The Ruins (2008)

Crimes:

  • Losing the impact of Scott Smith’s pulpy bestselling horror novel by rushing through the setup and the character development, turning the film into another generic creature feature full of interchangeable monster-bait characters
  • Having too much in common with the contemporaneous run of xenophobic white-tourists-die-in-scary-foreign-countries horror films
  • Being unfortunately pretty laughable, because of the difficulty of making killer vines scary

Defender: Director Carter Smith, editor/second-unit director Jeff Betancourt

Tone of commentary: Interview-y. The chatty Betancourt serves as something many commentary tracks could use: a facilitator who draws out the more laconic Smith with journalistic questions about his intentions and experiences. Barely 90 seconds into the commentary, Smith exults, “You’re such a good interviewer! I’m impressed!” Many of Betancourt’s questions seem like gentle softballs and invitations to praise people—for instance, he asks whether bestselling The Ruins author Scott Smith was “really precious” about his writing and balked at changing his story to accommodate the film. (Carter Smith cheerfully reports that no, he was game and understood the process.) Betancourt’s questions are pretty basic and surface-level, and in some cases, it’s hard to believe that he actually cares about the answers, particularly when he asks whether an onscreen windlass is made out of wood or metal. But at least he keeps the commentary moving along whenever it lags, and keeps the topics diverse.

What went wrong: Test audiences hated “that whiny bitch Amy,” one of the four leads. (Betancourt explains the idea of test screenings.) It was difficult to maintain consistent lighting for all the outdoor scenes using natural light, though the sun was low throughout the day because of the season, which helped. (Betancourt explains that artificial lighting is often used on films, even outdoors.) It was difficult to shoot in the dark, and Smith was concerned about the focus and the anamorphic lenses: “Thank God our focus-pullers are as talented as they are,” he says. (Betancourt explains that anamorphic lenses need more light.) It was hard to believe that the characters would venture into a hole in the ground with a killer plant after seeing what it could do, so some scenes had to be reordered. (Betancourt explains how editors use index cards with scene information written on them to keep track of scene order as they’re cutting things together.) Endless sequences of characters going up and down a well shaft were boring and got cut. (Betancourt explains about how old films used to include “shoe-leather scenes” where characters would just travel from place to place, but that modern pacing elides such things.) This is Smith’s first film, and at times, it feels like he and Betancourt—especially Betancourt—are delivering a Film 101 lecture.

Mostly, they’re cheerful about the process, and they chuckle over their minor complaints and concerns: A sequence written to justify the leads’ behavior was shot long after the main set had been torn down, so it had to be set in a tent, and the two female leads had to wear wigs because they’d both already cut and dyed their hair. A propane tank visible on the pyramid where they’re stranded with the killer vine prompted some test viewers to complain that the cast should have just burned the whole place down, so Smith desaturated it in post to make it less noticeable. Smith notes that in spite of the title, there weren’t any actual ruins in the script, so he added some under the pyramid. It was freezing at their outdoor shooting location in Australia, and every heater they tried was so loud, it interfered with shooting. And so forth.

Betancourt and Smith’s biggest actual gripe concerns the difficulty of making artificial plants look organic and real in unforgiving natural light. They specifically discuss the nonstop lighting tests Smith ran while trying to find the most realistic way to treat the plans, and both men praise production designer Grant Major for all the time he spent “on his hands and knees dusting the plants and posing them leaf by leaf,” trying to make them look good even for second-unit shots.

Comments on the cast: The two men don’t offer much specific detail or analysis about their no-name cast, apart from calling them out by name to offer sympathy during sequences that were particularly miserable to shoot. Betancourt broadly praises them early on: “They’re not your typical sort of, straight out of the WB, or straight off one of the hot television shows. They’re all really great actors, and it felt very real.” Smith notes that the four leads all spent time on what he called “the Ruins diet,” with the women trying to slim down so they’d look good while spending much of the movie half-naked, and the men trying to bulk up for their shirtless scenes. Smith claims the horrific privation of being on diets helped them get into the right mindset for their characters’ grueling, agonizing ordeals.

Inevitable dash of pretension: Betancourt boasts about how the movie is unique because it’s horror, but it isn’t just “someone jumping out of a closet to kill you”; Smith says “it ends up being about suffering, which isn’t always that fun to wallow in, but it’s definitely where these characters ended up.” Betancourt asks, “Why do you think we’re into it? Why do we go to movies like this?” Smith ends the self-praise and the introspection alike with a laugh and the response “Because we’re fuuuuuuuuuuuuucked up.”

Commentary in a nutshell: “What was that dog’s name, do you remember?” “I don’t.” “You came to the set that day, when we were shooting, this, didn’t you?” “I did, yeah.”

Filed Under: DVD

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