The Ruins In Theaters
Watch "The Ruins Trailer" & Check Out 5 "The Ruins Movie Posters" Below
Scott Smith Interview
"The Ruins" - In the movie "The Ruins," six twenty-something friends on vacation in Cancun go on an excursion to visit an archaeological dig near Coba. The friends include Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), a type A guy who is set to begin medical school in the fall; Amy, Jeff's girlfriend, who is also set to begin medical school, and who is smart and emotional; Stacy, Amy's best friend, an aspiring social worker whose nickname is "Spacy" and who is irresponsible and promiscuous; Eric, Stacy's boyfriend, who is immature, and set to become a high school teacher; a fun-loving Greek guy who everyone calls "Pablo," but who lacks a common language with any of the others; and Mathias, an intense, thoughtful German tourist. Mathias' brother, Henrich, vanished shortly before the Americans and Greeks met Mathias--he met a beautiful Dutch archaeologist and decided to meet her at her dig, leaving a hastily drawn map for Mathias to follow in case he wanted to join him. The five others decide to accompany Mathias in his search for his brother, and take a bus to Coba for the day. Things immediately start to go wrong, as the group isn't well prepared for the heat and insects, and the journey becomes creepy. The poorly drawn map leads them to a Mayan village, where the grievously poor inhabitants appear hostile to the foreigners. Further searching leads them to an almost-hidden trail that they follow to the ruins.
Gun, rifle, and bow-and-arrow wielding Mayan villagers force them to climb onto a large hill covered in vines and red flowers, and block their path off the mountain. The situation turns increasingly disturbing as they find Henrich's corpse, covered in the vine and flowers. Further investigation uncovers numerous other corpses covered in the plant, and the plant, it turns out, secretes an acidic sap that burns them all. Under the hill is a mine, and a ringing cell phone at the bottom lures Pablo, but the rope breaks and he falls, sustaining a broken back. Eric is injured slightly trying to rescue him. Gradually, the group discovers that the vine is sentient and carnivorous. It begins luring them to their deaths, one by one. It can mimic perfectly the voices of others, and uses this ability to separate the others, who are suffering from hunger and thirst. A drunk Amy is the first to go, strangled by the plant while Jeff, angry at her, ignores her struggles, which he mistakes for drunken sickness. Pablo's legs are eaten by the plant, and Jeff and Henrich then amputate them. The plant enters Eric's wound and, though they remove it, Eric insists it's still inside him, and he repeately cuts himself in an effort to get it out. Jeff is able to hold the group together to a certain extent, always with new ideas about how to conquer their challenges. But he is ultimately killed by the villagers' arrows while trying to sneak past them. Airheaded Stacy leaves Pablo unattended, and the plant kills and eats him. Eric flays himself alive trying to remove the plant, and then kills Mathias with his knife in a delusional accident. With only Eric and Stacy left, Eric begs her to kill him and put him out of his misery, which she ultimately does. Then, she decides to leave her dead body as a warning for others, and slashes her wrists on the path at the base of the hill. But the plant moves her away, just as it did other warning signs put up by other victims. The Mayans leave. Three days later, Pablo's Greek friends, with a few Brazilians, climb onto the hill ("The Ruins") to seek out their traveling companion, bringing several others with them.
"The Ruins" is based on the Scott Smith novel of the same name - a NY Times Best Seller. Scott Smith is also the author of "A Simple Plan," a 1998 Oscar nominee directed by Sam Raimi (also the director of the first three films).
STARRING: Jonathan Tucker, Laura Ramsey, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore
DIRECTOR: Carter Smith
WRITER: Scott Smith
STUDIO: Paramount Pictures
RATING: R (For sexual situations, language, extreme violence, drug use)
Wild About Movies Grade: B+
Behind The Scenes
“’The Ruins’ was originally put together by Stuart Cornfeld and Ben Stiller,” explains producer Chris Bender. “They were fans of Scott Smith’s first book A Simple Plan, which he also wrote as a screenplay, and which garnered an Academy Award nomination. Stuart and Ben were able to get a sneak look at a few chapters of The Ruins before it was published, brought it to DreamWorks, and they immediately bought it and began developing the project with Scott adapting it to the screen.”
At its most basic level, the story follows five vacationers who uncover Mayan ruins that are entangled with vicious man-eating vines, but the richly drawn novel is more than that – it is a struggle for survival. While executives were confident that Smith could translate that same frightening and all-too-recognizably human sensibility to his script, “It could have gone one of two ways once we got a director in there,” says Bender. “This could either have devolved into an incredibly cheesy killer plant movie or it could play with the viewers’ psyches in ways that are a lot more intriguing and sinister, making this the true original it was on the page.”
To manage the difficult task of creating a suspense thriller that did justice to the texture and layers of Scott Smith’s material, DreamWorks turned to director Carter Smith. Though he had never directed a full-length motion picture and was primarily known as a fashion photographer, after viewing his award-winning short film “Bugcrush,” they realized they’d found their man.
“I remember sitting in front of my television for at least 10 minutes after it ended and not moving a muscle,” says actress Jena Malone, who assumed the role of Amy in the film. “I was really creeped out because ‘Bugcrush’ wasn’t a straightforward thriller or horror movie. You could smell it, taste it, feel it—it was very unsettling. I’d never really read a lot of genre films, but after seeing ‘Bugcrush’ and envisioning how ‘The Ruins’ might look through Carter's strange goggles, I realized it would be genre-bending. The villain wouldn’t really be the vines, it would be our own human nature and how we’re reacting to things going on around us. That’s when I knew this movie could be something really spectacular.”
For Carter Smith, the decision to take the reins of “The Ruins” rested on the pedigree of its author. “I had always been a fan of Scott Smith’s book A Simple Plan and was in fact reading The Ruins when DreamWorks called and said they’d like me to look at the script. It was such a treat, because the ultimate resource for a filmmaker is a wonderfully written script and this one was fantastic. Having a script written by someone who also wrote the book is a real bonus because he’s spent so much time with the characters that he knows them inside out, and this depth really comes out on the page. And let’s face it – it’s rare to read a genre script with compelling characters, period. And I’m a big fan of horror movies.
“What's interesting about these kids is that they're not cookie-cutter, clichéd characters,” Smith continues. “Amy and Stacy are best friends but their boyfriends are two guys who are just sort of thrown together. Then there's Mathias and his friend Dimitri. Mathias is the German tourist they’ve just met who wants to go to a Mayan dig and find his missing brother. Since most of them don’t really know one another, what you have from the outset is this strange power dynamic: How do we all fit in together? Who am I in this group? None of that is really solidified when everything starts to go wrong. That’s really great ground to start with, because you’ve got these multi-faceted characters with complex stuff happening all around them, which they react to in a very real way.”
“Scott Smith clearly knows how to write a scary story,” says executive producer Trish Hofmann. “He does really well with the psychological aspect of horror and what happens to normal people when they're in incredibly dire situations. In the same way, Carter is very subtle, always building toward the scare—so he and Scott had a fantastic relationship developing the story and figuring out what parts of the book to bring to life.”
For producer Chris Bender, “Jaws” is the perfect example of how a good thriller should be all about anticipating the impending attack and not simply the attack itself. “That was our aim with this movie - to give just enough information to make it frightening, so that you understand the vines’ intentions. You’d see them move from time to time and wonder when they might strike again, but to a certain extent they remain a mystery.”
Both Bender and Hofmann attribute Carter Smith’s background in photography as being another solid plus in generating on-screen tension and anxiety. “Carter’s framing on this movie is incredible and has a very unique feel,” says Hofmann. “Most scary movies are done in the dark and it's all about wondering what’s out there. But here the characters are on top of a hill in broad daylight and it’s simply terrifying. For example, even before we know that the vines are the killers, he’s got the camera positioned in these strange angles and you suspect it is the villain’s POV. But because we’re watching the characters from all over, it’s incredibly creepy. Only later does it dawn on us that it might be the vines, because they, in fact, surround all the characters. It’s a very clever and wonderfully visual way of maximizing suspense.”
As an avowed fan of horror films himself, Carter Smith was eager to create a fresh take on what could easily have been the usual process of elimination. “Usually horror movies are about people running from a killer and getting taken out one by one,” he observes. “That can be fun, but I wanted to make a film that, as a fan, I’d be excited to see. So for me, one of the creepiest, scariest things I can imagine is the idea of body invasion. Whether it's a tick or a worm or a killer vine surrounding a Mayan ruin, something about losing control of your own body is really frightening.”
And that’s only part of the horror in “The Ruins,” he continues. “This isn’t just a story in which something is attacking these kids from the outside. The real horror is internal. It emanates from the characters and the kind of behavior that results from them being in this perilous situation. We never spell it out in black and white. There are a lot of grey areas here —and that’s what I love about this story.”
Adds Hofmann, “there’s nothing typical about ’The Ruins.’ It’s a psychological horror story that will literally get under your skin.”
“The Ruins” takes place in Cancun, Mexico, where gorgeously exotic beaches abut lushly tropical forests. Finding a seaside resort location with a nearby soundstage was relatively easy, but director Carter Smith had another approach in mind: shooting the film on two practical locations. “I wanted to keep this as real as possible,” Smith says. “I just think it’s better for the actors and for the material, because if you’re working with a heightened premise, you want to keep everything else as grounded as possible. Beyond that, natural sunlight is the rawest, most beautiful, most realistic light you can have, and I knew that would work beautifully for the look we were trying to achieve. So to my way of thinking there was no way we could shoot this film on a soundstage.”
Hofmann set about finding a location that reinforced the strong relationship between the coast and jungle, allowed her to access an experienced crew, and would still enable the film to stay within its budget. “With those mandates in mind, there was no better place to shoot than Queensland, Australia,” claims Hofmann. “Early on, DreamWorks had started a conversation with the Pacific Film and Television Commission in Queensland and I took over from there. Obviously, since so many films are shot in Queensland, Australia, we knew we’d be able to assemble a fantastic crew. We also had the Warner Roadshow Movie World Studios nearby to all our exterior locations, which was important, because even though Carter wanted to shoot in natural settings as much as possible, there were some areas of the script that necessitated using a soundstage. So we had everything there – the coast, the jungle and rainforests and the studio – in a tight little circle. That made the decision to film in Australia a very easy one.”
The story required three primary locations, explains Bender. “After our cast leaves the hotel and finds the ruins, they’re confronted by some local Mayans. Because they don’t speak the indigenous language, they are at a loss to what they’ve done to anger these people. So, after Mathias’ friend, Dimitri, gets shot, they figure they’re better off staying at the top of the dig.” The three primary locations were an opening by the jungle where the pyramid base could be built that provided enough room for riders on horseback to maneuver, the top of the ruins with views of the surrounding jungle, and the ruins’ dark interior ceremonial chamber. “The ceremonial chamber would be built on a stage. Once we started scouting for exterior locations, however, there was some difficulty,” Bender says. “Some areas had perfect tree lines, some had great views, so we ended up creating two distinct locations. There’s the base of the hill set where everyone comes out of the jungle, and another set for the top of the hill. Both sets are really amazing. Our production designer Grant Major did an incredible job with all the rocks and vines, so when we attach the locations digitally, it will be so seamless and perfect that the audience will never realize.”
The film was shot primarily on Mount Tamborine and on private land near the Natural Arch in Springbrook National Park, both on the continent’s Gold Coast. While there was certainly a great deal of work involved building sets and delivering crews to these slightly remote locals, Smith’s decision to shoot outside was a big bonus for the cast. “Working on any practical set is far better than working on a stage with a green screen,” says Shawn Ashmore, who plays fun-loving Eric and has had experience with special effects in the “X-Men” movies. “On real locations you can see the sky, you can feel the wind and the sun beating down on you. This story has a lot of natural elements. It's all about sweating, feeling that heat, and knowing you’re not able to access water when you’re thirsty. Having these sensations for real was a great help in transporting us into the scene.”
The only downside was that the production wasn’t actually shooting during the summer. “It was wonderful coming to work, being outside in the fresh air and seeing these beautiful sunsets, but it was freezing cold!” laughs Laura Ramsey, who portrays Stacy. “It was supposed to be a hot summer so they have us in these little tank tops and they'd spritz us with olive oil for sweat, which was a little uncomfortable sometimes. But I'd rather be outside in that beautiful environment and have them spritz me while I’m freezing than be in a dusty studio where you’re always looking at a green screen and trying to imagine you’re in a jungle.”
Being outside was a plus for the actors and for Smith as well, because it helped generate some of the suspense he needed for a film that transpires largely under a blazing, unforgiving sun. “When you’re watching the film, you’re constantly aware of the sun setting, because you sense that, when it does, something bad is probably going to happen,” he says. “At the same time, because we were shooting in actual daylight, it meant our hours were limited. There’s something so pressing about the fact that the sun is slipping behind the mountain. It forces you to work at a rapid pace and make quick decisions so you get everything you need. I almost think that if we didn’t sometimes have that pressure, we might not have been as productive and gotten those truly perfect, really tense shots. Being outside put everyone at the top of their game, and the crew always came through so that the actors could do their jobs.”
Smith acknowledges that in some ways it might have been easier to shoot everything on a soundstage, but he is glad he had the opportunity to work outdoors because it better served the script. “This movie isn’t just about creeping vines, this is about the psychology of these five people and what they go through in really extreme circumstances. I needed to make this as real for them as possible and I think the results are up there on the screen.”
THE CAST AND THE CHARACTERS
“One of the things that was so interesting to me about the characters was that they start out as these very sexy, very normal, very real kids. But by the end of the film they are just ravaged, destroyed; they've turned into monsters,” says director Carter Smith. To best maximize that startling transformation, Smith was very specific in making his casting choices.
“There were two main elements I was looking for. The first sounds very basic but was actually difficult to achieve,” Smith explains. “I didn’t want actors who looked like every other actor in your typical young adult horror movie. From my experience as a photographer over the years, I’ve always been attracted to people who are interesting-looking rather than conventionally attractive. So even though we have a very sexy cast, they’re not typically ‘Hollywood.’ They don’t look like everyone else. For me, that made the story instantly more realistic, because they really look like your typical American student away on a party weekend.”
Smith’s second requirement was to find actors with the chops to do justice to the dark, subtle layers of Scott Smith’s novel and script. Notes producer Bender, “It's sometimes difficult to cast horror films, especially when there have been a slew of them, because actors are afraid the movie will brand them in a certain way. But by having Carter involved and having a novel written by a prestigious writer, we were able to attract another level of talent. We wanted to make sure they knew that this wasn’t going to be some ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ kind of film. So when we approached our principals, not only did we send them the script, but also Carter’s short film ‘Bugcrush.’ And we made sure they knew about the novel on which the script was based and that the novelist had written the screenplay. I’m glad we did because the actors quickly grasped from Carter’s short film that he was a talented director, and from the script and the novel that the characters they’d be playing were wonderfully layered and offered terrific acting possibilities.”
“The characters in ‘The Ruins’ are really grounded. What makes it all work is the clever way the story is set up,” observes Ashmore. “The only reason these two couples are on vacation together is because Amy and Stacy are friends. Jeff and my character, Eric, don’t hang out when they’re back home. They aren’t really friends. So the audience gets to know these people at the same time as the characters are getting to know each other. Suddenly they’re all in this dire predicament. It’s very raw, very fast-paced, and it makes you think, how do relationships change? What happens to people’s behavior when they’re faced with matters of life and death?”
The de-facto leader of the group is Jeff, played by Jonathan Tucker. “Jeff is a first year student in medical school, so he knows the reality of human anatomy, he’s seen some blood, but nothing prepares him for what he faces here,” says Tucker. “When you're telling a story like this, you want somebody to believe in, and I think all the other characters want to believe that Jeff has the answers and can get them out of this terrible situation. He’s the sensible one, the guy who doesn’t party all night long, so he’s the one they turn to. The problem is, everything he does is based on science and what’s happening around him here completely defies any kind of logic. Jeff doesn’t realize it right away. He puts on a brave face, pretends that he’s the man with the information, and ends up making sensible decisions that ultimately harm the group; things that will really freak out the audience — especially with regards to Mathias.”
While Jeff is the leader, Eric is the everyman. “He’s not a complicated guy,” says Ashmore. “He’s just a dude on vacation, there for a good time, so I think the audience can relate to him more than to Jeff because he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. As things start to spiral out of control, he focuses on protecting Stacy, but once she’s gone into the ruins and gotten hurt, she starts changing. She lashes out at Eric even as he’s trying to comfort her. And yet he continues to do what he can to help her and the others in the group. He’s a good guy, but the nicest guys can be pushed too far, and when Eric has to help Jeff deal with Mathias’s broken legs, his whole outlook changes. That was a very interesting shift to play.”
A similar shift in demeanor can be seen in Jeff’s girlfriend, Amy. “In Amy’s mind, the trip is all about endless beaches and tropical drinks; an adventure with her boyfriend and her best friend Stacy. Nothing more, nothing less,” says Malone. “But once the group gets trapped, you start to see her as a much more complex person. So much of that complexity came directly from Scott Smith’s novel, in which there are a lot of internal monologues. For an actor, that's a lush landscape. What's really beautiful about the script is that it's so simple. There’s not a lot of dialogue. It’s all about what’s happening on the inside of the characters. As a cast, we really got into that.”
Malone isn’t implying that Smith’s novel was a direct translation to the screen. As Laura Ramsey points out, “My character, Stacy, is Eric’s girlfriend, and after she goes into the ruins to help Mathias, she becomes obsessed with this vine. But in the book, Eric is the one who becomes obsessed and infatuated. So when I read the book, I took little tidbits for Stacy, but I also took some from Eric's character as well.”
Similarly, when the four actors arrived in Australia and began rehearsals, they discovered that the director was open to hearing their thoughts and interpretations of the characters. “We kind of made the opening our own, to help establish our relationships through their behavior towards one another on vacation,” Ramsey says. “Carter had a lot of rehearsals in which we did improv, talked about our characters and what they would do in any given situation, and that inspired some script changes. Carter was so open with us, letting us have our own opinion about what we felt was right and not right for our characters. It was a truly helpful process.”
Adds Tucker, “All of the character work we did in pre-production translates well onto the screen. We make difficult and sometimes outrageous decisions, like diving into dark openings without knowing what’s inside, yanking squirming vines out of people’s bodies—we even try to perform an operation with no anesthesia, using a rock, a pocket knife and a hot frying pan. You need to understand and empathize with these characters if you’re going to take this journey with them and if you’re going to root for their survival”
THE VINES AND VISUAL EFFECTS
With cast and locations locked down, focus was placed on the movie’s most difficult component: the deadly vines.
“My initial reaction was, oh gosh, how are we gonna do this?” laughs director Smith. “I mean, a killer vine in a book is one thing, but film audiences are more likely to question and challenge that.” Smith and the producers knew they needed a top-notch team to bring their unnatural antagonist to life, so they hired famed creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos, whose credits include “I Am Legend” and “10,000 B.C.”; production designer Grant Major, who won numerous awards including an Oscar® for his work on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy; and visual effects supervisor Greg McMurry, whose most recent credits were the blockbuster “Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer” and “Death Sentence.”
Rather than expend onscreen exposition to provide contrived explanations of how the vines came to be, Smith decided to keep their origins a mystery and focus on slipping in clues that would make audiences hypothesize on their own. “We came up with a version of this vine that is based very much in the real world,” Smith says. “Everything the vine does is something real plants do in one form or another. We asked ourselves, where does it get its nutrients? How do the locals keep it from spreading out? What does it do with the bodies once the flesh is consumed? All those questions helped us wrap our heads around the ‘creature’ so we could move forward. Our main job became figuring out how the vine looks, sounds, and moves.”
Using Tatopoulos’ designs, Major called in Gary Cameron to sculpt, cast the molds and produce these seemingly delicate vines, leaves and flowers. “We looked at lots and lots of plants trying to work out the movement and how it would work in real life if someone walked by or touched them,” Cameron explains. “We ended up using pumpkin vines as a basis of how it would actually grow and crawl along.”
For the “hero” vines – the ones the audience sees in close-up – Major set up a 12-person workshop to produce the entire plant. From the casting, painting and assembling of each leaf or flower to the tendrils, it was all done by hand. “It was a very labor-intensive exercise, but well worth it in the end,” says Major.
“Not only do the vines look really great but they really helped with our performances,” says Joe Anderson, who portrays Mathias, the German traveller who brings the four Americans to the Mayan ruins. “They complete this three-dimensional space, making it look real, feel real. There are hairs on the plants and little barbs—they didn’t really hurt but when you felt them, it really got you into the moment. The first major thing that happens to me is that I start digging through the vines, get these cuts and the sap burns my hands. There's always a question of how big to play your reaction to this, but when you’re on a set that looks and feels so real, you somehow know instinctively what to do – which helps to create a mounting tension, so that when my legs get broken and the vines start invading my body, the reaction becomes really big, really intense.”
The job of actually making the vines move fell to visual effects supervisor Gregory L. McMurry, ASC. “Originally there was talk of creating a puppet for certain moments, but we ended up moving away from that idea, opting instead for digital animation,” he explains. “The first part of the story is the group’s isolation on top of the hill; then the vines start intruding on them. You don’t want to start out with the tendrils moving all around because that would ruin the element of surprise. So instead, you make people wonder what’s happening and start to anticipate the bigger attack they know will inevitably come. Visually, the leaves look like normal set dressing. Then the kids realize the plants have a texture to them. Then we start seeing them move when the characters aren’t looking, but it’s not clear if that’s being caused by the wind or some other logical reason. It’s only when Stacy is lowered into the ruin that we suspect they’re moving of their own accord, but because it’s been so gradual that up to that point, the audience is strapped in and ready for the thrill ride.”
Just as director Smith insisted that the ‘The Ruins’ would benefit from being shot on a practical location rather than a soundstage, so too did he favor prosthetics over CGI animation for the film’s more graphic scenes. The reason he explains is that, “a majority of the gruesome moments in this movie happen outdoors in broad daylight. Everything is exposed, and unlike traditional horror movies, that means you can’t trick things as much by using shadow and light. If we’d just relied on animation, it would have felt distant, and this film is truly all about the audience viscerally connecting with what’s happening onscreen.”
That task was handed to special effects prosthetics designer Jason Baird, who called “The Ruins” a dream come true: “It was so much fun! There were so many cool make-up effects.” For Baird, there were three key moments in the film. One involved a woman with vines running through her body, while another dealt with Stacy’s insanely desperate attempt to remove the vines from her body by cutting into her own flesh with a knife. But of all these moments, the biggest challenge involved Mathias, who breaks his legs in a fall and then wakes up to discover that the vines have eaten away much of his flesh from his knees down.
“It’s just ragged meat and bones,” Baird says. “The legs end up being amputated with a rock, and all the excess flesh is hacked at and cut away with a small knife, and blood jets everywhere. So we had to produce a realistic puppet from the legs down.”
“The prosthetics were extraordinary,” says Anderson, who spent hours sitting in a hole while attached to a fake lower body. “They were made from molds of my stomach and legs, so I’d look down and see these bizarre limbs that were the right length, had the right color hairs, the right skin, everything.” This helped with Anderson’s performance, because unlike having his body covered in a tinted body stocking and then digitally replaced in post-production, he could physically see himself being abused right before his own eyes. “I actually got ‘phantom limb syndrome,’ where I would be looking at my prosthetic foot and really trying to move it,” he says. “So you know that if it’s affecting me that way then I’m going to do good work.”
Malone says she’ll probably have nightmares about the prosthetics for the rest of her life: “Particularly the scene where Mathias has his legs amputated. This gelatinous bone material was pumping out so much blood and it smelled terrible! I knew in my head it was all fake but I started to get a little nauseous, and for an actor in the middle of a scene that’s a luxury. It really was amazing to work with such incredible prosthetics people.”
Ten sets of legs, primarily made of silicone, were used to achieve this one effect. But what surprised Baird was that the dirtier and bloodier the legs became from usage, the better and more realistic they looked. “We did a lot of research and autopsy reference,” he says. “We got real lumps of raw meat and watched how it moved and sagged and hit the ground. Then we mixed and matched various chemicals, silicones and foams until they mimicked the real thing.”
Comments executive producer Trish Hofmann: “You can tell how much Jason loves his job. When he first came to show us the legs on set, they were hidden in his trunk—two bloody stumps in the back of his car. We were definitely impressed by how they looked – and sincerely hoped he wouldn’t get pulled over by the police.”
PRODUCTION DESIGN AND CINEMATOGRAPHY
“The story starts in a fairly idyllic way,” says production designer Grant Major. “It's coastal and loaded with color — blue sky, yellow sun, creamy, sandy beach. That was all reflected in the design of the film’s first sequence. Then this journey moves into the forest that’s not all beautiful. It’s dirty and the light gets darker, dingier. Finally, the characters end up on the Mayan hill and even though they’re outside, or in some cases inside the burial chamber, it’s all about creating a sense of isolation and claustrophobia.”
Adds Smith, “When you put all that together, it helps create a dark mood. The audience might not realize what’s going on, but if it’s all done right then they’ll definitely feel it.”
As with all his other projects, Major researched the period and cultural details in his creation of the Mayan ruins. “This film is set in Mexico, so the touristy areas were easy to recreate,” he says. “The Mayan environment on the Yucatan Peninsula required a lot more research and work. There are certainly Mayan pyramids we could have visited, which are historical monuments, but it’s not as though we could just show up with a crew and take over for weeks at a time to study them in detail and then make the film. We needed to be able to put gear on it and move items around, so the only way to achieve that was to build our own pyramid.
“We researched various pyramid styles from the Mayan culture and then textural rock patterns from other areas,” Major continues. “Then it all had to be adapted to the drama that takes place on top of the pyramid. It all had to be designed around that dynamic. Ultimately, it took us about seven weeks to build the top and bottom parts of the pyramid, which was pretty fast for such a big build. Thankfully, I had a great team.”
Tying all the looks together was director of photography Darius Khondji, ASC, A.F.C., who had previously worked with Smith. “I was laughing with Carter because he's also a photographer, and you usually try to take care of actors and actresses to make them look beautiful. But on this film we decided to change that.”
Smith and Khondji discussed how the beginning of the film would be attractive because the mood was fun and it’s sexy. But then, little by little, it all shifts. “We started with a soft light and a mosaic of colors and then started scratching them a bit and getting much harsher with the light. I wanted to find a really gritty look, even with the characters themselves, so they would kind of become a reflection of their circumstances and look raw, ugly. I also used much more physical camera work than I’ve done before so that things would feel slightly chaotic and just slightly out of everyone’s control.”
While Smith acknowledges that “The Ruins” is a rough movie containing both obvious and subtly disturbing elements, he points out that “Horror movies are one of the only genres in which audiences experience a very physical, visceral reaction to what they are seeing on screen. People enjoy yelling and screaming and sinking into their seats or glancing away from a moment that’s particularly uncomfortable. All that’s great. There are very few types of films where you get that physical response. So for me the best way to give the audience that release was to establish a very real world with very real characters, tease them with tension, then show glimpses of the most realistic horror I could produce. And if all that aligns and the audience experiences a physical reaction toward the film, then I think we achieved our goal.”