Christopher Smith has been away too long. It’s been six years since his last film arrived Stateside — “Black Death,” a spooky thriller set amidst the Bubonic Plague crisis in England featuring a young Eddie Redmayne — and he’s been chomping at the bit to get back. Only the British-born director had a problem, a good one to have – Ridley Scott liked his movie and wanted him to direct another – but one nonetheless for the chameleonic director.
“He loved “Black Death” and I went in to see him and I pitched a couple of ideas,” recalls Smith, who has become a horror auteur of the highest order and had just recently become a first-time father. “And he said, ‘Have you got anything else?’ And I said, “I’ve got this Christmas movie about a Santa that gets arrested and ends up in prison. And a guy who has just been released from prison has to try and spring him. I told him the idea and he said, ‘Let’s do that!’”
For those who know Smith – and to know him is to be passionate about his work – it is just one more quirk in a strange career that “The Martian” director would spark to a Christmas comedy idea of his, rather than one of his ambitious genre ideas. (“Get Santa,” the resulting comedy, never made the trip to America, not a function of its quality as it was warmly reviewed upon release in 2014 — and Smith is pleased with the film – but likely its perceived Britishness, featuring Jim Broadbent as St. Nick.) Since directing the Franka Potente starrer “Creep” in 2004, Smith has specialized in making the kinds of wildly entertaining films that most would think have long disappeared – told with great style, attracting formidable actors and in his words, “a general degenerate theme that runs through them all.” (To be fair, this is only after I told him he makes “sleazy films with great sophistication,” a description which seemed to please him greatly.)
That is why the the title of his latest, “Detour,” might elicit a slight chuckle amongst his fans, imagining what Smith’s career might look like if the popularity of his work matched his ample skill, though the film that follows tells the kind of story that Smith does best, indulging in a serious contemplation of a grand moral dilemma – in this case, committing murder – while reveling in a delightfully seedy world of crazy characters. With Harper (Tye Sheridan), a young man stewing over the neglectful decisions of his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) as his mother lies comatose from a car accident the two were in together and comes into contact with Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen) and Cherry (Bel Powley), a couple willing to carry out his murder if Harper gives them the go-ahead, Smith creates a diffracted narrative in which you see the fallout from whether Harper issues a kill order or not.
Long, elegant tracking shots and florid, immersive environments give way to entering Harper’s tortured mind, similar to Smith’s 2009 masterpiece “Triangle” where you could never know whether its lead character (played by Melissa George) was a doting mother or a stone cold killer until its final frames, but “Detour” is singular in how unsettling it is and how the writer/director once again marries immense filmmaking craft and extreme human frailty for exhilarating drama. While in Los Angeles, Smith spoke about making the film, as well as making a few others, and how he created “Detour”’s colorful visual style, the homages he put in and why he no longer finds fighting interesting on screen.
I’ve heard you had the structure for this before finding a story. How did the two eventually collide?
It wasn’t so much looking for a story, it was looking for characters, but I came up with the idea of doing “Strangers on a Train” – this was just after “Disturbia” had been made, and a lot of the execs were trying to find low-budget thrillers. I just finished writing “Triangle,” so I think my brain was wired into structure, and I came up with well, what if I guy asks [someone] to do a murder and we split the story based on that moral choice. Then [it became about] how do we then bring it back together and once I came up with the idea of how to do that and what the twist was – [though] it’s not really a twist – [I asked myself] what’s the best character and story for that – in terms of why do you want to commit murder? That’s not something to be done lightly. And then [I thought] it’s a youthful thing, so we need to cast it young and I’m also a strong believer that you’re never going to walk away, that’s why there’s the line you dig two graves, one for the killer and one for yourself. So it was a lot of little small things that you put into it.
How did you figure out the visual language of this?
I wanted it to have a big panoramic view and I asked my [cinematographer Christopher Ross], who I worked with on “Get Santa,” should we just say that we’ll shoot on super-wide angle lenses [the whole time]? What will be the downside if we do that? And he said, “Well, there’s no downside, but you can’t do over shoulder [shots in conversation scenes] because you’d have to set up [very close to the actor], so you’ve got certain rules that you have to follow that you can’t really undo. And I loved it. So the conversations, the camera’s there [really close] and I felt it gave an almost kind of Hitchcockian/David Lynch-y, very anamorphic [vibe]. The shot where Tye’s looking in the mirror and his face is distorted — I said, let’s just make that decision, so we did it.
Were there certain colors you gravitated to immediately?
Blue and yellow is very much the language. I joke with my designer that films are either one of two things, they’re either Hopper or Caravaggio — this is cinema full-stop these days, it’s either natural light, playing with darkness and contrast [like Caravaggio] or it’s very based on production design and wide-angle, looking like Edward Hopper. This is very much a Hopper, but the blue and the yellow really came from the get-go [with] the blue car cutting through a yellow desert. They were opposite sides of the color wheel, so I thought, “Let’s give him a yellow jacket.” Obviously, I needed a jacket that would be a big part of the costume because you need that jacket on is to continue the idea that there’s a split narrative.
The tattoos also stuck out to me. The one on Bel’s back, you’re not meant to linger on, but it seems to say a lot about her.
Yeah, that just came out of trying to create this girl. A lot of those decisions came out of Bel and the makeup department. I was worried to be honest, when I first saw Emory so covered in tattoos, I wanted hers to be very organic. They did a great job because they were very subtle, but she’s got a model of herself effectively on her shoulder — that’s her from the beginning, and what I tried to do in this and I hope it came through is this idea that this couple is actually in the process of breaking up, but she can’t leave him because she doesn’t realize she’s tied to him through a debt he has. The more she wants to walk away innocently, the more he becomes aggressive and the more he wants to keep her and his love has turned to rage and then thrown into the mix of this, [there’s] this young kid who we later discover is hiding a secret of his own. So it’s a strange little mix, and I’m proud of it.
Was it actually difficult to guide Tye’s performance given the duality of his character?
No, fortunately when we started the schedule, we shot all of Tye’s home stuff first, because the film actually starts – forgetting the bit at the university and at the bar, when he walks in the door and the split narrative begins, so we actually shot the whole thing in order. He walks in the door, he has his breakfast, he has an argument [with his stepfather] and the story unfolds. We then finish that story, and the doorbell rings — the scene where Emory and Bel turn up — [and we were] at the end of the first week [of shooting] so all Tye was doing was always responding to the situation he was in in order, which was great for Tye.
Even though there isn’t much connection between the two films other than the title and perhaps the tone, there’s a direct invocation of Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 noir “Detour.” Why was that nod important to include?
That’s my favorite bit. I’ve always been a film geek, but when I really started studying film at university and really discovered and threw myself into film noir, obviously that film is one of the poster boys for that. This movie is actually more similar to the Fritz Lang film “Woman in the Window,” in terms of even some of the dialogue at the beginning about this lecturer who makes a series of wrong choices and finds himself unable to escape what fate is bringing him. But for the road stuff, I loved the title and I wanted this film to be rooted in the spirt of that film in many ways. Obviously, it’s shot in a much more cinematic wide-angle lens way, but I love that scene when it cuts to the movie and [Bel’s] like laying in the car. [Still, there are] all these things that are no longer in America – the diner, for example…it’s really sad. We drove around New Mexico just trying to find [one]…this is why we shot part of [the film] in South Africa is that those places don’t really exist like you want them to.
I didn’t know until after reading up on this that you actually shot there — what was it like building your own America?
We did a week in America. Some of the driving shots are in L.A. and Vegas is Vegas. America’s such an incredible country if you take out all of the stuff that man’s put in — it looks a bit like Africa, it looks a bit like Europe, it looks a bit like everywhere. It’s got every landscape. So [with South Africa] the only area where it’s slightly trickier is your traffic lights and bits like that. We’d have to put those in. The customs control [building], for example, we had to build, but I think it looks right. Did you know it was shot in South Africa [while watching it]?
No, though there was something slightly unsettling about it, which I think worked for the movie.
Yeah, I think that’s only if you’re American, you get that. We were aware some of the road markings aren’t right, but it gets to a point where you’re watching the movie. I’ve always said this – if you watch “Jaws,” you see the clouds behind the actors’ heads [in different shots during the same scene], because they had such bad weather, you have one shot of [Richard] Dreyfuss, you cut back to [Roy] Scheider and it’s cloudy, and you cut back to Dreyfuss and it’s a clear blue sky behind him because clearly they’ve done another shot and they had to pick back up that shot the next day. But you don’t see it [because you care about the story].
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Not really. It’s hard to say this because it wasn’t a huge budget, but there’s no fight scenes — only one and I do it all in one shot slo-mo. I think fighting in films has become so ridiculous. It’s like sex scenes now. What’s a fight scene? Are you going to shoot it like the “Bourne” movies? Well, these guys can’t fight like they’re in a “Bourne” movie, so I don’t want to put shots in where the stuntman says, “This is the angle you have to be for the punch.” Things have changed now with screen violence, so because I didn’t have anything like that – there’s no real car chase in it [either] — all it is is lots of acting — we had a good schedule. There were crazy moments of fun, like the scene where the cop pulls [the three] over in the middle of a desert and it’s like 40 degrees [celsius] and a cape cobra sizzles across the road. But we ended up having time to do things properly.
Your films have been so different from one another. Has it’s been by chance or it’s actually important to you to change things up with every single film?
It really is chance. “Get Santa” came about because I just made “Black Death,” which was beautifully released in the States by Magnolia, but in the UK, it had only been on a few screens and [there was] very little spent on publicity, so I was very angry and I thought I’m going to write the most commercial film I can think up so my son could watch it. Then because of Ridley [Scott] saying, “I want to do that,” that’s what made it happen. And then [“Detour”] was probably the first film I’d written — because I wrote this before “Santa” — which was a thriller. But there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I’m writing a thriller next. I’m drawn to being able to have moments that you can say and do things that are freeing because I think we’re all living under ever-increasing creative constraints that we’re putting on ourselves. I mean, I look back to “The Exorcist,” and say “God, if I even wrote the script for that with some of the scenes in there, my agent would get a phone call from the studio to say, ‘You need to speak to Chris.’”
At least you should know how appreciated that is in some circles here, particularly with “Triangle.”
No, well, can I say to you that when I wrote that film, I really think it’s the last big idea like that I will ever approach because it’s so exhausting to try and see that through. I was very disappointed that very few people really saw it on its release, but now it’s ridiculous. When you look at the IMDB, it’s like there’s 100,000 votes on there, [though] that’s because it’s on YouTube. No one’s paid to see it.
It’s one of those movies that always seems to come up when trying to make a recommendation for something you think a friend hasn’t seen — and then you find out they have and they loved it.
Yeah, yeah. That’s lovely to hear. When we were making that film, we literally didn’t know what the effect would feel like to return on yourself, in the sense that we hoped it would make you feel something, but we really didn’t know until the day I shot her and the camera pushed in on the house and we see her again. I got a sense then that, “Oh my God, this is really going to work.” But it wasn’t until we were in the assembly, which was a very difficult process because there was a lot of things that we had to sort out in the middle, [that I knew it worked] when the film eventually goes full-circle. You see Liam Hemsworth, and of course it was his first film, so it’s really wonderful that he’s become a big star now too.
On “Detour,” was it a similar situation where you might not have known what you had until the assembly because of the way this comes together?
One hundred percent. One of my friends says, “It’s Triangle made easy in some ways,” and it’s not really — there’s more time spent on the other characters — where what was so claustrophobic about “Triangle” was you were very much in the head of Melissa [George’s character]. By the time the edit [on “Triangle”] was finished, I couldn’t really branch out to the other characters the way I wanted to, so they play much more as types, but this has got richer characters, and I’m really glad you say that [about “Triangle”]. I’m really glad it’s found a life. I’ve said I’m going to be wheeled out one day for a retrospective and I keep making all these nearly films — they’re nearly big hits. They’re all cult films. And I want to make “The Witch.” I want to make a film that really breaks. I’m working on a film [now] called “The Judas Goat,” which is hopefully going to be a really scary horror, so I’m trying to make something really horrific.
That may be the only thing you’ve already done before.
“Detour” opens on January 20th in limited release, including the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles, and on VOD. A full list of theaters and dates is here.