The hype on The Ruins novel was pretty prevalent; it was a long-awaited follow up to Scott Smith's smash 1993 novel, A Simple Plan; it was touted very publicly by horror icon Stephen King, especially through his editorial forum on the back page of Entertainment Weekly; and before it was even published, Ben Stiller's production company bought film rights.
When I first started reading The Ruins, I couldn't put it down. It sucked me in right away with well-drawn characters and an excellent writing style. Unfortunately, the characters aren't likable and the writing could only carry a weak story so far. In it, two young American couples on vacation in Cancún, Mexico befriend a German tourist who persuades them to join his hunt for his brother, last seen headed off toward some isolated, ancient ruins where a group of archeologists is said to be digging. The Americans soon regret their impulse after they find themselves trapped in the jungle, help captive by a tangle of vines that not only seem to be alive… but murderous.
When I got the opportunity, through Paramount Pictures, to visit the director of the film, Carter Smith (no relation to the novel's author) during the film's editing process, I didn't make a secret of my lack of patience with the novel. The whiny Amy character, in particular, was grating. I was curious to know how actress Jena Malone could help make her a bit more bearable.
Staci Layne Wilson / Horror.com: How do you maintain a level of personal tension throughout the film, yet still make us want to stick around with these people?
Carter Smith: I think what part of what is interesting is that a girl like Amy, she is going to be the one that a lot of times she's the one that is saying what an audience member is thinking. What she is saying is, like, Why did we leave the hotel? I'm saying the same things like, Why did you leave the hotel? You are walking into your doom here. I think we tried to temper Amy specifically a little bit because she can be a little bit grating, but I think that Jena Malone did such an amazing job of making her into an absolutely real person, you know, that even though she has her faults you care about what happens to her
How did you decide on Jena Malone and what is some of her past work that compelled you to want to see her for this role? What does she bring to Amy?
Carter Smith: I've been a fan of hers, always, and everything that I have ever seen her in from Donnie Darko to Stepmom. I just love watching her. I think the thing about Jena is that she is such a real person, she's a real girl and girls relate to her. Guys relate to her and there's never any sense that she's an actor playing a character, you know. She becomes the character and then she sort of lives and breathes the character. And it's not just her, but I got that with all of them [the actors]. That's sort of the key of casting, it was finding actors that really were able to [play the characters on the page].
It wasn't intentional to make her not likable because as a director I think you have to like all of your characters. I have to go through this process of having to fall in love with all of them individually for different reasons, and so I'm the worst person to ask because I like them all. I think there is something about her being the whiny one and the one that sort of puts everything on the table. She doesn't mind complaining and that was interesting for her as an actor, I think. But also, the ending of the book it also ties into the unexpected. In a conventional movie and the genre into like the whiny, bitchy one is always the first one to go… that's usually what happens in a movie.
So have you changed the ending of the movie, or modified it at all?
Carter Smith: It has not changed in tone at all; I think that's the key thing that we wanted to keep was to not have it be to turn it into sort of a film with a happy ending. It wouldn't have sat well with the film, but also it is different from a book. I don't think it will be disappointing for fans of the book.
So, you were talking about how real Jena makes the character she plays, yet you are dealing with a sort of supernatural phenomena; is it important to you that there is a degree of realism in that, or is it sort of like figuring out a way to do it in the most interesting way you can?
Carter Smith: From the beginning, my approach was that this had to be as real as possible both in the way that it looks in a way that it sounds, in the way the performances are, in the way that the vine looks. The only way that you can really tackle the subject is, like — this is a film that is going to be about a flesh eating vine that invades your body — was to stay as far away from the comic in the camp and the sort of fantastic as possible.
So, no Steve Martin cameo in a nod to Little Shop of Horrors? [laughter]
Carter Smith: No no no no — but to create a world that feels very real. So that once you've entered into this world, you're already invested in the characters and what they're going through. You can picture sort of experiencing it with them.
How aware were you of what horror movie conventions are? Or are you sort of reinventing?
Carter Smith: Yeah. I think that there are so many horror films that reinvent… I don't know of reinventing is the right word. There are certain conventions of horror movies that are very squarely in place in this film. From being led off the path by the dark foreign stranger, to not heeding the advice of the taxi driver, and the hidden path. This is all stuff that we have seen, frankly, before. But I think there is something about when you're on a journey like that with people you care about the people you are invested in that makes it all the more terrifying what happens to them than if it's just of random collection of like sort of good-looking W B actors.
The comparisons to Hostel are inevitable.
Carter Smith: On paper they probably sound similar. I think that there is something about the violence and the sort of brutality that happens in our movie that comes pretty much always as a direct result of the character's actions. And then making decisions to say 'Okay. We are going to sterilize the knife. And we are going to cut the vine out'. So it isn't some masked outsider. That's what's responsible for what happens to these kids. These kids are basically doing this to themselves. I think that is sort of what is interesting about it. Because a lot of times, as an audience member you find yourself hopefully saying, 'Would I do that?' or 'Would I be able to do that?' or 'Would I want him to do that to me?' If that's what I was going through, I think that hopefully there is a connection to what is happening to that is something we have not seen in the genre or haven't seen in the genre for a while.
How do you decide just how graphic these scenes will be?
Carter Smith: Will we are in that process right now, actually. The two of us [Smith and his editor, Jeff Betancourt] we are both huge genre fans. And so we are really conscious always of saying, let's push the boundaries of what can be shown. And what feels right for the scene. The last thing that you want is to in a scene is to have something feel gratuitous — like it's not moving the story forward, it's not giving you something new. If the violence and if gore is doing that, then it sort of earns its place, but once it sort of feels like it's there just because you want to gross people out [it] is there for the wrong reason.
A lot of times there are moments in sequences where something that you don't see is so much more horrifying than something that you do see. Like for me in what we just watched the shot that I am completely horrified by still is like that wide shout where she's off four and he's pulling it out. But you don't actually see and it's not that we cut around. We see it being pulled out and him cutting. Maybe I'm twisted, but that doesn't bother me as much as like seeing the look on her face as it's happening is what I find a horrific.
So how much will the music play a part, and how will silence play a part? Also, what's the vine verbiage… so to speak? Do they talk as they did in the novel?
Carter Smith: Yeah. Because of the whole aspect of the vine mimicking sounds, sound has been like a huge consideration from the beginning and early on we decided that it shouldn't speak in full sentences. In the book at you know, it was like calling people Nazis, and bitch, slut, whore… and it was really specifically forming thoughts and manipulating people that way and we made the decision that it would be more effective, hopefully, to have it be mimicking sounds and things that its heard, whether it's sounds of the jungle or, you know things like that. Creating this specific soundscape for what this hilltop sounds like. We are working a lot with silence, too. There is no score over that operation scene [we showed you]. Sometimes I think that the most effective way to put a scene is to actually hear the dirt underneath… I mean, she is on her knees in the dirt and rolling around and that sound is more horrifying than any score could be. But that said, Graeme Revell is doing the score, and he's doing an amazing job.
Did you look to any other movies for inspiration in your suspense techiniques?
Carter Smith: Yeah. In working in preproduction, and sort of prepping it. There's a lot of films that we looked at, but it was the kind of thing that I would show one film to the costume designer can say this color palette I really am in love with and how the wardrobe works in this film, and then to someone else, like, the score in this movie is great. Therefore, it's like a milestone of specific films that we were looking at, but we were looking at bits and pieces of lots of different stuff and not just for horror stuff. A bunch of different stuff..
That operation scene is really intense. And it looks like, thankfully, you are locked down a lot in this movie and there is not a lot of handheld? Is there any really shaky cam stuff?
Carter Smith: While there is handheld, it is not like it's nauseating. Hopefully.
The opening scene has a lot of nudity; how did you balance the sex and violence in the movie?
Carter Smith: Yeah, I mean… it's weird, the scenes that you saw at the beginning. Those are sort of the most naked that they get. But there is something that is very sexual about what they turn into as they spend time up there [on the hill]. Slowly dying of exposure and dehydration and the vine is eating away at their clothes and there is like a real physicality that they become very in touch with, that I find sexy. But it's definitely not sexy in a conventional horror movie kind of way. It's a dirty bloody grimy sweaty, if that makes sense. Yeah, hopefully it is sexy. [laughter]
How do you make the trailers and clips interesting for people who've already read the book and know the story?
Carter Smith: It's hard because we're going up against a book that basically everybody knows exactly what it is. I don't know exactly how marketing is positioning it in terms of killer vine movie or not. I love the idea of someone going to the movie and not knowing exactly what it is about, because the way that it is structured, you think it's a movie about evil Mayans that are going to keep them hostage. And then you think that it's about they go down inside the ruins to look for a phone that they hear and you think all my God this is a monster movie. There is a giant or some beast living down inside the ruins. And then It's a fucking vine that gets inside of you. And then it sort of turns into look out for your friends. They end up being sort of as threatening to teach other as any outside force is.
What is the time frame for the whole story?
Carter Smith: We compressed actually from what was in the book. It takes in place now over about three days that they are trapped up there so it's actually quite a bit more condensed than it was in the book.
What is the pacing? Do you feel it's pretty aggressive because in the scenes we were watching, I was a bit concerned that you couldn't really spend time with the characters as opposed to just presenting victims.
Carter Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that one of the things that is different about this film is that it's not set up in a way that is like a sort of die one by one and what is going to be the next cool way that this one is going to die and who's going to die first. You really get to spend the entire film with pretty much all of the characters and sort of see them go through that transformation and change and what it does to them and how it affects them and we've got the time to spend with them to actually see what it does to them.
How far into the movie until the vines become adversarial?
Carter Smith: Not even halfway or more than halfway a little before halfway. Scott Smith wrote the script as well, so we had a built-in, great collaborator who knew all the characters so well and was completely open to doing whatever would make the best film. It wasn't stuff that he was really precious about in terms of specific events or scenes, but he wanted to remain true to the characters, which I did too, which everyone involved did, because everyone felt that that was what made the book sold strong. But he was really great about it, figuring out what to hang onto and what to let go of. At a certain point the writers were going into the final stretch of preproduction, saying. Okay, this is your movie now. I trust you, you are going to do a good job and don't feel like you have to call me and ask me questions or whatever this is yours, go for it. That was a great sendoff.
It's a story about these kids. They go off into the jungle on a Mexican vacation and they get trapped and they are forced to survive in the most brutal conditions possible. I feel like it's a survival story that has a lot in common with the Lord of the Flies or Lifeboat, or the kind of stories that are really about characters that are turning on each other and are becoming different people because of what they are going through. Everything else is in a way, secondary. I don't necessarily consider it a "monster movie". It's like an indie-character movie hiding inside of a monster movie.
What was your initial meeting with him like? What did you guys talk about, and where did you find common ground?
Carter Smith: I guess we met for the first time at a script meeting actually in New York. I was doing I had just gotten the job. So to speak, and we were just sitting there talking just generally about the story about characters, and we actually spent a couple hours just hammering through stuff and me, sort of trying to test the waters, and see how attached to stuff he was our how open to ideas he was. And as soon as I realized okay, he wants to collaborate, he doesn't want to sign off on something say it's finished and hand it over, like she's up for collaborative working and then it was sort of a great realization. It was like okay I have good ideas too, and it was nice to work together.
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