Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits writer/director Parker Finn’s blockbuster horror film, Smile.
2022 saw more than a few horror films do well at the box-office, but the year’s biggest (and most profitable) horror release is Parker Finn’s Smile. It earned $216 million on a $17 million budget meaning it’s a massive hit for Paramount and yet another boon for the horror genre. (It’s also probably the start of a new franchise…) The film explores trauma with jump scares, atmosphere, and silliness.
I’ll admit to being in the minority on this one despite its immense popularity, and my indifference is only partly due to the film being a very clear riff on 2014’s It Follows. Seriously, from the premise itself to the “giant” scare coming through the doorway — just acknowledge the inspiration! That combined with the over abundance of hallucinations and fake-outs just leaves me cold. Still, it’s well-acted and looks good, so that’s something!
That’s not going to stop me from giving Finn’s director track a listen, though, so keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Smile.
Commentator: Parker Finn (writer/director)
1. It was important to him to take the tragedy from Rose’s (Sosie Bacon) childhood and “hang it as like a black cloud” over her from beginning to end.
2. He wanted the actor playing Rose to have “depth and humanity” but who could also “really lose herself in the anxiety and stress that the movie was going to require.” Finn says Bacon pulls off a magic trick and does just that.
3. In addition to being difficult to design and execute, the overhead “one shot” of the ambulance arriving that then pans up to enter the hospital room was meant to suggest “something omniscient” coming for Rose.
4. The scene where Rose first meets Laura (Caitlin Stasey) is designed as a parallel to Finn’s short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept” which was actually the springboard into this feature. The scene goes in a very different direction from the short, and you can see for yourself as it’s included on the disc.
5. Laura’s description of what she’s going through is just that, but Finn also wanted it to foreshadow both how the scene will end and what’s heading Rose’s way for the rest of the film. He told Stasey there “was no way to go too big with this moment,” and she delivered accordingly.
6. Finn knew from the start that he wanted the film’s title card to be very anxiety-inducing. An earlier version failed the Harding test which examines how triggering an image is to photosensitive viewers.
7. Mustache the cat is played by Star the cat, and the shot of it walking up to Rose was the first thing they filmed.
8. The smiles in the film are all natural and not enhanced with visual effects. The studio even asked if they could be tweaked, but Finn stuck to his guns as he wanted them to be grounded in their creepiness.
9. Finn most definitely doesn’t have a bubbly, overbearing, obnoxious sibling the likes of which “many of us have.”
10. The person Rose sees from the window at 25:10 is her dead mother. That’s also her mom saying “Rose” on the recording at 38:00.
11. He wanted to use practical effects as much as possible and “only use visual effects and CG to enhance or sweeten or bridge the gap when something isn’t possible practically.”
12. Finn points out that the gas station kill (shown on security footage) was intended to play “way bigger” than expected so there would be a real impact. “Of course, someone dying violently is never a thing to laugh at, but because there’s something so evil going on we wanted to lean into the gleeful absurdity of it all.”
13. The dangling head gag at 1:09:59 was part of the original script, and it’s “something that everyone around me was trying to wrap their head around.” Finn had to create storyboards to ensure everyone was picturing the same thing.
14. There’s a little Easter egg at 1:21:16 as Rose looks at her text thread with Trevor. His ID picture at the top shows him smiling while an earlier glance at the thread has a non-smiling pic.
15. The conversation at 1:23:00 between Rose and Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert) was filmed as a storm was brewing outside the window. It caused havoc as they tried to match the two sides, but they persevered using color correction and on-set lights.
16. Finn told the actors who would be smiling in the film that he wanted “dead eyes that do not match an incredibly uncomfortable wide tooth-bearing smile, that it was meant to feel predatory in nature.”
17. The mother growing in size is meant to drive home Rose’s feeling that she’s back to being a child again in the presence of her mother. The illusion was created in part with a rebuilt hallway at a smaller scale and part with the monstrous double played by Kevin Keppy.
18. Finn says the face at 1:48:20 is a “true look at the evil thing that’s been hiding behind all the smiles.” They called the entity Lollipop — thus explaining the use of The Chordettes’ “Lollipop” at the start of the end credits — and this is what happens at the end of every cycle as the beast physically enters the victim to make them commit suicide.
19. He doesn’t mention David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows even once.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I personally love a delayed title drop in a film.”
“The idea of a smile is something I wanted to use in multiple ways.”
“Here is our first upside down shot in the film.”
“I think humor is very important in a horror movie.”
“Everytime that Rose answers a phone in this movie something terrible happens.”
“Hopefully the first time people are watching this movie they’re asking themselves ‘what the fuck is happening right now?'”
“The most puckering thing you can do as a director is set someone on fire.”
The Smile commentary is Finn’s first, so we’ll cut him slack, but he sure does like telling us what’s happening on the screen. He describes things we’re seeing, things we’ve previously seen, and tells us what characters are thinking or why they’re doing what they’re doing. He tells us what characters are saying as they’re actually saying it! It’s all things you know if you’re, you know, watching the movie. He offers up a few explanations and ideas meaning it’s not a complete whiff of a listen, but there’s not nearly enough on that front. Finn also wraps up his commentary as soon as the end credits begin — nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but it’s typically a good time for a filmmaker to share more stories and accolades on the various names scrolling by. Anyway. Not a good track, but I’m happy for the film’s fans, for Finn on having a monster hit, and for the chance that he’ll direct a better script next time.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.