'Hide Your Smiling Faces': 6 Pieces of Advice From the Acclaimed Film's Director

Cannibalizing journal entries, venturing to the Middle East, and scrapping the whole "acting" thing are a few of the strategies employed by Daniel Patrick Carbone -- to remarkable effect.

Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces is one those rare coming-of-age tone poems that gets away with it. The Hollywood Reporter's review of the film calls it "remarkable" and "arresting," praising its patient-but-never-sluggish observational qualities. When asked how he nurtured his fragile story into being, when so many independent filmmakers strive for the Malick-ian vibe and falling face-first, Carbone is genuinely mystified. "I don't really know," he laughs. "I think it's kind of an instinctual thing?" 

Carbone spent a majority of his time since Hide Your Smiling Faces premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival one year ago reflecting on his process, watching it play for audiences in the U.S. and Europe, and learning more about the movie with each screening. He knows it works, and he considers that it might have to do with him trusting his gut. (Or his brain. Wherever memories are stored.) As he sends off Hide Your Smiling Faces' into a theatrical release and wraps his mind around a follow-up feature ("I've been traveling for almost the entirety of [the year] to festivals, trying to get another project going and not being able to because this film has long legs"), we asked Carbone to shed light on his creative process, in hopes of understanding why one movie works when another doesn't. Here are the six steps the writer-director took to realizing his critically acclaimed debut:

Step 1: Transplant Your Brain to Page

"This was the kind of movie that came about because I would always write down scenes from my childhood or teenage years and write them into a script format. I don't keep a journal, but I wrote down things that I wanted to remember in script format. Some are beat for beat of what happened to me and some are versions of what I wish had occurred, playing around with the idea of memory. So I realized I had the seeds of a feature. The same characters, a lot of the themes were coming up. And I thought, what if I kept writing this way, less about an A-B-C plot and more about finding 60 formative moments in my life (or a dramatized version of my life), then giving it some shape. I always tried to put my head back in that age and ask if it was true to that age. If it was, I felt confident that it wouldn't be too "navel-gazing." Because it's grounded in things that really happened, I think you're more willing to go along for the ride. It's not just an audio-visual experience."

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Step 2: Hightail It Out of Your Comfort Zone 

"I started it in New York because I didn't know what it was going to be. When it became a script, I actually wrote most of it when I was working for NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East. I wrote it in the middle of the desert. I could not have been further from the location it takes place in. That was a way to stay connected to New York and New Jersey while I was 12,000 miles away. I have such a vivid memory of these things that I could stay true for it. When I knew it was going to be a film, I went back to those locations to refresh my memory."

Step 3: Boil It Down to Feelings and Embellish From There

"There's definitely reality in all of [the scenes], even in the more plot-driven sequences. The crucifix they find under the bridge is real because someone really died there. When you're eight or nine and you're kind of walking around these places finding these things, it's so surreal and mythical. That was part of the film for me, walking around these places and remembering how huge they felt when I was little. The film comes from that perspective, where everything feels bigger, larger than life, and scary. I grew up in New Jersey where the film takes place and there's lots of hunting. There were a few instances growing up where we were playing with guns in houses, which in hindsight is absolutely terrifying. So it's a realistic occurrence, but in the film I had to dramatize some things so that one thing leads to another. The death in the film isn't specifically someone I know but it's based on a few times in my life that someone passed away suddenly when I was rather young, and that feeling of how does it happen, how do we move on from this, how am I supposed to be feeling, am I supposed to be crying? Emotionally, it's autobiographical." 

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Step 4: Steal from the Best (During Pre-Production)

"I'm not one of those people who totally distances from themselves and make sure they don't have references in their movies because they want to be 100 percent unique. I think that often leads to a worse film. There are reasons things inspire you and reasons to pay homage to people in your work. I do find that watching movies too similar to what you're working on makes you feel like you should stop working on it. So when I'm deep in the process, I try to avoid that. But there are days when I'm like, what makes Taxi Driver work so well? Then I'll watch it and I'll go, "Oh, this scene leads to this scene and they make the audience feels this way because he does this." To ignore amazing films is foolish. If your goal is to make an audience feel a certain way, you should study your influences. But there's a negative side where you feel like a total hack for copying everyone. There's a fine line. We talked a lot about Ratcatcher , Lynne Ramsey film, George Washington , David Gordon Green's first film. Visually we watched [Andrei] Tarkovsky, not that we went that far in this movie but the idea of static one-takes and big wides. But once you start shooting you turn that all off. Hopefully, those little things come in subconsciously."

Step 5: Don't Even Bother Trying to Sell Hollywood on Your Script

"Maybe it was because it was naive and doing it for the first time, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to raise money for this movie. I made one short that I consider OK and I've been a DP. I'm not going to be able to use my patchwork to raise money. There are no names in it. It's a tiny movie. I thought, why spend money adjusting it to other peoples taste to get money? Why not go out and make it? If it's good, I can say, here's this movie I made, give me money."

Step 6: Remove "Acting" from the Shooting Equation

The number one thing I would always say, especially working with these kids, is that the reason that so many young performances aren't very strong is because they're written by adults. They're insisting upon "these words must be said" or "you must move over here, turn 180 degrees and say this line." Most adults can't even do that! So to have kids do that, kids with no training whatsoever, is a bad idea. What allows them to be real and honest and not come across as melodramatic is that they're not acting very much. They're playing characters I wrote and are in environments I took them to, but they're using their own relationships. There weren't rehearsals for the movie. I talked to them about their own siblings, their relationships to their parents, what they're friends do, why they're friends with those friends, then I can tell them what a scene is about. And just go. Some scenes needs certain lines, but it's giving them creative control. There were many times they would say, "I wouldn't say it like this." Or better, "I wouldn't respond to that." Little boys don't have heart-to-heart conversations with each other. It's physicality. 

Hide Your Smiling Faces is currently out in theaters and on VOD.