[Interview] Parker Finn for SMILE
SMILE l Paramount Pictures
In Parker Finn’s debut feature film, SMILE, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain after witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.

Prior to the film’s release, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew e-chatted with writer/director Parker Finn, where they discussed everything from adapting Laura Hasn’t Slept into a feature film, what research went into the mental health aspects of the film, and the concept behind the smile.

SMILE heavily involves topics pertaining to suicide, self-harm, and mental health. If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. SMILE is your first feature-length film inspired by your short, Laura Hasn’t Slept. What made you decide to take that short and execute it into a feature-length film? 

Parker Finn: I think the best shorts that arere self-contained should exist for their own sake and that was certainly my intention at the time. I was in post finishing Laura Hasn’t Slept, and something about it kept nagging at me and I was sort of obsessively thinking about it. Before I knew it, this idea for a larger story started emerging from it that had a brand new character journey and all these new ideas. And I just, I don’t know, I couldn’t let go of it. It sort of had its grips on me. 

One of the aspects I love most about this film is the aesthetic, especially in regards to the colorful psych ward that our main character works in, which is vastly different from the cold, clinical look that is so often seen in films. Can you talk about the decision behind that?  

Parker Finn: I spoke with my collaborators and we were talking about how we wanted to avoid anything like overtly, visually tropey. We didn’t want anybody to look at something and automatically be like, Oh, this is a horror film. We wanted the fear and the anxiety to come from the context of what’s happening inside of these spaces. And with the hospital, that was a set that we built. I didn’t want to do anything gothic. I wanted it to feel more like a Kafka-esque bureaucratic administrative nightmare.

With the colors, we wanted to do something unusual. We had read this study that was from back in the sixties where they found out that this sort of Pepto Bismol pink color somehow was supposed to make violent inmates less violent. So my production designer, Lester Cohen, and I, really grabbed onto that. I love the suffocating, uncanny feel of that environment.

Sosie Bacon and Jack Sochet in SMILE

How did the smile come about? Did you have a lot of concept art that you looked at before arriving at the final one? When did you know you had it? 

Parker Finn: I knew from the beginning I wanted the smiles to be practical human performances cause I think there’s something so uncanny about that. When they’re real smiles yet they’re so unsettling. It kind of all started while I was writing the script. I would go to the bathroom and smile at myself in the mirror and see how I could creep myself out. On set, the actors all came prepared and did a lot of work on that. Before we would go [film], we’d spend a little time just smiling back and forth at each other trying to dial it in on set to make sure they had it just right. There’s a through line with all the smiles, but everybody brings their own kind of little flavor to it. 

I do have to bring up the mental health aspect of the film as one of the main themes focuses on suicide. What type of research did you do and were you concerned that this might upset people who struggle with mental illness/suicide? 

Parker Finn: I spoke with a few psychologists and let them read the script and weigh in which was really important to me, and I did a bunch of research as well. Anytime I’m writing I’m putting personal stuff into it as well but I’m always translating it through the lens of genre to take it away from the personal because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to engage with it if I made things too personal.

But what was really, really important to me was to tell a compelling human character story that was exploring the human condition. I think we all are walking around with these things inside of us. Whether it’s traumas or grief or anxieties or fears and the way that we mask those from the world. That was something I was really interested in exploring as well, placing the audience in the shoes of a character who feels like their mind is turning against them and how frightening that could be. But it was always really important to me that we are really, really placed with the character and feel that sense of empathy.

I mean, it is kind of like a gleefully evil movie, which was very intentional. I wanted to be provocative and transgressive, but I also wanted to tell this story that felt grounded and real, and honest. And hopefully, after the audience watches the film, they’ll look at someone who is trying to describe an experience they’re having that’s really difficult to explain and maybe look at that a little differently than they did before they watched the film. 

Which brings me to my next question – what do you want people to take away from this film?

Parker Finn: I think we’re starting to get to a place where as a society we’re speaking more openly about [mental illness], but I still think we have a ways to go. And certainly, I wish we had more access to help and things like that. I’m not somebody who feels like I’m in a position to be telling anybody a message or having a declarative statement on anything, but I’m hoping that people will think about it in a new way, hopefully, after watching the film. 

SMILE is now available in theaters. To learn more about the film, check out our review.

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