Smiley didn’t get a whole lot of attention during its brief theatrical run, in part because of a neutered and confusing marketing campaign, but it’s worthwhile for fans of slasher movies to check out. Featuring a killer who looks like an emoticon and appears when a hackneyed bit of hacker-speak is typed into the machine, he’s an era-appropriate bogeyman for the cyber-generation, and director Michael J, Gallagher is great at conjuring jump-scares (some of which are extremely cheap…but they all work).
With the DVD coming out today, I spoke to Gallagher about his film and why it ought to catch your attention.
Luke Y. Thompson: The poster that I see up now online is really cool, but it’s not like any of the ones that I saw when it was theatrical, which were black and white and made me think it was just a paper bag over someone’s head with a smiley face. Was that an MPAA mandate because the original one was too gruesome or was that you trying to keep some spoilers going?
Michael J. Gallagher: That was an MPAA choice. I’m so bummed about it! I’m so glad you brought that up. I don’t want to totally bash them in an interview, but they really fucked us. They said Smiley Face was way too frightening for people to see out in public. And we had all these great posters that we came up with and they said “No, no, no!” We literally came up with about 35 posters. Finally, we got to the point where they said “It has to either be a mask, or just cannot see that it’s flesh.” And that was sort of the whole point of Smiley. And so the two options we came up with were putting the face on Ashley and making it a mask, and the other one being it a black and white inverted image of him waving. So we did what we could, but I think the poster that we have on the cover art is really what we were intending. I’m glad we finally got to release it.
LYT: Your background is in comedy, right? This is quite a stretch – you got the jump scare going really well, the one with the little girl at the beginning – I watched it twice and it got me both times.
MJG: That’s great! Yeah, I think comedy and horror are kind of twisted cousins of each other. I think some of my favorite horror films have some of the funniest scenes, and I think it’s sort of the two genres where you’re trying to get reactions out of your audience, and so it didn’t feel like that much of a stretch, even though one is so light and one is so dark. I feel like they’re more connected than people give them credit for.
LYT: Well, Guillermo del Toro says they are related because they’re the most honest, the reactions are always going to be honest; when you make someone laugh or jump, they can’t make that up.
LYT: In conceiving this, was there someone who texted you and just annoyed you with too many smileys?
LYT: Obviously there is some Candyman influence, but using specifically the smiley as an icon of death; is it something that pissed you off over the years and you just want to get it out there?
MJG: Aww, man! Yeah, I think too many texts from people ending with a smiley face blew me over the edge! No, it was something that – I don’t know if it was the smiley image was something that we really wanted to make horrific, if that was really the place we were coming from, but in working on the script and writing with Glasgow [Phillips], for some reason the villain was always named “Smiley,” and it started with he just had a stocking over his face with lipstick or blood in the shape of a smiley face. There actually had been some smiley face murders, and there were some videos of people wearing stockings, this weird kind of subculture of people doing that, and I think it kind of started from that. And then as we started really writing the script and getting into it more, for some reason that image came of a stitched-in smiley face into the flesh face, and there was no going back. So we kind of retooled it a little bit for that concept. I guess if people are afraid to write a smiley face now, then hopefully we can contribute to stopping that nonsense.
LYT: The movie is sort of in the grand tradition of the ’80s movies, sort of cautionary and conservative, sort of “Hey, kid, if you fuck around and don’t do what your parents tell you, the bogeyman is going to come and kill you.” And this is sort of like, “If you screw around online too much it’s going to come back and bite you in the ass.” Was that something you were deliberately trying to get in there?
MJG: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not from the Bible Belt, and I’m not someone who wants to impose a lot of rules on someone, but I do feel that the youth today are really liberal with sharing on the Internet, with not really worrying about the consequences of what they do online. And I think about 20, 30 years from now, when we’ll have a president who was from the age of not knowing when there wasn’t an Internet, and not growing up with high-speed streaming video – I’m sure that our future leaders will have pretty checkered pasts of what they’ve done on the Internet; you can just pull up their search history to see what they’ve looked at and done. I don’t think that as seriously as maybe they should, because everything is being documented, we’re all being watched, in a way, or can be, at least, and so I think this was fun to use the genre to talk about that issue, even if it is in a sort of fantastical way. I think it is a major concern that people should deal with, so we wanted to show it to them in the most horrific way we could.
LYT: And you had issues afterwards with 4chan that almost made it seem like it was coming true, in a way.
MJG: (laughs) Yeah, absolutely! We played a little bit with fire there, in using their actual site and talking about them specifically. They like to have their special club, and there’s a group of people that don’t want to be discussed, and the fact that we discussed them in the film, and I think the fact that the film got a much larger release than we had intended when we initially made the film was something that when that issue came up, it hit us. It not only hit me, but it hit my family and people that were working on the film, so it became a much bigger deal than we were ever anticipating when we were writing it.
LYT: Did you know when you were writing it that they were a bit like that and base the group in the movie on them, or was that coincidence and they just took offense at that?
MJG: Oh, no, we were well aware of 4chan and what they had done, and Glasgow actually, the co-writer – I’m the co-writer, he’s the writer – essentially he was an encyclopedia on 4chan. I was familiar, but I wasn’t an active user, or I wasn’t actively in that world, and Glasgow had actually spent some time being generally fascinated with them, and really learning about some of the rage, and some of the shenanigans they’ve been up to. And so learning about some of these dark, twisted stories of what people are capable of doing completely for fun, for the lulz, it was fascinating. It fueled my belief in a group doing something so planned, so vindictive, just for fun.
LYT: Is the DVD cut different from the theatrical cut, in terms of the rating, or is it the same?
MJG: It’s the same. I believe it’s the same. We have on our website, on smileymovie.com, we have a TV-14 version, that’s not officially a PG-13 version because the MPAA wouldn’t give us one, but it’s sort of our censored version, because essentially, we were trying to make a film for the youth, for the teen audience, and it was deemed too intense, just the look of Smiley and the terror in it, I suppose, they were saying we would never get a PG-13. But that was really our intention because we feel like the audience for this kind of movie is younger, especially because we deal so much with what they’re infused with, and talking to strangers on the internet, and going on chat sites and just kind of playing around – that’s really what I would say is a young person’s game. I think you get to a certain age and you get more jaded.
LYT: So is it an official TV-14 rating, or is that less of a structured thing anyway?
MJG: It’s less structured because it’s through our own site, but there’s minor profanity – it’s essentially following the “bible” of the PG-13 – there’s no real profanity, there’s no blood, cutting out of substance abuse by teens – that kind of thing.
LYT: How did you bring Keith David on board?
MJG: He was someone that was available, and he read the script, and was interested. You know, in talking to him and working together on it, he shared with me that he is a huge fan of the genre, and specifically of psychological thriller horror films, and so he was basically sharing that he doesn’t do as many as he would like. So I think this was an opportunity for him to have a little fun and be a part of it, but he always was telling me of his love of Rod Serling, the unknown, the paranormal – he kind of surprised me with his knowledge of this space. So I think, for him, he just likes to be involved with those projects. He’s a joy to work with!
LYT: I hope more people who read this interview and are making horror movies get him in some!
MJG: He’s game, and he’s a great actor.
LYT: What do you have coming up next? Are you going to continue in the horror direction, move back to comedy, or try something completely different?
MJG: I like to kind of keep moving, and trying different things. I would love to do either another Smiley, or I would love to do another film that stays in the genre, because I feel like this was really for a specific audience. I would love to go and do what you might call “hard core” horror, so I’d love to have the opportunity to do that, but right now I’m focused on a kind of mockumentary comedy that hopefully will get off the ground this year.
LYT: Do you have a title for it yet, or is it still secret?
MJG: We’re still working on it, and it might change, so I don’t want to throw too much out there, but it will be starring a lot of the guys I’ve been working with online, and it will be ridiculous!
Smiley is available on DVD starting today.