Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
Inspired by a league of nontraditional coming-of-age movies, debut director Daniel Patrick Carbone imbued his masterful drama Hide Your Smiling Faces with an originality and emotional purity we don't often get to see on the big screen. The filmmaker discusses the creation of this personal story, drawn from his own life experiences, why it had to be his first feature, and what he hoped to say about life and death alike.
I’m not a filmmaker, but I feel like there’s a lot of specific personal attachment that goes into your first movie. I was wondering if there was a reason that Hide Your Smiling Faces “needed” to be your first movie.
There’s the old adage that your first film is whatever age you are worth of pre-production. So this was like 26 years of pre-production, and your second movie is two or three years, or whatever. I think that’s true, and I think that’s why so many people’s first features are their most personal. And sometimes their strongest, because I think you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the movie made, not necessarily overthink things, and be the most honest filmmaker you can be at that point — before you get all these reviews, and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I should be changing this. Is this working? Is this not working?”
Some of the films that were big inspirations for this movie, like Ratcatcher and George Washington and countless others, were those [directors’] first films. And a lot of them take place in their hometown or somewhere near their hometown, or a story based on their childhood. There’s a long line of these great first features that are very personal. I think this is, hopefully, my addition to that line of great films that I really like… it was my version of that film.
In some ways, there was no other first feature I could have made. There weren’t scripts I was considering, or anything like that. I was just writing it, and once it was written, I was like, “Let’s make this.”
I know that you’ve had personal experience with what happens in the film. How exactly did that shape you creatively?
The thing is, the movie started out as being very autobiographical. The first scenes in the script were scenes that I would write just because I would remember this thing that happened to me when I was nine, or whatever. And I’d write it down. I don’t keep a journal or anything. My journal is writing a little script idea, or a two-page scene in script format that happened to me. Or that I wished had happened to me. Or that was some dramatized version of something my brother did once, or whatever. So, the script started as 10 or 15 little scenes, not totally connected — not even literally in the same document, just in the same folder of scenes about my childhood.
And then as I continued to realize that these were part of a bigger thing, the theme of death and the theme of loss came up a lot. Obviously the two characters came up a lot. I said that maybe this was something bigger, maybe I should combine these — see what it’s like to read this scene and then this scene and then this scene. And that also influenced the structure of the film. I liked that I was writing it kind of from memory, but also enhancing it because you don’t necessarily need to stay true to it. I wasn’t making an autobiography. So, my neighbor, when I grew up, really did tie my dog to a cinderblock once. [Laughs] Because he kept going on his property. I didn’t go and retaliate, but I really wanted to. So, in my movie, the kids retaliate. So, it’s sort of being able to use your life as a seed, but then not being afraid to make a proper story out of it.
The theme of death came up a lot. The event in the film that sort of starts the film off isn’t exactly something that happened. It’s sort of an amalgamation of times when somebody in my town died — somebody in my high school did pass away, my roommate in college did pass away. Not in the way that you see in the film, but in the same sort of suddenness of it. The unanswerable tragedy of it. The movie was more about having something happen that was similar to what happened to me and would set people off in the same way that I was set off. In this search for something that you’ll never really find an answer to. So, again, it’s not fully autobiographical, but it’s a movie that has events that happen that hopefully make the audience feel the way I did growing up. So, it’s autobiographical emotionally, you could say, but not actually beat for beat in the narrative.
In a lot of Hollywood movies, there’s the tendency to go general in order to relate to the most amount of people — I think when you go specific, when you go really personal, is when it does have the best effect. But were you ever worried about that? “Just because something affected me in a specific way, that doesn’t mean…”
I think you’re right. Some things are so universally relatable that they become kind of grey. There’s no specifics to it anymore. Everybody can to relate to trying to get into college! But that’s actually not that interesting. Because everybody relates to it, it’s not specific enough to raise an eyebrow and want to know more. I tried to balance the line... everything that happens in the film is very specific, but there’s also a lot of ambiguity to the spaces in between the scenes we’re watching. I didn’t want to say exactly what the aftermath of this accident was for the family or for the town or for the police investigation, or anything like that. By leaving the bigger things ambiguous, I think people fill in the gaps themselves. But the reason the want to fill in the gaps is because you’re giving them these super specific things that only someone who experienced it themselves or who heavily researched a place or who spent a lot of time in a place would know.
And those are the things that I always respond to in a character and in a film. There’s the plot of the film, but then what does that person do when they’re alone? What does that person do before they go to bed? What does that person’s morning routine look like? And that’s when I feel like you get the most out of somebody. So this movie, you could argue, is a series of really specific moments in these kids’ lives that have some strong effect on them. But then everything else is left up to the audience. And they’ve all been kids before, and a lot of people grew up in a rural place like this. By giving them these little specifics and then leaving the bigger questions unanswered, they said, “Well, when me and my brother did something like that, my mom would have yelled at us.”
I’ve had people tell me about scenes that aren’t even in the movie that they sort of invented. “Oh, the scene where they get yelled at by their parents for leaving.” That’s not a scene in the movie. It’s insinuated, because everybody’s had that experience. It’s sort of a balance of giving a lot of specifics, but also keeping it ambiguous enough that people can kind of put themselves in the world and remember what it was like to be that age.
But to be honest, when I was writing, it wasn’t something I was thinking about. Maybe it was because I was naïve and I had never made a feature before, but I wasn’t writing to raise money, I knew I would make it for very little money and that I would probably be paying for it mostly myself. I wasn’t sending it out to production companies or producers or trying to build the biggest audience I could. I was just trying to make the best movie I thought I could. A lot of it is luck, I’ll be totally honest. Some experiments that ended up paying off. And now I know! Now when I read what people respond to and talk to people after the film, now I get maybe why the movie worked. But at the time, it wasn’t a totally conscious thing. It was the movie I wanted to make — “I’m not so interested in this, but I am very interested in this” — luckily, other people shared that opinion.
Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
Going back to what you said about the routines of these characters. I remember you mentioning that a lot of the dialogue and a lot of the scenes were sort of in the hands of the kids. I was wondering how much of these two characters specifically that you knew and that you had invented before the movie, or at script level? And how much of that changed when you cast the actors, or how much of the characters came originally from the two boys?
Almost all of the scenes in the film are scenes in the script, but [the script was] always a skeleton. I knew what I wanted the movie to be, and I knew pretty much how I wanted it to start and end — but I wasn’t even totally sure about that. I knew that with a film like this, where the structure is very loose and almost a series of vignettes at times, that I’d be able to shoot everything I wanted to shoot and then also say, “Well, what if we start the movie here? That might color the rest of the movie if you see this first…” Because there isn’t a ton of chronological stuff in the film.
[With the dialogue], I was trying to sort of remember how I talked when I was nine or when I was 14. That, to me, leads to the worst child performances, when they are trying to remember lines very specifically. They end up sounding like little adults, or they’re written so young that they end up sounding not as intelligent as they really are. So I knew that the dialogue specifically would be kind of thrown out the window. We’d always do a take with it, just so they knew what the scene was about. And every now and then there’s a line that does need to lead to some other line later, or something. So we said, “Be sure to say this one line, but other than that, do what you want to do. Here’s what the scene is about, here’s where you’re coming from, this is what you want to get out of him, etcetera.” We’d do my version, and then their version, and we’d usually end up somewhere in between, on take three or four.
But I wanted to give them the ability to be creatively responsible for a lot of the movie. Especially for non-actors, I think they are not coming into it with the training that adults have, to be able to hit marks and turn to the camera, and always give them the best side of their face, and say these lines. I think sometimes it’s best to let kids be kids, and let them stumble on each other’s lines, and cut each other off, and don’t answer if you don’t want to answer. If you wouldn’t actually answer in real life, then don’t answer. If you do say words there, it’s going to sound weird. And if he’s bothering you in the scene, move away from him. If you want to put him in a headlock, put him in a headlock. So there’s a lot of stuff like that.
Long story short, there was definitely a little arc that I knew we wanted to hit. I knew these scenes were going to be together, and this scene was going to be here, and I knew this scene needed to start with this... little details like [Ryan Jones] spraying the cut on his leg. Obviously that was pre-planned, it wasn’t a real cut, things like that. But a lot of the scenes, like the beginning and end of the movie, were just Ryan and Nate [Varnson] being Ryan and Nate.
We would be off doing something else, some sort of film set nonsense, ordering lunch or something, and Ryan would be standing in the rain trying to catch raindrops in his mouth. And I would go, “That’s better than the scene I had written. Let’s go shoot that.” A lot of the most authentic moments in the film feel the way they do because they really were Ryan and Nate being themselves. Bored kids on a movie set. We’d throw them in costume quick and tell them to keep doing what they’re doing, and then we’d make a scene out of it. The script was done, but I knew that 75 percent was going to stay, and for the other 25 percent, I was hoping for these little happenings to occur. Luckily for the movie, they did.
You said sometimes it was preferable when the boys didn’t say anything at all. Do you, as a fan of movies or as a filmmaker or as a writer, respond to nonverbal, or largely nonverbal performances in general?
Yeah, I do. I don’t have any real insight into why. For me, I love Woody Allen films. I love films that are really smartly written, really fast dialogue, things like that. But I tend to respond best to film as a medium when it is mostly visual. Well, visual and audio, but not necessarily dialogue. I think when you watch two people talk — other than in a situation like this [interview], where it’s literally only talking — I think most communication is nonverbal. It’s physical, and it’s through body language. Or it’s through talking about other things, but the subtext of that dialogue is what [they are] really saying to each other.
Films need dialogue, but I think less is more. I think when somebody does speak — like in real life, usually, when somebody finally does speak — it’s more meaningful when it carries a bunch of weight with it. Especially with young kids. Young boys don’t sit down and have heart to heart conversations. They communicate by beating the crap out of each other, and trying to have a power struggle. Or sometimes not being violent to your little brother is your way of being very nice to him. The whole way you judge emotions is totally skewed when you’re a young boy.
Again, the thing that film can do that a lot of other artistic mediums can’t do is combine images and sound in this way. Dialogue, obviously, is needed and sometimes is just as valuable, but I think stories to me — the most compelling cinematic experiences, I’ll say — are when images and sound are combining and I do not necessarily have to follow dialogue. Maybe I just can’t handle three things at once. [Laughs] But some of my favorite films are mostly wordless, because they are more pure to what I think cinema was intended to be, in a way.
Do you have examples?
Stalker is one of my favorite films. Tarkovsky. There is a lot of dialogue at times, but it’s kind of this psychobabble and I think that’s kind of the point. But again, there are 20-minute spans of that film with nothing. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I could go on. I’ll send you a list. [Laughs] These films where I sort of get hypnotized by what I’m seeing and hearing, and I’m not necessarily following a narrative. A traditional narrative. I like characters in a place just being. I like having time to absorb the space and absorb the tone and the atmosphere of the film. And then I’ll take a little bit of plot. But once I’m in this new place, I like to be able to absorb. I think Tarkovsky does that really well. I mention Ratcatcher all the time. I mean, there is dialogue in that, but not as much as a traditional film. A lot of that is kids exploring.
I kind of want to close with my big, obnoxious question. There are countless movies about death. Some would argue that every movie is about death. I was thinking about the movie Rabbit Hole before. That’s another movie about a very similar topic, but done in a very different way. And I like that movie a lot, but there are these big scenes of breakdowns and people talking out their thoughts. And I wanted to know if, with Hide Your Smiling Faces, there was something you were trying to say about cinematic depictions of death. To make a movie that handles death in a way you haven’t seen.
The death side, I was trying to say that the way kids respond, which sometimes is counterintuitive to the way an adult would respond in a situation, is not necessarily any more right or wrong. The adults in this film are not dealing with the situation any better, arguably. There’s the guy who is very religious — not a statement on religion necessarily, but that’s his way of dealing with it. The mother and father sort of take a back seat. They’re not sure what to do, so they become distant. The kids don’t cry, but they still feel... also, the title. You’re told to feel a certain way, society says this is the right way to grieve. But I don’t necessarily feel like that’s true. The movie is more about the idea of a right and wrong way to grieve, and how that is sort of a silly notion. How sometimes, with their raw instincts, are more honest than adults, who have been trained to feel a certain way when a certain event happens.
Hide Your Smiling Faces is available in select theaters and on VOD now.
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For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.