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[This story contains spoilers for Smile.]
Nobody is smiling more than filmmaker Parker Finn these days.
Finn knows full well that his feature directorial debut, Smile, has had a charmed run. Originally green lit to be a Paramount+ exclusive, the Sosie Bacon-led horror movie about a curse that reveals itself in the form of a smile has defied the odds at every turn, culminating in a theatrical box office run of nearly $216 million on a $17-million budget. The decision to forego Paramount+ and release the film theatrically was mostly informed by the first test screening that occurred three months into post-production.
“They always warn you ahead of time that horror routinely scores lower than other genres, and horror films that have the mean tone that Smile has score even lower than that, so they were prepared to look at it through that lens,” Finn tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Unlike most modern-day blockbusters that are covered by the press in exhausting detail throughout production, there was no existing awareness of the film, which meant that test audience reactions would be unadulterated.
“It was a 270-person, sold-out screening in Burbank, and when the movie started playing, you could feel the electricity in the air,” Finn recalls. “The audience was screaming at the screen, so it was very clear that the communal environment and nature of it was incredible. And to Paramount’s credit, they recognized that, and they got behind the film in such an amazing way.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Finn also discusses a potential Smile sequel and how it wouldn’t take the obvious approach.
So is there something in the water at Paramount right now? Is it the afterglow of Top Gun: Maverick and all their other number-one movies this year?
(Laughs.) That’s a good question for them. Paramount has certainly had a marquee year, and I’m so beyond thrilled that Smile got to be a part of that.
Smile was supposed to go to Paramount+ until the first test screening. What happened from there?
Yeah, we were green lit, budgeted and scheduled to be a Paramount+ film, and I was so excited about the opportunity to get to make a movie with a studio as a first-time filmmaker. I was given a really healthy amount of resources for my first film, and we set out to make the best movie we could. And then we got to that first test screening, which was about 12 or 13 weeks into post, and they always warn you ahead of time that horror routinely scores lower than other genres. And horror films that have the mean tone that Smile has score even lower than that, so they were prepared to look at it through that lens.
And at that first test screening, there was no [existing] marketing or knowledge of what the movie was. It was a 270-person, sold-out screening in Burbank, and when the movie started playing, you could feel the electricity in the air. The audience was screaming at the screen, so it was very clear that the communal environment and nature of it was incredible. And to Paramount’s credit, they recognized that, and they got behind the film in such an amazing way by creating this wonderful marketing campaign. They really threw all their support behind it, and it’s beyond surreal to see what the movie has done.
Who do you credit for the brilliant viral marketing campaign that put creepy smilers at baseball games and whatnot?
All the departments at Paramount are amazing experts at what they do, and they’re really good at thinking outside of the box. Marc Weinstock sits in the highest chair of the marketing department at Paramount, and there’s a reason why he’s there. Brian Pianko is the head of creative advertising, so all of the professionals working over there are amazing. And when that idea to put smilers at baseball games came up, we talked about it maybe five or six weeks before it happened. And I just loved that they wanted to do it truly guerilla and not put their thumb on the scale. They were like, “If people catch on, they catch on. If they don’t, no harm, no foul. It’s not going to cost a ton of money to do it.” And the smilers first happened when we were down in Austin for our premiere at Fantastic Fest, and watching it go viral was just so incredible and gratifying and exciting.
So for the rest of Sosie Bacon’s life, complete strangers are going to flash their most disturbing smiles at her on the street. How guilty or responsible do you feel?
(Laughs.) Guilty? Maybe a little. And maybe a bit responsible. Sosie has been such a great partner through all of this, so I think she’ll take it in stride. [Writer’s Note: When asked about this, Sosie previously told THR, “Honestly, I don’t mind that. I just don’t want anyone to yell at me to smile. Women get told that enough.”]
Sosie also told me that you didn’t have people flash their creepiest smiles during casting. Is that true?
Well, none of the smiles in the film are from throwaway characters. So the casting was all about who could nail the performances, but for some of the supporting roles, we did ask for a smile. I knew that the smile was something that we could dial in later, but most of all, I needed to make sure that the performances were what they needed to be.
Sosie’s performance speaks for itself. She more than earned the role, and her last name has no bearing on how strong her work is. But did part of you appreciate that she has horror lineage?
As a fan of horror and both her parents, I certainly enjoyed all of that, but that was not at all a part of casting of Sosie. I’d already seen what she can do as a performer; I was a huge fan of Mare of Easttown, which I’d just watched before casting this film. But it was also what she brought to our conversations when we first met and how she thought about the script and the character and the challenges that she was really eager to take on as an artist. She was looking for something that would really scare her as a performer.
So she was saying all the right things, and it was very clear to me that she was the right one for the role. She’s been such an incredible partner through this whole process, and she had to pretty much do the impossible. The places she had to go were so extreme, those levels of tension and anxiety and fear and melodrama. And she’s in almost every scene. Our turnaround was basically her turnaround. So it was a grueling role to take on, and she took it on with such aplomb that I’m incredibly proud of what she achieved.
You gave us the final girl ending until you didn’t. Did you try it on for size initially and just not feel it, hence that sudden swerve?
From very early on when I was developing the script, I felt a very strong draw towards allowing the film to find its worst logical conclusion. It felt right for the story that I was telling, and I was hoping it would feel earned. So I knew from an early point that we were always heading to the destination that we eventually got to, but how we were going to get there changed a few times along the course. I wanted to do the thing that the audience didn’t want to happen, but it was also important to me to be able to reach an emotional catharsis before we take that very dark turn. So I was kind of hoping to have my cake and eat it, too.
Did the hospital scene with Sosie, Kal Penn and Jack Sochet disturb the crew the most?
(Laughs.) That was a fun one, and it was mostly achieved, practically. There’s, of course, a little bit of post sweetening on it, but on set, it was very fun to have both a version of Kal Penn that looks like Kal Penn and a version that has no face. (Laughs.) There were a lot of photos taken that day where we posed with both of them at the same time. There’s just something really exciting about working with practical effects and doing something way over the top on set. It’s always one of those moments where the whole crew gathers around and watches the monitor. Tearing a famous actor’s face off is not something you get to do that often on set, so it’s quite fun. So once you put the movie together, it makes it really intense and frightening, but on the day, it’s kind of a blast.
How much thought have you given a Joel-led (Kyle Gallner) sequel that picks up right where you left off?
I do think that there is still a lot of interesting stuff to explore in the world of Smile. There certainly are stones that I left unturned by design. And then there are other things that I, at one point or another, wanted to put in the movie, but they didn’t end up in the movie for whatever reason. So those things are still exciting to me, but if there’s more to be done with Smile, I would never want to just repeat myself or retread the same ground. I’d want to make sure that there’s a new, exciting, fresh way into it that the audience isn’t anticipating. I also want to find some new ways to scare them and unnerve them. But as far as how it may connect to the first one, if we were to do it, I’d want that to be surprising as well.
Well, Parker Finn, congratulations on Smile’s success, and I’ll see you in a year or two for Smile$.
(Laughs.) I love it. Thank you.
Smile, which is now available on digital, will release its Blu-ray/4K on Dec. 13th.
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