I had the opportunity to review the new-to-DVD film, “Smiley”, which is a modern day tale of a serial killer drawn to those who call his name (review HERE). The film features some modern day filmmakers and some modern day Internet pioneers. Director Michael Gallagher was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about the film, the cast and the experience of making “Smiley”.
Looking at the trailers for some of the other films, Arc Entertainment seems to like the bleak indie horror flicks. Is there something specific that appealed to them about Smiley?
MG: I think bleak horror films are in fashion at the moment, so I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision for ARC to release a “bleak” film like ‘Smiley’, or if it’s just the nature of what is being made. Having worked with the team at ARC, I can say they are extremely enthusiastic about a film starring so many talented performers who started on YouTube and are now making the step into TV and feature films.
Your killer and victims are totally dependent on video chat. Did you feel that limited the audience you could appeal to?
MG: We made the film with a very specific audience in mind – teens. Particularly, young females, which horror films never seem to cater to. Horror is almost exclusively made for young males or hardcore genre fans. I wanted to make something for the people that live on the Internet, who are addicted to YouTube and fear the evils lurking behind 4chan or the power behind someone wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
Did you write any of the roles with particular actors in mind, or were the characters pretty fleshed out before casting?
MG: Once we cast Roger Bart as Professor Clayton, we wrote a few additional scenes for his character because we knew what he was capable of as a performer. I always knew I wanted Shane Dawson to play Binder, so while writing we made sure to keep him in mind. But otherwise, all the actors fit to their roles so naturally, which is probably why we cast them in the first place!
How did you first come up with the concept of Smiley?
MG: In 2009 when the Chatroullette craze began, Ezra Cooperstein & Glasgow Phillips hatched the premise of an evil killer who can be summoned to kill strangers on video chat. Then Glasgow wrote an amazing first draft, which was filled with notions about evil manifesting online, the collective consciousness of the Internet and extreme cyber bullying.
We collaborated on the rest and fleshed out various characters, plotlines, etc. Originally the look of the killer was written to be a face stocking with a drawn on smiley face, but that notion inspired me to think: well, what if the killers face was an emoticon smile cut and stitched into an all flesh face. And that’s how the killer appears in the film.
Where did you come up with the random video clips for the chat sessions?
MG:We hired actors who were “game” to replicate the insanity of the random video chat users online, everything from creepy shirtless men to kids dancing in their bedrooms. We also were able to have a contest for fans to submit videos. The best seven entries are all in the film.
Why reveal the killer right away instead of a build up?
MG: We knew that the character of Smiley would be heavily featured in our promotional materials and making a film for the ADD generation, we wanted to grab the audience early. But our lead character isn’t truly face to face with the killer until about 35 minutes in.
How much research went into the many different scientific approaches to explain Smiley?
MG: Glasgow Phillips is a bit of a mad genius that is equal parts nihilistic and cynical. He did the bulk of the research in delving into the scientific explanations in the film. Since Ashley is such a naïve character, we wanted to make sure all of the mentors she goes to can thoroughly discuss the possibilities of what SMILEY could be, from the practical to the paranormal.
What was it like working with veteran actors like Roger Bart and Keith David? Bart’s monologue on evil was one of my favorite parts of the film.
MG: Working with Roger Bart was incredible fun. Because of our intense shooting schedule, we had to film his entire part in the first two days, so we worked together closely to find the rhythms and tone of the classroom scenes. Luckily we share a similar sense of humor, so even though some of his scenes were rather intense, there was an awful lot of giggling on set.
Keith David was a joy. He was extremely professional and giving to the other actors. The role of Detective Diamond was written as pretty straightforward skeptical cop, but once Keith got to set, I knew we had to tap into his comedic skills and lay down the sarcasm. At one point, we almost had Keith sing the end credits song, but ended up having to change out the song for rights issues. It’s a shame too, because Keith has one of the best voices in the world.
Did Caitlin Gerard know what she was in for when you cast her?
MG: Ha ha I hope so! Caitlin Gerard is a fantastic performer and an even nicer person. We worked together for a few weeks prior to filming because the Ashley character is in nearly every frame of the movie. I knew that we’d be working so quickly on set that it was necessary to sit and discuss the material and answer any questions either of us may have had. She always came to set prepared and treated the cast and crew like family. And considering this is her first lead role in a feature film, I think she more than knocked it out of the park.
Without spoiling anything, did you have the ending set in stone when writing the film, or did you have the killer concept before the explanation?
MG: The idea for the character of SMILEY has always been pretty concrete. We dabbled with a few different endings, debating what to show, how much etc. It’s hard to balance the bleak ending with what is plausible. At the end of the day, our ending has been a point of controversy, but it’s a big reason I wanted to make the film, as it really speaks to a terrifying trend that has birthed from the digital age.
I know that young adults who grow up in a post-internet world understand the message we are saying to convey, because they see it in their peers. True evil is when someone commits unspeakable acts that lack motivation. To me, that is a hundred times more terrifying than a boogeyman because we recognize that this evil exists in others… and within ourselves.
Special thanks to Michael and the crew, including YouTube sensations Shane Dawson and Toby Turner, check out Smiley at the film’s official site HERE.