Queer filmmaker Cater Smith grew up in rural Maine, launching his photography career in New York aged just 17, going on to shoot some of the world’s most famous faces for the likes of W, Vogue, i-D, and GQ. His 2006 debut short as writer and director, Bugcrush, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, landing Smith in the director’s chair on Hollywood horror The Ruins, hailed by Stephen King as one of his favourite movies of 2008. Smith’s subsequent features, Jamie Marks is Dead which premiered at Sundance in 2014 and the Blumhouse slasher Midnight Kiss, which premiered on Hulu, both centre queer characters.
Away from his commercial and fashion work as a photographer, Smith has established an intoxicating visual world with his continuing sexy and provocative All the Dead Boys series, where beautiful male bodies merge with the dark and horrific. His latest feature as writer-director, Swallowed, is the first film to be produced under the All the Dead Boys banner and sees the filmmaker return to the world of small town Maine where Bugcrush was set. It’s a backwoods set queer horror thriller which sees two best friends fighting to survive a nightmarish ordeal after a drug deal goes awry, starring Jena Malone, Cooper Koch, Jose Colon, and Mark Patton.
With Swallowed released on demand and digital on Tuesday, February 14th, 2023, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Carter Smith about what he wanted to explore with this gripping tale, working on an intimate scale with minimal cast and crew, his approach to male nudity, and the queer culture that shaped him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What was your own introduction to horror as you were growing up in rural Maine?
Carter Smith: “I came to horror the same way that a lot of people did, by going to the video store and flipping through VHS tapes, seeing what was available and accepting what was there. It wasn’t like I had a huge selection, but I was voracious and would watch anything and everything, which led to seeing lots of really bad movies and then some more interesting ones. This was pre-internet and before the kind of access that we have now to anything and everything.”
We were probably watching some of the same films around the same time and when it came to queerness it was generally subtext at best or we were jokes or maybe occasionally the villains. How meaningful is it for you to bring queerness front and centre with your films and particularly with Swallowed?
“That’s the most exciting thing of all to me. To see yourself in the films that you love so much, it’s important and it’s powerful. You forget how important that is. As queer people we make do and we pull subtexts from where we can and see things that only we can see. So for me to put it front and centre and and to make a film that is 100% unabashedly from a queer point of view with queer characters, in a story that isn’t necessarily about them being queer, is really meaningful. One of the things that was really important to me was that it’s a human story, but it’s not the queer story that we’ve seen before about the angst of dealing with that queerness. Benjamin is a character who is 100% comfortable and confident in who he is in the same way that Mark Patton’s character, Rich, is. They’re queer and they’re not apologizing for it which is really interesting, especially in a horror film.”
A lot of our readers will have watched Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen’s Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street about Mark Patton’s experience of working on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and the way he was treated after the film’s release; essentially any queer reading of the film was blamed on his performance, rather that what was in the script. His role in Swallowed felt almost like a reclaiming of what happened to him on that film; giving Mark this quite camp and explicitly gay character to have a great time with and he’s also very creepy in it too. How intentional was that? Did you write it specifically for him?
“Yeah, 100%, I wrote it for him. I saw Scream, Queen! just like everybody else and became fascinated and fell in love with Mark Patton the person from that documentary, so from the beginning I wrote Rich with him in mind. Rich is the sort of guy that a lot of us run into as young queer people. There’s a predatory vibe that’s not unique to the queer experience, but this is a very specific take on what that power dynamic is. I just wanted to see him be Rich, who on the page probably wasn’t as big as the finished version was, but I’m so happy that he felt that he could go there and that we were able to keep so much of it in the film because I love the Rich that Mark brought to the movie.”
I know that JoseColon who plays Dom in the film, did a photo shoot with you for your All the Dead Boys series, to what extent was he your muse for the Swallowed screenplay?
“Yeah, that was the starting point of the whole thing. I spent one afternoon photographing him and then I went back to Maine and started writing. This character named Dom appeared and I followed where that character took me. From the beginning, it was crafted to be a project that we could go out and make with a tiny little crew on a micro budget. It was always meant to be a film that we didn’t need to wait for permission to make. Ordinarily, when you’re developing films it takes a long time because you’re always waiting for this one piece of casting to fall into place or one piece of financing. I just wanted to do something where I could gather a bunch of friends and we could go make our movie, which is a way of filmmaking that I hadn’t done before and I was really excited to explore.”
It’s Jose’s screen debut as an actor, and he’s really impressive, very natural in it and he’s obviously alongside three far more experienced actors like Mark Patton, Jena Malone, and Cooper Koch.
“It was really exciting to watch the different styles of acting and how they worked together.”
Tell me about casting Cooper Koch as Benjamin and what you wanted him to bring to the character?
“Cooper is the only person who put themsleves on tape for me because we weren’t in the same place. I had met him before and the second that I saw the tape I was like, ‘that’s Benjamin!’ He has all of the gay porn potential, and the strength and the vulnerability. Everything that I wanted from Benjamin was on Cooper’s face. I knew that a lot of the film was going to play out in close-ups and all of the cast have faces that the camera loves. Cooper was a dream and he was the only choice for Benjamin after I saw that tape.”
You mention his gay porn potential, so we should say for people that haven’t seen the film yet that the character is a burgeoning gay porn star who is about to move to LA to pursue his career. It’s sex-positive, he’s not ashamed of it and his best friend Dom who he’s grown up with is proud of him. Why did you make that choice of job for Benjamin?
“I liked the idea that he wasn’t the struggling, angsty gay character who has problems with their identity. I liked the fact that he came from a place of being comfortable with who he is and proud of it and willing to embrace it, to use what he has to his advantage. I think that’s a really interesting take that you don’t often see and I also knew that those skills were going to come in useful later when he’s dealing with the Rich character.”
We have to mention Jena Malone, why did you want to bring her into this family of actors?
“Because she’s amazing, first of all! We had done The Ruins together and we’d always stayed in touch and stayed friends and talked about finding something else to do together, but for whatever reason nothing happened. So when I started writing Swallowed, in the back of my mind I imagined her as Alice. When you’re making a movie like this with such a small crew and such a lean mean model of production, you really want to make sure that everyone you surround yourself with is as game for the process as you are. That was super important because it wasn’t an easy shoot and you really do become a family when the crew is eight people and the cast is just four people. You bond in a way that you don’t necessarily on a bigger set.”
What’s the draw for you of body horror specifically and how would you describe your approach to it with Swallowed?
“I’ve always been fascinated by body horror and I think part of that comes from growing up as a gay kid in the age of HIV and equating sex with death. Bodies and sex were terrifying when I was a teenager because I was always waiting for my body to betray me. Obviously, that’s a while ago and now I’m thinking about body horror in the context of losing control and the aging process and disease and sickness. There are so many ways that we don’t have control of our bodies and that’s the scariest thing. I find that much more frightening than a masked killer or an alien from space or something like that. There’s something about our loss of control that is both fascinating and horrifying. With Swallowed I wanted to explore some of that stuff from the perspective of someone like Benjamin who is comfortable with himself but ends up in a horrific situation nonetheless.”
It’s almost like, “the call is coming from inside the house” and the house is actually your body in some ways with Swallowed. Although it’s become more common on television, male nudity is still pretty rare on film, what was your approach to that aspect of Swallowed?
“I wanted to make the movie that I wish that I’d been able to find in my video store as a 16 year old kid, with all the nudity that I was so anxious to see and wasn’t seeing in the horror films that I was loving. On the page, I made it very clear that this is “nude, naked, nude” with the hope that I would scare away the actors that weren’t on board for that. In the original script, Benjamin never puts his pants back on and he spends the last 40 minutes of the movie naked from the waist down. That was intentional so that an actor would read that and say, ‘Oh, God, that’s going to be intense’. Of course, the reality of shooting in the woods with the bugs and the sticks meant that I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll give him some underwear at some point’. But I wanted to put the male body front and centre in a way that it often isn’t in horror, as a viewer as much as anything else. It was for my 15 or 16 year old self for sure.”
Maine is so distinctive as a location, as soon as I saw the trees I knew that’s where you’d shot it, and it adds so much to the atmosphere and look of the movie. What was your experience of shooting there like?
“I grew up in Maine so I know a lot of the locations. The cabin that we shot in was built by my dad when I was in junior high. It’s like an off-the-grid fishing camp. Shooting there was great because I had access to it, but at the same time there was no Internet, no electricity, no cell phone reception, and no flushing toilets. That outhouse that you see in the film was our crew outhouse. On the one hand, it was really challenging, but it was also great because nobody was on their phone when we were working, we were all 100% there to do the job. Maine is gorgeous. It’s incredibly cinematic. That massive expanse of nature makes you realize that you’re such a tiny part of it, which can be overwhelming and frightening in a way that worked for the film.”
What was your approach for the look of Swallowed and how does your work as a photographer feed into your filmmaking?
“For this film, I knew that I wanted to shoot in natural light as much as possible. The DP who I worked with—Alex Wolf Lewis—comes from a background of shooting documentaries, so he was incredibly used to being reactive and following where the action was. That was a skill that was super important for this film. We shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio which, more than anything, was about my love of the close-up. Knowing these faces going into the film, I knew that I wanted to fill the entire screen with them, which you can do in 4:3 in a way that you can’t when you’re shooting 16:9 or widescreen, where you’re always left with a big chunk of the frame that’s empty. I knew that, especially for some of the more difficult stuff in the middle of the film, I wanted to be really up close with these characters. As a photographer, I’ve spent so many years framing and lighting that it comes as second nature to me in terms of where the camera and lights needs to be. There’s a shorthand and an ease that I approach some of that with that comes from doing it for so long.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
For young me, it was the Gordon Merrick novels like The Lord Won’t Mind. They had these traditional romance novel covers with the beautiful skin and the tropical locations, but it was two guys that were holding hands. There was a whole series of novels by him that came out in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember getting my hands on a couple of them at an early age and just being blown away that they even existed.”
Was there anything more recent that you wanted to mention?
“The other thing that is more current for me is actually not current at all. I recently bought an archive of Honcho magazines from around 1979 to 1982 from eBay. The Honcho aesthetic is something that I’m super into and love.”
By James Kleinmann
Swalllowed is available on demand and digital on Tuesday, February 14th, 2023.
Screens at the 37th BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival on Thursday, March 16th and Friday March 17th, 2023.