Swallowed Director and Stars on Their Intense New Thriller
Feb 15, 2023
Swallowed has a great premise, though it’s one which takes viewers on a very intimate, shocking journey through tremendously tense terrain. In the film, Dom tries to make a quick but large amount of money before his closest friend, Ben, moves to Los Angeles, unintentionally dragging Ben into a nightmarish evening of drug smuggling horror. The two are forced by Alice (an intimidating Jena Malone) to swallow condoms filled with drugs, cross the border, and purge them at a rest stop, where they’ll be sold.
An altercation at the rest stop leads to Dom being punched in the gut, tearing one of the condoms. It’s a race against the clock, then, to help Dom and remove the other condoms which, unbeknownst to the two friends, are filled with living bugs that deliver a unique high when they bite you. Dom and Ben are taken to a remote cabin for the extraction, which leads to a tense showdown between Ben and the psychotic drug lord, Rich (a wonderfully eccentric and layered Mark Patton), while Dom writhes in pain.
Swallowed is an efficient, nasty little thriller, and while it makes the viewer uncomfortable in transgressive ways rarely seen in film, it’s easy to imagine how much more discomfort there could have been for the cast and crew. Cooper Koch (Ben), Jose Colon (Dom), and filmmaker Carter Smith spoke with MovieWeb about the difficult but rewarding film.
Carter Smith’s Second First Film
Instead of the typical route taken by most directors (especially in the world of horror), Smith made his feature filmmaking debut not with a smaller indie but with a surprisingly big movie — The Ruins. After a short film, his underrated feature Jamie Marks Is Dead, and a film for Hulu’s Into the Dark, Smith felt like he was finally making that personal indie film with Swallowed. “It definitely felt like what I thought my first film would feel like,” said Smith.
“That was the appeal from the very beginning,” continued Smith. “I mean, The Ruins was my first feature film. It was, by all standards, huge for me; it was a crew of hundreds of people, it was DreamWorks. We built a Mayan ruin from scratch in the middle of the Australian Outback, like, with an elevator inside. So to go into a film like Swallowed, that’s the kind of film which you think is going to be your first film.” Smith elaborated:
You sort of imagine that it’s going to be a self-financed indie that’s made guerilla style, and you’re surrounded by friends and family — I hadn’t done that film. And so there was something really interesting about exploring what type of story to tell within the confines of limited resources. And it’s great to not sort of have to wait for permission or for outside validation on the film. You spend a lot of time with bigger projects just waiting for approvals, waiting for castings, and waiting for different pieces to come together. But on Swallowed […] we made it with very much what we had, which was exciting.
Subverting the Male Gaze in Swallowed
Swallowed is a very different film from his earlier work, and from pretty much anything else. It’s a subversive, bold, and often jaw-dropping horror-thriller that puts its characters into extremely uncomfortable situations, like being forced to extract drug-filled condoms from your best friend’s rectum by hand at gunpoint. The film transgresses many of the tropes we’ve come to expect in horror films, flipping some strong switches.
“It’s common in the horror genre to have sort of accepted this male gaze, especially at female bodies, and it’s sort of become the norm to just have a level of almost gratuitous nudity when it comes to women,” explained Smith. “And I think that, as a gay man and someone who was writing a story about a gay character, I kind of wanted to flip the script and just take a different approach, and approach the storytelling and the way that the characters are presented from a viewpoint that we don’t often get in horror films.”
Related: Swallowed Review: An Aggressively Uncomfortable Horror-Thriller
“You talked to Jose and Cooper about how they got comfortable,” continued Smith, “and I was thinking, well, I was writing it like I was trying to make them as uncomfortable as possible. It was like, ‘What can I do to make this situation between these two best friends more awkward and more uncomfortable and more disturbing?'”
Cooper Koch and Jose Colon Get Vulnerable
“It took a lot of bravery and courage. In reading the script, I was definitely so terrified and scared, and I had no idea how I was going to be able to do it,” said Koch. “I think that’s actually why I wanted to do it, because it was so daunting and scary, with the nudity and running around in my underwear and putting my hand in his butt, like it was a lot of just crazy things that seemed scary and daunting. And so I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s do the challenge.’”
“That’s sort of like the point of a challenge,” added Colon. “You know, something’s sort of difficult. You want to see what you’re made of. There was just one scene where Mark put the gun in my mouth, and that was sort of a hard scene to do, and I had no idea that that was going to be difficult to do.”
“I think part of what helped make it feel safe,” said Smith, “is that we really were at that cabin in the woods, and that cabin is 18 miles from the paved road. It’s down a dirt road, there’s no electricity, there’s no internet, there’s no cell service, and our crew was very small. We were eight people most days. And so, immediately it’s a much more intimate setting than what you might be used to on a film set. Even when we were filming that sort of one central scene, everyone that didn’t need to be inside while we were filming was outside. So it was pretty intimate. We spent a lot of time talking with Jose and Cooper.”
Everyone Loves Jena Malone
Part of what helped it feel safe, especially with the most graphic scenes in the film, was actually actor Jena Malone. Despite her character being a cold and commanding threat, the Donnie Darko and Neon Demon star became a kind of solace for the two young men.
“It’s funny, because on set when we weren’t our characters, she was kind of like our mother in a way. She was very motherly to me,” said Koch. “To me, she became just a very paternal/maternal figure for me, taught me a lot, and was super respectful of my process. She was lovely to work with, and she was so open […] Jenna really stepped in as sort of sensitivity intimacy coordinator when she wasn’t doing her scenes, she stepped up.”
Related: Exclusive: Jena Malone Says She Didn’t Know What the ‘F’ Was Going on in Consecration
“I think it was the relationship that I had with everyone on set,” added Colon. “It felt like I could trust everyone. And this entire environment was so good, I never questioned anything, or really had any doubt with any of the scenes.”
Emerging Stronger After Swallowed
All this vulnerability and intensity isn’t just for shock value though, as subversive as it is. There’s a kind of reasoning here, as Ben is preparing to move to L.A. and swim with sharks with a life in the adult film industry. In a way, the events of the film are a kind of preparation, a violent test of sorts, to build him up while also detailing the resiliency which many LGBTQ+ people are forced to have to survive.
“I think that at the beginning of the film, he has these dreams, and he hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about the reality of it,” explained Smith. “And I think that his encounter with Rich, Mark Patton’s character, I think that’s a little bit of an eye-opener, like […] ‘Oh, if this is who I’m going to say that I am, then I sort of have to make peace, or find a way to deal with the dark and the light.’”
As such, Ben’s character makes a shift in the final act as he realizes that he must for his life, and the film takes a quietly suspenseful turn. “I think that definitely was my biggest fear and struggle going into it. I didn’t necessarily know how I was going to play that in the end, how I was going to be interacting with Mark,” said Koch. “I think his whole mission was to help his friend be okay […] So then once that mission kind of falls to the wayside, I think then Benjamin kind of just lasers in on, ‘Okay, I have to get out of here. I can’t be scared anymore. I’ve got to think logically and clearly and figure this out and get out of here.’ So I think he just kind of flips this switch after all this trauma.”
“I think going through such trauma and surviving something like that definitely allows you to kind of face anything that’s in your path after that,” said Koch. After going through the jaw-dropping intensity and traumatic moments of Swallowed, the cast, crew, and viewers can likely face anything, as well.
Produced by All the Dead Boys, in association with Leroi and Witchcraft Motion Picture Company, Momentum Pictures is releasing Swallowed on digital and on demand on February 14, 2023.
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