It’s by design that there’s a pall cast over the rural New Jersey burgh of Sussex County in “Hide Your Smiling Faces,” but that’s not to say the film is without a shining light at its core. With native son Daniel Patrick Carbone behind the camera to tell the story of brothers Eric (Nathan Varnson) and Tommy (Ryan Jones), 14 and 9, respectively, who come to terms with the inexplicable death of their friend Ian (Ivan Tomic) over the course of summer, the film reveals a new voice that’s as untouched and evocative as the nearby forest where the boys largely spend their days fooling around to take their mind off things.
Carbone creates an all-consuming experience where the audience’s awareness for the environment expands at the same rate as it does for its main characters, two kids connected by blood but little else with a five-year age difference, except perhaps for the fact that the ideas they had about the world are being challenged by the reality of it. Long, uncut glimpses of the brothers, exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Nick Bentgen, and layers of sound, illuminated by Robert Donne’s tactile score, give a density to the experience of growing up and discovering things for the first time when the images presented by the film seem so simple at first.
Shortly before the film’s release this week in theaters and on VOD, Carbone spoke about how he achieved such naturalism with his young cast in his first feature, how limiting how much he drew upon his own youth opened up the film for others and the time he spent teaching in the Middle East that gave him a new perspective on New Jersey.
There’s an interesting dynamic between the two brothers – one who’s a little bit older and more rebellious and the other still forming ideas about the world. Was that always the dynamic you wanted in terms of the age of the characters?
The main reason behind those ages is they’re close enough in age where they can be brothers. My own brother and I are that exact age difference, about five years apart and that inspired this idea of being brothers and being very close, but also it’s that time in your life where every year you grow the equivalent of 10 adult years, as far as your experiences go. That four or five-year difference gives them both a totally different outlook on life, a totally different way of interpreting these events that happen early in the film, so it’s partially based on my own relationship with my brother and that strange age gap where you’re always together and you’re friends because you have to be, but you don’t actually have much you can really do together.
You’ve said it’s sometimes the throwaway moments from your youth that gain significance over the years. Was there anything from your past that you were surprised by that bubbled up while thinking about this film?
Some of the scenes and the action in the film either happened to me in real life or was some variation of something that happened to me. The example I always use is, in the film, when [the boys] find their dog tied up in the street on a cinder block, that was something my neighbor actually did. I had that evil next-door neighbor that when you’re a kid, you think they’re the devil. I didn’t actually retaliate like they do in the film, but I like to see film as a way to do what you can’t really do in real life and do what maybe socially isn’t acceptable, but that’s why you have fictional characters, so they can do them for you. What was really interesting for me during the writing process and even seeing [as I was directing] was to have a real 11-year-old boy doing things that I did or wished that I did. It was really eye-opening, and the whole experience was therapeutic in a way.
There were things that bubbled up just when I was thinking about my own childhood, whether to base a scene on it or just to trying to remember what it was like to be 11 and hear that one of my grandparents had passed away or something like that. A lot of these scenes I wrote before I even realized it was going to be a feature. It was my equivalent of a diary, writing things down that I wanted to either remember or explore now as an adult, those little moments that you sort of forget and, “Oh, yeah. There was that time that my neighbor did that really crazy thing. I wonder what that was all about.” Now, as an adult, I wonder what he was going through. Why was he the way he was? When you’re a kid, everything’s black and white until you’re faced with, as in the film, a tragedy for the first time, and that makes you mature and be able to see things from other people’s perspectives.
Even in films where children are confronted with death, I don’t think I’ve seen another film where it lingers in quite the way it does here, embedded in the very fabric of the film whether it’s in the framing, dim coloration or the mourning score, which don’t overwhelm the story your telling but it definitely does the characters. How did you come about with that scheme?
That came about because I intentionally didn’t want there to be a lot of obvious discussions about death. There’s a lot of imagery in the film, but nobody really talks about it and it’s the way society is, especially out in these more rural part of the country, and definitely for young kids. My brother and I and my friends never had heart-to-heart conversations about anything and I wanted to avoid having an 11-year-old boy have a deep conversation about death with somebody, which I think would have pulled people out of the film. I wanted to get this theme across more in the imagery and also, like you said, the way things are framed, the pacing of the film, and the color palette. There was a balance between letting things be somewhat dark and work in the shadows a little bit, communicating the themes of the film, but also keeping things soft and keeping things sunlit, so it hopefully doesn’t become overbearing.
There also must’ve been a balance to strike with your young actors – you want their naturalism and at the same time they need to carry the story forward. Was it difficult?
It started really with perfect casting. I’ve worked with kids a lot in the past, and this time I told myself I was going to get real actors and try to find kids that had some experience so that I could talk to them more along lines of how I direct adults. But I quickly realized that the answer actually isn’t necessarily finding more trained kids, because for a film like this, which has such little dialogue and is all about spotty language and silences, having kids that are actually heavily trained is the antithesis of the style of acting that I wanted. They tend to be very big when they say their lines, placing the emphasis on the obvious themes.
I actually wanted to go more toward non-actors this time, and I did a lot of auditions with non-actors or kids that had only done one or two short films so that they had a rawness to them still. They felt like real kids, not kids who were trained in musical theater, and we saw a lot of great non-actors that were willing to open up to us and tell us about their family relationships and their own brothers and sisters and their own experiences with grief and loss, if they’d had any. That was the starting point. Once I found Ryan [Jones] and Nate [Varnson], who were both head and shoulders above everybody else that we saw as far as their maturity and their ability to relate to the characters already, I felt like half of the work was done already and then it was about molding it, and that came about with a lot of improvisation on set.
I had a full 78-page script, but that was always just a fallback for them. I wanted the lines to come out naturally, and I wanted them to say their own words so that they weren’t speaking as if it was a 28-year-old was trying to sound like a 15-year-old or an 11-year old. I told them basically what the scenes are about and “here are the lines that you’re going to fall back on,” but I really wanted to encourage them to be part of the creative process and tell me if they weren’t comfortable saying a line. If somebody said something that they wouldn’t respond to in real life, then they shouldn’t respond to it in the film. It was very collaborative, and I actually hesitate to use the word improvisation because there was a lot of guidance, but the words coming out of their mouths and the pacing between the lines was their own, primarily.
You were actually teaching film in the Middle East for three years shortly before production on this film started. Was it interesting to be immersed in another culture before making a film about a place you were obviously so familiar with?
Yeah. It was a super-interesting experience for me because it was part of the reason I started really actively [thinking about making a film]. I had been working on the script, but I didn’t really have any real motivation to shoot it at any particular time, and when I took that job [in the Middle East], I found myself really missing not just New York, where I live, but that place where I grew up. Being surrounded by desert for miles really makes you appreciate what you had, and I’m sure it’s vice versa to people who are born in Abu Dhabi who live in New Jersey. But I used the script as a way to stay grounded in a place I grew up, and while I was writing, it actually helped. It gave me fresh eyes in a sense, but I think the yearning to be back there was the motivation to not only write the script but to come back and do casting and give myself a firm date to shoot the movie. Every time I had a vacation in New York, I would always go back to New Jersey to see these old locations and make sure that the ones I was remembering were actually accurate to what I was writing down. It definitely put a interesting perspective on it. I don’t think it necessarily made it a different film than it would have been, but I think it made me more anxious to actually get it done, though it was certainly difficult — my two producers in New York were the only reason it was able to happen from such a long distance.
When you’ve had ideas about what this film could be for such a long time, has the meaning of it changed now that there’s a final product and now that you have a little distance from actually making it?
I think so. It started off very autobiographically. The first few drafts were very much based on my own childhood, and as I wrote it, I realized that what was important wasn’t really telling an accurate story, but to get to the emotional truth of being a kid and experiencing these difficult things and transitioning through different periods in your life. Being true to that experience is more important than being true to my own actual childhood. After having screened the film [in the past year] and having so many people say, “Oh, this reminded me so much of my own relationship with my brother,” or “It looks exactly like the neighborhood I grew up on,” in any country in the world [we’ve been], it makes me realize the power that a film has. What started out as an incredibly personal film has, over time, become a shared experience, and that will definitely guide the way I make future films, not being too worried about details. Though it is a very specific story, and a very American film as far as the characters and the subject matter and the location, it’s the kind of thing that over time we let go, and I think it’s actually a benefit to not to be too close to the material because that might limit other people’s enjoyment of it.
From what I’ve read about your next film “Phantom Cowboys,” there seem to be some similarities with “Hide Your Smiling Faces” because it’s described as being about the rituals of becoming a man in small-town America. Since that’s a documentary which no doubt took some time to shoot, did these project influence one another and is there something that is continually compelling about that subject?
I’m actually co-directing that with [Annie Waldman] a friend of mine from NYU, and we started that right when we graduated. It’s been quite a while since we shot the first basic footage for that, but [that subject is] something that interests me. I love films that have characters that are at a crossroads in their life internally, and then turn those internal feelings external and expressing them through action and interactions with other people, learning more about individuals by seeing the way they interact with the world around them.
Just by their very nature, kids are constantly going through those changes and epiphanies, trying to figure out their place in the world and in their communities. I guess I’m drawn to stories about young people because they wear their emotions on their sleeve, and you can say so much more with less dialogue. Those are tonal things that I really respond to. I don’t think I’m always going to make movies about kids, but these two films I made at a time in my life where I wasn’t too much older than the characters that I’m portraying, so it was on my mind. I wanted to do my own version of a coming-of-age film and do what I think is an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a teenage boy. It’s not all about chasing girls. It’s about, “What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps or your older brother’s footsteps?” In some ways, they are companion pieces to each other, but geographically and stylistically, they really couldn’t be further apart. Still, it’s definitely an interest of mine and it works its way into everything that I do.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces” opens on March 28th in New York at the Cinema Village and on April 4th in Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum and in Grand Rapids at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here. It is also available on iTunes, Amazon Instant and Google Play.