Smile Director Parker Finn Wanted To Make A Love Letter To The Cursed Chain Sub-Genre [Exclusive Interview]

This post contains spoilers for "Smile."

There's no denying that audiences love "Smile." It's the horror breakout hit of the year in a year chock-full of horror breakouts — aren't we lucky to be alive right now? — and despite its familiarity in structure, it is truly full of surprises. From the top-notch performances of "13 Reasons Why" alum Sosie Bacon and "Scream" star Kyle Gallner to the impeccable and original creature design, this new horror story offers a new spin on old successful genre structures. After all, there's a reason why some conventions keep returning generation after generation; It's because they work.

In the spirit of those tropes we return to over and over, and the surprises that can come from repeating history, I sat down with director Parker Finn to talk shop about his debut feature. We tackle everything from the film's familiar structure to our own fears within the "Smile" universe, and the filmmaker even went deep with me on the movie's pivotal birthday party scene. As the interview began, Finn made a kind comment about liking my "Possession" (1981) T-shirt, so I knew this was going to be a true meeting of like minds, but one of the most obvious things about the filmmaker that he is clearly a horror fan first — and it truly shows in his impressive work, and the way he discusses it. 

'I wanted to make a love letter to the Cursed Chain subgenre'

Knowing that this movie pulls its structure from some really great films in the past, like "The Ring" for example, why do you feel like it feels so fresh?

I wanted to make a love letter to the Cursed Chain subgenre, I suppose, because I've always loved those films or even stories that some of them were inspired by. Authors like M. R. James and stuff like that. But what was really important to me was to also tell what was hopefully a very compelling human character story at the center of it, and to center this kind of a film on a character that maybe felt more real and somebody that an audience could really connect with. That was really important to me because it goes to such extraordinary, outrageous places. I want to make sure that we started in a place that felt grounded and real so that you go on that journey with Rose.

Speaking of which, the ending, I have to talk about it. I'm so curious, was Rose always going to succumb to the curse in this way? Was there ever an ending where she'd win? 

I knew from early on that the film was going to eventually wind up at its worst possible conclusion. That was always baked into the DNA of the story because it felt like there was just a chance to not necessarily do the thing that maybe audiences are hoping for, that it felt like it was earned through the plot and through the themes of the film. But there were a lot of different ways that the film was potentially going to get there. I considered a few different routes early on, but at a certain point it got kind of solidified and that was definitely something that was in the script from an early stage.

'There are definitely some stones that have been left unturned'

Those last 20 minutes are definitely my favorite part of the movie. It's fun and it definitely lays the groundwork for a potential sequel starring Kyle Gallner, which is such an interesting concept. If that is something that's on your brain, what could we possibly expect from that? Is that something that's even percolating inside of you?

I think there is a lot of really exciting stuff that could still be done in the world of "Smile." There are definitely some stones that have been left unturned, things I didn't get to do in the first one that are really exciting. I would want to make sure as a filmmaker that I'm never just doing the exact same thing, that I'm not ever just repeating myself because I don't think that's very satisfying to me or for audiences. So if we were to return to the world of "Smile," I'd want to make sure it felt really fresh and unexpected from the first film and that it had some new devilish tricks up its sleeves for an audience.

I am curious about the origins of this curse. The very first incident. What was the start of this? There are multiple chains, so there must be something overarching that kind of ties it all together. Of course, it is trauma and suicide, but I'm very curious about the very origins of the curse in your brain.

Well, you're asking all the right questions that were things that were deliberately left out of the film. [laughs] On one side of things, I find the unknown to be the scariest thing ever, right? If you can't define the thing that's coming after you or put that supernatural thing into a box, it's much scarier for me at least, rather than some priest in 1408 that read a book... That to me is less the stuff that really scares me. It's more that kind of cosmic, just feeling like that the character is the butt of some cosmic joke. That is really horrifying and also feels like thematically resonant to all of the internal stuff that she's also dealing with. It can very much feel like you are cursed when you're dealing with things like trauma and guilt and that your mind is something that you can't really trust. I have some thoughts and ideas, but I don't want to push them out onto audiences too early. But we might possibly in the future learn more about that.

'That's a place I just don't want to find myself'

Who would be the loved one or the friend that would affect you the most if you happen to be in this chain and these visions were happening to you? Because I think that's one of the greatest parts of this movie — you are afraid of seeing someone you may know, someone you may love.

Oh, my gosh. I mean, certainly any family member. I think probably either one of my parents, I feel like would possibly the scariest for me. But that's a good question. That's a place I just don't want to find myself in general. Yeah, that's horrifying.

I'm glad I freaked you out significantly on that.

What about you? Who would it be for you?

It probably would end up being my mother, honestly. Which I think is totally the emotional cornerstone in this film, it hits so hard because I think everyone can relate to that on some level. Obviously, not everyone has the same relationship with their parents, but they can relate and that certainly packs a punch at the end of the film. Definitely parents for me as well. I think that would be pretty freaky. [What was] your favorite scene to have worked on and the hardest scene to have worked on for this film?

There were a lot of hard scenes in the film, no question. One that springs to mind right away is the birthday party scene. There's so much going on there. Not only are we working with a bunch of extras, but a lot of child extras, a child performance, and then Sosie has to go to these really extreme places during that scene and we had very limited time to pull all that off. Everybody was put through the page to make that scene happen. And then in the finished film, it's certainly a scene that I love dearly. Sneaking in the theaters and watching the movie with audiences, that scene definitely seems to get a major reaction from people. I think the level of stress and anxiety and my squirminess to it is really delightful. That's a fun one to watch in a big crowded theater.

'Totally just maddening and crazy-making'

My final question for you actually hinges on the birthday scene. One thing I really love about it is the sound and the music in that pause and the "Happy Birthday" that sort of lasts forever. ["The White Lotus" composer] Cristobal Tapia de Veer did the music for this and he's awesome. I'm so curious how you guys collabed on the music in that particular scene, because I think it's incredibly effective and it's something I've really never heard before.

Thank you. I really appreciate that. Cristo is one of my favorite modern composers. I was just overjoyed at the opportunity to collaborate with him and that experience I could talk about for a very long time was really, really just gratifying. And it was so exciting, fun. It was a collaboration where we really felt like we were on the same page the whole time. We worked very closely and I loved that. With that moment that you're talking about specifically, it all started with how we were going to shoot it and we shot it to happen the way that it does. It's sort of like that shift midway through the "Happy Birthday" song and we always knew that we were going to take "Happy Birthday" and turn it into something totally just maddening and crazy-making.

We knew that the piece of score that was going to have to come in over the sort of endless ring out of "Happy Birthday" was going to have to be incredibly bombastic and in your face and making you feel like, "Oh, my God, I'm losing my mind in this moment," and still make it feel like it's got the feeling of a birthday party too. [That] was really important. Cristo is amazing. He's so singular at what he does, but we talked about all of these kind of abstracts in that moment. He has this really uncanny ability to take all these abstract ideas and really filter them into a concrete piece of music. I remember the first time that he sent that cue over, my editor and I were like, "Oh, my God, no notes. It's perfect, it's amazing."

"Smile" is available to buy on digital and stream on Paramount+.