Carbone, Jones, and Varnson Can't Hide Their Smiling Faces
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 3/26/14)
(L-R) Daniel Patrick Carbone, Ryan Jones, and Nathan Varnson Photo: DP
Hide Your Smiling Faces fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. After Daniel Patrick Carbone’s debut feature played last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival, it received the National Society of Film Critics award for “Best Film Still Waiting for Distribution.” Tribeca Film bought the distribution rights in January. On Tuesday it became available on VOD and this weekend it will have its U.S. theatrical debut in New York City at the Cinema Village on 12th Street and University. I recommend it. This deeply personal film is replete with not-always-connected moments and scenes, not unlike how we recall memories of our childhoods, and in the film’s press kit, Carbone correctly states it has a natural structure “like that of a dream, fragmented but always fluid.” Equally telling is a descriptive line in the notes–”An atmospheric exploration of life and death in rural America, as seen through the distorted lens of youth.” That line stood alone next to a “Synopsis” that doesn’t attempt to synopsize the events in the film, but instead gets into the minds of two brothers facing “seemingly insurmountable moral peaks.” My synopsis: Tommy (Ryan Jones), 9, and Eric (Nathan Varnson), 14, are spending a lazy summer in rural, upstate New York, playing with friends their own ages, hanging out with each other, riding bikes, wrestling, and exploring the woods. Tommy’s friend Ian angers his father by taking his handgun to show the other kids. Yelled at, he runs off into the woods. His dead body is soon discovered, underneath a bridge. Did he jump or fall? Everyone in the area is affected, including the two brothers, who have never experienced a human death before. They discover there are no easy answers. Well, I got easy answers when I interviewed Carbone, Jones (11 then 12 today), and Varnson (16 then 17 today) at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival about this poetic, haunting, challenging movie.
Danny Peary: Where are each of you from?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: I’m based in New York, but I grew up in northwest New Jersey, the tip near Pennsylvania, right across the water.
Nathan Varnson: I’m from Atlanta.
Ryan Jones: I’m from Connecticut.
DP: Dan, how did you find Ryan and Nathan for your film?
DPC: We didn’t have a casting agent or anything, just a big, tri-state open call. That’s how I found Ryan. He’d done some TV and some short films, but this is his first feature. I found Nate through a friend of a friend. I guess he was modeling and she sent us some headshots and said this guy really wants to act, so we brought him in for an audition. He came in very raw, without any kind of training per se, which is kind of what attracted us to him.
DP: Did you two audition together?
NV: No, never, we met the day we shot.
DP: This is one of the few instances outside of Leave It to Beaver, where the older brother is friendly toward the younger brother and contentedly hangs out with him when their friends aren’t around. Ryan, considering you hadn’t met before you started shooting, were you always thinking that the audience has to believe you were brothers?
RJ: I didn’t think that while making the movie but I knew it needed to happen.
DP: Dan, explain the title of your movie. Or should I ask them first?
DPC: Yes, I want to know what they think.
RJ: I definitely fully understand the title now, because while watching the film I realized that in the scene when Tommy and Eric are laughing in the living room, they’re laughing not because they think anything’s funny but because the situation is so awkward. Ian’s death is too heavy for them to understand, so they just start laughing–that’s what people do. All Tommy and Eric can do is laugh because they don’t have anybody to tell them what to do.
NV: Everybody feels that they have to have some emotion when there’s a death. Especially kids. Most people become sad, but as Dan said a lot, there’s no proper response to death. It’s just how you take it. That laughing scene basically reflects that. Eric and Tommy weren’t supposed to laugh. It was not in the script. But Ryan and I were looking around and our eyes locked and we just started laughing.
DPC: The first thing I’ll say is I just love the degree of interpretations of the title, I think that’s what makes a good title.
DP: It’s like Eyes Wide Shut.
DPC: Exactly, yeah. For me it’s important that the title’s in the second person. It’s a command or an order, which I think speaks to the difference between kids and adults. As kids, you’re told that you’re expected to act a certain way and you’re reprimanded for acting out of the norm, even when there is no norm. Who’s to say that their laughter is inconsiderate or rude? Or anything? But let me now say that the title did not come from that scene when they laughed spontaneously. The script had that title. A lot of people think that the title came out of their reaction, but it was just kind of happy accident and spoke so much to just being a kid and finding things so heavy that you don’t know what to do.
DP: Do you think this movie is about anything specific or is just about two boys during a summer and their progression toward adulthood?
RJ: I think it’s definitely about death during childhood and how to handle it. And how sometimes it’s traumatic but you have to overcome it–and, as I said, how some do that by laughing, for example.
NV: I feel like there are a lot of moral themes you can take from the movie, I don’t think there’s a specific one that you can point out and say, “That’s what this movie is about, this is what you gotta take from it.”
DP: Dan, did you want to say something specific in your movie?
DPC: Not necessarily. There’s a number of themes that flow under the surface, but first and foremost it was always for me about creating a world and an atmosphere and giving people a realistic and, in my opinion, an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be young and confused.
DP: Did you relate to Tommy or Eric more?
DPC: Definitely a combination of the two. I have a brother who is five years older than me, so in some scenes Tommy and Eric are me and my brother. Some scenes it’s me and me because some things happened to me in real life at Nate’s age and some at Tommy’s age. The film is kind of a dramatization of all that. If I had to pick one boy, I’d say more of the scenes probably came from my memory of being Ryan’s age. At that age you’re starting to kind of understand it. The older Eric’s more violent and is seemingly confused but I think it’s because he knows how hard these things are and is holding on to a younger part of himself. He’s about to be an adult and I think there’s a little bit of anger coming from that. He wants to stay a kid for a longer time.
DP: Nathan, would you have been friends with your character?
NV: I’ll say yes, but I don’t think we would have been great friends. Eric just doesn’t really know how to handle things. I know most kids don’t know how to handle things, and I’m not saying I’d know how to handle everything that happens to him, but I know some of his responses to what happened, like breaking a window and pulling a gun on his friend, are not what I’d do.
DP: Well, it’s too much to handle for a kid. What about you, Ryan, would you be friends with Tommy?
RJ: I think so. I don’t know if we’d be great friends, but I think he’s a good kid at heart. He just doesn’t really have a lot of good role models in his life.
DP: He has bad role models.
RJ: Yeah, his older brother, Eric, and his parents. I think his dad tries to mentor him a little bit.
DP: But he’s not very good at it.
DPC: I think, Ryan, you had a lot of fun getting into that character. Tommy’s kind of a slightly badder side of you. He’s picking up dead cats, rolling around in the dirt, and getting dirty.
DP: There’s a lot of death around the kids, not just Ian but dead animals and insects. That’s one of the things that one remembers from childhood. I grew up in South Carolina and I still remember finding a dead dog while walking through the woods at Tommy’s age. It was frozen and hard. Never forgot it.
DPC: There’s a bird scene early on–initially death is kind of something mysterious and almost funny. Their understanding of death evolves over such a short period of time.
DP: Nathan and Ryan, this is a story about two brothers who experience the sudden death of a young boy. Had either of you experienced anything like that in real life?
NV: Luckily I’ve not experienced anything on that scale.
RJ: When I was in 8th grade, two friends of mine were playing on the ice in Georgia, and they fell through and drowned.
DP: Did it affect everybody who knew them the way it affects everybody in this movie?
RJ: Yeah, for sure. I grew up in a fairly big town and when I saw everyone there was upset, it just hit me. They were popular boys.
DP: And there was no explanation.
RJ: Right. They were just two innocent kids playing on the ice.
DP: So, Dan, since death is a touchy subject that can be very confusing to a youngster, did you have to have a serious discussion with Ryan about it?
DPC: It is a touchy subject so we talked a little bit about when I was his age and experienced death. Ryan was really impressive and amazing to direct because he had the mental capacity of someone triple his age. For some of the other kids on set I would have to almost play out scenes to really get their minds to imagine the situation, but Ryan could just process something and say, “I’ve got it, I’m ready to go.” I’d say, “Are you sure? I don’t think you could so fast.” And he would nail it. He could be in other people’s shoes and still make it very personal to him.
DP: As a director, I’m sure you realized that you had a responsibility to keep the kids from getting messed up psychologically because of the topic.
DPC: Whenever possible, I tried to have them base their performances on something they’d gone through. It was always about building their performances from personal things. It is a hard thing for anyone to do but these two were so professional and were willing to give themselves over.
DP: In the press notes, it says that the death of Ryan’s friend Ian is “unsettling the brothers and their friends in a way that they can’t fully understand.” They never do fully understand, and that’s what makes the movie interesting but a hard movie.
DPC: Sure, for the audience and for the actors. It’s difficult to withhold explanations. There’s almost a tendency to hold the audience’s hand, to make sure they’re still with you and not leave, and I definitely wanted the audience to be an active participant and try to figure things out along with us.
DP: There’s really no adult figure in the movie that helps them comprehend what happened. Ryan, did you ever say, “I wish there was somebody who could talk to these kids?”
RJ: Yeah, a lot. The adults don’t really play a big role in this movie at all. It’s all from the kids’ perspective. Tommy’s older brother can talk to him, like on the bridge when they’re just sitting there, throwing rocks. But Eric’s trying to understand it himself by talking it out, so I don’t think either of them can really understand what’s going on. When I first saw the film, I really liked that there’s an open-ended question.
NV: I feel the same way. Before we started shooting, we talked about the role of the parents and adults in the film. I think I said something like, “The boy’s mother and father are not really parents, they’re just there.” They don’t help, they don’t have any input on anything. So it’s kind of left for the brothers to help each other out.
DPC: I like that interpretation, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them bad parents or absent from the scene. It’s just part of the film that everyone’s dealing with this death in their own way. Maybe they’re doing a bad job in helping their boys understand what happened, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad parents or that they’re not present. As you get older, it doesn’t get much easier to deal with these kinds of things, and the adults are as lost as the kids in a way.
DP: Ryan, if I were to say to you that there’s only one moment in the movie where there’s a real connection between a kid and an adult, what scene would that be?
RJ: In Ian’s house, when Ian’s father touches Tommy on the arm. That’s the only scene.
DP: Did you realize how pivotal that moment is in the movie?
RJ: Yeah, yeah. When we were shooting that scene, there was a lot of talk about what Ian’s father is feeling and what my character is feeling. What Tommy is feeling and what Ian’s father is feeling are almost the exact opposites. Tommy wants to run away because he’s being touched by someone he doesn’t like and it’s creepy to him, but the father wants him to stay because he reminds him of Ian.
DP: He gives a grieving father a little comfort.
DPC: Absolutely. It’s definitely the only time that two people are on the same page emotionally. Maybe we could say that also about the scene when the brothers are talking on the bridge, but, as Ryan said, the confused boys are almost talking to themselves as much as to each other.
DP: Yes or no, do you think it is Ian’s dad who ties up the boys’ dog in the road?
DPC: It’s definitely the more common answer. I think there are enough clues in the film.
DP: I looked at this like a memory piece that, paradoxically, is set not in the past but today. I saw it as my youth, walking in the woods and all that. Dan, could you have set this in your past instead?
DPC: I hope so. It could have been any time. It seems like people or all ages are responding the way you did. The most complimentary thing I’ve been hearing is from women of different ages who say they feel they can share the experience. It’s definitely a male-centered film, and it’s about that age and the emotions felt by boys of that age, but it almost transcends your sex and your age and when and where you grew up. The time period is slightly ambiguous. The technology I put in the film is intentionally outdated but, maybe, it could be from now.
DP: Why does Tommy go back and get Ian’s father’s gun?
RJ: He doesn’t really want it for attention, he mostly wants it to make Ian’s dad upset, I think. Because he saw how upset he was when Ian took the gun. But I don’t think he realizes that Ian’s dad is already upset. I think Tommy’s blaming him for Ian’s death and takes his gun because he didn’t know what else to do. Part of taking the gun is for protection and part is just to make Ian’s dad upset.
DP: As you two read the script for the first time, were you thinking as I was–especially after Tommy gets the gun–that something horrific is going to happen?
NV: Well, Dan only sent us the parts of the script that we were in. So I had no idea what Tommy was doing when he wasn’t with Eric. The first time I saw the other scenes was at the premiere of the movie.
DCP: The idea was to try to make the set as close to reality as possible. So from scene to scene, Tommy and Eric didn’t know where their brother had just come from or was going. Ryan and Eric’s experience of reading the script was not like somebody else’s.
DP: Why did you do it that way?
DPC: I thought it was important for all the actors but especially the young actors. Because if they knew where something was going, they’d tend to hint at things and play that up, and act only how a character can act, not a real person would act. I knew the end of the movie already and what came between, but these two guys didn’t, and I think it helped their acting. All they could focus on was the here and now, not on the next scene or where things were going.
DP: After working together, it’s obvious to me that the three of you really like each other.
RJ: I never had any issues with these guys. Dan taught me so much. His instructions helped me grow as an actor, and playing off Nate helped me grow up a lot more, too.
NV: I consider myself good friends with both these guys. Behind the scenes was a lot more fun than being in front of the camera.