Happy Face Director Alexandre Franchi: Interview – There’s always a concern when a new film that focuses on disabled people comes around. Will they be played by disabled actors? Will they be portrayed as sweet, inspirational characters who overcome their disabilities so that they can triumph? Will the filmmakers be able to understand how their cast want to be put across?
I had the opportunity to talk to one such filmmaker, Alexandre Franchi and I’m happy to say that Happy Face shows people with facial differences in a way that they may have never been seen before – as people. For good or for bad, Franchi’s new film shows a small group of people with facial differences as flawed, funny, depressed and overall human. Even though a lot of Franchi’s film is inspired by his own life.
How did you come up with the idea for Happy Face?
I grew up with a single mom in Montreal, Canada and she worked in the cosmetics industry working for companies like Christian Dior. She was a woman who always defined herself by her appearance and she always had perfect make up, perfect features and a perfect body and when I was a teenager, she got breast cancer. She had to lose her breast, she lost her hair and she had to go through treatment and well, I was very young at the start and when it came back, it came back during my years as a teenager. So, growing up with a single mom I saw how the loss of her ‘femininity’ affected her and how the loss of that beauty that she clung onto was part of herself. When that was gone, I saw her basically shatter and try to find other ways to try to define meaning and value for herself and it really affected me.
You know teenagers, we’re all a little ashamed of our parents. We think they’re a little weird or strange and I had this extra layer with her because of her appearance. Although I loved her and I wanted to help her, I found myself ashamed of her appearance, ashamed to bring friends home or go out with her in public and it would cause immense guilt.
I obviously loved her, but then I’d have the desire to run away and I couldn’t cope with the situation. That created a lot of guilt that stayed with me for a long time and that kind of guilt, that kind of push/pull was the core feeling that drove the film. It was supposed to be a short film for film school where I just had this very kind of angry, cathartic idea to have the story. I would put people that were facially different and disfigured on screen and they would break stuff and be in our faces and this kid would disfigure himself at the end because he couldn’t cope with his mom’s illness. He felt like shit and his unresolved psychological issues were what prompted this film.
I think that with this process of growing up and being an adult, getting therapy and self-help I kind of learned over the years that you’re not supposed to deal with that kind of stuff as a teenager. So, the film evolved from that cry of anger or anguish and into Happy Face.
How did you find the cast?
We went first to an organisation called About Face in Canada which is like a smaller version of Changing Faces in the UK and that’s where we found David Roche who plays Otis. I contacted them and I said I wanted to give a free acting workshop for one day with an acting coach because acting is good for self-esteem, public speaking, it’s fun and can break the ice. Once you take up acting, you’re going to have an easier time talking to people on the street or doing presentations at work. So, I said I just wanted to do it for one day and at the end talk about the film and leave it to the participants to see if they wanted to be part of the project or not. No strings attached.
So, we did an acting workshop which was more like acting with a therapy session. I participated in it as well and as we went through the acting exercises, we had several other people who wanted to be part of it. But we still needed a lot more people, so we sent out calls on television, radio and contacted casting agents from New York and LA.
You can’t just find people like this, it’s not like a menu where you can just cast non-disfigured people, random actors where you can really pick and choose. So, after a while we realised that it’s better to find people that had charisma, that had a spark and some of my cast had experience and some of them had no experience.
For example, Alison Midstokke who plays Maggie had done some modelling, she had done some short films, David Roche is an inspirational speaker and a humourist, but Cyndy Nicholsen who plays Buck was found in a subway car.
I was doing interviews in LA with casting agents and I heard about E.R. Ruiz who plays Jocko who comes from a rough neighbourhood in LA and the guy’s a rapper. At first, he didn’t fit my casting and at his first audition he was acting like they do in Los Angeles, overly badass and overly tough, but when I spoke to him, he was a soft-spoken guy and super sweet and then he told me he could rap and he did some that blew me away, so I knew we were going to find a role for him. I based it on his real-life persona, although of course he’s not a police officer in real life.
There was a process of seeing what they could do and like with any other actor it was a case of seeing what they could do. Some of them are naturals and some of them thought that they’re good, but they weren’t that good, because they were good at something else. So, I think for me it was finding their inner demon, their inner monster, their inner genius, their inner spark and we tailored the character and rehearsed to bring that shit up. We changed what was written on the page as supposed to changing the person. It was that process that made their performances so believable.
Did the actors bring anything to the roles that you hadn’t thought about before?
When I started researching for the film, I finally started to contact people with facial differences and learn of their life stories. I approached them with ‘look this is my life story, I felt ashamed of my mom’ and I wanted to tell the story of a superficial kid who became less superficial and goes about it in some kind of misguided self-therapy.
When we started meeting people without facial differences, they may have had a lot of experience, but they just didn’t ‘have it’ to play facially different people. Some people have the spark and some don’t.
Then when I listened to the stories of my actors, the film took on a different path where we incorporated their life stories and changed the characters for who they were and it became a blend. A blend where Happy Face was born over a writing process of something like fifteen years.
I love working with non-professional actors and try to go where other actors wouldn’t go because when I do this the film doesn’t become the end product at the movie theatre. It’s the process of the film that changes us and I think that helps make it less superficial. When we see ‘beauty’ or ‘ugliness’ it takes the form of poverty and filth. Before the film, when I’d see a homeless person and they’re dirty and when I’d give them money, they want to shake my hand, but I didn’t know if they’re going to give me germs.
After doing this film, something slightly changed in me because after that I would look at people and engage with people, look them in the eye and talk to them and not be afraid to listen to whatever pain they were suffering and just taking in that human moment. I was always shy to do that because it always scared me, I was always afraid I would get sucked into what they were doing or their stories would make me cry. So, the process of doing the film and with the actors opening up and soon the crew started doing the same thing. They would have tears in their eyes telling me things like ‘my cousin, she had cancer, and I didn’t dare to see her because I didn’t know what to say’ and the cast and the crew would mix and share experiences. It was a really good experience.
In Happy Face, the group are all shown to have vastly differing personalities. As a film that shows people with facial differences from different walks of life, were there any concerns about showing any of these characters in a bad light?
It was hard to finance, hard to fund because it’s not a very ‘film sexy’ idea where I wanted to do a movie about cancer and facially disfigured people and people were very reluctant to fund it. They would say things like ‘you’re a good-looking dude, are you exploiting these people?’ But I asked the cast if they felt exploited and they said ‘Exploit away! Exploit us, we want to be on film and film is about exploitation. You exploit Hugh Grant, you exploit Jude Law and other cool faces like Angelina Jolie with her looks, charisma and body, so why not us?’.
Everybody would tell me ‘oh, you have to be careful about how you treat the subject matter, how you treat those people’ and even my crew, my cinematographer, Claudine Sauvé took me aside one day and said ‘be careful how you talk to them, you’re kind of rough with them’ and I said ‘what do you mean by rough? They’re my actors and I talk to them like I would talk with any actor’.
They’re not angels or fragile little porcelain creatures. They could be idiots too. They could be petty or silly or bitter and at times witty, kind and funny and amazing just like everybody else, except they’ve just had it rougher with people. It’s like everybody else, if you had an upbringing where you had a support group of loving adults that helped you deal with the hand life dealt you, then you’re going to end up better than if you were alone or had adults that dumped their shit on you.
This was true for my cast because they had it rougher because of teasing, bullying and stares, stigma and discrimination, but essentially, I didn’t want to go into that zone because it feels fake to me. So, the process of the film was learning how to interact. We need to talk about anything, we need to joke about anything and if we go too far then they’d need to tell me and I will apologise and we will readjust. I didn’t want to do something preachy, who am I to do that? I hate that shit.
Did you want to subvert any of the cliches that are often seen in cinema when making Happy Face?
Because the story was centred around a character that was autobiographical, although I didn’t do exactly what Stan did like putting bandages around my face and joining a support group, it left me psychological scars for years. I think because we’re from France and I didn’t have a group of strong adults to support me, the film became about me in a narcissistic, ego centrical process. But in the film, Stan does try to help the others like the ‘white saviour’ and people pointed that out to me.
When I told my actors about this, they saw the point I was making, but they reminded me that ‘Stan tries to help and he’s more fucked up than we are’. Ultimately in the film it’s Otis that ends up helping Stan and giving him the courage to go and see his mom. The cliches became a non-issue for us, but in the film, I made sure that Stan didn’t resolve any of his issues by himself. He tries to help the members of the group, but he fucks up incredibly on all levels. Whatever he tries to do to fix it always backfires and, in the end, that’s where he’s at a loss.
Another cliché is that when you’re a boy sometimes you need a father figure to help you make those tough choices. But it was a natural choice that an older man like Otis who has troubles with his own family would step up to the plate and becomes a father figure for Stan. The resolution of that was more of a screenwriting resolution as opposed to social justice or raising an agenda about using facially different actors.
Did any of the cast bring anything to you in terms of their character or their experience?
They just brought themselves, they brought their own unique and strange personas. They brought their wounds and their scars and I mean psychologically. They were kind enough to open up about their lives in the rehearsal process; what they had gone through and their innermost fears and their despairs and so did I because that’s the way I work, that’s the way I am. That enabled me to ask them permission to ask if it was ok to go there.
Like Cyndy Nicholsen, she had been bullied and mistreated by her mother her whole life and she still lives with her mother in a tent outside of her house half of the year because her mother couldn’t stand her. Cyndy wanted to tell her mother how bad she was, but she didn’t dare to do it in real life. So, her goal was to play herself in the film so that when her mother saw the film, she would hear her daughter speak to her. That’s fucked up and great, so I put her in the film. She talked about her mom in the workshop, she’d say things her mother would say like ‘who would ever want to go out with you? Who’d want to date you? Who’d want to sleep with you?’ and start crying every time we talked about it because she just wanted to open up about it. That’s what they brought. They brought their vulnerability and their willingness to go all the way.
Stan likes Dungeons and Dragons, do you like the game yourself? Are there any characters you like the most?
I tried to put as many things in that I liked when I was a teenager and in my early Twenties. I’m a single child and when my mum got sick, I took refuge in stories, myths and tales from Dungeons and Dragons, so for me it was my drug. Some teenagers escape with music, alcohol, drugs, video games and for me it was the D & D fantasy world where I would be a hero. I would be a knight and I would sacrifice to do the right thing and a lot of people do that. We have escapist fantasy past times even if we have morally shitty lives and it’s the same where we love movies that have heroes.
In my films there are always characters that try to escape reality because they can’t cope, so they put themselves in imaginary worlds and I want my characters to find their strength in that imaginary world, to go back to reality and use that imagination to cope with reality. I did that in my first feature film, The Wild Hunt which was about people LARPing I used the metaphor of someone playing a knight in shining armour that was cursed to be a mummified monster. This gives the idea of Stan’s alter ego as this is how Stan would use the game and take it into reality to cope.
Were there any responses to Happy Face that you weren’t expecting?
When the film came to Frightfest, London they weren’t sure about showing Happy Face because they thought it would be exploitative and maybe afraid of the sponsors. However, it became really popular and the cast said ‘screw this! We’re getting awards!’. But I wanted to know why this was happening at a horror festival, because I was getting push backs about facial equality, and I was told that the people who love horror and other genre films were often misfits. Some of them were overweight, some of them were shy and were often the misfits and the outsiders and not part of the cool kids. So, a lot of us gravitated towards horror and niche past times and the characters in your film made the audience think of us.
What are you doing next?
I realised, you don’t choose your public, your public chooses you. So, this year I thought I’m going to do an action horror film called One Flesh and it’s completely for the horror film festival fans, I’m going to go full crazy, just to try it. I think a lot of horror films are one note with no character development, so I’m going to do my film which is very human and very much about the stuff of life and it’s going to be about fertility, but it’s going to be a horror film.
The other one is my second film in my ‘Cancer Trilogy’. Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer which was really painful and traumatic and when I was hospitalised, I was put in a room next to a drug dealer that had been shot in both his legs. So, there I was hooked up on morphine with a 50/50 chance of survival, one hundred stitches in my leg and he was there with two huge wounds in his legs and we’re both not feeling very lucid. I then realised that he was put into my room because he was afraid for his life, and there was another hospital room that had more people that were wounded at the shooting. He was afraid that the gangs would come and finish him off, so they put him into my room.
As days went by and we got to know each other I was afraid of him, I realised the doctors were mistaking him for me because we looked alike and that our patient numbers were inverted in the computer system. I thought the gang members were going to come and finish this guy off and they’re going to mistake the beds and get me instead. What was supposed to be a regenerative hospital stay turned into a bloody nightmare where I was fearing for what was coming. When I found out about the gang, I thought I had better get out of there.
I also couldn’t sleep because of the pain and the morphine and so I concocted a hospital thriller, a psychological thriller in a hospital room where the two personalities of the two people in the hospital room start to blend. I wrote it and now we’re trying to get the funding. It’s going to be Stan from Happy Face, but twenty years later who has buried everything from his youth and started to live a good life. He’s got a girlfriend, a good job in advertising and he’s clinging on to what he had and doesn’t want to lose it all. So, when this happens all his inner demons come out.
The third in the trilogy will be embryonic. Honestly ever since I got sick and with my mum having cancer when I was a kid, I’ve been trying to spend the past 10 years trying to get better and move on with it psychologically. When I was a kid, I would always foster this sense of insecurity, I’m really close to my dad now, but he wasn’t really there during my teenage years when it mattered. I’ve tried to have kids myself, but when I got sick it stopped that because the chances of my survival were so slim.
So, the third instalment will either be a documentary or a feature and I haven’t really decided which yet, but it will be about me talking to a son and giving lessons for life. It should be very humoristic and will be about all the things I’ve tried over the years; psychoanalysis, shamanism, self-help, nutrition, fasting, binging on alcohol, sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s going to be in the form of a life lesson to boys who want to have father figures. However, I’m sure it will be equally relevant to girls as well as it will be about the lessons that I wish I’d had.
It will take the form of a counselling session with me and it will go to the present, past and future, but the psychoanalyst will be me, it will be a metaphor for the narcissistic, ego centrical film director who loves himself. It’ll be a wacky, deranged and surreal escape into life lessons.
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