Difficult as it may be for any independent feature to break through the glut of crowded festivals and four-walled exhibitions, the critical notices and long, continent-spanning run handed to Daniel Patrick Carbone ensure that his feature debut, Hide Your Smiling Faces, will leave more of a mark. For a coming-of-age tale that eschews many typical niceties to, instead, shine light on the traumas such a time may bring, it can only speaks to the singularity and universality of his vision that many can thus respond in kind.
Our review commends Smiling Faces for the way it “achieves [an authenticity] by employing sparse, naturalistic dialogue and allowing the story to unfold through lyrical, unhurried moments.” There was some attempt to get at the heart of this approach in my discussion with the helmer, and it was to my own fortune that Carbone is, as soon became clear, fully attuned to every aspect of both his own project and how others seem to experience the whole thing. For a rather extensive tour through the process of pulling together such an endeavor, read on:
The Film Stage: Looking up prior interviews, I say you talk about this as a personal work. Is it strange, now that the movie’s out, to be talking about it with so many people? Sharing it after internalizing the whole thing for this amount of time?
Daniel Carbone: Yeah. I mean, it is kind of weird. It’s been over a year, actually, since we premiered, so it’s been kind of a long run leading up to any kind of public release of the movie, so I’ve had some time to kind of adjust to that. But, yeah, it is; it is because, you know, there definitely are a lot of elements in the film that are pretty autobiographical. As the writing process kind of continued — and even all the way through shooting — a lot of that stuff that started as being very specific to my own upbringing or very specific to my brother, things like that, a lot of those things kind of combined into other ideas or morphed a little into stuff that happens in the lives of the two boys playing the characters.
I tried to keep it pretty open, and I was never setting out to make it “my story,” or anything like that; it just happened, in the writing process, that of course the things I’m going to be interested in are things I experienced as a kid. But, as I wrote and wrote and the plot sort of came together, I became less interested in keeping this story authentic to my experience and more, just, hopefully making it a little more universal, and letting the kids who finally got cast, letting them speak the lines they felt the way they should speak them. If they had a brother.. the older boy has younger siblings, and he sort of used a lot of his relationships with his younger brothers and sisters as sort of part of his character and part of his performance.
While it started super-personal to me, it became a collaboration between the other kids in the film, and there were a lot of things that happened on the set which were better than what happened in my script, so I was willing to keep it organic and let whatever happens happens and not be so married to it. If something else comes up that’s more “true” to a scene in the movie, then it doesn’t really matter, to me, if it was exactly what happened when I was a kid or exactly where it happened. So, I became able to lose that, even before the movie came out. It isn’t really strange for me to talk about it, because it isn’t like I’m specifically talking about a trauma of my childhood with all these strangers. It started that way — it was based on that — but it devolved quite a bit.
But, regardless, was there anything you excised because it started to feel too personal? Were there any places you weren’t willing to go that, initially, was on your mind?
Not really. The obvious things in the film, that most people think I’m talking about, is the boy dying; that scene is kind of a combination of a few things that happened. When I was growing up, I remember, there was one day I walked into my high school, and you could just sort of feel that the air in the building was different. Something was different, and I found out, a few minutes later, that one of the students had died over the weekend. He wasn’t a close friend of mine, but, still, we were in a small neighborhood and I knew of him; he was a friend of a friend, things like that. There was just sort of that feeling you get, the first time you experience something like that — the weight of something like that — and that was one of the main things I wanted to explore.
A lot of people say there’s not very much “plot” in the film, and they’re right, but I think that the goal, with the film, was always to put the audience in the mind of a young person dealing with these difficult situations for the first time — and not necessarily making sense of them, but just attempting to. Seeing the way the world kind of changes when you realize that you’re not indestructible, but you sometimes feel so, as a child. So the combination of being that young and remembering that sudden tragedy happens, and also, just, when I was in college, I had a roommate who passed away, and remembering when my grandparents I had passed away — when I was quite young, as well — so it’s sort of a combination of actual events that happened and, also, just the emotions. The autobiographical parts are just the emotions, I felt; the actual event that happens, with the boy’s death, that didn’t happen, but it’s sort of a dramatized version combining a couple of things that did happen.
So, no, I always knew that if I wanted it to resonate, it should come from a personal place. To withhold things like that, I think, is a detriment to the film. I don’t know, maybe not everyone would agree, but, to me, that’s kind of the only way to do it — I think. To hold things back is to make less-strong of a film, I think, or at least a film people aren’t going to be able to relate to as well. You can kind of tell when something’s been created to elicit an emotional response, and, sometimes, that works really well, but I had these events in my memory, so I wanted to try to get actors and an audience to experience the same sort of emotional response — and I thought, “Why not?”
So does pilfering from personal experience make writing easier? Is it something you especially like to do?
I do, I do. I’ve also said, a few times, that the script process was kind of therapeutic, in a way, partially because of the sort of things I was talking about — the things I remembered, as a kid, that I hadn’t thought about in a while. Just bringing up those old ideas is something that was interesting to me and asking… going to my parents and my brother, asking if they remember “this” and “this” and “this.” It was almost kind of like a therapy for me, where I put the ideas down in a script format. For me, again, I wouldn’t say this is the way everybody should write, because there are many writers who don’t take from their life and are amazing.
But, for me, I like to sort of have a skeleton of an idea — I kind of know who the characters in this film are and where it all takes place, and what kinds of themes I want to explore — but then, actually, with the minutia of the scenes, I try to find something from my own life, or, I’m writing a script now, which didn’t happen to me, but I’m sort of trying to find people who went through similar things. You know, “What did you do day-to-day? What did you do right after you heard about X or Y?” For me, at least, in the films I really respond to, I always feel like these things are so specific that somebody had to have experienced it — how other people act when they’re totally alone and what people do when they’re trying to be the most efficient at getting around their environment. So, for me, using my own life or using the lives of other people who I can speak specifically to is the kind of way to fill in the gaps between the major plot points and things like that — make the places feel real and make the people feel real.
This being a feature debut, is there ever a struggle to break from influences when stepping behind a camera? When taking on something so big, I have to wonder if the pull from the voices who shaped you feels stronger or, even, more tempting to mine.
Right. That’s an interesting question. I don’t… I mean, I definitely have a lot of influences — I think some are more obvious than others. Pretty much, for me, that was important, to get those influences across. I mean, when you’re writing, it’s just you, so you can be watching movies or you can be reading books by directors you really like to sort of help you and motivate you to write. But, once you’re with other people, I think the most important thing is getting them to kind of be on the same page — so, for example, with my DP, I showed him a lot of the films that I was using as a reference point, visually. We try to do that in pre-production. When you’re on set, you’re hopefully not just mimicking the people who inspired you and the way they achieved tone. Not saying, “Well, the way they shoot from a high angle…” You’re not trying to rip off exactly what they do, but you’re trying to find what it is about their work that makes you respond, emotionally, and trying to figure out what your own version of that is.
So, like I said, some influences, I think, are obvious — and that’s fine — but I know people who, at all costs, avoid doing anything that any of their influences do, and I think that also leads to work that’s strong. Things inspire you because they’re good, so you shouldn’t totally ignore them for the sake of being 100% original; I don’t think anyone is 100% original anymore, including a lot of my influences. So, knowing when to use them and when you’re overusing them is, I think, the most important thing — but, on this film, we weren’t on set, talking about movies so much. That was more in pre-production — getting everybody on the same page, getting the crew. that I hadn’t met before, knowing the films I like and the style and how to shoot it.
But, once you’re moving — especially on a film like this, where we had very little time — there’s really no time to stop and look back at references to mirror them, and things like that. It’s more in the subconscious, I think, at that point, and a lot of it does come through, but it’s about balancing, I think — when is “too much” and when is it not enough. Using those influences and also trying to make it your own, of course, but not copying things. I’m kind of rambling at this point, but, basically: there’s a good way to do it and there’s a technical way to do it, and I think that usually comes from when it’s not even intentional — when you put the seeds in the heads of everybody and your own head and sort of let the chaos of the shoot take over, and those little things are going to peek up. Hopefully in a good way — in a respectful way — rather than a straight-up-copy way. Like I said, I think most of the people I’ve referenced for this film have references of their own, and so on and so on and so on. Cinema, at this point, has been around for long enough where every film is, in some way or another, a combination of a bunch of films from twenty years before that. I think it’s kind of an interesting thing to look at.
Hide Your Smiling Faces is currently on VOD and in limited release from Tribeca Films.