Smile Interview: Director Parker Finn on Bleak Endings & Sequel Potential

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director Parker Finn about his popular horror film, Smile. Finn discussed the appeal of bleak endings and how to properly use gore. Smile can now be purchased digitally and streamed on Paramount+.

“After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter begins to experience terrifying events that she cannot explain,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.”

Tyler Treese: I read that the film was originally targeted for a streaming release, but got such good test screenings that they moved it to theatrical. What did that support from the studio really mean to you when they broke it up and turned it into a major release?

Parker Finn: Yes, even from the beginning, the opportunity to have made this film with Paramount was definitely a dream come true. I was very excited that they were behind the film and, as a first-time filmmaker, gave me the resources to make it happen. When that decision was made to take the film to a wide theatrical release, it was like a real “pinch me” moment. It was beyond exciting and I have to tip my hat to Paramount for getting behind it in such a big way and putting together a great marketing campaign. I want to make films that are designed to be seen big and loud and in a shared experience. It was meant to be made Smile. [I’m] so glad people got to see it that way.

The marketing was really inventive. I loved that they had people in the NBA playoffs in the crowds smiling so creepily. How cool was it to see all the different ideas they came up with?

It was really fun. We had a lot of meetings and what I love about Paramount marketing is how good they are at thinking outside the box. They wanted to do something that would feel unique. They wanted to do something that really felt like a guerilla in nature, and the idea of ​​sending smilers to sporting events came up. They always said, “we don’t want to put our thumbs on the scales. We don’t want to make it feel forced.” We just want to see if we can organically get people to notice.” I remember when it started to take off and started to be reposted everywhere and shared very widely… it was so cool. People have to connect the dots and figure it out. And so many people, I think, had no idea that the movie suddenly existed because they were watching a baseball game, it was a very fun thing to be a part of.

When you watch a movie today, there is almost always a very safe, happy ending. You don’t go that way. It’s not a happy ending. What went into the decision not to end the curse and have a bit of a downer there? I’m sure it shocked many in the audience.

I’m not a big fan of endings that are tied up neatly with a bow. I think sometimes it might be too easy or maybe not as true as the rest of the movie. From an early stage I knew I was interested in following this story to its worst logical conclusion. But I also wanted to make sure there was an emotional catharsis that we had before that, you know? I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. But seeing if we could give Rose that conclusion to the journey we’ve been on with her—this really personal journey—would hopefully feel satisfying. But at the same time, I think that sometimes there is just evil in the universe, and you can’t always stop an inevitable force of nature. To me, it felt like there was something really, really bad about doing it. I don’t know, it was always part of the story.

I love it. And the movie was such a success and had some clever world building. You could do a sequel that takes place at the end of the movie, but you’re also talking about, “Oh, there are these other chains happening in different countries.” There are so many great points where you can dive into spin-offs. Was that in mind when you did that world building, or is it just a happy accident now that it’s so successful that there are so many starting points?

Never in a million years did I think people would ask me for another one of these movies, which is great! I think there are many exciting things that could be done in the world of Smile. There are many corners that I intentionally left unexplored and things that I wish I could have done in the first place, but there just wasn’t room to do. That would be really exciting. What I think is really important Smile is the character story at the center of it and how the character’s emotionality and themes are so tied to what is happening. And that’s really important, I think, if ever there was a consideration for one more Smile, that it would be part of what it’s doing and that it would feel … perhaps unexpected from what we experienced in the first film. Another film might do something that feels completely different, yet is unique Smile at the same time.

One thing I really loved about the film was the uncertainty throughout. With the mental imagery, you are able to lay down the work for these roads that are being teased but not going down. So how fun was it to work within the expectations of the viewers and to be able to take them on such a wild ride?

I really love making things that have a real audience participation element to them. That, to me, is really fun if I can make people cringe or squirm in their seats or laugh nervously because they’re really uncomfortable or then in moments like jump out of their seats in surprising ways. I love guiding an audience down a path and then pulling the rug out from under them – it’s one of my favorite things to do. But it also felt very much like it was tied to the motifs of the film: what happens to Rose and what the supernatural elements do to her. The film does the same to the audience and it creates the same experience for the audience that the character feels. I really love that element of the movie.

Were you able to go to some theaters and see regular moviegoers experience it and go along for the ride?

Yeah, I went to the opening weekend for a couple of screenings which were really fun because they were sold out screenings and I just went anonymous and watched with the audience. The whole reason for doing any of this is for the audience and to hear them connect with and embrace the film as it seems when you’re in the theater with them is amazing. Making a movie is so much hard work and that’s what makes it all worth it.

There are some really inventive and funny death scenes in this movie. What was it like to decide how much blood is too much?

I love well-used crap when it’s used to precise effect. Knowing when to use restraint and when to go all in on something I think is an important line to walk. There are a lot of different filmmaking elements that come together around the blood or violence that I think hopefully elevate the experience of it, like how we use the camera, the performances, the sound design and the score. Bringing everyone [that] things together, while also pairing practical effects with VFX, you can create this really unsettling experience, and I was just really happy that we got some of those out.

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