Out gay filmmaker Carter Smith delivers on the promise of his unnerving 2006 short, “Bugcrush” with his latest feature, “Swallowed.” This new film, screening at both NewFest (October 14) and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival (October 18), traverses similar territory as the short — but with a different, kicky twist.
Ben (out actor Cooper Koch, from “They/Them”) is readying to leave Maine to pursue a career in adult films in Los Angeles. His buddy Dom (Jose Colon in an impressive screen debut) wants to send him off in style — and with some cash. On their way home from a club, Dom detours to meet with Alice (Jena Malone) who will pay him to smuggle “drugs” across the Canadian border. But things get murky fast; Alice orders both Dom and Benjamin at gunpoint to swallow some sachets.
While the guys must “deliver” the goods quickly, circumstances at a rendezvous point go sideways, prompting Alice to take Ben and Dom — the latter sans pants — to a cabin where her boss Rich (out actor Mark Patton) is waiting for the sachets. What Ben and Dom don’t know is that the “parcels” are bugs, not drugs.
Smith ratchets up the tension as things get increasingly more uncomfortable for Ben and Dom when Rich is around. Smith spoke with Gay City News about his fabulous, squirm-inducing new film.
In both “Swallowed” and “Bugcrush,” a gay man is lured into some very unpleasant territory by men they are attracted to. What is the appeal of dangerous boys?
In “Bugcrush,” it was dealing with more of an innocent high school crush. In “Swallowed,” I wanted to explore what a more adult friendship might look like. Dom and Ben have found ways to have a friendship and a relationship that didn’t have to be sexual. It worked for them. Dom is the gentle giant, and it is just the circumstances of the situations that spirals them into this more dangerous world. Dom hasn’t done this in the past. His intentions are good. He’s not out to hurt Benjamin. It’s a simpler and sweeter relationship. There is something in their power dynamic — and it’s not only in gay relationships — this idea when you have a crush on someone [as Ben does], you make choices that are not always the best choices, and it can be a little bit blinding.
The film is shot in a style that is both very intimate and very isolating. Can you talk about your visual approach to the material?
From the script stage, there was this intimacy built into the story — and how grotesquely intimate the story becomes. I liked exploring how close can these two guys get in the worst possible/most intimate way. The way the closeup looks in 4:3 aspect ratio, which is more square, and a less traditional shooting format, allows you to fill a frame with a face. Once things do go horribly wrong, I wanted to be more on the character’s faces than shoot wider on what’s actually happening. It would be a more interesting expression of what they are going through than showing what is actually happening.
Indeed! It’s so effective — and much worse — to imagine. Can you talk about the “extraction” scene, which is rather uncomfortable?
I wanted to put these two characters — and by this point in “Swallowed,” you understand the dynamic of Ben and Dom’s relationship — and putting them in this horrific situation that is intensely intimate in the worst possible way. There was something supremely f***** up and mean about my storyteller self. What is the worst possible, most intimate, wish fulfillment situation I could put these two guys into? I wanted it to play super-intimate and be romantic, but in a way that completely pulled the rug out from under you. This is not how you want a kiss to happen, but you had to go through that to get there.
What are your thoughts about the ethical issues presented in “Swallowed?” There is not just the criminality of the characters’ actions, but the situations they are forced into against their will. The film asks viewers “What would you do?” which is what makes it so involving.
No one really knows what they would do if a gun is pulled on them. I certainly don’t. That was one element that was important to introduce. Ben has a choice to an extent, but in his perception, he doesn’t have a choice. Most of us will stop putting up fight and do what we are told. Then he has deal with consequence of that; picking up pieces and dealing with the aftermath. What Alice does — in forcing them — is not OK. Both she and Rich are versions of a villain that we don’t see a whole lot of. She has a soothing soft voice that delivers these no-bullshit lines. She is intimidating. Her character was fun to track.
The young guys are both exposed, naked, and vulnerable at different times. I appreciated that they were filmed in a way that created emotions ranging from fear to sympathy for their situations. Can you talk about your decision to depict this?
Originally, when I wrote the script, one character never puts his pants back on. That was clear on the page to scare off actors not comfortable with that amount of nudity. Part of that comes from being a kid watching horror movies and getting nothing but naked women in the shower soaping up unnecessarily and wanting to see a different version of that on screen in a type of movie that I loved. I liked the idea that as an audience, we have been with Ben all through everything and there is this moment where we think: Is he going to get naked? Is he going to take it all off? And we drift into Rich’s perspective. It’s an interesting shift as an audience. All of a sudden, we, the audience, are asking the same questions as Rich is. Am I a dirty old man to want this cute young guy to get naked? Where do I place myself in this story?
The vulnerability that Dom feels, and the reason that goes on for so long, is to normalize it. The nudity wasn’t a flash and then gone. He is naked and vulnerable and those [bugs] are in there, and no one know when, if, or how they will come out — either on their own or with help from someone. It was definitely a choice to keep him vulnerable for a long time.
Rich camps things up when he enters the film, which made me consider the portrayal of the gay characters. Ben is presenting himself authentically and without shame. Dom is a bit more heteroflexible but also self-assured. Can you talk about these different flavors of queer sexuality and your presentation of them?
I like the idea of having a villain that has some camp, and some bravado and showmanship in him, but those were the skills it took for Rich to become the successful backwoods drug lord he is. You can’t be shy or self-conscious to do that. I liked the idea that he is part predator, but he is also kind of part wounded survivor. There is something interesting about what his character probably went through to get to where he is when we meet him. I liked the idea of him being someone a lot of gay guys have met.
I think there is something interesting about Rich and Ben both being queer characters; that isn’t normally the case. I felt OK making Rich into what he was, because he is the flip side of Ben. Rich was probably the beautiful boy that everyone wanted a piece of when he was 22, and he sees something of himself in Ben, which was interesting to play with. Both of them being confident and comfortable in their sexuality is something I hadn’t seen before. Ben is using what he’s got; he is naked literally, figuratively, and emotionally.
The bugs here are pretty creepy. What scares you?
A big part of my fascination with body horror comes from growing up in a time when sex was scary, in the late ’80s early ’90s. You could die if you had sex. Sex and death weren’t so unrelated. That carries through a bunch of my work, especially the body horror stuff. But I obviously have deep fears of something parasitic being inside me, or my body turning on me. That comes back to a fear of aging, and losing control over yourself, the way you look and feel and the ability to control all of that.