DANIEL: I’ve been making movies since I was a kid. My parents had a camcorder that I would take and shoot all sorts of bizarre little stories with my friends. I would beg and plead with my teachers to let me make films instead of write papers. I never really saw it as something to do for a career, though.
When it came time to consider colleges, I realized that it was my only real interest. I ended up at NYU for the undergrad film program at Tisch and used that experience primarily as a way to deeper understand what it was about film that I loved so much and what kind of films I wanted to make. I made a few short films there that I was really proud of, but after graduating, I spent a few years floundering, working at a post house and as a freelance shooter.
In 2009, I shot a feature for Matt Petock (A Little Closer) and started to think about my own future in feature films. I took a few years to write Hide Your Smiling Faces and shot the film in the summer of 2012.
Where did the idea come from and what was your writing process?
DANIEL: The idea for Hide Your Smiling Faces came to me in a very organic way. I didn’t actively set out to write a feature film. The project began as a series of standalone scenes that I had written over the course of a few years and sort of set aside in a folder on my computer. They revolved around experiences I had as a kid growing up in northwest New Jersey – scenes involving me and my brother, my close friends, formative firsts, etc. I slowly realized that they shared a lot of thematic similarities and decided to combine them into a single project that bounced between moments in the lives of these two boys.
As I continued, I became less interested in telling an autobiographical story and more interested in capturing those emotions of being young, inquisitive, and scared. Some of the scenes in the final script were pulled straight from my own life, but many were invented – based merely on capturing the feeling of being that age and always exploring death, the grieving process, brotherhood, and our relationship to the natural world.
When fine-tuning the structure of the film, I chose the order of the scenes more for how they informed the scenes on either side, rather than creating a traditional narrative arc. I wanted the tone and perspective of the film to carry the audience through to the end – creating an experience of being young and faced with unanswerable questions. This finessing of the structure continued though to the edit, as quite a few scenes were cut from the script during shooting and quite a few new, unwritten scenes were shot.
DANIEL: We cast this film more or less the same way we cast our student films at NYU. I couldn’t afford a casting director, but since I wanted to use mostly non-actors in the lead and supporting roles, we didn’t have much use for one anyway.
We put ads up on Craiglist and Mandy and saw about 150 kids over a weekend. We did callbacks a few weeks later and they slotted our favorites into the various roles. Most of the boys, including Ryan and Nate who played the leads, didn’t have the chance to meet until we were all on set together. That was definitely the biggest point of stress for me leading up to the shoot but it was the only way we could do it since the kids came from all over and no one was being paid.
The dialogue changed drastically once we were on set, but that was always the plan. The words on the page were always meant to be a placeholder for the real style of speaking that the real kids would bring to the film. We would often do a take with my script, but then open it up for the remaining takes. If you can make young actors a part of the creative process, allowing them to speak your ideas in their own words, the performances feel much more authentic.
There were a handful of lines that needed to remain intact so that the light narrative could progress from scene to scene, but for the most part I gave the kids a set of boundaries and let them improvise within them.
In general, the script remained mostly intact during production, but a lot of scenes were dropped in favor of new ones that came about in the moment. The rainy moments that bookend the film were both unwritten and unrehearsed. We got rained out of the scenes we were scheduled to be shooting and, not having the luxury of time, we came up with a scenario, pushed the kids out in the rain and caught some really natural moments.
A lot of my favorite details in the film were unscripted moments that Ryan and Nate would come up with instinctively as more and more of their own personalities seeped into the characters.
It was never a plot heavy film, so capturing authentic moments in places that felt truly lived-in was always the priority.
DANIEL: I kept the budget as low as I could because I knew that raising money for a film like this, from a director with no real credits, would be next to impossible. I had some money saved up, and the timing coincided with an upcoming summer break from the university I worked for at the time, so I decided to primarily self-fund the project. It was a huge risk, but my I didn’t want to wait years trying to convince producers and financiers to invest in such a tiny project. The thought was that if the film was well received, the next time around I could raise the money elsewhere.
I supplemented the money I put in with a small Kickstarter campaign and some faculty research funding from the university I was working at.
To be honest, there was no real plan on recouping the costs. There were no investors in the project outside of myself, so I was able to work without the stress of spending someone else’s money. While obviously not an ideal scenario, I do think that this allowed me to make the film I wanted to make, without compromise.
I never imagined that the film would be so well received or find distribution. I saw it more as a means to test myself and hopefully end up with something to use to raise money for a second film. In the end, I was very lucky to make a few sales and win a few very generous festival prizes. Because my budget was low, I was ultimately able to recoup.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
DANIEL: We shot on the Red One MX. I badly wanted to shoot Super 16mm but eventually had to concede that it wasn’t realistic for our budget. I was initially very opposed to the Red because it seemed like the polar opposite, aesthetically, to the warmth and intimacy that the 16mm version had in my mind. The sharp “glossy” look of the Red seemed to go completely against our vision for the project, but we decided having that extra resolution and latitude (tons of daylight exteriors) would benefit us.
The funny thing about the Red One is that now, just a few years later, you can buy one for a fraction of the rental cost. And the Epic, a better camera in nearly every way, is a fraction of its size. It was a beast to work with, especially on such a fast shoot with such remote locations. The way it “posts” shots to the memory cards after recording was intensely stressful for me but you eventually get used to the non-traditional workflow. Post was a bit complicated too, but there were no major issues with the edit or color correction, just a few extra steps.
In the end, I’m thrilled with the image and what we were able to get out of it in the color timing. For that we worked with Platige Image, a post house in Warsaw, Poland (a prize from winning the US-in-Progress section of the American Film Festival in Wroclaw). We spent a lot of time giving the film a slightly “aged” look, like an old photograph. We lifted and fogged the blacks and pulled back the very saturated greens of the forest locations. We definitely weren’t trying to emulate film, but these adjustments helped take the edge off of the sharpness and contrast of the Red.
DANIEL: The cinematographer Nick Bentgen and I both have a deep appreciation for documentary and wanted to carry that into the shooting of this film. This translated to the look of the interior scenes, the placement of the camera in each scene, and the kinds of coverage we shot. This is a quiet film, so the camera needed to remain just as quiet, never distracting. There were only a few moves in the film and they come at times of transition for the boys on screen.
I also wanted the emotion of the film to come from the performances, not from the edit, so we shot many scenes in masters to allow the action to unfold in a continuous manner. While obviously never trying to pass the film off as non-fiction, I wanted the audience to see these characters as actual boys, in their actual environments. We always tried to find angles that spoke to the emotional state of the boys and their emotional geography took priority over the actual geography of the locations.
I shared a lot of reference material with Nick in pre-production. Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher was a film we looked at for the low light interiors. He and his lighting crew spent a lot of time lighting though windows and supplementing practical sources to give those scenes a single-source feel, which added to the intimacy of those scenes. That film was also an inspiration for its ability to shoot kids at their level, bringing the audience into their unique perspective on the world. We also looked films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker for its use of long takes and wide master shots and the way it treated its environment as a main character.
You wore a lot of hats on this production -- Director, Writer, Editor, Producer. What's the upside and the downside of juggling all those roles??
DANIEL: This was a very personal film for me, so wearing all of those hats just sort of came naturally. It was always my intent to write and direct. Since we worked on such a low budget and had such a small team, I naturally found myself handling a lot of the production elements as well. In that area though, the three other producers – Matt Petock, Zach Shedd, and Jordan Bailey-Hoover – really saved the day. Their tireless work for many years on the film allowed me to not get too bogged down in the nitty gritty details and focus on actually making the film I set out to make.
I didn’t initially plan on editing the film. I’ve always edited my own work and wanted to finally have the experience of having my work filtered through a great editor who could put his or her own spin on my vision. I was working overseas at the time of making this film, so I was faced with the choice of handing the film over to an NYC-based editor and not being a major part of the editing process or cutting the film myself.
Since I was so close to this story and because of how loose the shoot was, I really felt like the editing process was a continuation of the writing process – I couldn’t not be present for that. I was really the only one I trusted to finish the film the way I envisioned it. All that said, I had an incredible assistant editor in NYC, John Daigle, who was invaluable during the process.
The obvious downside to playing so many roles in the creation of anything is being so close to it that you aren’t able to tell when it isn’t working. Having so many close collaborators that I trust implicitly helped me see the film with fresh eyes.
DANIEL: The smartest thing I did during production was choosing to have faith in the young actors. Ryan and Nate carry every scene in the film so it was essential to make them a part of its creation. They were both willing to use events from their real lives and their actual relationships to inform their performances. Without them, there was no film, so I had to trust their instincts as much as my own.
The dumbest thing I did was not budget for a few more principal shooting days. I grossly underestimated the time needed to shoot these scenes effectively. I was incredibly lucky to have the cast and crew I did, who never let up on the breakneck speed of the production. But even still, entire sequences had to be cut. For less narrative-driven film like this, that wasn’t a huge issue, as many of the scenes work as standalone vignettes.
If the script had a more traditional structure, it would have been a disaster. Since the length of the shoot was directly related to the amount of money we had, in hindsight I would gladly have shot on a cheaper format in exchange for a few more days.
DANIEL: This film was one big learning experience from start until this very moment. However, I’d have to say that the most important thing that I’ve learned – something that I will carry forward into all future work – is that there is always an audience for a film, no matter how small or how specific.
A lot of first time filmmakers get caught up in one aspect of the production – landing known actors, raising a few million dollars, or attempting to appeal to a huge audience. These can all be important things, but what I learned is that making a personal film that comes from an authentic place is even more important.
If a story means something to you – and if you tell that story in a way that only you can – then it will mean something to someone else and likely many people.
Make the film you want to make, the way you want to make it. Put passion behind every frame. Audiences will feel your passion and reciprocate it.