Smile Writer/Director Parker Finn Talks Bringing the Unique Horror Film to Life

Throughout any given year, horror fans will see a number of sequels, reboots, or remakes of well-known properties land in theaters, as it's often a much bigger challenge to become a major financial success with an entirely original concept. Luckily for filmmaker Parker Finn, his Smile landed in theaters and became both a critical and financial hit, proving that a compelling storyline and effective scares will always trump a studio merely trying to cash in on a familiar property. For those who might have missed the film in theaters, Smile is out now on Digital HD and streaming on Paramount+.

In the film, after witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can't explain. Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality. caught up with Finn to talk the film's many mysteries, its possible future, and other opportunities in the horror world.

(Photo: Paramount Pictures) We're here to talk about Smile, and the biggest question on everyone's minds is what was it about this 1999 song from the singer Vitamin C that you were like, "You know what? I need to tell the true story behind this innocuous pop song,"?

Parker Finn: Yeah, no, you nailed it. That was the inspiration for all of it. 

Smiles are obviously a universal symbol for warmth and kindness and all that stuff, and I thought it was very fun to turn that on its head and use it as a totem for evil. But for me, I was really fascinated by the idea of how I think we often actually use smiles in our real life, which is to mask what we're feeling, right? The awkwardness, the discomfort, or even if it's deeper than that: grief, depression, stress, anxiety. We don't want to let the outside world in on that. I think there's the phrase of "grin and bear it," to put on a smile as a mask, and I wanted to take that metaphor and make it real for the evil in the film, and let the evil wear a mask as this hateful promise of a threat.

I appreciate your actual thoughtful response to my dorky question, by the way. 

I think what I appreciated about seeing this movie, especially in theaters with a sold-out crowd, was that every single time a scare came, it was this huge reaction and a slight relief, but then the tension immediately would start ratcheting up. It felt almost, not quite like clockwork, but every seven to 10 minutes there was a massive scare. Was the story structured, was that just by happenstance that it came that way or was it built into your core idea of, "No, I'm going to be breaking up this story into these beats of huge scares,"?

Holistically, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make a film that was designed to scare an audience. That was what I was setting out to do, no question. Part of that was, and I talked with a lot of my collaborators from the very beginning about this unrelenting sense of tension and anxiety that we get no breaks from. I wanted, from the opening frame of the film, people to just feel deeply uncomfortable and for that to never let up.

I also want to make sure the scares are evolving and changing how it's scaring you, and there are these big, giant moments that'll hopefully get audiences to jump out of their seat and scream. But there's also a lot of stuff that is a real creeping sense of dread that is hopefully getting further and further under their skin until it's just puppeting them from the inside. That was the goal all along, and seeing if I could bring all those elements together into a unified story.

More specifically, I know Sosie talked about this. One of the big questions, now that the movie's been out, is about Mustache, and she said that she doesn't think that her character would've killed her cat Mustache. Do you agree with her interpretation? Do you have a definitive answer of, "Oh, this is what happened to Mustache," that goes against her thoughts? I want to know more about Mustache.

Yeah, it's funny. I've seen a lot of #JusticeForMustache out there. I have my opinions on it, but when I make a movie and give it to audiences, I never want to definitively answer questions that are purposefully not spelled out in the film. I think it's much more interesting for an audience to bring themselves to it and to connect different dots, and I love the idea if it can start a conversation or a debate about what might've happened. 

It sounds like you are pleading the fifth on the "Justice for Mustache" campaign. I appreciate what you've got to do, but I'm disappointed, so I guess maybe some other Reddit fan theories will come out that I can present to you and you'll confirm or deny them. 

Now that the movie's coming out on home video, is there a particular deleted scene or extended scene, anything that you're really looking forward to fans getting to sink their teeth into?

There's a making-of special feature that I think is amazing that people will hopefully really enjoy, that'll show a lot behind the scenes and how we pulled off practical effects and things like that. I think one of the things that I'm really excited about is for people to finally get the opportunity to see the short, Laura Hasn't Slept, that spring-boarded Smile, which will also be included in the home release. Hopefully it'll be fun for audiences to see where this all started and how there are parallels, but differences, between them. I think it's a fun short.

Now that the movie's been out for six weeks and there's been so many more people showing their love for it, their support for it, I'm sure other filmmakers have expressed their appreciation of what you've accomplished. Before the movie came out, your reaction to sequels was, "I don't want to just do the same thing again." Now that you've had a little bit more time to digest, have ideas popped up or have other filmmakers that, while you wouldn't necessarily want to do a Smile sequel, someone has been like, "This is what I would like to see," that you would endorse them pursuing a follow-up?

I made Smile to, of course, be self-contained, tell its whole own story. I didn't think in a million years that there would be such a demand for a sequel. But having said that, I think there are definitely things inside of the film that remain purposefully unexplored that would be very exciting to dive into. Also things that I didn't get a chance to do on the first one for either budget constraints or if it didn't quite fit in the story that I think would be really exciting. 

To what you said, yeah, I still feel that I never want to overtly just repeat myself or do the same thing I just did, but I think that there could be a really exciting way for there to be more in the world of Smile, but something very unexpected and surprising for an audience with a lot of tricks up its sleeves.

Since this is helping put your name on the map, especially in the world of horror, I'm sure you're going to have lots of studio meetings, so is there a dream franchise for you that you would really love to dive into? Either because it's a property or a reboot that is completely the opposite of Smile or something that will allow you to take what you did in Smile, but then crank it up to an entirely different level?

I love horror. It's one of my very first things that made me enamored with film. I love genre films. I love things that can be really bombastic and anxiety-driven and stressful to watch and frightening, and taking those and pairing them with a real character story at the center of it that's exploring the human condition. 

So films, whether they're franchises or other originals, which I'll always be writing as well, that allow me to do that, that's really exciting. And hopefully making stuff that can feel event-ized like that, that's the filmmaking that I really love and want to pursue.

Smile is out now on Digital HD and streaming on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.