“Smile is really going to surprise audiences while hopefully also respecting their intelligence,” says writer and director Parker Finn when we sit down to discuss his first feature film.
“It’s a deeply psychological film,” he continues, “but it’s also intensely physical and visceral. It’s got these big frightening moments that I think are going to cause audiences to jump out of their seats and scream but at the same time, it also leans into this incredible sense of dread and unease that, if I’ve done my job right, is going to linger with the audience long after the credits roll…”
Well, if the movie is anything like its trailer – which caused a stir on the internet with headlines like ‘most frightening trailer’ – then it’s a pretty safe bet but for Parker, it’s not just about jumpscares and gore.
“The film has a lot of mysteries,” he explains. “It really sets out to scare people in a lot of different ways and I wanted to make sure that the ways that the film is scaring people continues to evolve.
“People may be expecting one thing going in after seeing the trailer, but I think the film is going to come at them with teeth in a way that they did not expect. I can’t wait for people to discover some of the mysteries inside of it!”
The movie follows mental health professional Dr. Rose Cotter (played by Sosie Bacon) whose patient (Caitlin Stasey) brutally commits suicide while wearing a huge smile on her face. After the incident, she starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. Is it PTSD or something altogether unexplainable?
For Parker, the idea of the mind turning against you was a critical concept when writing the movie. In fact, the journey for Smile began after he completed his short movie Laura Hasn’t Slept (which also stars Caitlin Stasey) and tells the story of a young woman who visits and therapist after experiencing a recurring nightmare.
“When I set out to develop the film, I was really interested in exploring some of the horrors of the things that we carry around inside of us every day,” Finn says. “I wanted to explore what it might feel like if your mind was turning against you and I wanted to take those two things and match them with the fear of not being believed. I think that’s a universal fear that we can all relate to.”
Indeed, when Rose tries to tell her nearest and dearest (including her fiance Trevor, played by The Boys’ Jessie T. Usher) of the terrifying things she’s experiencing, no one believes her, blaming Rose’s traumatic past.
For the cast of the movie, it’s this deep character dive that really interested them when reading the script…
“What I liked to see was Rose, who specialises in something and is now being on the receiving end of something that she’s always been dealing with,” explains Usher. “To watch a character go through that was very interesting, especially because it’s something that she feels like she knows extremely well. Then when it starts happening to her, Sosie shows us what it looks like when your reality changes on you…”
“Everyone has fears,” Bacon adds, “but being a person who has a different reality than literally everybody else, and nobody will believe them and they’re walking around with a completely different experience than literally everybody else, I think that that is universally scary right?”
For Parker, it was important to get Rose’s character journey right from the off. “I think that the best horror films also really work as great character dramas first,” he nods. “So you’re first trying to create a really effective character journey that is exploring the human condition. Then at the same time, you’re also keeping an eye on crafting these really technical scare moments or creep-out moments. The balance of the two is so important.”
Speaking of the creep-out moments, those who have seen the trailer (or the creepy poster, or the terrifying marketing campaign that’s happening for the film at the moment) can attest to the sinister imagery of people manically smiling while doing something horrifc and it’s that juxtaposition that appealed to Finn. “I chose the smile to represent evil in the film because there’s an inherent strength in the contradiction. Smiles are meant to be these warm, friendly gestures that are inviting, and it’s very primal. We learn to smile as babies before we even learn to speak. I wanted to see if I could take that and flip it on its head and allow the evil in the film to wear a smile as a mask that was incredibly menacing. It was hiding something horrible behind it that was the promise of a threat…”
The smile is not the only contradiction in the movie. Us genre types who are expecting our key horror tropes will also have a surprise or two. “Horror audiences are so savvy these days!” Finn laughs. “They’ve seen so much and so I think there’s something really interesting about teaching an audience what they can expect to be afraid of in a film, and then suddenly doing the exact opposite or finding a way to subvert that and pull the rug out from underneath them.
“I love to use genre to explore the human condition and some of the things about being a human being can be incredibly frightening. For me, I find that I can’t be affected by a horror film unless I’m really invested in the characters inside of it. At the same time, I think that genre and horror can be this – I hesitate to call it a Trojan Horse – but you’re able to take these concepts and these ideas that can really weigh heavy on the mind, but then package them into something that feels like this incredible roller coaster that is really going to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping.”
Speaking of getting those audiences going, for Finn, he’s looking forward to people finally sitting in a cool dark cinema and going through that journey of emotions that only a horror film can really conjure, and perhaps they’ll even have a little debate afterwards too. “The movie is definitely going to set out to surprise and shock and scare audiences. It’s definitely a nightmare roller coaster of an experience. My hope is that people will, as soon as the credits roll, they’re gonna want to turn and talk to their friends about it and debate a lot of the mysteries inside of the film. I think it’s gonna serve some really interesting conversation.”