Filmmaker Carter Smith makes unique character study films within the confines of a brutal plot. His new film, The Passenger, does just that. Produced by Blumhouse, The Passenger takes the tropes of a road movie and ties them with the feel of a character study of a film from the 1970s and sprinkles in a lot of unexpected violence. In the following interview with Carter Smith, he discusses his experience directing the thriller feature film. "The Passenger" — arriving to Digital and On Demand on August 4, 2023.
Watch, listen, or read the interview transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:
Big fan of your work previously and up into the past year. I love everything you've been putting out the past few years. Congrats on it and all the buzz upon its release.
Thank you so much. I'm glad to hear that you're excited about it.
Yeah, yeah, no, it's a great film, great job. Something change of pace. I went in completely blind. Didn't even look at the press kit materials. I just went in blind. But I just want to get started with talking about the script, just because I'm a writer myself.
How did this script land in front of you? Because I know it, correct me if I'm wrong, it's written by somebody else.
Yeah, it's written by Jack Stanley. He's a writer that I had read some of his stuff before, and always really liked what I'd read. And, these Blumhouse films, they get made — there's a specific scope and production model that they follow for the streaming movies. And so, you have to find scripts that work within that production model. And I had done Midnight Kiss with them for Into the Dark, and we'd talked about doing something else again, and just couldn't find the right thing. And I was like, "Would you be open if I went out and found a script that worked within your model? And so I called up Jack's manager and was like "Does he have anything that might fit that we could do at this level?", and he pulled it out of a drawer, and it was an old script.
It was one of the first, if not the first one that he ever finished professionally, and dusted it off. And even though it wasn't quite the exact format or straight-up horror thing that Blumhouse normally does, everyone was really excited to explore something that was the same but different, if that makes sense.
Yeah, no, I gotcha. I had a question about Blumhouse for later, but since we're talking about them right now. This is your second outing with that company. What's it like working under that model and whatnot?
I mean, it's kind of great because they're genre fans. I am like the audience for the movies. So, there's a real enthusiasm for the types of stories that I like to tell. And I mean, of course on this one. Like on Midnight Kiss, that wasn't; all came together really quickly and last minute. And it was a crazy situation. And so coming back to do this one, it was nice to like have a shorthand with them and have a really great established way of communicating and just understanding that we were all on the same page from the beginning. That's really valuable. But they're incredibly supportive. I mean, they weren't trying to make it into something that it wasn't, which I really appreciated. I mean, that was a conversation that came up early and often.
This is not a straight-up horror movie. Like we're not going to try to turn it into one, right? And, everyone was very much on board with embracing what we all fell in love with about the script.
Yeah, definitely. So just in watching the movie, the dialogue between these two characters struck me as there was a lot being said between the lines. I mean, that's just my perspective. But as the director and [with] you approaching this material, what messages and themes did you want to bring to the surface of the story without giving anything away, of course?
Yeah, when I read the script the first time, what I fell in love with was the kind of messed up relationship that develops between these two guys. And, I found myself three-quarters of the way through the script, like not rooting for Benson, but I found myself... I really liked this guy and I wanted him to be okay.
And, even though he's done at that point, horrible things. I thought that was really interesting that someone who has done something so awful can still do something so incredibly beautiful, and thoughtful for what he does for Randy. It's not often that you get portrayals of, quote unquote bad guys that are as nuanced and intimate as Benson is in this project. And that was super interesting from the beginning.
There's a lot of talking back and forth between them and so we spent a lot of time talking about what's not being said, what are the silences saying? What needs to be said and what doesn't need to be said. That was a constant conversation we were having.
Nice. You have a character that does such a heinous act in this movie, I won't say what it is. We touched on it a little bit right there with your past answer about a character who does something so violent, but yet there's a little bit of maybe an attempt to get some empathy from the audience. Do you like creating almost villainous characters like that?
I mean, what was so interesting for me about Benson is that he does something horrible and there's no denying that that is horrible, but it doesn't mean that he is irredeemable and it doesn't mean that he is a one-note bad guy. I think that he does what he does for reasons that we're not privy to as an audience necessarily, but it raises the question "Is someone always defined by one horrific act or is he more than that?" And that was an interesting thing to explore.
I mean, of course, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, I was wanting to have the audience fall for Benson the same way I did when I read the script and move him past the bad guy trope and present him in a way that, in the relationship, the friendship in a way that makes you ask well, how would I react? How could something kind of sweet and good come out of something so horrible?
Yeah. Your two leads, the actors, Kyle and Johnny — [have] so much chemistry. It felt like the performances helped put the film on its own two feet at times. Just talk about directing these two guys in the role. Anything more you can say that you may have already touched on?
Yeah, I mean, Kyle and Johnny are great. Both of them were just above and beyond perfection for those parts. A big part of why the film works as well as it does, hopefully, is just in casting. Both of them really are so strong. And, knowing that both of them, the majority of the scenes are just the two of them, often in a car — it really is about the words and what's said and what's not said.
And so because it was really the two of them that were on screen together almost the whole time, we actually had a lot of time to plot out the course of their relationship and how it unfolds. And we could look at all of it together and say, okay. [In] the same way that where we talked about shooting the film, the camera is in the backseat up to this point because we don't really know what Benson's thinking. And then, the camera moves to the front seat as we get more intimate. It's a relationship piece, we broke it down and mapped it out in a really fun way.
There's a subgenre that I don't know if a lot of people know about me being what I'd like to say a cinephile. I feel like I figured it out, I know about it. Hangout movies, movies where you literally are just there. There's obviously a plot going on throughout the film, but you're hanging out with these characters.
I got that vibe from The Passenger. You're just them for a while. Yeah. So, is that what you were going for? Despite the violent acts at the beginning of the movie and woven throughout it, did you just want to have the audience hang out with these guys for 90 minutes?
Yeah, I mean, it's like a road trip movie. It's like a coming-of-age hostage road trip movie. And I liked the idea that there were moments that were a little boring and a little bit. When they're traveling together it's like, you run out of things to talk about.
And then, that it takes turns that are unexpected, but that it doesn't, it's not the type of film where everything had to be major turn, major turn, big confrontation. There was a certain sense of riding around in the car for 12 hours and getting to know someone in the process and all of their shit and baggage and everything that they carry around with them. That was always super exciting.
Yeah, you did mention it's a coming-of-age hostage road trip, which when I saw that on the press kit, I thought was really interesting. I completely get that but just for the audience, I understand the road trip side of it that's probably a hostage road trip, but for the audience and the listeners the readers of this coming of age how does that play into it?
Well, I think that at the heart of Benson and Randy's relationship, Benson helps Randy deal with some stuff that he would not be dealing with if he were on his own. And if he wasn't forced into this pressure cooker with Benson. And, that it's a lot of stuff that he's been hanging onto since he was a kid and, the stuff that you avoid and that kind of shapes who you are without you realizing it. And if you let it go long enough, it kind of calcifies and becomes part of you. And I think that that was something that was always interesting about Benson and Randy was that Benson wasn't content to let Randy just be as he was. He was like, "No, I wanna shine a light on this and I wanna force you to do some things that make you uncomfortable." And I think that's an element of coming-of-age stories that I've always really loved is that it's less wistful and thoughtful and more confrontational in a way.
Interesting. So in closing, what do you want the audience to take away from a film like this when they see it?
Hopefully, I want them to be caught up in this friendship, and this idea that someone doing something bad doesn't make them negate them as a person. It's okay to find the good in people who have not always done good things.
And it's interesting to watch Benson try so hard to be good for Randy and see what they each take from the relationship. The ill-fated road trip that they go on. If what happened at the beginning of the film hadn't happened, they probably would have ended up being great friends. And that, it has a certain star-crossed tragic thing to it that I love. But I mean, I hope that they just fall in love with Randy and Benson and their friendship.
Yeah, it definitely has a very thrilling third act that takes a really interesting shift that I enjoyed a lot.
Well Carter, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today about The Passenger. Good luck with everything down the road with this film.