direct adaptation. There's DNA from the short that's threaded through the feature. But the feature is its own separate story with its own unique main character. And for me, it was all about this character's story that I was really desperate to tell, that has all this creepy tone and stuff from the short put into it."
The character that reached out and grabbed Finn is Rose, a determined, workaholic therapist played by Sosie Bacon. Rose is used to dealing with mentally ill patients who've experienced trauma, but even she isn't prepared the day that Laura (Caitlin Stasey) steps into her office with a horrific story. The young woman claims she can see an entity hiding behind human smiles, coming for her, ready to kill her like it's killed others. After the traumatic experience of encountering Laura, Rose tries to shake off what she's seen and heard, but she too begins seeing unexplained smiles everywhere, and begins to wonder if the entity her patient talked about could be not just real, but coming for her.
"What Parker did is he showed you her whole life, so that was really fun as an actor to see, because you have the past and the present," Bacon said of her character. "And a lot of times, especially a lead character, you know the least about them, in a way. I feel like with Rose, you just get little bits and bits and bits over the course of the thing where you know so, so much [about who she is]. I did a lot of preparation, but I think it was almost easy to see because of how he wrote the script."
Smile's deepest secrets, including what's actually behind the creepy grins of the people all around Rose, will be left until its theatrical release at the end of the month, but the driving force of the story is Rose's determination to understand what's happening to her. Even as other people around her start to think she might be losing her mind, Rose is convinced something else is at work, and won't stop until she finds out what. That drive, and the response to it from other characters in the film, presented a key challenge for Bacon as an actress.
"I think at a certain point with a role that, enjoying going to work is a fantasy. You know what I mean? You can get through [it]," Bacon said. "It's just a hard balance to find. I was really excited when other people were acting with me. I was like, "Yay, another person!' Like Kyle [Gallner]. Kyle was a real light for me. Whenever he was on set, I was like, 'Oh, my god, yes. Somebody's here that makes me laugh and we're having fun.' So whenever anybody else was there, it was awesome."
But of course, beyond telling Rose's story and making her feel like a fully rounded human, Smile also had to be scary. That meant Bacon had to spend days working across from actors who were menacingly grinning at her from all angles, and no matter how clear it was that everything was make-believe, that's not always a cheerful experience.
"The whole thing was very unnerving," Bacon said. "And also I think seeing the way the camera picked up on it is like, 'Whoa, I could never have imagined,' especially last night watching it on the big screen and watching Caitlin [Stasey] smile and how long they stayed on it and how long they stayed on me. When you're shooting it, you don't understand how it's going to cut together so disturbingly. You really don't. You're just there doing it."
For Finn, making sure each actor's creepy smile worked as effectively as possible, without relying on CGI augmentation, was all a matter of careful fine-tuning, and it all paid off. As moviegoers head in to see Smile this weekend, they'll find a world full of creepy grins staring back at them, daring them to look away.
"I really wanted to use practical, performance-based smiles. That was very important to me," Finn said. "Because I think in a weird way, it grounds them, but also makes them all the more uncanny, when people are just frozen staring at you like that. And I love that while there is a through line with all the smiles, each actor brought their own performance to it, which was really fun."
So, how do you make a movie about creepy smiles that stays creepy throughout? According to the director of Smile, trial and error, and one particular secret that will make audiences squirm.
"It started with me in the mirror doing it at myself," Finn explained. "And then it was about being with the actors and just smiling back and forth at each other and making little micro adjustments until we found it. I think it's really all about the eyes. That's the secret, is having these dead, blank, lifeless eyes."
Smile is in theaters Friday.
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