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An Interview with Michael J Gallagher

Michael: "People have become increasingly snarky, cold and desensitized".

Michael J Gallagher
Interview conducted by John Townsend
14 February 2013

Whilst most of you are cuddling up today with a loved one why not look for an excuse to pull the old 'put arm around' move and comfort your date whilst watching Michael J Gallagher's new urban legend slasher horror flick 'Smiley'. It landed on DVD this week across the US and our John has been talking with the director about the project, his influences and the story behind the newest masked killer on the scene.

Smiley is the new film, please tell us about it?
Smiley is a psychological thriller about a college student who learns that if you start a video chat with someone on an anonymous chat site, you can summon a creature named Smiley to kill the person you are chatting with. It’s a take on Bloody Mary or Candyman but for the digital age.

There have been many films that have explored urban mythology and scary stories. What sets Smiley apart?
One critic put it best, in saying that Smiley shows the “the casual cynicism and nihilistic misanthropy that so often go along with online culture”. I have spent the last 5 years working directly in the digital space and found that the more time people spend with their technology, the less connected they are from compassion and other sympathetic human emotions. People have become increasingly snarky, cold and desensitized. I hadn’t seen Internet culture depicted that way in a genre film and Smiley felt like the perfect opportunity.

Also, the film stars a number of actors who got their start on YouTube, and it’s really terrific to finally see them play darker characters and do something different. Shane Dawson is someone I have done comedy with for years, so it was nice to see him play the male lead in a different genre.

Where did the idea for Smiley come from?
The fear of over sharing is something I still grapple with. I think a lot of people are afraid that what they put out online will come back to haunt them, whether it’s in the form of risqué photos posted to Facebook or someone’s search history. Smiley takes that idea to the extreme in a creepy teen slasher film sort of way.

Michael: "I've always loved practical effects and the power of an arresting visual".

You've worked with social media before in Youtube. Do you think that the events of Smiley could happen in some form and do you think there should be more regulation?
The events in Smiley are already happening all over. We are just seeing it done in smaller, less obvious doses. Cyberbullying is something that teens everywhere are effected by and we continue to find solutions for. The bottom line is that when people have the chance to act anonymously, it brings out their true nature, for better or worse. For the record, I do believe in an open and free Internet, but I think parents need to be more conscious and knowledgably of what their teens are actually doing online.

It’s obviously important in a film like this that the mask is scary. Where did the influence for this come from?
I’ve always loved practical effects and the power of an arresting visual. Originally Smiley was going to just be a guy with a stocking and a painted smiley face over it. Early on in the script phase, I realized that for this character to transcend from the cliché, we should really create a larger than life creature that could menace Ashley in real life and in her dreams. And it was pretty awesome to create a terrifying version of an emoticon.

The film had more of a psychological thriller feel at times rather than a horror. Was this something you set out to do?
Absolutely. The film is a psychological thriller. The serial killer / slasher / horror side is very light. Ashley thinks she’s the victim of a “teen slasher” when really her mind is projecting much more than what is being seen.

There does appear to be a social message in the film. Could you expand on whether this was a conscious decision and what that intended message was?
I think there is a lot people can infer from the film, about how we use technology, about human nature in the digital age, effects of cyberbullying, etc. The main social message the film explores is that true evil is when people commit unspeakable acts that lack motivation. To me, that is a hundred times more terrifying than a boogeyman, because we recognize that evil exists in others… and within ourselves.

Michael: "This isn't a film for genre nuts. It's intended to be a 'gateway' horror film for young filmgoers".

How difficult was it to handle the bipolar and suicide plotlines sensitively while still making a horror film?
I think you want a genre film to have dramatic weight without it taking over the whole film. The balance was found in the script, which worked well because we didn’t end up cutting or adding any of those scenes in post. The bipolar and suicide plotlines are very important to the story to understanding why Ashley acts the way she does.

Having now produced an independent horror film do you feel this is the best way for writers, directors and actors to produce work in a genre dominated by remakes and franchises?
Making an independent film has its challenges. Not only did I self-finance the film, but also self-released the film theatrically by partnering with AMC Independent. Going independent is great for control, but it is very costly and time consuming. I think independent cinema is perfect for filmmakers who want to make their first films or tell a very personal story. It’s important to also think about who your audience is for the film so you can budget accordingly. I think it can be irresponsible for filmmakers to spend so much money on projects that will never earn back. But this was an absolutely amazing experience that I learned so much from.

Do you think that when making a horror film it is necessary to give the audience a little bit of what they have come to expect from the genre while at the same time trying to tell as original story as possible? I refer to horror staples such as “boo scares” and “he’s behind you” moments.
I think it’s important to keep your audience in mind. We made this for young adults who know the actors in the film from their shows on YouTube. For the most part, that demographic is high school and college age. The films tone, scare level, etc – all is made with that demographic in mind. This isn’t a film for genre nuts. It’s intended to be a “gateway” horror film for young filmgoers.

Who would you say has influenced you as a director?
I am very influenced by the work of Roman Polanski, particularly Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. I love his use of the mundane things in life as a way to build tension. His films aren’t overly horrifying but they infiltrate the mind and let your imagination do the heavy lifting.

What are your favourite horror films?
I love The Shining, Caché, The Ring and the original Halloween. I recently saw Sinister and thought it was just fantastic.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
I have a weekly sketch comedy series called Totally Sketch that you can check out online. There is a big “Choose Your Own Adventure” Valentine’s Day series that’s going up on February 14th that is 45 minutes of utter ridiculousness. I also have another feature that we hope to film later this year.

"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview.
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

'Smiley' is now available on DVD.

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