|SxSW 2016 Interview: THE SMILING MAN director A.J. Briones
by Jason Whyte
THE SMILING MAN - At SxSW 2016
"THE SMILING MAN is a short film about a little girl who is home alone with a monster. While it is a simple premise, at its heart the film is an allegory about a woman's introduction to a world dominated by men. There's something to pick up from one frame to the next if you really wish to look for it and find deeper meaning, but none of that matters if it doesn't scare the crap out of you, and I believe it will." Director A.J. Briones on THE SMILING MAN which screens at the 2016 edition of the South By Southwest Film Festival.
I am thrilled to hear your movie is showing at SxSW and this is your first time here! Are you planning to attend your screenings?
Heck yeah I am excited and will be attending every screening! I clearly remember the night I submitted The Smiling Man to SXSW because I was telling myself that I was probably just throwing my money away. When you think about the odds of getting a film into a festival as big as SXSW, it can be quite disheartening, even if you believe in your heart that you have a really good film. So yeah, I'm very excited that we're here and I'm looking forward to sitting in every screening and watching the audience react to what we have created. Moreover, I am really looking forward to meeting people, both filmmakers and film fans. It's going to be a blast!
Talk to me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and what you have worked on.
By trade I'm a Previsualization Supervisor for film. I have a background in animation and motion capture and I have been in the film industry since 2007, when I got my break as an animator on MUMMY: CURSE OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. Prior to that I was in the videogames business, creating cinematics and as a motion capture supervisor. I got my start in games working at Sega of America, where I worked on Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast.
In my current job, I have had the great fortune of working for the greatest directors on some of the most iconic shots and sequences in some of the biggest films of the last decade including AVATAR, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and more. I am very lucky for the opportunity to be in the same room watching these guys ply their trade and be there to pitch ideas and help realize them. I have learned so much from it. It's the single greatest film school on the planet.
Since I was a kid I have always wanted to make movies. When I was in high school I used to make films on VHS with my friends. In 2013, I wanted to apply everything I learned by making a series of short films in the hopes of getting enough confidence and experience to write and direct a feature. THE SMILING MAN is my second short film in that series, and I hope to get better as I learn and grow in this process.
So how did this movie come together from your perspective?
The idea for the film came from a brainstorming session with my team. My Producer Tefft Smith II came up with a really creepy visual and I wrote the film around that idea. Casting was a challenge, but we got really lucky in finding the right actors. They were all amazing. The rest of the team assembled quickly: David Holechek as our director of photography, Melanie Leandro as our Makeup FX Lead and in post, Jamey Scott as our Sound Re-Recording Mixer and Vivien Villani as our composer. Really, this movie came together because so many people believed in me, and I'm super grateful for that. Seriously, this would just be a thing on paper without them.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
I have always been drawn to film. I don't remember when it wasn't "my thing" that I loved to do. I'm a bit obsessed with it, and really it's that obsession that is necessary to make it happen. By the time we're working on making it happen, for me, it's about working on a common goal creating art with amazing people who also happen to be great friends. There's no greater feeling, It's super addictive!
What was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you, where you knew you had something special?
Casting was the most difficult process because it was very hard to find the right little girl. We spent about seven months looking for her. Thankfully, Abbi came along when I was very close to rewriting it for an older child. She's terrific. Strange Dave, he's great. When he turns it on he's just the creepiest thing. It is so good. I knew we had something special when we got him in full makeup, a process that took 8 hours, and he became The Smiling Man. It was great. Another moment came in post when I Vivien Villani's score started to come together. He recorded it with an 18-piece orchestra, and it just gives the whole piece a different feel. We tried to go away from the traditional genre soundscapes and we feel like it's really unique.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you use to shoot, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
We shot the film on the Red Epic. Since I am a Previs supervisor by trade, I'm all about prep, and it was crucial on a film like this with two very hectic shoot days with a six year old lead actor that can only be on set for six hours, especially when my other lead actor requires eight hours in the makeup chair!
As soon as we found our location, we modeled the house in 3D and I basically did a previs blocking pass of the whole film using digital actors and a digital Red Epic in Maya. From that, the entire team had a complete shot-list with storyboards from the computer that were spatially correct. This allowed the shooting crew to be nimble, as we had a complete guide for how the film was to be shot, in what sequence, and in roughly what lenses. It also informed the blocking of the actors, which was important because we shot a lot of the film out of sequence. While we were shooting one setup, some of the crew was already getting set for the next shot.
Because of that, we were able to focus on what really mattered: the performances. And from there, my DP David Holechek and his team could focus on the frame and the lighting. And while there were shots in the final product that were a direct 1:1 with the previs, there were many shots that were created by David that were just beautiful. All that preparation allowed us to be loose and be creative because we had the time and confidence to explore.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?
We have a few awesome festivals coming up; The North Hollywood Cinefest wraps up March before we head into April with The Phoenix Film Festival, the Fantastic Cinema & Craft Beer Festival, The Silver Springs International Film Festival, Milledgeville Film Fest and the Bare Bones Film & Music Festival. In March we have the Twister Alley International Film Festival. Of course we will be announcing more festivals as we find out about them, leading up to an online release to the public winter 2016. There's a huge festival we just got into that unfortunately I can't announce, but man, I am excited!
If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
We have had the chance to screen at some pretty iconic theaters, from the New People Cinema in San Francisco at the Another Hole in the Head 2015 to the supposedly haunted Egyptian Theatre in Boise at the Idaho Horror Film Festival 2015. It has been a really fun ride, and the only thing I regret is that I haven't been able to go to each screening as we toured the world with THE SMILING MAN. We were grateful to screen at the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood at HollyShorts 2015, but the dream is to screen at their biggest screen, the iconic Grauman. One can continue to dream, though. We have screened at some huge screens and some very small ones, but itís really all about getting the film in front of as many people as possible.
What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?
I am not going to take a picture of you to post on the internet or whine about it on Facebook later. I will straight up tell you to turn that thing off and close your trap. It's rude. Don't be rude. Don't be a dick.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
For the longest time I was using my job as an excuse for why I couldn't get anything done. I was always waiting for that perfect moment where I had a break in my schedule and money to get it done. That never happens, by the way. There is never a perfect time. There are always excuses. You just have to decide that you're going to do it and start working towards it.
Be sure to follow AJ and the progress of the film by visiting www.thesmilingmanmovie.com!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte
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originally posted: 03/07/16 01:13:36
last updated: 03/07/16 14:25:50