Five Questions with Hide Your Smiling Faces Director Daniel Patrick Carbone
In Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces, two young brothers wrestle with the meaning of mortality following the mysterious death of a friend. Paying little mind to the root of the accident, Carbone readily positions the death as a catalyst, allowing its existential domino effect to reverberate across the conscience of Eric, Tommy, and their equally curious cohorts. The lush and expansive woodland landscape where most of the narrative unfolds belies the intimacy of the film, as the viewer is able to peer inside a series of identity shaping interactions that function more like memories than plot points. In advance of the film’s U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Carbone spoke with Filmmaker about the different iterations of grief and his personal connections to his work.
Filmmaker: Perhaps the most striking shot in the film is the very first frame, which arguably encapsulates everything that follows. Quite literally, it depicts nature’s occasional inability to swallow death. Could you speak about it?
Carbone: I love that shot. It shows a snake trying unsuccessfully to eat a small fish. One of the young actors on set saw it while we were shooting another scene and the entire crew was sort of hypnotized by it. I was always hoping we would be able to steal some unplanned shots of animals on the forest and by the river, but I never expected something like that. It shows the brutal and imperfect reality of life and the natural world in a way that no planned shot ever could have. It was a pretty magical moment.
Filmmaker: The film forgoes examination of an instance of death by focusing on the ripple effect it assumes in the young mind. Why does the fallout often interest us more than the actual particulars of a devastating event?
Carbone: It is fascinating to me how traumatic events that happen in an instant can have such long-term and varying effects on people. To me, the aftermath of an event is much more compelling than the factual details of the event itself because it allows for personal examination and interpretation. The facts are constant, but how we make sense of them is always changing. In young people, this is amplified. Events that lack a concrete explanation become almost mythical, and this inability to understand can lead to blame and guilt. The film really isn’t about how or why things happen, but how we are changed by them and move on from them.
Filmmaker: The boys confront death in vastly different manners, sometimes by pushing one another to the brink, others by hypothetical, naive, almost playful musings. What personal reasons — if any — led you to explore the old adage that everyone deals with grief in his/her own way, and why at such an impressionable stage in life as boyhood?
Carbone: At the earliest stages of this project, I simply wanted to create a portrait of male adolescence, using very specific and detailed moments in time. I remember a lot of moments growing up where death and grief played a role. I distinctly remember not knowing how I was meant to act, often looking to others around me for some sort of cue. That idea was a main focus in this film. There are drastic differences in the way the kids interpret and process the event, and when we get a brief glimpse of an adult, they are in no better place emotionally. The idea of “right” and “wrong” ways to grieve was something I wanted to explore.
Filmmaker: The film strikes a naturalistic and voyeuristic stance as we peer into the characters’ lives, and the relationships amongst the boys, their families, and their neighbors. Can you speak about your directing style, and how you’re able to establish such familiar, understated rapports in front of the camera?
Carbone: It was obviously very important that these characters felt like real people in real places. Creating a familiar and authentic feel to the world and the relationships between characters was always the central focus. The locations are all actual places I spent time as a child, from my friend’s houses to hidden places far out in the woods. The script was always open to interpretation from the actors and many of the scenes are entirely improvised. I think all of these elements helped create a warm and collaborative atmosphere on set and allowed the characters to form organically. I wanted to make it as easy on the young actors as possible so I always avoided having them do or say anything that they personally couldn’t relate to. What you see on screen is really Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson doing a slight variation on their actual personalities. Before their names pop up at the end of the film, many people think they are actually brothers. That’s a huge compliment and a testament to their commitment to this film.
Filmmaker: In writing the script, which is more a collection of intimate moments than a traditional narrative arch, how do you move from one scene to the next? Many of the scenes act as formative memories that could even stand on their own, so what are you drawing from in their conception, and how do you string it all together?
Carbone: The script writing process was a bit of a puzzle for me. I began by writing individual moments that I felt were important and influential experiences for a young person. They took form as series of short scenes, some related, some not, but always involving the same group of kids. Some were autobiographical, some came from dreams, and others were invented entirely. As I began to piece it all together, it was the recurring themes of mortality and brotherhood that allowed one moment to flow into the next and help focus the story. Emotionally, I drew on my relationship to my brother, as well as the death of my grandparents and a roommate in college, trying to distill these difficult memories into the universe of the film. The final order of the scenes serves to create more of an emotional and thematic arc, rather than a traditional narrative one.