Out Director Carter Smith Helms "The Ruins"
Cancun, Mexico is a favorite destination of sun worshippers and spring breakers for its beaches. Yet something frightful also exists here, amidst the sandy stretches and nearby Mayan ruins, an almost shingles-inducing demonic terror: quintessentially Middle American chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse, Bubba Gump's, and Applebees.
Openly gay director Carter Smith acknowledges the fear these establishments strike into his heart -- "I'm most afraid of T.G.I. Friday's" he bristles -- but he decided to bring a different, fortunately fictitious horror to screen with his scream-inducing feature debut, "The Ruins".
Adapted from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Smith's bestselling novel, "The Ruins" follows two couples -- best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and their respective boyfriends, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) -- as they vacation in sunkissed Cancun, Mexico. Joined by a couple of fellow tourists (Joe Anderson and Dimitri Bavaes) hoping to see Mayan ruins, the group veers off the beaten path into the Mexican jungle. They find rare, hidden ruins, and something they won't be as delighted to discover -- a creeping evil that literally gets under your skin. As the situation grows dire and survival instinct kicks in, it becomes apparent that there are even more threats within the jungle...
"I think it's a good date movie because it's literally the type of film where people are constantly grasping people's hands," Carter enthuses. "It's a very physical movie. Anything that provokes such a strong physical reaction is a good date movie; if they end up in your lap, that can be fun."
Prior to filmmaking, the Maine-born Smith had established himself as a fashion and celebrity photographer. After moving to NYC in 1989 he briefly studied photography and fashion design at FIT, but ultimately dropped out. Shortly thereafter, he landed professional gigs, shooting spreads for the likes of Vogue, GQ, and W Magazine, commercials, and music videos. He also stretched his budding directorial chops during photo sessions with actors like Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt.
"Brad Pitt, he makes an impression," Smith shares. "Utterly charming, so sexy, really charismatic. You realize movie stars really are a different breed of people. But what's fun for me working with actors is they enjoy taking on the part of a character and not necessarily being themselves. Like, 'you're the sleazy nightclub owner who has a crush on the waitress.' Whatever it is, I try and come up with some sort of narrative that informs the pictures, which makes it that much easier for them to play along for the camera."
Determined to try his hand at narrative filmmaking, Smith self-funded an adaptation of Steven Treleaven's short story, "Bugcrush", which he shot partly at his former Maine high school. The creepy tale of a fresh-faced teenager who meets a disturbing fate at the hands of the bad boy he's obsessed with and an insect that injects heroin-like venom, "Bugcrush" won a Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (and is currently available on the gay shorts compilation, "Boys Life 6"). That same year, Carter was also invited to participate in Sundance Screenwriter's Lab, where he collaborated with author Dennis Cooper on a project entitled "Warm". Thanks to his short film's Sundance splash, Smith soon landed a Hollywood agent, connected with the DreamWorks studio, and started reading scripts.
After poring through many horror scripts and happily rejecting them (including many bland PG-13 rated remakes of Asian horror hits), he finally came across "The Ruins". To say he was entangled in its story is an understatement. "When I got the script," he recalls, "it was very clear from that first read that this is good."
Smith admits that horror is probably his favorite genre, and cites director David Cronenberg as an influence and favorite. "It's one of the few genres where you can really make an audience have a physical reaction," he explains. "To make a roomful of people gasp and scream and squirm in their seats and jump, that's really exciting and rewarding to me." With animated vines that burrow, break off, and squirm underneath flesh, ""The Ruins"" certainly does that via visceral sequences that tap into fears of parasites and bodily infection (one of Cronenberg's pet themes).
"At the heart of what's unsettling about this movie is this idea of bodily infection," he says. "Something that gets into your skin and thrives under the surface. I've been to places like Belize where you hear about the Botfly, which lays its eggs beneath your skin. Thank god I've never had to deal with it. We looked at so many documentaries and YouTube clips of under-the-skin parasites and they are disgusting!"
Another element that drew him to "The Ruins" was its characters, which stand apart from typical modern horror flick prettyboy/girl red-shirts (which is to say, cardboard victims-in-wait). "There's an interesting dynamic to them," he says. "Two long-term girlfriends and their boyfriends, who don't really have anything in common or even necessarily like each other. They're not perfect relationships. And one of the things I found really intriguing was seeing the way these relationships develop when the survival instinct takes over. You turn into a completely different person and that's interesting to watch when that kicks in. A big thing, too, were all the things the actors brought to the roles. They're really talented and made sure these characters are very real. For me, when you have a film with very unreal elements, it's extremely important the rest of it stays very true to life."
Smith's two attractive male leads should prove familiar to queer audiences. Tucker played Tilda Swinton's gay son in 2001's noir thriller, "The Deep End". And Ashmore played Iceman in the X-Men series and an HIV-infected porn star in 2005's "3 Needles'. Yet despite the fact the actors reveal some skin, the film's harrowing, gruesome moments are sure to provide the most heart palpitations. Amongst them: an emergency double-amputation while the group is far from any hospital or clinic... or even sanitary medical equipment.
But if the filmmakers needed any reminders that nature can be frightful and deadly, they found them on set. Queensland, Australia stood in for the Mexican jungle, and it happens that Australia and its coast are home to the world's most diverse assortment of deadly creatures, which occasionally made unannounced cameo appearances while shooting.
"Constantly," Smith recalls. "We'd arrive in the morning and there'd be a 22-foot python stretched across the access road to the set. We had a very busy safety crew that kept us safe at all times, and they were very careful to not make a big deal of it so everybody wouldn't get freaked out. Like, OK, Let's not broadcast the fact there's a poisonous spider under every rock in this field. Not good for cast morale when they're having to roll around on the ground in their underwear."
The Ruins opens nationwide on April 4th.