Swallowed, the new horror from writer/director Carter Smith (The Passenger), is not for the faint of heart. Two friends — Ben (They/Them’s Cooper Koch) and Dom (introducing Jose Colon) — decide to spice things up for their last night together in Maine. Dom persuades Benjamin to join him on a drug run to make some extra money. When the boys meet with drug dealer Alice (Goliath’s Jena Malone), they are forced to swallow the drugs in condoms and smuggle them across the border.
Before Dom can use the bathroom to force the drugs out, he’s punched in the stomach, breaking one of the condoms and releasing the drugs inside his body. These are not your run-of-the-mill drugs. They are special insects whose bites make you high and aroused. Alice and Ben bring Dom to a remote cabin in the woods to extract the remaining drugs, but they struggle to make any leeway as Dom experiences a trip from hell.
In an interview with Digital Trends, Colon, Koch, and Smith discuss the challenges of making a film in a remote location and what Swallowed adds to the horror genre.
Digital Trends: Carter, what compelled you to make this movie?
Carter Smith (director): You know, more than anything, it was just the idea that it was possible to make a film that could be made without having to wait for permission from a studio or an investor or a key piece of casting. I hadn’t made a film in this micro-budget way before, and I had always been curious about it. There was just freedom to it. You spend a lot of time developing and waiting and trying to get projects off the ground. This, from the beginning, was written and created as a film that could be made with a little handful of friends, with the resources that we had.
Jose and Cooper, what attracted you both to this project?
Jose Colon (actor, Dom): I needed the money … no, I’m kidding. Carter was working on something, and he told me about it, and I had already read the script. The script was really good, so I had to do it, you know?
Cooper Koch (actor, Ben): I met Carter, I think, five or six years before I got the first script. I wanted to work with him for a while, and there had been things that we’d like almost come close to working on together, and then it didn’t happen. Then when this came through, I read it and loved it. It was super crazy and nuts and scary. Like scary to do, so I was like, hell yeah, let’s do this.
Jose, correct me if I’m wrong. This is your film debut?
Colon: Yeah, it is.
Walk me through the process as a first-time film actor. What challenges did you experience making this film?
Colon: I think everything because you really don’t know what to expect. You can love movies and watch movies, but you don’t know what to expect. We shot everything in chronological order, which was really helpful. I know a lot of times, you might start in the middle or the end, so I think it was just a real education.
Cooper, you’re becoming the new “Scream King.” You were in They/Them, and now this movie. Did this movie come after They/Them? Are you conscious of the fact that if you star in a string of horror movies, you become identified within that genre? Look at Jamie Lee Curtis and how she built a career. Is that something that you want, or were you interested in this character and wanted to do it regardless of the genre?
Koch: I would say the latter for sure. I was shooting Swallowed, actually, when I got the audition for They/Them. Jose actually did my self-tape with me.
Colon: Yeah, I read with you.
Koch: Yeah, he read with me for my initial audition. We were doing night shoots. We would be going to set at like 5 p.m. We would wrap at 5 a.m., go to bed, wake up at like 2 p.m., and then I would be self-taping. I’m not in the position to be picking and choosing at the moment. It was kind of whatever I was reading for, [if it] then would come back, I would take the job [laughs]. Swallowed came before They/Them.
I love the horror genre. It’s super fun, and it’s great. I definitely want to expand my horizons, though. Hopefully, the next thing that I get won’t be a horror movie. But again, I’m not really in a position to pick and choose at the moment.
Carter, what made you cast Cooper and Jose? Cooper has established credits and was in They/Them. He’s developing this horror filmography. And then you have Jose, who’s making his debut with this movie.
Smith: I met Jose when I photographed him. The film started with Dom as a character. I photographed him. I was working on writing something, and then this character named Dom showed up. I was like, “Oh, he works at a garage. He’s got a best friend that’s in love with him.” It was Jose. That was one of the starting points of the story.
Cooper, I had met briefly a couple of years ago and [we] talked. Then he put himself on tape for this. It was completely clear from the first time I watched the tape that he was Benjamin. There was something kind of magical about his presence onscreen.
Agreed. He has that charisma. They both share this unique chemistry. This is a horror film, but it’s one that devotes time and space to developing this relationship. How do you create the space to allow the actors to develop that relationship?
Smith: Luckily enough, we had a little bit of time. They were both able to come to Maine a little bit before the shoot. They were able to spend days together. We already had Dom’s truck, and they spent time driving around, spending hours and hours just being together and getting a feel for what each other was like. There wasn’t a whole lot of rehearsal, and there weren’t complex backstories that I had drawn up. I wanted them to find the specifics of what that relationship was.
Jose and Cooper, how did you work on establishing your relationship and chemistry? Was Carter open to improvisation?
Colon: I think one, we just got along. We like each other, you know what I mean? It’s really easy when you get along.
Koch: Carter had us come to Maine. Was it a week before we started shooting?
Colon: It was like a whole week.
Koch: So we had a whole week together, just the two of us before anyone really came. Carter was there. He was in and out because he was working. We had a week to hang out. We would take the jeep and drive around and listen to music. We drove into town one day, and we were like listening to music and driving. We did auditions, [and] we watched movies together. We developed a friendship that week before we started shooting, which was, I think, super helpful to then translate onto the screen and into the work.
I definitely added some of my own history and stuff. Nothing too crazy. I really just prepped the relationship with Dom, and I developed some family traumas and things. There’s a reason why Benjamin wants to leave Maine and go to L.A., so I tried to tap into that and create around why he wanted to leave and what all of that was about. Carter was super open to improvisation and letting the scenes go wherever they needed to go. That’s why I loved working with him so much. He allowed us that freedom to explore.
Colon: Yeah, I agree. It was a lot of fun. Carter has a lot of experience, but he definitely let us figure some stuff out and make some choices … He was really that flexible.
I’m curious. What are some of your favorite horror movies?
Colon: Midsommar is really scary.
That’s a great choice.
Koch: It’s not really horror but I really liked Pearl from last year.
Koch: It’s goofy, though, which I love. I loved it. That was my favorite one of this year.
Colon: Worst one? Terrifier.
Terrifier 1 or 2?
Colon: I hated both of them.
You don’t like clowns. Got it.
Smith: I’ve been a horror fan for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I loved all the traditional [horror], all the slashers, and all the stuff that I would find in the local video store. I also love a David Cronenberg movie called The Brood, which I think I saw way too young and really messed me up. There’s a movie called The Untamed, which I really love, which is a weird, artsy horror love story.
There’s a movie coming out right around now called The Outwaters, which is found footage. Scary, scary, scary film. I love horror films, and I love chasing that punch to the gut that a good horror film can deliver, which happens less and less often the more you see.
I’m a big horror fan, too. I have to say, in the last 18 months or so, the genre has really experienced a sort of renaissance. We see a lot more horror films strike critically and commercially with audiences.
Smith: Audiences are going out to see them in person. That is one of the genres that people will see in a theater, which I think is super exciting.
What was the toughest part about making this movie?
Smith: Probably the most challenging thing was the reality of where we were shooting. We shot in remote northern Maine. We didn’t have electricity or internet or self-service or flushing toilets. We were in an off-the-grid cabin, where all the equipment had to be carried down this dirt path.
It was great on the one hand because everyone was 100% focused on the task at hand. No one was on their phones. There was no, “Oh, let me just go online and look real quick and check this.” We were super isolated. That was challenging, but it was also kind of a blessing in disguise in a lot of ways.
Koch: I would say the three days when my hand was up Jose’s ass [laughs]. Those were really tough days because we were shooting the same scene for three days in a row, keeping track of where everything was and where you were emotionally and then your own continuity of your things. Was I crying here? Was I not? Was I sweating? Was my hand in his ass at this point, or was it out of his ass? That was a tough scene to shoot.
Koch: [Sarcastically] All you have to do is lay on the ground [laughs].
Jose, your performance is very physical for most of the movie. You have to be believably near death. That’s tough. I was surprised to know that you were a first-time actor and that does not show at all, so congrats.
Colon: Thank you so much. Thank you.
What do you think Swallowed adds to the horror genre?
Colon: Good question.
Koch: It’s not only this body horror, crazy ride. I think, and what you said in the beginning, it’s the relationship between these two boys. In my eyes. I was looking at it as this unrequited love story from the beginning. It has a little bit of everything in it. There’s humor in it. Jena brings such humor to her role. It’s not just a horror, in-your-face, pop-jump scare film. It has more depth to it than just that.
Smith: I think Swallowed adds a very specific, unique, queer viewpoint to the genre. There are horror films that are made centered around a queer character. Their sexuality is not the primary driver of the story. It’s like a secondary aspect of that character, and I think that is something that we don’t see a lot of in horror. I think seeing a character like Rich (Mark Patton’s character) is also a character that we just don’t get to see often in the genre. So often, we’re the sidekick, or we’re the butt of the joke, or the first to die. It’s very offhand, and rarely do we get more complex depictions.
Oddly enough, this movie makes me want to go to Maine but not experience anything in the movie.
Smith: [Laughs] You don’t want to jump into the world of the movie?
Swallowed is now on digital and on demand.
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