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Director Daniel Carbone Discusses 'Hide Your Smiling Faces' a Different Kind of Coming-of-Age Film

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Mar 29, 2014 | 2:25pm EDT

Hide Your Smiling FacesTribeca 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.

Hide Your Smiling FacesTribeca 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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