[Interview] Carter Smith for THE PASSENGER

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, THE PASSENGER being covered here wouldn’t exist. 

In Carter Smith’s latest film, THE PASSENGER, Randy (Johnny Berchtold) is perfectly content fading into the background. But when his coworker Benson (Kyle Gallner) goes on a sudden and violent rampage leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, Randy is forced to face his fears and confront his troubled past in order to survive.

For the upcoming release of THE PASSENGER, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with director Carter Smith. During their chat, they discussed everything from what drew him to Jack Stanley’s script, seeing the dynamic between Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold develop as they worked on their characters, and how Carter’s focus on relationships proves to be his starting point always.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Carter. To start things off, what initially drew you to Jack Stanley’s script?

Carter Smith: It was the relationship at the heart of the film between Benson and Randy. Watching that weird friendship develop in a time and a place and under circumstances when it shouldn’t have been developing was just kind of fascinating and contrary to everything that you normally see. Especially when you’re dealing with a character like Benson who is, for all intents and purposes, horrific in what he does. Finding the humanity in him and what he offers to Randy was, for me, the heart of the film.

When reading the script did you notice any themes or messages that you wanted to make sure were conveyed on the screen?

Carter Smith: I always start with relationships. I thought it was really fascinating to take a look at someone who has done a really horrible thing and how to think about them outside of that horrible thing. Just because Benson does something horrible that doesn’t have to be the one and only defining character trait for him. I was really interested in looking for ways to explore his character and get into a little bit of the stuff that fills him out in a way that you don’t often get.

Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold do such a great job in this film and work fantastically off one another. How did you approach the casting process for this movie?

Carter Smith: The film is obviously a two-hander and that was the center of everything. Everyone was putting themselves on tape and it all happens quite quickly. I’m always thinking in my head, how do these people match? Johnny had put himself on tape and honestly, the first time I watched his self-tape I was like, that’s Randy. That’s the Randy that I saw when I first read the script. When an actor can come in and do that straight out of the bat with just the work that they’ve done on their own, I always find it really impressive. I wasn’t really casting to match him, but I was like okay, if this version of Randy works with my first choice for Benson, which was Kyle Gallner, then it was a match made in heaven. I was so excited when I finally got a chance to talk to Kyle about the script and hear how much he actually responded to it.

When it came to filming, were there any specific scenes that were challenging to shoot or bring to life? 

Carter Smith: [There’s a scene at the beginning of the film] that was super challenging. Anytime you’re doing something with crazy stunts or special effects or violence all that stuff is always challenging. Luckily, the way that the film unfolds there are these big moments and then there are a lot of really intimate moments such as those two-hander scenes that happen between Benson and Randy in the car. We had enough time to spend the time on the complicated stuff and then let the two of them go and do their thing and run six pages of dialogue. It was like watching magic happen. There were a couple of big, complicated things and then there was a lot of stuff that was complicated emotionally but wasn’t necessarily complicated from a filming perspective.

In THE PASSENGER, I noticed a subtle sexual ambiguity between Benson and Randy. Can you elaborate on that?

Carter Smith: It’s something that we talked about behind the scenes, and it wasn’t in the script. Talking to Jack it was like, what do you think about the queer undertones? He was like, what queer undertones? It was something that Kyle and Johnny and I all zoomed in on right away. We know that it’s not on the page and it’s not something that we’re talking about but what are the moments that could make this interesting? Breaking that physical intimacy, like the way that Benson touches Bradley in a strangely tender way. By the middle of the day when they were getting close, there was something so fascinating about that and I think that it was something we were all really excited to play with. I’m glad you picked up on it.

Lastly, what would you like to say to all the writers and actors who are currently on strike due to improper compensation from the studios as well as how their jobs will be impacted due to the rise of AI? 

Carter Smith: I would like to say thank you for striking to fight for what amounts to a living wage for creatives to actually get paid what they’re worth. I think that it’s super important. I would like to think that their deals would help everyone across the board, and I’ve got my fingers crossed. I know it’s complicated and there are a lot of moving parts, especially as you’re trying to promote a film, but I am a hundred percent in support of what they’re doing.

THE PASSENGER will be on Digital and On Demand on August 4, 2023, and coming to MGM+ later in 2023.

Shannon McGrew
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