Director Alexandre Franchi’s award-winning thriller Happy Face is currently playing in virtual theaters and gets a digital bow today (January 5, 2021). Distributed by Dark Star Pictures, the powerful film combines a thrilling story while exploring the importance of facial equality and representation.
Dread Central was lucky enough to score an exclusive interview with Franchi! Check out our conversation below tha trailer and synopsis.
Estranged from his manipulative cancer-stricken mother, Stan, a quixotic 19-year-old, dons a disguise and joins a therapy workshop for disfigured patients in a misguided attempt to reconnect with her. But when his deception is revealed, Stan, who is desperate to gain coping skills to care for his disease-ravaged mother, offers the afflicted patients a bargain: he stays with the group, and in exchange, he teaches them how to feel good about themselves: by using their “ugliness” as a weapon against our beauty-obsessed culture.
Robin L’Homeau, Alison Midstokke, E.R. Ruiz, Debbie Lynch-White, and Dean Perseo star in Happy Face. The film features music from the Violent Femmes and more.
Dread Central: What part of the country do you call home, sir?
Alexandre Franchi: Hello, I come from the soon to be 53rd state of the US: Canada! [Laughs]
DC: Was the goal always to attack showbiz or did you start out doing something else?
AF: I started out in finance. Training bankers in the Persian Gulf (the UAE to be exact). So, film came later. Actually, film came to me when my mom was sick with cancer. It was my escape from a very shitty reality. And that gave me the spark – to create worlds in which people can escape to, and experience catharsis.
DC: Any family in the biz?
AF: Not really. However, my dad is a photographer. Growing up I used to peruse all of his photography magazines. I mean, they were mostly French photo magazines featuring scantily clad beautiful women, so it’s not like it really helped me in terms of storytelling. But that counts, right?
DC: Have you always been based there?
AF: I am based in Montreal, and all of my films have been produced there. Aside from a little short film called Luv Junket that was shot in Vancouver. Actually, Luv Junket is a 5min animation collage that might interest you! It was never distributed and almost never seen outside of Canada. It’s creepy, sexy, and strangely violent.
DC: What was the game plan growing up? Anything you wanted to accomplish in the industry by a certain age?
AF: Growing up, I wanted to be a banker on Wall Street. But when I was growing up into film, I wanted to direct big action/sci-fi films in Hollywood but with a Fellini or Kurosawa style. Needless to say, this schizophrenic approach did not pan out.
DC: Tell us about the inspiration for Happy Face?
AF: I grew up with a single mother who struggled with breast cancer for many years. When she was younger, she was a beautiful woman working in the cosmetics industry — basing her self-image on her beauty and good looks. In my teens, I remember my mother looking at herself in the mirror and touching the large scar that had replaced her left breast. Her hair had grown back, but her breast was gone. She used to cry, lamenting that she was not a woman anymore, that no man would want her, and that she had lost her femininity. In my late teens, the cancer came back, this time in her brain and lungs. Going out for groceries with her in the last year of her life, I noticed how people looked at her, pointing, talking about her. I hated the fact that she was disgusting to others. But I was no better; I would hurry back home, rushing her and using lame excuses to hide my discomfort. Even though I took care of my mother’s medical needs, I found every reason to get out of the house. I did not invite friends at home anymore. In short, I was ashamed of her looks, of what people thought. She was “ugly,” and it bothered me. It is this autobiographical episode, which is at the origin of this project. The goal was for me to become less superficial, to have catharsis and get over that guilt.
So, the film recounts the events surrounding my mother’s death when I was a young man and revolves around the theme evoked by the words “…animate your mind instead of your body and you will be immensely rich.” Words she wrote to me just before she died as advice for life.
DC: I find it compelling that it’s an educational, inspiring horror-thriller! Was it hard to write, let alone market?
AF: Thanks! And yes, it was super hard to write. Mainly because the film is based on autobiographical events and the story evolved as I was processing the events surrounding my mother’s death. So the story followed my own psychological evolution. The writing lasted way too many years. I don’t even want to say how many. I thank the Gods for having had such a solid friend and co-writer, Joëlle Bourjolly, who kept faith in me in the project all those long years.
DC: This is very original – I imagine it’s hard to make a movie you haven’t seen before. How do you think you accomplished that?
AF: Making a movie you haven’t seen before is hard because you’ve got to convince the funders and crew to embark on something that’s not yet defined in your own mind. You have to work twice as hard at defining it for yourself. I guess to try and do that, and do it successfully, you have to prepare a hell of a lot in order to give yourself some room to change everything on the day and explore different things that are not in the script. In retrospect, I wish I had taken more time to prepare for Happy Face. You also have to give yourself extra time in editing, and by time I mean months, in order to explore different styles.
DC: How closely does the finished result reflect that initial draft?
AF: Structurally the film is pretty close to the draft. But we cut a lot of dialogue and reinvented the rest on the spot. Actually, we filmed Happy Face with a lot of improvisation and a lot of discoveries on the day, based on the actors and the magic they would bring out.
DC: How would you say it evolved over the course of development?
AF At first, Happy Face had way more rawness in anger in it. It was more like a teenage cry of pain. Stan actually disfigured himself in the end. It was a mess, glorious at times, but so messy and messed up that we did not think it would hold up for a feature.
DC: And when it came to editing, was anything lost?
AF: Only one scene between Stan and his mother was lost. We used everything else. Everything!
DC: Any DVD plans in which you’ll unravel some of those deleted moments?
AF: Nah! There’s not much to unravel. If we ever did a DVD it would be some messed up horror Xmas special with the actors.
DC: And what do you hope the film does for your career, personally?
AF: Humanly the film has done a lot for me already. I am a less shallow person because of it and more open to embrace or understand the struggles of my fellow Human. Professionally, I am well aware that it’s a niche film. Super hard to categorize. You know, Breakfast Club meets Freaks (as an audience member once put it). So it’s not like the film will land me some gigs. However, if I ever need to convince an established actor or actress that I have the chops to take them to the next level and get them to explore the dark recesses of their soul. I’ll just be like, “Hey, check out Happy Face and look at what we’ve done with some of these non-professional actors.” The film gave me confidence to explore dark topics, mix them tonally with humor and bring out great performances from anyone ranging from an experienced actor to a person off the street (which is the case for some of the cast).
DC: I’m very intrigued to know what’s next, sir!
AF: Well, since you asked. I must tell you that Happy Face is also the first part of my “Cancer Trilogy”. A project of three feature-length fiction, autobiographical films, based on the fears and fantasies resulting from my experiences with this disease. The next film in the trilogy is called The Other and it is a psychological thriller taking place in a hospital room. The story is based on my own battle with cancer 10 years ago. I was stuck to my hospital bed following a crippling surgery aimed at removing a bone tumor in my leg. I had 50% chances of survival and I was in total pain. Mental and physical. Then they wheeled in my roommate: a drug dealer that had been shot in the legs by street gangs. I realized that he had been put in my room because the staff feared for his life in another area of the hospital that had more gang related patients. I also realized with horror that the bed numbers for my room were inverted in the computer system! So everybody, doctors and nurses, mistook him for me. We kind of looked alike too! So what was supposed to be a healing hospital stay turned into a waking nightmare as I was sure the gangs would come to finish him off and would mistake him for me. We’re waiting on production funding for The Other.
Following my genre festival circuit run with Happy Face and particularly after Fantastic Fest in Austin in 2019, I realized that I wanted to make an action/horror film about the Earth getting rid of its main parasite – humans. A strange tribute to Paradise Lost. I am currently writing this story. It is called One Flesh.
Have you seen Happy Face? What do you think of our exclusive interview with Alexandre Franchi? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! You can also carry on the convo with me personally on Twitter @josh_millican.