Interview: Director Carter Smith Talks JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD, Christopher Barzak’s ONE FOR SORROW
Whilst at a bookstore a few years ago, photographer-turned-filmmaker Carter Smith found a copy of the 2007 Christopher Barzak novel, One For Sorrow, a supernatural coming-of-age story that would serve as the inspiration behind The Ruins director’s sophomore feature, titled Jamie Marks Is Dead.
Led by a trio of up-and-coming young actors — Cameron Monaghan (Shameless), Noah Silver (The Borgias) and Morgan Saylor (Homeland) and backed up by the support of a couple vets (Liv Tyler, Judy Greer), the 2014 Sundance film centers on Adam McCormick (Monaghan), a teenage boy and track star whose initial fascination with the ghost of the recently deceased outcast boy, Jamie Marks (Silver), develops into an unlikely friendship that pulls him further and further into the world of the dead.
I recently got to chat with Smith to talk about adapting Barzak’s beloved novel and why defining the film into a single category or genre is just so complicated. Check out the interview below.
I got a chance to read the book after seeing the film, so I was surprised to see all the changes. Do you think it’s easier to take creative liberties with a story that’s not as well known as it should be compared to something like The Hunger Games?
I think all books have their sort of rabid fan bases. I think no matter what when you make a change from a book that people have loved, you’re taking a chance. I think what was the most important to me was to stay true to the tone of the book and to really stay true to what I fell in love with about the story, which was this weird triangle between Adam and Jamie and Gracie. It wasn’t maybe as clearly defined in the book as it is in the film. It was one of those things that I struggled with the adaptation and I struggled, I struggled. And then once I sort of landed on, “Ah, that’s what I love about this,” then it sort of started to really click. But yes, there wasn’t the same pressure knowing that there weren’t billions of rabid fans waiting to see if I had written something.
I read that in preparing for the film, you found inspiration from visual art (specifically Andrew Wyeth water colours) and even started a series of photographs titled “All the Dead Boys.” Do you think that your experience as a photographer makes you more sensitive to the aesthetic of a film as opposed to a filmmaker without that background?
I certainly am an incredibly visual person. I am as likely to think about something in terms of the colour palette, the light, as I am the actual characters in the story. I think that it’s also one of those things that because I spend my day job…I spend so many years composing frames…With a still image you have to consider every single thing that goes in the frame cause you only have one-sixtieth of a second to tell your story. And so I think that in a lot of ways that prepares you really well for setting up shots and filmmaking cause already you’re used thinking about hair makeup and wardrobe — all the little details that can tell a part of the story, then the actors don’t have to be in the dialogue.
Among the terms that have been used to described the film — I’ve actually listed them down — are coming-of-age, supernatural love story, gothic romance, ghost story, horror, and indie thriller. Was the tonality of the film a challenge to construct due to the fact that it takes on so many elements and can be interpreted differently?
It was really challenging. Because it doesn’t fit sort of squarely and neatly into any of the boxes that people like to put films in, people weren’t sure what to think of it or what to make of it. “Which section does this go in?” But I think that also makes it that much more special. That’s what makes the story special. It is sort of more than, you know, a coming-of-age story. It isn’t just a horror movie. I always referred to it when we were prepping in pre-production as a ghost story. You think about the movie Ghost, and then you think about What Lies Beneath. Ghost stories can be sensitive, they can be touching and emotional. But they can also be terrifying and thrilling and suspenseful. I think that ghost stories are one of those, it’s like a little subgenre that it sort of allows you to have these sort of emotional element. At the end of the day, a ghost that hasn’t moved on hasn’t moved on for a reason. They’re motivated by something emotional or something they haven’t been able to process or let go of.
Speaking of ways of that audiences may perceive the story, you could argue that both the film and book have a homosexual subtext. The most obvious being that the closet is used as a hiding place. A scene in particular I wanted to ask about was the first interaction between Adam and Jamie. In the book the two actually embrace and comfort each other, whereas the film didn’t have as much physical intimacy. Was it your intention to make this allegory more subtle for the film?
I did want to make it more subtle, but it was so important to the story when they did all of a sudden have this physical intimacy. I wanted them to not arrive there at the very first time they’re actually meeting. I wanted to build up to it, so that it was more powerful. The idea of giving the words — the fact that that was something that becomes very intimate, both emotionally and physically. I questioned how likely would it be that that would happen on their very first meeting. Already it’s a little crazy that this dead guy in his underwear is telling you to take off your clothes, and he actually does it. I felt like that was already, you know, a suspension of — to get into what Adam was thinking was, like, okay, Is it believable or is it..What would Adam really do? I like the idea of him getting comfortable with Jamie before he decided to become more intimate with him.
I personally interpreted it — I’m not sure if this is right — as you wanting to differentiate between the relationships Adam had between Jamie and Gracie. I found that he was more physically intimate with Gracie, while he was more emotionally intimate with Jamie.
Absolutely. That was exactly what I thought by the end of it. With Grace it was very physical. It was all about what you’re supposed to be doing, doing what she tells him to do. With Jamie there was a lot more sort of ambiguity and a sense of, “What’s going to happen here?” It’s almost like with Gracie, you know what’s supposed to happen. But with Jamie, it was more of an emotional component.
Two characters that were present in the book but absent from the film were Adam’s father and grandmother. Although the latter was dead, she still had an influence on how he saw the world.
(laughs) And the name of the story.
True. What factors did you consider when deciding which characters and scenes to keep or not?
In the early drafts, Adam’s father was there, Adam’s grandmother was there. It was very, very faithful. Just the more that I worked on developing the story, the more that I realized it needed to really about the three kids and the triangle. Once I started stepping away, sort of getting a bit distracted from that, it just became like, “Let me try a version without the dad.” All of a sudden it was leaner and cleaner. It allowed more time with Adam, Jamie and Gracie, which at the end of the day was always where I wanted to be as an audience.
And I loved keeping the mom and paralyzer. That was just so outrageous. I like the idea that his [Adam] home life wasn’t somewhere where he really felt at ease. There was something more complicated and interesting about the paralyzer and the mother rather than a cold, emotionally unpresent father. It was something you would almost expect, and I think that the paralyzer sort of helping to push him out of his house was maybe sicker.
We didn’t shoot scenes for the grandmother. We shot scenes with Jamie Marks’ mother. That was something that wasn’t in the book that I added, where Adam goes and seeks out Jamie’s mother and tries to comfort her. They were amazing scenes, and they’ll be in the deleted scenes. But again, it’s like a sideline off of the main story that sort of kept us from spending time with Adam, Jamie and Gracie.
The film centers on various themes like unfilled lives, regret, death, and making a connection. Which one resonated the most with you?
For me it’s always been about intimacy and loneliness and how hard it is to deal with those things, how hard it is to make a connection. You’re not sure what you want, and you’re unsure of who you are yet when you’re that age. Jamie’s loneliness is what made the story come to life on me.
Why do you think the concept of death is such an intriguing theme? Do you think it’s a sort of fear that we as living people have since we know so little about it?
Yeah, I think that death — it’s incredibly frightening. It’s something that none of us have firsthand knowledge of. That alone puts it sort of place where it’s only…
(laughs) Good thing!
Yeah, it’s only something that we can wonder about. It’s incredibly scary, I think. At the end of the day, when you die, you’re alone, as far as we know. That’s what you assume. That ties in the loneliness, and Jamie finding the strength to do that alone was central to the story.
I have to say that I admire the fact that you actually cast teenagers to play their characters. What do you think each of the three main actors — Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver and Morgan Saylor — contributed that made them stand out when you were casting?
I think that when these three in particular came in and said these lines — were reading these lines that I had written, that Christopher had written and I had adapted — it felt like they were real, fully fleshed-out people. They sort of embodied these characters in a way that made you forget that this was an actor doing a scene in a weird, little casting room. Do you know what I mean?
There was something about all of them that drew me in so deeply to what was going on emotionally with the characters, which I found just fascinating. I wanted to know more about all of them. I knew that Noah and Cameron would be so interesting together on screen. Even the different styles and sort of the way they work and handle material. They were very different in how they approach a scene, so it was really interesting to sort of let them do their thing and know that they’re both coming from very different perspectives.
i also admire how authentic the characters are. They don’t really fit into the stereotypical mold of teenage characters. Is that a part of what appealed you to the story?
You read the book, so you know who those characters are. They’re magical in the book. They live and they breathe and they jump off the page. Everything that Gracie says is like, “Oh my gosh, she’s a real person!” That’s not a typical goth, high school chick. They’re complicated, and they do unexpected things. They felt very real to me. That’s all down to Christopher. That’s what I fell in love with.
Language is a key tool in the story. Adam often shares a new word to Jamie to keep him grounded in the world of the living. But each time he does that, he himself becomes physically and mentally weaker. What do you think is the signficance of their shared words and language as a tool in the story?
For me, the sharing the words was less about the actual language and more about Adam as a character having to make a decision that “Okay, I’m gonna choose to give something to Jamie.” It’s not something that’s been taken from him. It’s him saying, “Okay, I’m alright with this. I’m gonna give you this.” There’s an incredihle emotional intimacy to those moments, I hope. There’s a physical intimacy to the giving of the words. For me, the giving of the words was always sort of symbolized what their relationship was made up of — what bonded them, and what made Jamie stick around. He realized for the first time that there was someone who was willing to help him, to give him something, to be kind to him, to show him love and affection, which is an incredibly powerful thing for someone who hasn’t ever had that before.
Jamie Marks Is Dead is now available on VOD/digital platforms and in limited theatrical release. Watch the trailer below.