‘Smile’ Director Parker Finn on Creating Jumpscares and Exploring Trauma

smile movie parker finn interview

“Once you see it, it’s too late.” Thus is the premise for Parker Finn’s debut feature film Smile, in a concept that tackles generational trauma and mental illness through the lens of a Ringlike curse.

The film follows Dr Rose Cotter (Mare of Easttown‘s Sosie Bacon) who clocks 80 hours a week at the emergency psychiatric unit she works in, as she tries to avoid her own childhood traumas lurking just beneath the surface.

After Rose witnesses a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, she begins experiencing terrifying occurrences she can’t explain, which force her to confront her past in order to vanquish her demons, both personal and otherwise.

Smile is a two-hour thrill ride with twists and turns at every corner, and it is positively jam-packed with jumpscares.

Speaking to The Latch, Finn said the secret to creating a good jumpscare is first understanding that “horror audiences are so savvy these days”. 

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“I mean, they’ve seen so many films and they can get kind of numb to jumpscares and maybe see them coming,” he said.

“What I try to do is, I wanna teach an audience what they’re meant to be afraid of and then go in the exact opposite direction and sort of pull the rug out from underneath them, and see if I can subvert their expectations and catch them off-guard,” Finn explained.

A horror buff himself, Finn said The ShiningPossession, The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street are his favourite horror films, but that he “could go on and on”.

“It depends on the day of the week you ask me, I suppose!” he laughed.

While he didn’t have any specific jumpscares that he took inspiration from, Finn said that “it all becomes kind of… a soup of inspiration when you watch so many films”, before noting that “the hallway scene in The Exorcist 3 sort of lives rent free” in his brain.

“There’s a really, really terrific scare there and it’s just perfectly timed,” he said.

Going into the film, Finn said that he was “really interested in exploring” all the “stuff” that’s going on in our heads on a day-to-day basis, “and the ways that we sort of try to mask that from the world”.

“I think we’re all walking around with all this stuff in our heads, right, whether it’s trauma, anxiety, fears, stress,” he said. “At the same time, I also wanted to explore what it might feel like if you felt like your mind was turning against you, and to really place the audience in the experience of a character who’s going through that.”

After that, the aim was to “take all of that and to distill it into this really nightmarish thrill-ride that’s gonna catch you off-guard every chance it gets”, Finn said.

As with life, trauma and mental illness, the ending of Smile veers away from being “super neatly tied in a bow”, something Finn said was by design.

“I like complex, messy, sometimes ambiguous endings that can stir debate,” he explained. “With the themes and motifs that we were working with, I didn’t wanna do anything easy, or neat or tidy, so it all kind of went back to what we were exploring.

“I wanted to make sure that there was an emotional catharsis to the journey, but that there was something quite chilling about it, as well.”

Asked whether we’ll see a Smile 2 in the future, Finn grinned.

“That’s a great question!” he said. “You know, I’m really eager to see what audiences make of Smile, and I think there’s a lot of fun stuff to be done there.”

As for how it would play out, Finn said he’d want to keep things fresh.

“If there was to be more Smile, I’d wanna make sure that it’s not just a repeat of this film; it’d have to be something really unexpected with a bunch of surprises up its sleeve,” he mused.

Smile is in HOYTS cinemas on September 29, 2022.

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