Little did I know, my first viewing of Fantasia would be my favorite film of the fest.
Carter Smith’s (The Ruins) Swallowed is about two friends, Dom (Jose Colon), who’s straight, and his openly gay best friend Ben (Cooper Koch), on their final night together before Ben sets off to LA. Looking to make some quick cash for his best friend’s trip, Dom stops off after a night of drinking in Canada at his cousin’s, who has a job for him. There we meet Alice (Jena Malone), who tasks the pair with swallowing baggies of what they presume are drugs, to smuggle them across the border. The pair are then attacked by a redneck at a rest stop, with Dom getting punched in the stomach rupturing one of his bags and sending the film into a tailspin landing in some very Cronenbergian places. To raise the stakes even a bit higher Dom confesses his love for Ben, thus completely changing their relationship and dynamic of the film.
I got to speak with the film’s writer and director Carter Smith earlier this week about Swallowed, and about the road that has led him to a film that should not be dismissed simply as queer horror. I myself, who self-identifies as a straight man, was completely emotionally invested in the film that to me perfectly uses these horror tropes and the confession at the heart of the film to embody how universal these constructs are. Carter not only digs into some of his filmmaking choices, and how the story came to be, but how he cast Nightmare on Elm Street’s Mark Patton who is just great here at the flamboyant heavy. If you get to see this film in a group setting I HIGHLY recommend it.
You did The Ruins back in 2008, what was sort of the road to Swallowed?
I’ve actually done two feature films in between. After The Ruins, I did a film called Jamie Marks Is Dead, which is a film that I adapted from a novel, called One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak. Then I did a movie called Midnight Kiss for Blumhouse for their Into The Dark series for Hulu, which was kind of a new year’s Eve set slasher. Ours was the first episode of the second season of films.
So Jamie Marks Is Dead was pretty much like an indie, but on a much bigger scale even than Swallowed or Midnight Kiss, which was a sort of a more traditional studio type situation, with executives and notes and screenings, and all that stuff. I was just really curious to explore what a truly micro budget independent filmmaking experience might be like. You know, one that didn’t necessarily have to involve crews of people and a huge outside investment, just something that even when I was writing it was something that I wanted to be able to do without having to wait for someone to give me permission, whether it was financial permission, or being able to cast a certain name actor. There’s so much time spent developing stuff at different levels and 99% of the time things fall apart or don’t come together in the way you want them to.
I just wanted to do something to take back control into my own hands. Like I knew that camp where we shot, is an off the grid camp that my dad built in Maine. So I knew that location was accessible and free. I knew that I have a white Jeep that I drive in Maine, so I knew that Alice was going to drive a white Jeep. You know, I am friends with Jenna, so I knew that I could text her and at least get her the script. So it was put together with that mindset.
Was this shot during COVID?
Yeah. We shot it last summer.
We were in remote, remote, Northern Maine. We sort of formed a bubble of cast and crew. I mean, we were, miles and miles from any civilization.
No, I just brought that up because during these last few festival seasons we’ve seen a lot of films shot during COVID and some like yours handle those restraints more creatively.
I wrote it during COVID. So I wrote it with the restraints in mind, and in terms of knowing, okay, these are the locations, this is where we’ll be staying. This is, a limited crew and a limited cast and all of those sort of factors.
On that note how did you come up with this story? Because it definitely seems authentic, and imaginative about smuggling drugs, that turn out not to be drugs?
I mean, I liked the idea of shooting something in Maine, first of all. Which is where I’m from. I guess in a way, it started like knowing where that cabin is and how close it is to the Canadian border and how sort of backwards and remote it is. So I started with a sense of place probably more than anything. Then I had photographed Jose Colon, who plays Dom, and after spending an afternoon with him, I started to come up with this character of this small town mechanic who works in an auto body shop. You know, maybe he does something bad on the side and I started to fill in around that character.
My first short film I made was called Bug Crush and the bugs that they’re smuggling here were also in that short film.
I think I’ve seen Bug Crush. I was trying to find a copy before we chatted.
Yeah, it isn’t readily available online. I just got the rights back, because it was 15 years ago. It played at Sundance and we won best short film.
So those bugs play a part in Bug Crush as well. So I wanted to stay in that world that I had created in that short film, you know, small town, Maine, dark stuff happens. The character of Dom was a character that grew up in that small town, but wanted to get out and felt like he couldn’t be himself and live his life in the way that he wanted if he stayed there. So this idea that he was going on to better things, bigger things, and leaving behind his friends and just exploring that relationship of these two best friends.
Was that dynamic of one friend being straight and one being gay, always baked in the script from the beginning?
Yeah, pretty much. Once I had settled on this idea of swallowing the bugs and the body horror of knowing that they’re in there and they have to get them out, I felt like what better person to have to do that than his gay best friend who’s in love with him. It’s the most intimate thing, but it’s also like the worst wish fulfillment, you know. It’s just like the most horrific way to have that intimacy happen.
Which is not what anyone wanted at all. But I thought it would be a really interesting complex, emotional, quandary to put them in.
It was important to try to tell a story that couldn’t only be enjoyed by one very specific audience, you know. I think that any love story, if it works, it doesn’t matter who it’s between. If you’re emotionally invested, I think that you can be taken along on that ride without identifying with the sexuality of one of the characters.
The film is shot in 4:3. I was curious, why’d you choose that aspect ratio?
I knew I wanted all these closeups. I knew that a big part of the movie was going to be closeups. I have a history as a photographer. So I just love the way that faces look in 4:3 in a closeup. Without all of that empty space, you can get in widescreen, but you can never get here (uses hands to frame face) in a close up and really fill the frame, you know?
As horrific and graphic as it might feel, like it’s fairly tame in terms of what you see and I knew that I wanted to have it all, or have a big part of it play out on their faces in closeups.
So you spoke a little bit about how Jenna came to the project. How did Mark Patton get involved? Because he’s a horror icon. And also the gentleman who plays Ben? He was one of those actors where he starts out the film and you’re like, ‘I don’t know if he’s gonna be a good actor?” and then he just surprised you.
Yeah. Well, he (Cooper Koch) loved the camera and the camera loved him. He’s so good on camera.
But with Mark, I mean, of course I had seen A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and then when I saw Scream, Queen a couple of years ago and I just kind of became fascinated with him as a person, not Jesse Walsh, but Mark Patton. So I actually wrote the script with him in mind, this sort of flamboyant, evil villain. I mean, that was all seeded in, me sort of imagining what Mark might be able to do with the role. I didn’t have any contact for him or anything.
I had been following him on Instagram, and so I just direct messaged him and said I wrote a script, I have a part I wrote for you, I think you’d be great. He didn’t quite believe me at first. I think he just thought that I was some super fan or something. Then I was like, no, actually this is a film. We’re actually shooting it in Maine and these are the dates and he was like, “oh”. He was a little bit hesitant because he wasn’t sure he could do it at first. He hadn’t been working a ton, so it took a little convincing, letting him know that it really had been written for him and that it was something that I felt like he’d be perfect for.
Yeah. He’s great, I totally forgot it was him. He’s so good and he just chews that scenery and his dynamic with Jenna was disarming. I was just way caught off guard by how great he was.
Oh good. I’m so happy to hear that, I’ll tell him you said that <laughs> and, and Cooper was who plays Benjamin, he was the only one that actually auditioned for the role and I had met him before briefly. But he put himself on tape and it was such a great audition scene and from the first time I saw it, I was like, that’s 100% Benjamin.
So this film thematically has a lot to say about relationships, both good and bad, and how those govern our trajectory in our lives. I was relieved that you chose a hopeful path with these characters. I love how you used Dom’s confession as a way to flip these tropes and subvert these things we’ve seen in countless horror films. But because of that confession, you changed the total dynamic of the film, which, not to sound cheesy, proves that love is a universal construct. Because it all still works plot-wise once you introduce this fact that they are in love with one another.
Why do you think we as a species still fail to understand that?
Love and falling in love with someone is universal and who can’t relate to also falling in love with someone that can’t quite love them back in the way that they want them to?
I think that straight men, straight women, women, queer women… it is sort of universal in terms of the dynamic of how that works and I think that that’s what I was trying really hard to get right, because I knew that if I got that right, then it would be something that other audience members from other groups could connect with and I knew that if it didn’t work, then it was going to be pigeonholed as a queer horror movie that doesn’t have any crossover appeal. I think that’s cliche, but love is love, how it works doesn’t necessarily matter. What your sexuality is and how you define it kind of works in the same way, I think.
Yeah. I think genre fans who might be a little more closed minded, might get pulled into this, and hopefully even be changed a little bit because of how you play with those dynamics and you subvert these tropes that were so hardwired into us as horror fans.
I’m a straight man, but I was crying at the end. I just wanted them to be happy and make it through this. And I think even nowadays, sadly, with all the stuff going on with the Supreme court, there’s even more relevancy with the scene when they’re at the rest stop, and you see the giant redneck come and the dread washes over you as an audience member.
I definitely wanted things to get sent down this horrible path by an act of violence that was based on homophobia and violence that someone like Benjamin faces in that community, which is part of why he is moving to LA. But, I’ll say that the biggest part of why that works, is the performances and those two actors who really sold not only the love, but the intimacy and the friendship. All of those layers ended up on the screen in a way that, in other hands might have not have been, or, or felt as true.
So, what’s the plan for Swallowed? Has there been nibbles for getting a release after the festival run?
So far we’ve got a bunch of festivals lined up, XYZ is selling the film in North America and Fantasia was just our second festival. We premiered at Overlook and we should know something fairly soon. There’s a bunch of people interested, nothing closed yet, but from the beginning, the plan was always to get it in front of as many live audiences as possible just to get that in person screening until we secure a release. But yeah, ideally, it becomes something that people can stream and, you know, theatrical, who knows?