Why I Cast Facially-Different Actors in My Movie ‘Happy Face’

Happy Face is not an advocacy film. Happy Face is an imperfect film about imperfect people in an imperfect world.

This film is above all a personal story through which I sought catharsis—a way to free myself from the guilt of having been ashamed of my own mother when, sick with cancer, she lost her “beauty.”

Happy Face is also the first part of my “Cancer Trilogy”—a project of three feature-length fictional/autobiographical films, based on the fears and fantasies resulting from my experiences with this disease. The film recounts the events surrounding my mother’s death when I was a young man and revolves around the theme evoked by the words “…animate your mind instead of your body and you will be immensely rich.” Words she wrote to me just before she died as advice for life.

In the story, Stan, a chimeric 19-year-old boy, is torn between his quest for identity and the burden of having to care for his dying mother alone—a beautician who has based her life on her physical beauty. Incapable of dealing with the situation and the guilt he feels, Stan deforms his face with bandages and takes refuge in a therapy workshop for disfigured people—with the misguided hope to become less shallow.

Yes, I know! It sounds awful and insensitive. Such a premise would never get funded today. In fact, we had trouble getting financing years ago, as some film-funding bodies in Canada thought that the lead character was morally wrong for doing such things. They even raised the fact that I was not facially different and therefore had no right to tackle such a subject. But as I said earlier: this was never meant to be an advocacy film. This was a film about my own failings.

I grew up with a single mother who struggled with breast cancer for many years. When she was younger, she had been a beautiful woman working in the cosmetics industry—basing her self-image on her beauty and good looks. In my teens, I remember my mother looking at herself in the mirror and touching the large scar that had replaced her left breast. Her hair had grown back, but her breast was gone. She used to cry, lamenting that she was not a woman anymore, that no man would want her, and that she had lost her femininity. She never went out on dates and never found love again.

In my late teens, the cancer came back—this time in her brain and lungs. After an operation and aggressive treatments, my mother was able to come back home and go out into the world. But she was changed. She was bald, gaunt, emaciated. She no longer cared about dressing up properly and putting on makeup. She no longer cared about the gaze of others. She just wanted to survive. Going out for groceries with her in the last year of her life, it was I who noticed how people looked at her, pointing, talking about her. I could not stand it. I would hurry back home, rushing her to walk faster, using lame excuses to hide my discomfort. Even though I took care of my mother’s medical needs, I found every reason to get out of the house. I did not invite friends to my home anymore. In short, I was ashamed of her looks, of what people thought. She was “ugly,” and it bothered me. It is this autobiographical episode which is at the origin of this project.

I initially made this film for selfish reasons, but by the time we finished shooting, the film had become much more than that.

I initially made this film for selfish reasons, but by the time we finished shooting, the film had become much more than that.

Fiction films under the label “diversity and inclusion” usually portray their protagonists either as victims or as beings of superior moral fiber—angels (and they usually are pretty good-looking members of the downtrodden group, if you ask me). We wanted to show our facially-different characters as themselves—assholes, generous, petty, funny, cruel, kind, brilliant, stupid. Just like you and me. Just like the rest of humanity! From day 1 of rehearsals, I wanted to avoid the sullen preciousness of the “important subject matter” of the “advocacy film.” The first things I asked was, “What are the worst things people have said to you?” The second thing was, “What are the worst things you say to yourself?” The third question was, “Can we joke about your face?”

The actors spent long hours cataloguing all the insults they had received in their lifetime and then spitting them out at each other, at the non-disfigured actors, at myself, in intense acting exercises that bordered on therapy—just so one would get a sense of their reality, of the hurt caused by the words, but also to be able to not care about the camera. To be able to say “screw it” and let loose with one’s inner demons. Tears were flowing. Later that night, we were all celebrating in a bar.

When it came time to list all the nasty things we say to ourselves, we soon all realized that what we tell ourselves is often way worse than what anybody else might say to us (and often way funnier). We noticed that disfigured or not, the violence of what we inflict upon ourselves is similar. This was a eureka moment, because we figured out that we were all broken inside to some degree or another. That each individual struggle cannot be compared to the one of the person next to us. A kind of Zen-like empathy cemented the cast. We laughed a lot, we goofed around, we said stupid things. We forgot about the face.

When filming began, the crew was initially overly protective of the cast. I remember my cinematographer balking at the way I talked to the actors: frank and direct, commenting on how a certain actor should place himself because it was hard to pull focus on his reconstructed face—his eyes not being on the same plane of the cranium. During the shoot, the actors and I would sometimes crack jokes about their faces, and the film technicians were shocked. But as the days of filming went on, the crew realized that the actors loved this kind of interaction. Because it was normal. Because we treated each other as equals, regardless of our “difference.” Rehearsals and filming were kind of like a shock therapy for me and the crew. In the end we came out better human beings—more understanding, but also freer. Free to err, free to be ourselves while engaging with those that are “different” from us.

I really like the way the painter Paul Klee mixes humor and brutality to ironize about art, society and himself. In my films, I start from my wounds and magnify them, extrapolate them to society. Humor and the grotesque are also intimately linked to my practice—the grotesque as a form of contestation and liberation of the human; humor as a way of lowering psychological defenses when dealing with subjects that challenge the public’s ego. I work so that the spectator feels authorized to probe his or her weakness, his or her mediocrity. This work is based on the conviction that when we accept this part of ourselves, we tend to accept it in others. It is then that bridges are created between individuals, different cultures, and realities. This is why my current work moves away from the standard, formatted narrative of “resilience.” I don’t want to show heroism, but rather weakness, human clowning—and this in a brutal and comic way.

In Happy Face, the shame I felt for my mother as a teenager was transformed into a film about disfigured people. It was out of the question to take real actors and put make-up on them. The film was a way for me to change the way I saw other human beings, to share with the audience what I was going through, and also to confront them with their own shame and aversion. The script was modified according to the people found in order to integrate the issues they faced in their own lives. Due to this organic semi-documentary approach, the film became something completely different than what I had originally envisioned. Flawed, yes, I am well aware of its strengths and weaknesses, but powerful I believe; crafted to be somewhat of a shock-therapy session for audiences in the theater.

As I said before: a flawed film by a flawed director about a flawed world. But it’s cathartic.