You might not know the name Chris Smith, but you’ll probably have seen at least one of his films. In 2004 he made the tube (even more?) terrifying with horror movie Creep, and a decade later he took on Father Christmas in the underrated Get Santa. With a varied filmography spanning horror, comedy, and historical action under his belt, Chris has gone stateside for his latest film – a neo-noir road trip movie starring Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen and Bel Powley. We caught up with him for a quick chat about writing and directing Detour, and what he’s moving onto next.
Were there any films in particular that inspired the stylistic feel of Detour, and how much of the film did you visualise when working on the script?
That’s a very good question. In terms of the visual style, everything starts for me from the narrative style, in the sense that even though the origin of this story came from a meeting in L.A just after I’d finished writing Triangle, and someone said “Can we try and come up with a version of Strangers on a Train?” The film bears no resemblance to that. The Woman in the Window by Fritz Lang was the biggest influence for me, which has the idea that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and then more modern films like U Turn by Oliver Stone and Blood Simple.
I was very aware that visually, I didn’t want the movie to just look like a kid at home moping about wanting to kill his dad, and then an American indie-looking movie on the road, which would have been your classic walk-and-talk, in-a-car look. I wanted the film to have a much more heightened look than that, much more stark. There’s no one influence, but a multitude, such as – and I hate to sound pretentious – the early Godards with yellows and blues, and The Killing. These are all films that use structure, and I think it was about giving the whole thing a really bold look.
We only had six weeks to shoot it, and what you can’t do with six weeks is shoot a lot of cover, especially when you shoot with wide-angle lenses, which makes you make definitive choices. In terms of where I saw the style when I was writing it, what I’ve tried to learn to do is not direct the entire movie as you’re writing it. Write it, cast it, then meet your Director of Photography and direct it. Otherwise what you get is one vision. Detour has a very definitive style, which was intentional, and we tried to reboot the noir and modernise it.
This film is quite a departure from your last film Get Santa – was this a conscious decision, and do you actively seek out projects that provide you with new challenges?
Anyone can look at the films I’ve made and see the odd-one-out is Get Santa! Get Santa, whilst it is a kid’s film, does have some of the same degenerate humour of films like Severance, so it’s still a very ‘me’ film. I came up with the idea for Get Santa off the back of feeling a little upset that we hadn’t got a wider release for Black Death, so I said “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna write the most commercial film I could ever write.” That coincided with Ridley Scott loving Black Death – he called me and said “What ideas have you got?” I told him about an idea I had for an ice monster movie, and he said “Anything else?” so I said “Well I have an idea for this Get Santa film”, and before I knew it Ridley was giving me some money, I write a script, and I’m making Get Santa. Detour was actually thought out and the first draft was written before I did Get Santa, so I got distracted by that and working with Ridley, which was amazing.
In terms of choosing different films, the plan is, there is no plan. I sit down and think “Well what do I wanna do?” and most of the ideas that come are quite dark. Even in Get Santa, which is a Christmas movie, you have a guy who’s just come out of prison and some of the jokes are quite dark. But then if you look back at the best kids’ films, like The Wizard of Oz, it’s so scary. I think things have become quite sanitised across the board – if I wrote the script for say, The Exorcist now, some of the stuff written in there could get me arrested!
I’m definitely drawn to structure, and do like films that make you aware you’re watching a film. I like directors that do that – Lars Von Trier, Kiarostami, and then people like Tarantino, When I watched Reservoir Dogs at the age of 20, who’s not blown away what he does in that film? There’s a whole generation of us who are trying to not do a sub-Tarantino movie. I like filmmakers that make films about making films.
Did you work with the cast to develop their characters, or did you have quite set ideas before they came to the project?
The hardest thing to write is your female character. I love the quote from As Good As It Gets about writing great female characters: “I think of a man and take away reason and accountability.” That’s not the way you write good female characters! Lars Von Trier writes a man and then says “You know what? I’m going to make it a woman” and finds by doing that, you subconsciously write what you know better than what you don’t know. The female read of a character is often more brutal than how I’ve written that person – so when Bel read Cherry, she had a much more simple way through that than I had. We hardly changed any of her lines – just swapped a couple. Tye didn’t change a word – he’s so good, he can just do it. Emory approached his character picking up on his heartbreak, and played him more sympathetically. When he said he was going to do that, I said “Yeah, that’s amazing.”
Towards the last third of the movie, your expectations are subverted. This all came really from letting the cast tell me what their way through the script was, and me processing this with me knowledge, thinking “Well it’ll come out different, but it’ll come out better.”
A lot of films that really bug me today, many made by so-called auteurs, focus on style and the plot is an afterthought. I think there’s a lot to be said for simplicity sometimes.
What’s next on your to-do list?
I’m two-thirds of the way through two films: one is a horror movie called The Judas Goat – which isn’t the story of Judas told with animals, although that would be interesting. It’s about a serial killer. I’m also working on a film called The Undertaker, which is about an IRA-on-the-run guy who gets drawn back in, even though he’s renounced violence. That’s going to be a big film for me – it’s a thriller with a similar vibe to The Killers.
Detour is in cinemas and available on iTunes from 26th May. Read our 4* review here.