Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces.
Hide Your Smiling Faces takes an different route than the usual coming-of-age stories about youth figuring out the world. Directed by newcomer Daniel Patrick Carbone, the film, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, centers on two brothers whose summer becomes overshadowed by a friend's mysterious death. The tragedy ripples through their rural town, causing an unsettledness among them and their friends. Hide Your Smiling Faces gives insight into a sensitive age while still leaving gaps for the audience to fill in. Acting newcomers Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson play Eric, 14, and Tommy, 9, who question morality, their home, and friendships.
Carbone spoke to FilmLinc Daily about the story, elements of which he took from his own upbringing in rural New Jersey. The filmmaker talked about his fascination with teen stories, straying from the script, and breaking some of the steadfast rules of filmmaking when it comes to children, water, and animals.
The film screens as part of Film Society's ongoing Indie Night series on September 18.
FilmLinc Daiy: Is this film a composite of your life and friends or what inspired it?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: It's definitely a composite, but primarily of my own childhood or adolescence and my brother's. It started as a snapshot of shorts I did. Some of the things in the movies had happened to me or were slightly dramatized versions of them. As I continued, I saw there were consistent themes happening and I bridged them together. I wouldn't call it autobiographical, but there were definitely some things there that happened to me and I filled out some of the gaps. It was always dictated by what I would have done or my brother would have done, or considering what my childhood self would have done. So even if it wasn't directly autobiographical, it was inspired by my upbringing.
FD: A lot of films dive into crushes or burgeoning sexuality in "coming of age" stories, but this takes a darker take on adolescence, is that a fair characterization?
DPC: Yeah, absolutely
FD: So this being a composite of your experiences as well as your brother's, why did you decide to concentrate on themes of death, perhaps alienation, etc.?
DPC: Partially it was because some of the earliest stories I wrote were about finding dead animals... They happened to be on my mind and they are certainly themes you don't see very often in film. There are many movies where [there's guys] chasing girls and of course that's all great, but I wanted to explore some of those darker elements that we all go through. They're not the zeitgeist of the teenage summer that we all remember, but the darker elements are certainly there. I remember when my grandparents passed away, what impactful moments those were, even more so in many ways than me having my first girlfriend.
So I wanted to make a film that looked at the other side of being that age that, to me, is just as important for who you become as an adult. I didn't want it to be overbearing or overly depressing, hopefully, but to give a realistic portrayal of that other side of being that age. I think those moments are just as formative as some of the other aspects of growing up.
FD: Tell me about your main actors Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones who are at the center of the film. How did you find them?
DPC: We didn't have budget for a casting director so we just basically did it the way we know how, which is how we did our student films. We did an open call on Craig's List and the sites that are free to do casting notices. We saw maybe over 100 kids from 7 to 18 at an office and we didn't necessarily audition people for specific roles. Nate and Ryan, for very two different reasons, stood out as right for the parts. They didn't come in with the traditional high school theater acting that you typically see from their age group. They're real kids who want to be in an interesting film and tell stories. You could tell they were ready to come in and fill out the skeletal characters in the script.
Ryan, the younger one, was really the most professional one on the set. He just kind of nailed it, really. And Nate is a total non-pro actor who had been a small town model in Atlanta and had a great look and wanted to act and didn't have that baggage. He just said to tell me where to go and didn't know how to do it the wrong way, so he just did it his own way and that worked for a movie like this.
FD: There were a significant number of open-ended questions, especially when it came to the adults in the film. Details are not explained and the audience is given leeway to fill in the gaps…
DPC: Definitely yes. Personally, those are my favorite experiences as an audience member, when we're not fed every detail. I feel as an audience member that the filmmakers respect me to be able to fill in some detail. And as a filmmaker, those are my favorite kind of Q&As, getting audience interpretation of some of those smaller moments—but I certainly don't want there to be confusion. In order for the movie to progress, you have to present certain details.
But I like hearing people's interpretations because they're just as valid as anything I can come up with. My interpretations can change when watching something again. In this case, people may come up with how Ian died or what his relationship was with his father. Sometimes movies over-share information and it takes away from the audience's ability to engage and get involved with the story. I like to keep certain things open so they're not just sitting passively, being fed whatever I give them.
Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces
FD: There were even moments when situations would come up and I felt anxiety or fear, and they didn't necessarily fulfill themselves in the way I anticipated.
DPC: It's not a horror film by any means, but I like following some of those thriller elements where the audience is going to anticipate something scarier, and I like letting people's imaginations run wild a bit, so hopefully what does happen isn't exactly as they expected. It was kind of an experiment I was willing to to do and I think it was successful… It was my first time doing a feature film and I wanted to play with things a little. Some things worked better than others, but I wanted to engage the audience and let them be a part of the experience.
FD: How closely did you stick to the script? Youth vernacular can evolve so quickly, so I'm curious how you incorporated their dialogue into the script while maintaining an authenticity.
DPC: There is a full 80-page script, but it was more of a guide to fall back on. But as you said, kids are always going to have their own way of speaking that's going to be more natural than if an adult writes for a kid. Certain lines were important for the plot and through-line, so there are moments where lines are verbatim, but 95% of the dialog was improvised versions of what I had written in the script. I knew it would sound better to just let them do it naturally. I think it gave authenticity to it.
FD: The setting is very rural and pretty and an important conduit to the story. It's in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area right?
DPC: Yes, it's the Delaware River area in northwestern New Jersey. It's the area I grew up. It takes place at the house I grew up in, my neighbor's house, and best friend's house. Parts of the script were written specifically for those locations and, to me, there was no other place I would have this film be. All these places are important to me and it's where some of these things actually happened. Also, selfishly, I wanted to put New Jersey on film. I think it gets a bad reputation and I wanted to show it in a better light.
FD: I was impressed with the animals you used, especially since you were working with a tight budget and you managed to get some great moments from them.
DPC: I've worked with animals in my shorts. For me, they have to be in everything I do. I think it's strange when there aren't animals in movies, for some reason. Something we heard constantly at NYU was no kids, no animals, and no water, but I broke all those rules for this. It bums me out whenever I hear someone say that because I think that's one of the most exciting things you can have in a movie. With the bear, specifically, that was something I had written originally into the script. As we were getting closer to the shoot, it would get cut and then added back in and cut again. But I felt passionately about it and felt it needed to be there. Nature provides a calming response in this story—to these boys. So we went for it and found a guy who had this amazing compound of every animal you could imagine in New York State. That was the one thing we shot outside of New Jersey. It was definitely one of the most challenging shoot days.
FD: Weapons also play some pivotal moments throughout the film. They're obviously very prevalent in American society, so did you use them to give authenticity and/or a quiet commentary on their ubiquity?
DPC: It wasn't so much that it would be unrealistic without them. I find myself writing guns into almost everything that I do and it's weird because it's not me and not my experience growing up. There was a big hunting culture so they definitely existed around me and I'd see them at my friends' houses… So yeah, putting in some of that rural culture in there was [relevant]. Violence is kind of a way young men communicate, sometimes, so the gun and also the wrestling scenes were all tied in there.
FD: Would you like to continue to explore youth going forward or what kinds of things would you like to do down the road?
DPC: My shorts have all been surrounding kids and teenagers. I've been doing a documentary with a friend for longer than I had been doing this film and it's also about teenagers and we're starting to get back into it. [The doc explores] kids in different industrial areas of the U.S. and what they do for fun and to get into trouble. It's sort of a doc version of this film, in some ways. And yeah, I'm writing more and it all involve teenagers or at least people in their early 20s.
There's a level of unexpectedness with people that age and watching someone figure out who they are. I'm not much older than some of these people and, perhaps, it's a bit of therapy for myself watching people figure out the world and what it all means. It's the focus of some of the greatest movies ever made. There's something about how kids make good and bad decisions that just appeals to me…