Christopher Smith is a filmmaker that’s hard to pin down. He launched a good run in horror with his 2005 subterranean creature feature, Creep, following it up with a cheeky slasher comedy, Severance, a Bermuda Triangle-set time loop mind-bender, Triangle, and the historical horrors of his plague-meets-occult period piece, Black Death. Then he went and made a kids Christmas movie, Get Santa. Smith has spent the past decade jumping through genres, time periods, and settings, but he’ll tell you there’s a “degenerate spirit” that ties them all together. That, and an interest in playing with structure.
That spirit is on full display in his latest, a neo-noir riff on Strangers on a Train set against a tricky narrative construct of parallel timelines. Harper (Tye Sheridan) is a good kid in a bad spot — his mom is in a coma and he blames it on his step-father, who tends to his business rather than spend his time at the hospital. Drowning his sorrows in a bottle one night, he meets Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen) and Cherry (Bel Powley) and carelessly strikes up a deal to pay for his step-father’s murder. The next day, it all hits the fan when Johnny Ray and Cherry show up on his doorstep, ready to get on with the plan. From there the narrative splits in two, one story following the trio on the road to Vegas while the other stays back at Harper’s home, and each path has its own fallout.
I recently sat down with Smith to chat about the film — and we did. But we also talked about a whole bunch of other crazy stuff. Like Rogue One, Making a Murderer, and the right way to get rid of a dead body. He also talked about the nutty Yeti movie he’s dying to make — inspired by the Abbas Kiarostami‘s Iranian Koker trilogy, which is famous for blurring the lines between reality and fiction with meta-structural self-reflection. Which sounds just about as perfectly up Smith’s alley as anything could be. It was one of the most fun and unpredictable chats I’ve had in a while. Enjoy.
Detour’s a bit different from what you’ve done in the past. There’s not as much of a horror lilt to it.
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: There was a scene in it where he puts the leg in the … He actually cuts the leg off, we took that out. There was a scene where when he’s trying to get the body and he can’t get the leg in, and so he cuts the leg. I just felt in the edit that what it had done is it pushed him into a crazy-person, so we pulled out. There was some more gore in it, but I took it out because I didn’t want it to become — and I thought I’d done that joke before with Severance, so yeah. There was a bloodier telling of it.
It’s certainly still dark.
SMITH: Yeah, it’s still dark. Someone earlier said that I do sleaze with style, so thank you. I didn’t realize that. I think there’s always a degenerate spirit. Even this Christmas movie I did for Ridley Scott, it’s a real degenerate style, a quality to even a kids film. I love the sort of humor that’s in Bad Santa. We deal with characters where you think he’s a bad guy, Emory, but Emory’s a sweetheart. By the end of it you go, “Actually, he’s a real sweetie.” Then, I think he’s the good guy of the film by the end.
Oh yeah? I guess it is the “good guy” that we see kill someone.
SMITH: Yeah, well he does it by accident so you kind of let him off. It’s kind of like — ugh, self-defense moment of rage. She says to him, “Well, you just call the lawyer. If you’d have called the lawyer instead of had a fight,” but people don’t do that. They think … people say “Well, if you’d just call the lawyer you’re going to get two years inside.” “No, I don’t want to get anything! I don’t want to go to prison for a day.” So people will make that mistake. I’ve always had this idea in my head for a long time about disposing of a body. I read this Ian McEwan book called The Innocents, and they have a body that you have to get rid of in that.
If you think about mobsters, they dig a hole. You see a Scorcese movie. They’ve got the hole dug, they go and kill somebody and they put them in the hole. If you actually think about what to do with the body, you don’t run, but everyone does the wrong thing because you’re fucking … You didn’t expect to do it and you’re panicking.
SMITH: You’re terrified and you’re literally thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get rid of the body”. Actually, what you’ve got to do is keep the body in the house and not do anything.
Don’t touch it.
SMITH: Don’t touch it, don’t move it, and then go and dig a hole and then put the body in the boot of the car, then drive it, put it in the hole. Bury it properly. People just fucking throw the thing under some bushes. And you find the body, and they go, “What the fuck?” Look at us, what we’re talking about getting rid of bodies.
It’s a good start.
SMITH: Did you listen to Serial? Did you listen to that podcast?
Oh, Serial. No, I haven’t.
SMITH: You know, with the guy Adnan or whatever, yeah. That’s crazy.
I haven’t caught up with that. That’s a big pop culture weak spot for me.
SMITH: Well he’s now, he’s got another trial.
SMITH: Yeah. It’s very similar to Making a Murderer.
That’s what I was just going to say. Brandon’s getting a new trial as well now.
SMITH: [Laughs] Brandon, we all know his name. So you know who could have played Bradon? He’s the actor that was in spirit. He plays the kid.
SMITH: Paul Dano, yeah. He would have played it brilliantly.
Yeah, he would.
SMITH: You can just see him doing that.
Wow, that is really good casting.
SMITH: Yeah, but he’s too old now.
So, how did you get into Detour and this story? Because you really don’t have a certain “thing” that you do.
SMITH: A lot of people say that. In my head I do. I think it’s … someone said to me it’s like Triangle made easy, this film, it’s kind of like — and weirdly I had written Triangle and it was 2007 and Disturbia had just been out. And I love those kinds of Hitchcockian little thrillers. I think film noirs and horror movies are both the same in the sense that they are that edge of cinema. We call it genre cinema now, where first-time filmmakers can take a hundred thousand dollars and go make a film. So I’ve always been drawn, not for the independent filmmaker sense, but I’ve always been drawn to stories like The Last Seduction and Blood Simple, I’ve always loved those American noirs … you’re on a road, you got a girl and a gun. They are very kind of Jean-Luc Godard kind of thing. It’s that whole period of American cinema, where all you need is a girl and a gun and you got a film.
So I saw Disturbia, and obviously all the execs were like, “Fuck, we want to make another Disturbia.” And I was with an exec having a beer and he was trying to make a Strangers on a Train for the studio. Boy meets boy and decides to kill the wife or the girlfriend of each other. Which I’m surprised they haven’t done yet. And so we were doing that and I thought, what if we … because I was in structure mode, having just written Triangle, what if we get to the door and it’s a split of story? This isn’t to kill or not to kill.
He said, “The problem with those stories is how do you get them back together?” I said, “Well here is the thing, the twist is that it’s not what you think. He’s gone to the door and he’s thought back, but we read it as a split narrative. That’s how it came about. And I’m obsessed with structure. I’m obsessed with films about the process of filmmaking. I loved the Joaquin Phoenix thing — I’m Not There. When you see them interviewed, they’re like, “We couldn’t understand. Does anybody think reality TV is real?” The phone rings, and they’re there to go “You got into university.” Are we meant to believe you’ve been waiting for that fucking phone to ring for seven hours? Clearly, the person picked up the phone just to go “Oh! I got in!”.
People were surprisingly slow to catch on to those tricks
SMITH: Fucking hell! The one thing reality TV isn’t, is real. And the one thing found footage isn’t is — what fan footage became is a lazy, shaky cam, lack of character. When it’s done well, like in Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project, it’s masterful when it’s done well, but it’s so often no done well. I think reality TV has killed all of that. So I want to make a film about that, really. I’m planning to do a Yeti — I keep saying this, I’ve had it in my head for fucking ages — a fucking Yeti movie. But a very clever thing. My agent keeps telling me, You can’t do that. You can’t do another indie!” I said, “I don’t know, If I just make indies all my life I will be happy.”
Yeah, as long as they’re good movies.
SMITH: Exactly. I’ll just keep making them. Just keep making things yourself. People say “It’s only low-budget. It’s only six million dollars.” Six fucking million dollars! That’s a lot of fucking money. That’s a lot of money!
Yeah, it is!. How was Detour compared to your other films in terms of scale? Because it seems like Triangle was a huge struggle and a big concept–
SMITH: It was a huge struggle for lack of budget and everything and I’ve made films where … I made this films, which love. Get Santa. You should try to see it. People didn’t see it because it’s a Christmas movie, but it’s very much a kind of Bad Santa for kids. It’s very twisted and funny, but there’s a car chase in it, a very simple car chase. Every single shot that was storyboarded, every single shot is in that car chase. Usually you’ll shoot a lot of stuff and you’ll throw a load away. That’s how tight the budget was. And you only see it for want of it. But in this, we had one action scene in the script, which was a fight between the dad and Tye. And I’m like the last thing I want to fucking do is start adding a punch there, a hit there, a roll on the floor, because after the Bourne movies — somewhere between the Bourne movies and … what’s the Korean film? The long one-shot.
SMITH: Oldboy. Between those two, right … first, this is not a Matt Damon movie. He’s not a special agent, these are two men having a floppy fight on the floor. So I just said, we do the whole thing slo-mo. So then suddenly, we’ve got a lot more pressure taken out of our schedule. So actually, this was a very, very good schedule. Very easy. We shot it in about 33 days. We did a day in Vegas and a day in LA, and all the rest in South Africa.
How was it working on a film that so much of it was set in a car and around the car?