Breaking into the filmmaking scene is such an arduous task that it’s already a miracle to get anything made. The common path of emerging filmmakers who are lucky enough to make an impression usually entails getting noticed with their indie debut and then hopefully being granted access to the big studio machine. That’s why Maine-native Carter Smith’s career path is somehow an odd and intriguing rarity worthy of attention, which reveals a multi-talented artist with a unique sensibility, who has built for himself an alternative route into Hollywood.
Smith started out as a fashion photographer when he was just 17 and his cinematic style led his fashion work and celebrity portraits to get featured in Elle, GQ, Vogue and many more. He then unconventionally made his feature film debut in 2008 with Dreamworks’ horror The Ruins – a fairly successful studio film about a group of friends who bump into something evil whilst exploring an archeological dig on their Mexican holiday – only to scale back to the scope and budget of independent cinema with his follow up.
Jamie Marks is Dead (2014) is indeed Smith’s sophomore film – a nuanced ghost story, teen romance and family drama – that explores delicate social issues within the frame of genre cinema and yet keeps its chilling horror undertones as understated as the protagonist’s coming-of-age journey of emotional self-discovery and personal growth.
Adapted by Smith from Christopher Barzak’s harrowing novel “One For Sorrow” (2007), this slow-burning teen horror that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2014, brings the filmmaker back to the indie scope of his debut short film, Bugcrush, which had earned him the Jury Prize in short filmmaking at Sundance in 2006 and went on to screen as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight.
The story follows Adam McCormick (US Shameless’ Cameron Monaghan), a quiet teenager from a broken home who lives in a snowy small town and seems to find his only solace when running for the school’s track team. With no father figure around, Adam lives with his overworked mother (Liv Tyler) and his abusively nasty older brother (Ryan Munzert), trying to survive high school unscathed. Yet things only get bleaker when his mum is involved in a car accident and a boy from his school, Jamie Marks (Tyrant’s Noah Silver) is found dead, victim of a horrible murder.
The film actually starts off with Gracie (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor), a pretty girl from Adam’s school, wandering along the riverbanks, scouting for rocks she collects when suddenly Jamie’s corpse appears, lying in a ditch. The poor boy is naked, except for his underwear, his skin pale-white, his glasses are broken and the cataracts-covered eyes are wide open – a mask of terror imprinted on his face.
A brief flashback through Adam’s eyes reveals Jamie’s average day of bullying-induced calvary at school. Adam feels powerless as he shamefully watches a trio of vicious jocks brutally harassing the meek boy in a bathroom stall of the locker rooms – the cruel perpetrators call him “moony Marks” as one of them pisses on the defenseless, humiliated Jamie. The sense of remorse for not helping his fellow schoolmate in trouble – evidently misguided by the fear of being associated with him and getting dragged into the bullies’ target list – hits our protagonist like a brick when he finds out about Jamie’s bleak fate.
Adam becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened to Jamie and he begins by befriending Gracie since she found the body. The girl is a troubled, lonely soul like Adam, if anything aggravated by her upper class social status, and she invites Adam over to her place whenever her parents are away at marriage counseling. The girl’s disinhibited plans for their hang out session are a pleasant surprise to the naïve Adam but things take a turn for the unexpected when the boy eerily spots Jamie standing outside the girl’s bedroom window.
Jamie’s spirit is lingering around, apparently due to the proverbial “unfinished business” but Grace doesn’t seem to enjoy being the designated companion of his in-between stay. Adam takes over the role as Jamie starts following him and it soon becomes obvious how the sad but friendly ghost had a fascination with him when still alive. Adam however sees this unconventional friendship as an opportunity to bring justice to Jamie but has to realise how Jamie only wants the thing he’s never had before getting murdered – a friend.
Jamie Marks is Dead is not a supernatural murder mystery built around Adam’s investigation. Soon enough our protagonist has to learn that Jamie’s unfinished business is of an emotional nature and that the boy has no intention to re-live the pain that marked his horrific epilogue. The film may lean towards less commercial territory but remains a compelling watch, at least if you can appreciate the nuances of character development and emotional arcs over strictly plot-driven storytelling.
The absence of set pieces and gore doesn’t make the taut moments in the story any less creepy or the horror elements any less disturbing. The same goes for Jamie’s not exactly on-the-nose fascination with Adam, which is equally reciprocated by our protagonist in subdued fashion. The LGBTQ themes are not spelled out, in line with the whole film’s introspective nature, but this choice doesn’t take anything away from the story’s relevance and emotional power.
When I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Carter Smith at the 2014 edition of BFI Flare, London LGBTQ Film Festival, the filmmaker defined his film as “A story about loneliness and how hard it is to make those truly intimate connections that are so important in our lives, especially as teenagers, and that’s something that most people can relate to, no matter their background, sexual orientation or where they come from.”
Speaking about translating Christopher Barzak’s beautiful novel for the screen, Smith highlighted how a great part of the adaptation process is about taking stuff away and figuring out the leanest, cleanest, most simple way to tell your story. In a 90 minutes movie everything needs to have a purpose and move the story forward so his main goal adapting the script was to deliver something that was tonally consistent with the book. He simply fell in love with the source material and wasn’t really thinking about whether the screen version had to be categorized as a horror movie or an LGBT film.
“I think that when you fall for a story like that, in a way you’re blind. At least that’s the case with me, I was just responding to the fact that I fell in love with the story and the characters. The questions of genre and where the film fits become more important as you’re looking for financing and you’re selling the film. During the development process we thought more about what genre the film was leaning towards but at the end of the day, this was a film that I was moved to make by the story that Christopher told in his novel and I wanted to be faithful to it. One of the things that I love about ghost stories is that they can be scary but they can also be romantic, sad and dramatic – it’s like a subgenre where the traditional horror rules don’t really matter. The story of Adam and Jamie is a very emotional and personal one so if that had been minimized it would’ve been a tragedy, I think.”
What the filmmaker found really interesting about the book is the sort of triangle that happens between Adam, Jamie and Gracie: “When you’re 17 years old, you don’t have any idea of who you are yet and every choice you make sets you off in a different direction. I found that kind of fluidity rather interesting and I didn’t really make an effort to downplay the gay elements in the story but I did make an effort to underline Adam’s struggle with things he doesn’t understand. I liked the idea that he was drawn to Jamie but he didn’t understand why and at the same time he was drawn to Gracie but she doesn’t treat him that well. Just like life, it’s complicated.”
Smith felt it was a story that would reach an audience outside the gay community and would resonate with people beyond that community. In a way he thought that LGBT audiences were probably going to find the film but he was also hoping that other people could find it too: “I believe the LGBT elements are not that deeply hidden but are there on the surface, despite a few audience members at some gay festivals seemed to be perplexed about the film being not gay enough.”
The whole cast is fantastic at capturing Smith’s tonal palette for the film, and the three main thespians – Monaghan, Silver and Saylor – deliver subtle performances that confirm them as some of the most interesting new young talent in Hollywood. If you’ve never seen US Shameless I encourage you to do so ASAP, not just cause it’s a rare example of a British show successfully adapted by American Television but especially because within its incredible cast you’ll be able to admire Cameron Monaghan brilliantly portray one of the most genuine and compelling gay characters ever written for television.
The same goes for Noah Silver and his turn in FX’s Tyrant, a role it’s no surprise he scored after impressing so much with his endearing and sensitive portrait of Jamie Marks. And last but not least Morgan Saylor, who got noticed for her role in the first 4 seasons of Showtime’s Homeland is always so emotionally raw and has now established herself as an indie film darling (go see White Girl on Netflix).
It took a while for Smith to being able to make his second feature and one might wonder why he chose an indie project after debuting with a studio movie, yet his answer on the topic made total sense: “If you love your story and are so passionate about it that you would do anything to bring it to the screen, then you’ve got what it takes to go through all the hardships that making a movie entails.”
The filmmaker shows off his photography background by beautifully capturing the eerie snowy landscape and the bleakness of the small town and its abandoned surroundings. It feels like a place suspended in time, where people go about their business in numb fashion. The sparse but haunting piano score tinged with some atmospheric electronic touches contributes to create the melancholic mood which pervades the piece from start to finish, practically capturing the feeling shared by these three lonely teenage souls. It’s a style that may not please the mainstream but that undoubtedly confirms Carter Smith as a hell of a talent to watch!