Local moviemakers tackle Joker in ‘Smile’

By: Robert Guttersohn | Royal Oak Review | Published December 18, 2013

 Director Ryan Stratton talks with Michael Lopetrone, who plays Jack Kerr, on the set of “Smile” in July. The film premieres Dec. 19 at the Birmingham 8 and will be streamed online.

Director Ryan Stratton talks with Michael Lopetrone, who plays Jack Kerr, on the set of “Smile” in July. The film premieres Dec. 19 at the Birmingham 8 and will be streamed online.

ROYAL OAK — When Aaron Keteyian and Ryan Stratton put together their first narrative film, “Blood Angel,” a year ago, they were both 17 and admittedly green.

“From day one, I remember the distinct feeling I felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants,” Stratton said in a phone interview.

“The entire project was a large learning experience,” Keteyian said.

In their second movie, “Smile,” they attempt an origin story of likely the most well-known villain of any media format, Batman’s the Joker. They entered production over the summer with experience under their belts.

“I think the process went a whole lot smoother this time,” Keteyian said.

“Smile” follows the life of a troubled young boy, Junior, and his strained and complex relationship with his alcoholic father, Jack. When Junior is pushed to his breaking point, he’s forced down a self-destructive path toward becoming the Joker.

The 24-minute production will premiere at the Birmingham 8 Dec. 19. Later, the two said it will it be streamed online, but they didn’t have a date for that yet.

While Keteyian and Stratton are from metro Detroit, the duo currently is split while studying, respectively, at Columbia College Chicago and Chapman University in California. Each is advancing their careers in filmmaking.

Keteyian grew up in Royal Oak and worked on 23 productions and special events at Stagecrafters.

In 2012, he produced “Blood Angel,” which premiered in 2012 at the Main Art Theatre to an audience of 500 people.

It was on that set where he met Stratton, from West Bloomfield. Stratton, a musician, has done the original scores for two films previous to “Smile,” which he wrote, directed and also scored.

The two became best friends last year on set and kept in touch even as they both moved away from home for college.

They began developing the concept for “Smile” in February, though much of the production was not started until a month before shooting actually began. They quickly put together a casting call. Because they say the movie is very dialogue-driven, they needed the perfect actors for the role.

“We decided our lead actor needed to be young and very, very, very good,” Stratton said. “The entire film hinges on the transition from a scared little boy to a cold-blooded killer.”

During their one-day casting call, they came upon Paul Morissette, who plays the role of Junior, and Michael Lopetrone, who plays his father, Jack.

“We were lucky to find two very talented actors who showed up at our call,” Keteyian said.

Their movie was shot over four days in July in three metro Detroit locations — a home in Dearborn and then the Baldwin Theatre and an alleyway in downtown Royal Oak.

With the limited window, the two pulled from their experience and mistakes made while shooting “Blood Angel” to assure that the film was shot on time.

“I think it’s a testament to just the great crew that we had,” Keteyian said.

The doors will open at 7 p.m. at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave.

“Smile” will begin screening at 8 p.m. and will be followed by a question-and-answer session with cast and crew.