Why ‘Smile’ Director Parker Finn Didn’t Want to Bog the Horror Film Down in Mythology

The filmmaker also tells TheWrap how he went about adapting his short film into a feature


“Smile” is here.

The new horror film from Paramount Pictures concerns a young doctor (Sosie Bacon) who, after a patient kills themselves in front of her, uncovers a vast and bizarre mystery involving a demonic curse that causes some very unsettling smiles. It’s a terrific little horror movie, full of genuinely scary moments and indelible images. If you head to a theater this weekend to watch, you will undoubtedly be surrounded by screaming viewers (yourself probably included).

“Smile” had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, an international film festival in Austin, Texas, known for its commitment to cutting-edge genre cinema. TheWrap spoke with writer/director Parker Finn the morning after the premiere. “I can’t think of a better audience to debut for than for Fantastic Fest,” Parker said. “Just feeling everybody clenching all at the same time, squirming in their seats, screaming, laughing because they’re so nervous. Just the molecules in the air, it was amazing. It was the first time I got to see the finished film with an audience and it was incredible.”

TheWrap spoke to Finn about the process of adapting his own short film for the big screen, his inspiration for the story and what makes smiles so creepy.

I’m always so fascinated by the transition from short film to feature and I was wondering if you could talk about what your experience was.

Certainly. I mean, it’s interesting when you’re a filmmaker who’s independently making short films, you are sort of just the torch bearer for everything. You’re pushing that boulder up the hill. You have collaborators, of course, but every element of it, you have to sort out and figure out. When you’re making a feature, especially with a studio like Paramount, you’re entering a machine and navigating that is very interesting as a first-time filmmaker. But I had incredible supporters in my producers and at the studio and everyone around me that we set this North Star for ourselves and they all helped us execute. But the size and scope is enormous on this feature.

Did you have ideas ready to go? Did you make the short thinking, OK, if people like this, I’ve got a few more?

I made the short because I think shorts should really exist in their own right and not feel like a commercial for something bigger because I think that never passes the sniff test really. But no, while I was in post on the short, I wanted to explore it more and this idea for the feature grew out of that. And so when the opportunity to pitch the feature version came around, the short was a springboard for that. But nothing prepares you to make a feature until you do it.

What was the biggest learning curve?

Just the amount that you’re not going to sleep, that you’re just the exhaustive nature of trying to, even making a short is the most exhausting (thing) that you can do. And then taking that and timing it by a million. It’s an incredible endurance test.

Can you talk about what movies you were inspired by?

I had a few films on my mind all the time. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” I was thinking about a lot. I love that film, that sort of nightmarish atmosphere to it. And the investigative angle, which I loved. And then Todd Haynes’ “Safe” was a movie I was constantly thinking about. It really places you in Julianne Moore’s character’s anxiety in a big way, and then certainly “Rosemary’s Baby.” Just that feeling of everyone around you is gaslighting you, not believing you, feeling like you’re losing your mind and not being able to tell what’s real and what might be imagined. Those are some of the touchstones.

Was it hard having the bad guy be this supernatural force? Especially since you avoid the trap of giving the creature unnecessary backstory.

I mean that kind of stuff, it can be fun, but that was not what I was really interested in, in this story. For me, I really wanted to tell this character’s story and the external stuff is frightening, but I think it’s the internal stuff that really is what gets under your skin and drives this story is Rose’s plight – what she’s going through, all of her past, her history, everything that she’s been carrying around inside of her. And if you can take that and this supernatural thing and braid them together until they become indistinguishable from each other, that’s where I want to live versus something that’s too overtly, Some priest had a book in the 1400s. I didn’t want to do any of that.

Why a smile?

I think there’s something fun there and I love the inherent contradiction between a smile and this sense of palpable evil. I wanted the movie to feel sort of like gleefully evil and I’m hoping that’s what people will get out of it.

“Smile” is now playing exclusively in theaters.