Dir. Carter Smith talks homoeroticism, vulnerability and empowerment in ‘The Passenger’

From left, Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold in a scene from ‘The Passenger.’ In the photo Gallner is choking Berchtold.
From left, Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold in a scene from ‘The Passenger.’ (Photo courtesy of MGM+)

“The Passenger,” available on digital and on demand Aug. 4, is out gay filmmaker Carter Smith’s second thriller this year — after the creepy “Swallowed” back in February. 

Benson (West Chester native Kyle Gallner) saves Randy Bradley (Johnny Berchtold), who is being bullied by their coworker Chris (Matthew Laureano), with an act of extreme violence. After leaving the scene of the crime, Benson forces Randy to confront some of his issues, from his unresolved breakup with his ex, Lisa (Lupe Leon), to apologizing to Miss Beard (Liza Weil), a teacher he harmed in second grade. Randy needs to take control of his life and Benson is determined to help him. 

“The Passenger” features a series of intense encounters, some bloodier than others, as the two young men spend an event-filled day together. The film lets Smith play out another “dangerous boy” story that is a hallmark of his films, from his astounding debut, “Bugcrush” to his recent “Swallowed.” Smith spoke with PGN about his new film. 

You directed but didn’t write “The Passenger.” What appealed to you about this story?
The relationship between Benson and Randy was fascinating to me. If things were different, they actually could have been great friends and been good for each other. As the film shows, it’s not at all an ideal scenario. They are thrown together under horrific circumstances. But there is a strangely tender and increasingly intimate relationship between them that is fun to explore. 

There is a violent, splatter-ific sequence early in the film, and the threat of violence is felt throughout “The Passenger.” What decisions did you make about how much blood and gore to include?
I knew the first horrific sequence needed to raise this idea that anything can happen, and that Benson is dangerous and capable of doing horrible things. And that threat has to stay with Randy throughout the entire film. But Benson isn’t a crazed monster out to kill as many people as possible. The film was always a character piece — a study of these two guys. So, with that, it had to be shocking. But what happens later with [another character], I wanted those moments to be punctuations of what Benson is capable of. It is scary to be trapped in a car with someone not knowing if or when something violent would happen.

Although the film and the characters are not queer, there are some homoerotic moments, such as how you film Chris, the bully, and the way Benson is both menacing and yet, seductive. Benson and Randy form a kind of queer couple in the film. Can you talk about infusing “The Passenger” with homoeroticism?
It was something I picked up on the first time I read the script. It is about this relationship between two guys. They form this emotional connection and have this growing bond. I find it fascinating because it isn’t explicitly queer. There is a tenderness in how Benson treats Randy, this new friend. And this is something the actors were really excited to explore. We don’t know much about Benson’s backstory. That was something we talked about in how we handled those scenes and intimate moments between the two of them. They are both opening up their souls to each other in a way that feels more lover than hostage.

I think gay audiences will find something to love in “The Passenger.” There’s nothing super gay about it, but people will pick up on stuff that other people might not pick up on, and the queers will see themselves in lots of moments, for sure.

Benson is trying to get Randy to assert himself. But he goes about it in an extreme way. What do you make of the film’s morality?
Benson is a pretty extreme guy. That is how he goes about everything. What I was focused on was the idea of Benson trying to make a difference in Randy’s life and be a positive big brother influence that Randy didn’t have. He goes about it in the most horrific way. I don’t think it was something he planned; he snaps. He’s been fighting this need to scream for so long that it comes out in a violent way. There is nothing good about what he does, but he feels all the more pressure and need to make something good of his relationship with Randy. It becomes his mission to help Randy through his shit that he has to face — and that Randy won’t face unless Benson runs him through this obstacle course of confrontation with his past. It’s a pretty aggressive form of “face your fears,” and it is kind of relentless. 

Which character do you identify with, Benson, who is a take charge kind of guy, or Randy, who has trouble making decisions? 
Randy 100%.

But who do you want audiences to identify with? The film is asking: Are you vulnerable or are you empowered? There is Randy who needs to be pushed out of his comfort zone, or Benson who acts tough. Your film shows both points of view, and each is relatable to a certain degree. 
Benson is magnetic and charming. It was important for me to have Benson also not be one note. He’s not a bad guy. He has gone through shit of his own. You kind of can’t help, in a weird way, but fall in love with him. You don’t have to be in love with all of him, but there are kernels of stuff that I want people to fall in love with, even if the other stuff is horrible.

When I read the script, I was like, if there had been a Benson who had taken me under their wing — not someone who does what Benson does — but the idea of someone like that coming in shining a light on all of your darkest shit that makes you uncomfortable: That’s pretty powerful. I never had that. Yes, I identify with Randy, especially the younger me, but at the same time, I was so excited by a Benson-type swooping into the story and taking over, taking the wheel, so to speak.

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