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"Smiley Face" Is the Most Underrated Stoner Flick of All Time

To celebrate the film's 10-year anniversary today, we talked with director Gregg Araki about the THC-laced picaresque.

by Zach Sokol

by Zach Sokol

There’s a scene in the 2007 movie Smiley Face when we hear the thoughts of Jane, our perma-blazed protagonist played by Anna Faris. “I’m going to frame a bunch of stuff I love… like lasagna,” she waxes before jumping a couple ideas forward. What if, she asks herself, instead of hanging a photo of some Italian food, she put up an image of President James A. Garfield as a wink to the lasagna-inclined cat? “Oh shit, that’d be totally meta!” she decides, laughing to herself and sinking into a couch.

Like the framed photo highdea itself, the scene is an abstracted tangent in an otherwise-simple narrative. The movie even begins with the lines, “This is the story of how a person got from point A to point Z.” But Smiley Face is more than your straightforward stoner flick about, well, a stoner who accidentally eats a plate full of weed-infused cupcakes before attempting to finish a bunch of errands. If anything, Gregg Araki’s feature — which celebrates its 10th anniversary today on 4/20 — is one of the most underrated in its genre, and it holds up amazingly a decade later.

Smiley Face is an excellent film for many reasons, but it stands out in the THC-laced canon due to how authentically it mirrors the feeling of being really fucking high. From Jane’s stoney bologna non sequiturs, to the character’s billowing psychological trajectory (sometimes she’s anxious, other times she’s sleepy, distracted, hungry, or plain stoopid), the viewer’s headspace peaks and dips alongside what’s going on in the movie. It hypnotizes you into riding the same sloppy wave as Jane, and you end up sharing her emotional ordeal — even if your decision making would never be so damn awful if you were in her place. 

Part of that engrossing cinematic empathy can be attributed to Faris, who plays the character so earnestly and convincingly that Jane never becomes a two-dimensional cartoon of a stoner (besides the opening credits, in which Jane literally appears as a two-dimensional cartoon stoner…). The film’s success is also thanks to writer Dylan Haggerty and director Gregg Araki, who unfold the tall tale using perfect pacing and just the right amount of stylization. Plus, the movie features a number of actors whose careers snowballed shortly after it came out, including John Krasinski and Jane Lynch. 

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Smiley Face, MERRY JANE hopped on the phone with Araki, arguably one of the most respected directors in independent filmmaking ever since he helmed the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” in the mid-90s. On top of talking about Smiley Face being a “labor of love” for everyone involved — and an experience he looks back on fondly — Araki explained that he originally signed on to the project so he could make the perfect movie for his stoner friends to watch on repeat. What a chill friend, right? He even teased the possibility of a sequel, and our minds are reeling about what a Smiley Face 2 would look like in an America with legal weed. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MERRY JANE: It’s been ten years since Smiley Face was released, and marijuana legislation and the country’s general attitude towards cannabis has changed so much. I’m curious how you think the film has held up?
Gregg Araki: I haven’t seen it for years. I don’t usually sit around and watch my own movies [laughs]. But I love Smiley Face so much. It’s so near and dear to my heart, and it was a labor of love for everybody involved — the cast, the crew, etc. It was so much fun to work on. I look back on it with very, very fond memories.

I always found it interesting that you went from directing a super serious film like Mysterious Skin to the next project being this absurd stoner comedy. It must have felt like a curveball for many people familiar with your work.
Yeah, it’s funny. Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face are kind of yin and yang to each other. Mysterious Skin is one of my darker movies and Smiley Face is my lightest movie. They just kind of came about in my life at a similar time, and it was kind of like they were both similar in the sense that I just fell in love with both of them immediately. I fell in love with Mysterious Skin, the book, which I ended up adapting for the film, and then when I read Dylan Haggerty’s script for Smiley Face it instantly made me laugh out loud.

What about the movie felt like the right fit for you?
I had a friend at the time, my dear friend Amy. She went through a period where she was a lot like Jane [from Smiley Face]. And so I had this goal to make the movie for my stoner friends. There’s a thing when people are habitual stoners — they tend to sit on the couch a lot and watch a lot of movies, sometimes the same one multiple times in a row. I felt that [Smiley Face] was so authentic to the way stoners think — I mean the voice of it was just so dead-on —that I knew it would find its way to the type of people who sit on the couch all day watching DVDs and hitting bongs. My friends used to sit around and watch old Hercules movies. They’d sit on this giant couch with a big bong on the table and watch them again and again. I knew that Smiley Face would be at least as good as the Hercules movies, so you could kind of say I wanted to make a movie for them to enjoy.

How did you first come across the script? What were the nuts and bolts behind how you got involved with the project?
Well, it was like many scripts in Hollywood. It was floating around and it got sent to me as a commission and I read it. Immediately, I felt it was such a weird script. The draft of it that I got was originally called “The Being John Malkovich of All Pot Smoking Stoner Movies” or something like that. It had the weirdest title and it was the weirdest script and I read it and just thought it was so funny and so accurate. Everything about it really struck me as so true and so authentic. I love the way the character Jane was always making these plans, like “OK, plan number one: do this. Plan number two: do this…” because that’s how her brain works. It makes absolutely no sense if you’re sober, but if you’re stoned it makes perfect sense. And I love that it was a female protagonist cause you hadn’t really seen that before. It was just such a crazy cool script and I fell in love with it. I remember it was originally written by like “anonymous.” We had to track the writer [Dylan Haggerty] down. It was a whole bit of a treasure hunt [
laughs].

How did Anna Faris get involved?
It was a weird and special experience. When we were casting it, I really wanted somebody who had not quite popped yet. I was looking for someone that plays the girlfriend or side-kick character, but they always steal the movie, and at that time it was totally Anna Faris. It was before Anna Faris was Ana Faris. I remember seeing
Lost in Translation, where she was a breath of fresh air. For me, that movie was kind of a flat line, but when she came in the whole movie popped alive a little bit. When she read the [Smiley Face script], Anna was super into it, and she totally got it.

What kind of research did you do for Smiley Face? Did you go through all the old Cheech & Chong movies and explore the stoner film canon?
I had seen some of the Cheech & Chong flicks in the course of my regular movie going, but I didn’t research stoner movies or anything. When I made Mysterious Skin, I didn’t research child abuse or any of that stuff. I just knew the story and the script were so right on, and it was the same with Smiley Face. For example, the scene where Jane’s auditioning for a role in some movie and she blows it… that stuff really happens, you know?

What about marijuana culture? Did you get into smoking pot while making the movie?
I mean, I’ve obviously smoked pot in my life — like at parties and whatever, but I don’t have a [medical marijuana] prescription and I don’t smoke regularly. I just do it like people drink, so every now and then. I do remember one time in college when I had these pot brownies — it’s like you don’t know how much you’re consuming until it’s too late. I ended up having these crazy hallucinations and just being so out of my body and not knowing where I really was. Just totally disoriented. My source of inspiration was the stoners I knew and a lot of my observations about them — the way they live, the way they think, and that kind of culture.

Did that result in the filming process being at all ad hoc or improvised?
No, not really. The shooting of it was very straightforward because the script was so dead on. Everybody just kind of knew what it was and what we were doing. Anna had said that when she was younger she smoked a lot of pot, but at the time we were filming she wasn’t smoking that much. Rather, it was everybody bringing their own experiences with pot to the movie.

And the thing with Anna, I felt like her performance was so amazing, the way she captured that state without overdoing it. The way the film was shot was so precise, so she had to be right on her mark. Like, if she were a quarter-inch off her mark then we had to redo it. So she was super in control of what she was doing, but so realistic in her portrayal of that [stoned] state. She should have won an Oscar for the role [laughs].

After re-watching, I totally agree. She never becomes too much of a caricature of a stoner.
Yeah, she’s very grounded and very real. And if you look at her performance, it’s not one note at all. There’s all these highs and lows of states where she’s at. Sometimes she’s sleepy, other times she’s super animated. She just kind of goes through all these different phases of being stoned. Remember the scene where she gives a long, crazy speech about Marxism? She literally nailed it on the first take. I mean, she’s such an amazing actor. She even did all her own insert shots, like when her fingers are hitting the elevator button and stuff — they were really Anna’s hands.

What was the initial reception to the movie when it first came out?
It was great. People were really into the movie. I’ll never forget our first screening at Sundance. We were at The Library and it was midnight on a Friday or something, and it was a really cold Sundance. I remember there were these kids that came up to us after who had waited outside in line for like eight hours to see it. That was really cool. And it was packed. People were laughing their heads off. I remember I sat right in front of Anna’s mom and dad and they were howling throughout the whole movie, so Anna was really happy. It was a really great screening and we had such a great time.

The attitude towards marijuana in America was way less friendly ten years ago. Did you have any difficulties advertising or getting the movie out there due to subject matter?  
Not really. The thing about stoner movies, especially this one because it was such a small indie movie, is that they always make a profit. Especially at that time because the DVD market was still alive. Stoners sit around and watch TV, as opposed to other groups of people and other audiences that don’t so much. And, you know, movies like
Half Baked are studio projects that cost like 15 or 20 millions dollars to make.

When I met with Anna the first time, I said, “This is gonna be one of those movies where when you’re like 80-years-old and walking down the street, some guy is gonna come up to you and be like, ‘You were in that weed movie!’” I saw her at a party a few years ago and she said, “Oh my God, all anyone ever talks about is Smiley Face.” So it’s succeeded in this way where it’s become this kind of cult [classic], and a lot of times people will tell me that it’s one of their favorite movies. And all I ever really wanted for the movie was to have it find true and loyal fans, and for it to resonate with the people who really get it.

Thomas Dekker, one of the actors in my movie Kaboom, once told me that he and his friends used to watch Smiley Face every Thursday night. Literally. And they used to play the parts while it was running like Rocky Horror Picture Show. That made me really happy.

I personally think this movie deserves a sequel, and that now would be as good a time as ever with legalization and the green rush. Has that ever crossed your mind or come up at all?
It’s something I’d be very open to. My manager works with Dylan Haggerty, too, and I heard a rumor that he’s actually working on a sequel. It would obviously have to be a really great script to make it worthwhile. I don’t want to tarnish the memory of
Smiley Face. But it’s something I’m open to and I’ve heard Anna is open to it. It would be tricky because sequels almost always suck, and the original movie is kind of perfect to me as is. I wouldn’t want to fuck with it unless the sequel’s script was something amazing and took Jane’s character to a whole new level. It’s definitely something I’m open to, though.

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Zach Sokol

Zach Sokol is a writer and editor who has written for Vice, The Fader, Art in America, The Paris Review, and other fine publications.



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