Smile – A surreal nightmare

Some horror movies aim to subtly spook audiences. Others try to make viewers squirm in their seats. But filmmaker Parker Finn had a far more ambitious goal in mind when he set out to write and direct his debut feature, Smile. “I wanted to make a movie that felt like a sustained panic attack from start to finish,” he says.

The chilling story of a clinical psychiatrist who begins experiencing terrifying and inexplicable occurrences following a bizarre encounter with a patient, Smile was inspired by a short film Finn made in 2020. Titled Laura Hasn’t Slept, the short starred Caitlin Stasey — who also has a memorable role in Smile — and won a Special Jury Award in SXSW’s Midnight Short category. The 11-minute film generated intense industry buzz around Finn, who successfully pitched a feature version to Paramount Pictures and producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey’s Temple Hill Entertainment.

Laura Hasn’t Slept is an undeniable showcase of Parker’s talent. From the first time we met Parker we knew that we had to work with him,” says producer Isaac Klausner.

After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.

Although drawing thematic inspiration from Laura Hasn’t Slept, Smile takes the story in a frightening new direction. Finn says he wanted to explore what it would be like to experience your mind turning against you in horrifying ways. “You know that sense of dread you feel when you wake up from a bad dream? That feeling of panicky doom that lingers with you afterwards, even though you know it wasn’t real? I wanted Smile to capture that feeling on screen.”

The malevolent force that takes over Rose’s life in Smile manifests itself in a number of chilling ways, but perhaps none is more terrifying than the facial expression that gives the film its title. Appearing as a ghastly rictus grin affixed to the lips of various friends and strangers Rose encounters, the sinister smiles portend the presence of pure evil and relentlessly drive her to the brink of madness.

Writer-director Parker Finn

Finn says he chose to use smiles as the physical representation of evil in the film because of the emotional power of the inherent contradiction. “Smiles trigger something very primal within us,” Finn says. “We learn to smile as babies before we even learn to speak, so my idea was to take that image and turn it into a threat that feels dangerous and destructive. I wanted to see if I could use that comforting facial expression to really creep audiences out.”

The fiendish force pursuing Rose also uses the facial expression as an ironic mask to hide its true intentions, which the director sees as a potent parallel to real life. “All of us rely on smiles as a disguise from time to time, whether we’re trying to cover during an awkward social encounter or as a device to hide the anxieties and fears we walk around with,” he observes.

Also, he notes, humans are the only species that use smiles as a friendly gesture, and for most animals, the baring of teeth is meant to be a threat. “There’s just something really interesting about taking the idea of a smile and corrupting it into something malignant and deadly,” Finn says. “It tugs at a part of our animal brains and all the primal instincts buried inside of us.”

Smile combines both physical and emotional scares in a way that not many horror films do, so viewers will get far more than they bargained for when they line up for a ticket. “Smile burrows into your brain and will leave you terrified for days. It’s one of those rare films that you just can’t unsee,” says producer Marty Bowen.

After Finn honed the script with the development team at Paramount and Temple Hill, producer Robert Salerno (We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Single Man) joined the project. Like others who saw Finn’s original short, Salerno was impressed by the young filmmaker’s uncanny ability to create something so visceral and disturbing. “I thought if he was capable of capturing that many thrills and shivers within a matter of minutes, it would be exciting to see what he could do on a full-length feature,” the producer recalls. “Over time, we added a lot of amazing scares and energy to the story, which really helped bring Parker’s unique vision to life.”

In addition to its ferociously original script, Smile is one of the most visually inventive genre films in recent memory, and credit for that goes to the inspired pairing of Finn and director of photography Charlie Sarroff. “Parker and Charlie were completely in sync,” says Salerno. “They devised so many creative ways to show you exactly what it feels like in Rose’s mind as these horrors begin manifesting in real-world situations. It helps elevate the story and creates a lot of major jolts for the audience.”

An avid film lover with a deep knowledge of cinema history, Sarroff says he and Finn share a similar taste in movies, and they discussed a wide variety of reference films as inspiration during preproduction. “Parker wanted to draw on certain things from ’70s,’80s and ’90s genre films, but with a contemporary twist,” says the cinematographer. “So movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Jacob’s Ladder were some of the references we looked at. But we also spoke about plenty of non-genre films as well. In particular, Todd Haynes’ Safe came up many times early on. Parker and I both admired its visual sensibility.”

The goal Finn and Sarroff set for themselves was to make the audience feel increasingly paranoid, so their growing fear mirrors Rose’s. To accomplish that visually, they employed a combination of extreme wide-angle shots that make Rose appear small and vulnerable and extreme close-ups. “Alternating between those two types of shots keeps you in constant suspense,” Sarroff says. “It creates the feeling that anything could be lurking in the shadows or right around the corner at any given moment.”

A lifelong fan of horror, Finn believes one of the prerequisites of the genre is characters worth caring about

“The scariest movies are the ones that work first as dramatic stories, so my goal was to create a great lead character — because if you’re invested in her, you’ll be invested in her plight,” he explains. “Then you can start layering in shocking moments that strike at the core of what the audience is afraid of, and find ways to pull the rug out from under them and subvert their expectations in terrifying ways.”

To bring the film’s skin-crawling scares to life, Smile features an array of practical and mechanical effects that will thrill even the most jaded genre fans. Rather than rely too heavily on CGI, Finn’s preference from the outset was to capture as much as he could on camera. “VFX is a wonderful tool, but I grew up watching movies with practical effects, and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to become a filmmaker in the first place,” says the director. “There’s just something undefinable that happens when you have practical effects the actors can interact with. It creates a kind of magic that, in my experience, you just can’t get any other way.”

Smile centres on Dr Rose Cotter, a dedicated psychiatrist at a public hospital whose mission is to ensure her troubled patients get the help they need. But when a malevolent evil enters Rose’s life, the tables turn and she finds herself struggling to convince her friends and family that the surreal nightmare she’s experiencing is real. As her fight for sanity and survival becomes increasingly desperate, she’s forced to investigate the bizarre mystery and piece together clues to figure out what’s happening to her.

To portray Rose, Finn knew he needed an actress who could bring both the film’s dramatic and horror elements to light. According to Salerno, as soon as Sosie Bacon met with the production team, it was clear she was the perfect choice for the role. “The audience needs to feel strongly sympathetic to Rose right from the start, and Sosie definitely has that ability,” he explains. “She brings so much gravitas to her performances, and that was exactly what we wanted.”

Bacon’s innate warmth and her natural gift for connecting with people struck Finn as essential traits to portray an empathetic clinical psychiatrist. Just as importantly, she had the acting skill to capture the emotion and anxiety of someone on a perilous downward spiral. “I believe Sosie’s given one of the most astounding debut lead performances in recent years,” the director says. “She’s in almost every scene, and she’s operating at extreme levels of stress, fear, and panic for most of the movie. Maintaining those emotions can really take a toll on an actor, but she’s deeply committed to her craft and just knocked it out of the park.”

“Like Rosemary’s Baby, Smile is a film that rests entirely on the shoulders of its lead actress. We’re with her for every harrowing step as her world comes apart at the seems. There’s no film without Sosie’s incredible performance,” says producer Wyck Godfrey.

Bacon describes Smile as an intense psychological horror film told through the eyes of a character that you can’t help but root for. “I play a woman who’s been coping with a lot of pain in her life, and after witnessing a violent incident at work, she’s forced to confront a supernatural threat that fixates on her,” she says. “It’s visually striking and it will absolutely freak you out!”

Cinematic terror is something of a family business for Bacon. Her father, Kevin Bacon, has appeared in several iconic genre films, including Stir of Echoes, Flatliners, and the all-time classic Friday the 13th. “My dad is a big scary movie fan, so I gained an appreciation for them early on, and I still like them a lot,” says the actress.

Finn worked closely with the actors to perfect the unnervingly wide, toothy smiles, and over time he discovered that the key was in the eyes. “There’s an ominous quality to those dead eyes that’s almost like a predator’s gaze,” he says. Cast members practiced their smiles in mirrors for hours on end to the point where they even scared themselves.

Often one of the last elements added to film, but certainly one of the most important, especially when it comes to creating the scare-factor, is the music. Finn knew from the start that he wanted to work with Emmy®-winning composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer (“The White Lotus”), but he never expected he would actually get the chance to. Finn explains, “For the score, I wanted to do something special and unexpected, and to make it feel like its own character in the film. Cristo is so singular and creative in what he does with music. I’d been a huge fan for a long time, and he was the first person I wanted to send the script to. He was a dream to collaborate with, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the uniquely intense and affecting soundscape he created.”

PARKER FINN (Writer & Director) is an Akron, Ohio native and currently resides in Los Angeles, California. His feature debut Smile stars Sosie Bacon, Jessie T Usher, Kyle Gallner, and Kal Penn. The film was adapted from his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept which was an official selection at the 2020 SXSW film festival where it was awarded a Special Jury Recognition. Parker attended the University of Colorado where he earned a degree in English/Creative Writing as well as Chapman University’s Dodge College of Media arts, where he received an MFA.