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The Smiling Man Director A.J. Briones Interview

 

(PCM) I had the chance to interview the very talented Mr. A.J. Briones. Briones has over 13 years of experience in the film and gaming industry and I found myself absolutely fascinated with his short film “The Smiling Man”.  Be sure to take a few moments and  check out his extensive body of work, as he is an incredibly talented filmmaker. Check out the full interview below:

Q: What was your childhood like? At what age did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

A.J. Briones: I grew up in the suburbs of San Diego. I was a pretty sheltered kid. I was the youngest of three to very strict Asian parents. I didn’t get out much because my mom was convinced that I would end up dead somehow. They did, however, let me pursue two of passions: computers and movies. This was in the late eighties, and even though they were strict about me being out of the house, I had free reign on what movies I wanted to see on TV or rent from the video store. The first horror film I can remember with clarity is the first A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was so scared that my uncle had to take me out of the theatre halfway through. As I got older, I got a bit braver. When I was about 13 or 14 I took over my dad’s VHS camcorder and started making movies. I would cast my relatives and friends in these slasher films and edit them by daisy-chaining our VCRs together. I never thought it would be a reality because I didn’t know anyone in the film industry, but that’s when I realized I wanted to make movies one day.

Q: Who are your top 3 favorite directors and why?

AB: Chan-Wook Park: He has a fantastic visual style that is very deliberate. You can tell just by looking at his films that every detail has been painstakingly designed and you are looking at exactly what he wants you to see and all of it drives the narrative and his vision.

Stanley Kubrick: He’s the master of creating unease. One of my favorite movies of all time is A Clockwork Orange. That movie just transports you to a different world. His films are great at that. There’s a great little mini documentary called Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (https://vimeo.com/78314194). It is a great little sneak peek at his research and his development process. I show this to people when they say he’s a genius. No man, he’s not a genius. He worked his ass off. There is no such thing as genius.

John Carpenter: John Carpenter has made some of my favorite films: Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, They Live. Great stuff. Big Trouble in Little China in particular was a big film for me growing up because I actually got to see an Asian actor on screen that was a normal person. One of the highlights of my life is when he said my name when introducing The Smiling Man on El Rey Network’s horror anthology: The People’s Network Showcase, Horror Edition. I can seriously die now. I’d rather not, but I can.

Q: Can you describe your creative process when it comes to both storytelling & directing ?

AB: I’m very process oriented, which comes from my experiences as a previs supervisor on some very big tentpole films that I’ve had the great fortune of working on. It’s an experience I am very grateful for. Once I have a script completed, I try to find a theme or allegory that I want to anchor the film to, something that is below the surface, that I hope that most viewers actually don’t pick up on upon first viewing. For example: the sub-surface theme in The Smiling Man is a woman’s realization that she is vulnerable in this world of men. Once I have a theme, it informs everything: from the casting to the costume design, makeup fx, the gestures, the camera angles, pacing, score, sound design… everything. Because of this, all of the disparate parts of the film come together in a way that can be a haunting experience for the viewer. I storyboard key sequences myself, and once we get a location nailed down, we take the time to model them in 3D and I pre-shoot the film on the computer. That way, we have fast-paced shooting days where everyone in the production knows what is going on: where the camera will be, what it’s pointed at, where we can put lights, how it will roughly be framed, and what to start setting up for next.

Q: You have been credited as being a visual artist on many blockbuster movies. Do you have a favorite work experience from working on those those films?

AB: I’ve had a great time on most of the films I’ve been lucky to work on. I’m always learning a lot on all of them. I think Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was pretty special because I didn’t even dream about working on a Star Wars film since by the time I became a vfx artist the prequels were already done. Avatar was great because I learned so much on that movie and made so many lifelong friends there, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was special for really pushing me creatively.

Q: What movie do you think you could have made better visually?

AB: I don’t know if I would want to answer that one without being seen as rude or arrogant. Let’s just say that I hope I get the chance to do a feature so I can show what I can do.

Q:  I’m a huge fan of horror and I recently saw your award winning short film, The Smiling Man. I was both terrified and curious. Where did the concept of the story come from ?

AB: I had just finished my first short film, Carolina Parakeet (https://vimeo.com/89773402), and my team and I were brainstorming for ideas on what we could do next. My producer Tefft Smith II came up with the idea of a clown that used blood instead of makeup and I thought that could be a lot of fun. I wrote a draft of the script pretty quickly. It was pretty much fully realized then, but with some notable exceptions: the main character was a boy and the scares weren’t so refined. I like to weave allegory into my films, and I wanted to find a theme to attach to the film in subtext. For me, The Smiling Man is about a woman’s introduction into the world of men. Once I decided on that theme, I rewrote the script, putting in all the little details and flourishes that would be synonymous with the theme without stating it overtly.

Q:  Is there any plans to explore the Smiling Man ?

AB: The Smiling Man was a film exercise for me. I thought my first film was way too dialogue-heavy and I told more than I showed, and I so I wanted to do something shorter that took the voice away so I was forced to tell a story without dialogue. That, and I wanted to scare the crap out of people. I think we achieved that. I think there could be a feature version of it, and I do have some ideas, but I am working on other things at the moment. With IT coming out and a lot of shorts and features that are doing the clown thing, I think it’s a bit saturated, so I think the best thing is to hold off and revisit it later. The Smiling Man was great. We were ahead of that whole clown curve. Once it dies down I’d love to go back and see if we can shake things up again.

Q:  If you had another occupation, what would it be?

AB: I love my current day job. As a previs/postvis/vfx supervisor, I get to work with some of the greatest living directors today and help them craft their action and vfx-heavy sequences, and I learn so much from it. It’s basically like being paid to take a master class in filmmaking. It has honed my taste and my sensibilities and given me the confidence that I know what I’m doing. Of course, I’d rather work on a 200 thousand dollar film of my own than be an artist on someone else’s 200 million dollar movie, but it’s not a bad day job while I cross my fingers and hustle to make it happen.

Q:  Any advice for anyone trying to get into the film industry ?

AB: Watch a lot of films. Good ones. Not just the ones in your desired genre. There’s a great documentary series called The Story of Film: An Odyssey. See it. If you have a large catalog of movies to in your head to draw from, you will have a bigger reference pool that is outside the genre you’re working in. That way, when you’re making your horror movie it won’t look like all the other horror movies out there.

Find people who are as obsessed as you and make movies with them. Make shorts. Short shorts, like 2 minutes. Don’t get caught up on making it perfect, just make it. Write, plan, produce, shoot, edit, grade, spit it out. Watch it, learn from it, then do it again. Pretty soon you’ll get amazing.

Q: Do you have a preference between working on shorts or feature length films ?

AB: I think the short film medium is great when you’re trying to find your voice and your style. It’s great because it’s kind of a sprint compared to a marathon. That said, now that I think I’ve found my -esque, I’m salivating at the chance to do a feature.

Q:  Any upcoming projects in the works ?

AB: I have two feature film scripts that we are taking out right now, and I am very excited about both of them. I hope things fall into place and I get to tell these stories, because I think they’re very special.

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