Hide Your Smiling Faces: Daniel Patrick Carbone on Directing Authentic Kid Protagonists
Daniel Patrick Carbone, writer-director of Hide Your Smiling Faces, explains how he brought his moody drama to life, through the eyes of two brothers in rural America.
Considering how many films are made about youthful protagonists, it’s surprisingly rare when a moviemaker really gets their kid characters right. All too often, children in movies either speak and act like mini-adults, or function as ideas of children, possessing none of the peculiar intelligence and curiosity of real kids. Hide Your Smiling Faces, debut feature (and sleeper festival hit) of Daniel Patrick Carbone, embraces the challenge. The two young boys at the center of the oblique, slow-shifting mystery are tremblingly alive in the hands of actors Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson, but it was Carbone’s sensitivity and trust that drew such organic performances out of his young prodigies – as his write-up reveals.
I don’t keep a journal. I’ve tried to start on more than one occasion, but it never sticks. When I want to remember something, I write it in script format – it makes the most sense to me. Many of these “scenes” are based on events from my childhood. One afternoon, I decided to read through them all and noticed that there were many recurring locations and themes. It was only then that I realized these one-off scenes were actually part of something bigger: a sort of patchwork of formative events from a remembered childhood. This eventually became the working screenplay for Hide Your Smiling Faces.
I’ve always loved films about kids: films involving a character coming to terms with their place in the world and attempting to make sense of some unanswerable life question. Children are ideal subjects for this type of story, as they face these formative moments and impossible questions constantly. To me, films about kids are so engaging because kids themselves are so engaging.
In order to capture that, find young actors who already exhibit the things you are trying to capture. To over-direct a young actor, especially a non-actor, is to stamp out the wonderful unpredictability that makes young people so exciting to watch on screen. Be ready to guide their performances when it goes against your vision for the scene, but always with a gentle hand and always in a way that leaves them with creative decisions to make for themselves. Trust their instincts. Help them to understand the meaning of the scene and the goals of their character, but then move out of the way.
My primary goal with Hide Your Smiling Faces was to successfully transport the audience into the mind of a child, never leaving that perspective. The script was written based on personal memories of my childhood, of old friends, of locations that felt almost mythical as a kid. Rather than let a more traditional narrative drive the film forward, I wanted to use a constant childlike perspective to be the real throughline. To achieve this, there were many elements to consider: the height of the camera, the kind of coverage we shot, the specific sounds used and how those sounds were manipulated. The most important piece, however, was getting a realistic performance out of the child actors that appear in nearly every frame.
Nearly every short film I’ve made features children and what I have slowly discovered is that there is no single “best way” of getting a great performance from them. When working with young people with limited or no training, really spending the time to get to know that person and establishing trust will not only make the child more comfortable on set but will also give you clues about what is helpful to them in understanding a scene or emotion. Or, even more importantly, what isn’t helpful. Working with kids means being flexible and always open to alternate ways of achieving your end result and, most excitingly, being open to allowing entirely new scenes and ideas to develop organically on set.
Auditions with the young men were comprised of a series of questions that led to long conversations about each other’s friends, family lives, good and bad memories, fears, and anything else that came up. I found what I was looking for in Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson. I was stunned by what these two kids were willing to share with my producers and I, complete strangers to them at the time. It was clear that Ryan and Nate, both wise beyond their years, had a very strong understanding of how the key to a compelling performance is a personal connection to the material.
Interestingly enough, their reasons for this understanding varied. Ryan came from an acting background, but mostly in the theater. For a quiet film like Hide Your Smiling Faces, where body language and subtlety is the key, this sort of training is often the antithesis, stylistically. Ryan, however, was able to understand the power of a slight change in facial expressions or physical contact between two people, and draw more from his real life relationships rather than his past screen or stage performances. Nate was the opposite. This was his first acting role of any kind so it was about drawing on the raw elements that came naturally to him. We spoke at length about his relationships to his many brothers and sisters to help him see Ryan as a member of his family. It’s clear that Ryan and Nate actually care for each other quite a bit by the end of the film and many people think they are actually siblings until their names appear in the credits. That’s a real testament to their ability to create a real, complex relationship rather than an approximation of one.
With Hide Your Smiling Faces I decided to consider the majority of the words in my 77 page script merely as placeholders – to give the kids something to fall back on and hopefully to inspire them to speak words of their own. Dialogue written by adults for children often leads either to children speaking like adults or speaking too childishly for the ages of their characters. It’s a very fine line that is very difficult to find. I was confident that that Ryan, Nate, and the other young cast members would bring real authenticity to the ideas expressed in the dialogue without feeling compelled to stick to the script word for word. Improvisation was highly encouraged but always within a set of boundaries that would ensure the intended style and tone of the film remained intact. They would occasionally struggle during a take due to the dialogue not coming naturally to them. They would say something along the lines of “I’d actually say it like this” or “I probably wouldn’t respond to that” and I needed to trust them. Who is more capable of speaking like real kids than real kids?
The collaboration with the young actors extended beyond the lines themselves into the way they moved physically and at times even the content of the scenes themselves. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are moments that we captured when the kids were sitting around bored on set or fooling around when we were ducking inside from the rain. Part of what makes their performances work so well is how little “performing” they were actually doing. They weren’t preoccupied with hitting marks or worrying about stepping on each other’s lines. If, as director, you can establish a comfortable, collaborative environment on set and let go of the idea of tightly controlling every element of the film, working with kids can be a truly rewarding experience. I learned as much or more from them about the process of filmmaking as they may have from me. MM
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