François Ricard-Sheard is an up-and-coming Canadian filmmaker with an affable nature and an innate love of horror. The Québec-based cinephile strives to push the boundaries of cinema. His latest short film, ‘Smiley Face’, is set in an isolated, thickening wood. As the sun begins to set through the towering trees, three young women desperately try to survive after they fall prey to a flesh-eating, bloodthirsty humanoid creature. ‘Smiley Face’ is making its final film festival run this month, and is now streaming on the Screamfest Youtube channel. We spoke with Ricard-Sheard about creature design, guts, his creative vision, and his future in horror.
Downright Creepy: Thanks for sitting down and speaking with me today, François. I’m excited to get into the nitty-gritty behind the making of ‘Smiley Face’. Could you tell us how you became a filmmaker?
Ricard-Sheard: I’ve always been a cinephile. My first dream job was to be an actor, but I found that I was writing a lot more than anything. I had all of these ideas about films when I was very young—I’m talking ten, eleven, twelve years old. I was always the guy that was scaring everybody, telling stories in my basement to my friends to freak them out.
I started thinking that scriptwriting may be a better path for me, so I got my bachelor’s degree in screenwriting and creative writing. Shortly after, I met a unit production manager. After I harassed them a little bit [laughs], I became an extra production assistant on a big American show called ‘Ascension’. I did more unit work, which I still do to this day, and started my own production company, Wandering Clown. I’ve produced seven short films. Schooling didn’t teach me much about filmmaking, but making those shorts definitely did.
I loved being involved in the writing of a film, though, at least as a co-writer, so I started moving away from producing shorts to create my own. That’s when I came up with ‘Smiley Face’. I wrote, directed, produced, and edited it.
DRC: Let’s dig into ‘Smiley Face’. It’s pure nightmare fuel—a truly creepy short that makes your blood run cold. Can you give us some background on this story?
Ricard-Sheard: A director of photography that I knew from my previous short films called me and asked me to write a script. At first, it was a commission with a different story that was more elaborate. I took that story and let my imagination run wild. The initial story involved a dwarf—that you briefly see in ‘Smiley Face’—and he would capture girls, feed them gruel to fatten them up, and then feed them to appease this creature. Then, the main girl would take the place of the dwarf at the end and she would be in charge of capturing girls for the creature. I also had the creature eat the tongues of people, and at the end, I was going to have the main girl cut her tongue out and give it to the creature. The script, at that time, was around 15 to 16 pages. We asked for $175,000 of government funds, but they pretty much laughed at the aspect of us making a movie about a creature that eats young girls [laughs]. In my mind, I was like, why not? It sort of discouraged me, so we shelved it.
Two years later, the same DP calls me and says, “Hey, François, why don’t we reduce the story and make it short and sweet?” So we shot ‘Smiley Face’ at my grandfather’s home in the woods. He lives on a large plot of land with a few abandoned houses around. With that, I already knew we had the locations on lock, and that reduces the production cost. So, I went back to the DP and was like, “You’re right. Why don’t we go with a small crew and I’ll rewrite the script?” That’s why ‘Smiley Face’ is simple. I didn’t want to conceptualize horror. I didn’t want there to be a backstory, even though there was before. I know where the creature comes from—there’s a method to the madness. It’s not explained in the short, nor is it really hinted at. But yeah, that’s what I wanted—simplicity.
DRC: How did you design the creature in ‘Smiley Face’? The creature is humanoid, but at the same time, so foreign and terrifying. In its face, of course, but most notably in its movements. We see certain shots of the creature throughout the film that look so unnatural—such as when one of the girls looks out a window and sees the creature running toward her. I’d love to talk about how that eerieness was created.
Ricard-Sheard: It’s funny that you mention that! ‘Smiley Face’ came from a vision. I was at my grandfather’s house when I was younger. He has this big country house, and it’s always scary in the country because it’s much more isolated. I was walking through that house one night, and I imagined being confronted by this smiling, very slim, human-looking naked being with a belly and dangling, emaciated arms.
I thought this was really frightening, and wanted to reproduce that vision. My main goal was to get an actor for this creature. I knew that if it was not well made, the film wouldn’t work. Somebody referred me to Jérémie Gariépy Ferland. Jérémie was born with a disease where he cannot grow muscles, so when I saw his photos, I knew he could do it—he had the physique. We did the first test with Nina, our SFX makeup supervisor. She put the gray on him and the fake teeth, and immediately, I knew he was going to be great. He was a sport [laughs]. He was almost naked, and it was cold in Québec when we filmed. There was frost while he was running through those woods. It was a hard shoot for him, but he was amazing.
DRC: The way he manipulates his physicality, and the way he holds himself, is fantastic.
Ricard-Sheard: We practiced that a lot. The creature’s smile was difficult to achieve because of the prosthetics we put on Jérémie, so we used minimal visual effects just to increase the smile and the creature’s eyes in close-ups. Everything else you see is practical. Cause that’s the scary thing, right? This thing with a crazy smile and bug eyes wants to eat you.
DRC: The gore shown in ‘Smiley Face’ is very realistic. I would love to chat about how you created the innards that the creature is devouring, and that shot of the girl’s mostly-eaten body on the bed.
Ricard-Sheard: Those guts are the real deal—organic pig guts. My SFX guy is great. He’s worked on bigger projects, and he’s so passionate about what he does. He was sending me tests for blood, for guts, asking, “Do you want this texture or this texture?” [laughs]. It’s so funny. We were testing out the blood and it looked amazing, and he was so into it. The whole process was very low-tech.
We were churning out fake blood with a pump and had a box of guts for Jérémie to dig into and go crazy with. They’re real, and they stink. It’s something the actors had to go through, but I think it helps them play. There’s Jérémie, almost naked, with splashes of blood and guts all over him. I edited it out, but there’s a close-up where he had guts danging in his prosthetic fangs.
I’m looking forward to working with my actors again, as I believe most of them are coming back for my next project. Horror really interests me. I think I have some really creepy ideas to make a good scary movie, and I could make a big splash. I’d love to push SFX to another level and do some crazier stuff. I have a couple of ambitious ideas that may be difficult to do practically, but I think in horror, I could possibly do it. That’s one department you need right in the genre—practical SFX!
DRC: What was the hardest part when creating ‘Smiley Face’?
Ricard-Sheard: My biggest challenge was my lack of experience. I produced before, writing I was comfortable with, but I’ve never directed a fiction film. I’m very logistic-orientated and very PA-minded, so it was difficult finding my focus at times. I’m so happy the film came out well, but there are a few shots I know I didn’t cover, and we had some issues with time constraints. You don’t have the budget for reshoots and you can’t bring the cast and crew back to the country for them. It’s kind of like, it’s now or never. Jérémie was in makeup for four hours, so we had to plan around that. Time was a challenge, especially with a micro-budget!
DRC: Something I’d love to ask you about is the use of sound in ‘Smiley Face’. Sound is one of the most intense and horrific factors in your short film. How do you achieve these sounds, from glass slicing through rope and the creature’s whispering to the gritty, screeching tone used throughout the short?
Ricard-Sheard: That was a big thing for me. James Duhamel did all the music and sound. He’s experienced, and I was excited about that. I think it’s a good tip for filmmakers who are starting their careers—it’s always better to go with someone more experienced than yourself! Duhamel added so much to ‘Smiley Face’. I gave him some samples of what I was looking for, and he took those and ran with them. His sound adds so many layers to the story. He thought it would be cool to have a choir of women to represent the previously-devoured victims, which I thought was really smart. He hired a violinist and a foley artist, one of the best in Montreal. For all the voices, he brought in The Monster Factory. They do all monster voices for video games and films. The guy from The Monster Factory who provided the whispering voice of the creature was amazing.
DRC: Looking back on the filming of ‘Smiley Face’, what is your fondest memory of creating it? What are you most proud of?
Ricard-Sheard: I’m most proud of the creature. I think it’s the strongest part of the film, and it felt true to my vision. I had this magical moment during filming, at the climax of the story. The lighting was perfect, our director of photography was into it, Jérémie’s acting was amazing, and the crew was all sitting there, watching it on the small screen of the monitor. I knew even if all the rest was not good, I had a movie! After that sequence, everyone looked at each other and said, “What the hell just happened?” All the elements really came together, and for me, that’s what makes a movie.
DRC: Do you have any upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
Ricard-Sheard: I’m feeling encouraged by the positive feedback coming from the release of ‘Smiley Face’ and it’s giving me momentum. People put a lot of resources and a lot of time into this film, so it’s great to see.
For my next film, I have producers for the first time in my life [laughs]. I’m working with other people, we have a bigger budget, and I’m working full-time on it. We’re shooting it this summer until the fall, and we’re hoping for it to be ready for Spring 2024. It’s called ‘Cash God’. There’s some subtle horror in it, but it’s more the climax that’s frightening. It’s a drama fantasy about the god of money. He’s got a great white shark head and can sniff out the wealthiest person on earth and devour them. Our film follows this man—a rich, young professional who has become corrupted, and the god of money comes after him.
That’s the story. We’re in pre-production, and we’re excited to go from here.
DRC: Thanks again for chatting with me today, François, and congrats again on ‘Smiley Face’!
Ricard-Sheard: Let’s go! I’m excited. I just want to be creative and make these films, and I hope people enjoy them—or else there’s no point.
François Ricard-Sheard‘s chilling debut, ‘Smiley Face’, is now streaming on Screamfest: