Checking in with director Carter Smith
They say April showers bring May flowers, but come April 2008 audiences are going to get an early introduction to a new category of flora they definitely don’t want to see bloom. Something lethal. Machiavellian. Theaters will feel the stranglehold when an adaptation of Scott (“A Simple Plan”) Smith’s novel The Ruins reaches the big screen. Just as much a psychological mindf**k as it is a fish out of water tale and outright, grotesque survival story simmering with extreme bodily harm, “Ruins” comes from Paramount Pictures and feature newcomer Carter Smith who impressed execs with his short independent film “Bugcrush.”
As a rabid fan of the novel who has tracked its progress since Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films picked up the development rights, this writer was granted the fortunate opportunity to sit down with Carter and editor Jeff Betancourt during post-production. Shortly after the holidays, the film will be thrown to the wolves when test audiences in an undisclosed location within the Los Angeles radius will get their first look at the film. But it’s within an unassuming facility off of, appropriately enough, Vine Avenue in Hollywood that ShockTillYouDrop.com gets a shocking preview of Carter’s vision.
Jena Malone (Donnie Darko), Jonathan Tucker (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Laura Ramsey (The Covenant) and Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) star as a pack of tourists who traverse through the jungles of Mexico to an archeological dig in search of a fellow traveler. Trapped by the locals and threatened by starvation, they discover the real danger is snaking around their feet and the local foliage – specifically the vines choking the area – has an animated, voracious life of their own.
Carter, dressed in blue jeans, a frayed pair of Vans and a loose-fitting grey sweatshirt, is set at ease when he discovers we’re familiar with the source material – it makes the job easier for him to drop references without massive spoilers. He meets us in the lobby of the post facility where a small scale model of the film’s main location sits on the coffee table. Made from materials you’d find in a hobby shop, you half expect a model train set to revolve around it. Two “mini” tents with faux pint-sized stone walls perched on top represent the main location. Someone has tagged various spots around the model with specific notes.
“This was used for pre-production to get a layout and [a feel for] scope – to be able to look and see where we needed to get some height. Ninety-percent of the film takes place right here,” Carter explains pointing to the top of the model. A life-size representation was built in Australia. “We needed to make sure it was going to be visually interesting for an hour and a half.”
Immediately we note the first difference between the novel and Carter’s film. Originally, Scott placed much of the story’s action on the top of a remote hill. However, for the film, the hill has been swapped out for an ancient Mayan temple where the vine crawls on all sides.
“When I read the book, I hadn’t really thought that much about the ruins,” Carter says. “It was a hill with a hole and there’s a dig. But then, reading the script, I just started to think about it, I was doing some research and read that ten percent of the Mayan ruins have been uncovered and the other ninety-percent are still unexcavated and are overgrown. I thought [making it an actual Mayan temple] would be more interesting for when they go down into the ruins – if it had some actual architecture and scope to it, rather than just being a dark hole.” The decision to make the change made sense not only to the director but to Scott Smith who adapted his own novel. “He was like, ‘What a great idea, I never even thought of that.’ I was pretty pleased with myself for coming up with that,” he jokes good-naturedly. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s actually quite a bit different from the book, but it’s similar in tone. The events that happen…we’re sorta pretty free with mixing and matching. Taking what would work cinematically and getting rid of some stuff. Adding new stuff. But the focus was always on the characters and on the relationships and the breakdown of those relationships.”
Inside the edit bay, Carter offers us a seat as Betancourt dials up a few select scenes. The first introduces us to the film’s two couples – Amy (Malone) and Jeff (Tucker), Stacy (Ramsey) and Eric (Ashmore) – each in their respective hotel rooms preparing for their excursion. All display varying signs of heavy partying from the night before. Call me a simple man, but the first thing I notice is there’s no restraint in the nudity department (hurray!) – dudes and gals will rejoice. The scene is significant in that it establishes their personalities, but these characters don’t show their true colors until much later which brings us to sequence number two: the arrival to the titular ruins. Here the gang is joined by two more – Pablo (“the Greek”) and Mathias (Anderson).
Their fun is squashed at the base of the Mayan temple with the arrival of three foreign-speaking armed locals who charge, on horseback, out of the jungle shouting threats. Or are they warnings? A stand-off ensues. The confusion escalates when Amy accidentally steps on a patch of vine. And without giving much away, one bewildered tourist takes an arrow to the chest and a bullet to the brain. It’s sudden. Appalling, actually. Its impact is further compounded by the fact that this act of violence occurs in broad daylight. Because of that, the blood that erupts out of the victim’s head and splashes across the arid earth below takes on a sickly brown tint. Spotted among those playing the locals were actors Jesse Ramirez (the guy toting the Spear of Destiny in Constantine) and Sergio Calderon – the alien in disguise at the beginning of Men in Black.
The piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance of our afternoon presentation comes in the third, and final, scene which finds someone – and, naturally, we’re keeping some details under wraps – getting their legs amputated the most raw, primitive way possible: With the use of a heavy boulder and a simple hunting knife. The build-up to the actual breaking and slicing is intense, the sound design is gut-churning and Carter positions his camera expertly right at the amputation point to reveal bone sliding out of the thigh! And when the meaty scraps are discarded on the ground, the vine’s tendrils reach out and drag them away. Carter even displayed his own measure of discomfort re-watching this scene. That’s like witnessing Dr. Frankenstein getting repulsed by his own goddamn creation! As if Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn’t give you enough reasons to fear plants… It looks as if Carter’s got something refreshing – moreover, unnerving – on his hands.
There’s more coverage of The Ruins to come, including a full interview with Carter Smith.
Source: Ryan Rotten