Sundance: 'Jamie Marks Is Dead' Director on Jumping From Hollywood Horror to an Indie Ghost Story

Six years after helming “The Ruins” for DreamWorks, Carter Smith returns with one of the festival's most intriguing dramas.

Carter Smith has been “directing” nearly his entire career, in one way or another. He got his start as a fashion photographer (a role he considers his day job), shooting for magazines like Vogue, GQ, and W. The career naturally segued into directing commercials, giving Smith a foot in the door for narrative filmmaking.

With a few films under his belt, Smith's latest, Jamie Marks Is Dead, premiering in competition on Jan. 19 at Sundance's Library Theatre, stands out to the director as his most challenging. It's his first “writer-director” credit, his source material is the tender relationship drama between two living high school students and the ghost of a recently deceased classmate. While he's dabbled in studio films, Smith says the indie-level offers welcome intimacy and demands. It wouldn't be fun -- or a Sundance movie -- if it weren't near-impossible to pull off. Here, Smith tells us how he brought Jamie Marks Is Dead to life, found solace in low-budget filmmaking, and why he's always been attracted to “genre” filmmaking.

Background: Smith debuted his first film, the short Bugcrush, at Sundance 2006, where it picked awards and nabbed him bigger opportunities. In 2008, he directed DreamWorks' horror movie The Ruins, a film met with mixed reviews that's grown to cult status. His hope was to follow it up with an adaptation of the graphic novel Black Hole, a movie both ditched and since picked back up by David Fincher. Though he never made the film (“I still would love more than anything to do that movie, but I think short of a movie miracle ...”) he did wind up with Yearbook, a short meant to pitch his vision of Black Hole that wound up playing at Sundance 2011.

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The Big Break for Jamie Marks: “I knew that I wanted to make a film on a smaller scale after working in the studio system with The Ruins and with DreamWorks -- who were great. I always kind of imagine myself as a filmmaker who was going to make smaller films, and so I was sort of anxious and excited to see what the flip side was like. With One for Sorrow, I just found it in a bookstore one day. And I wasn’t looking for, you know, material. I was just looking for a good book. And I read it and loved it and basically just couldn’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t until three, maybe four months later that I was like, OK, I’m just continuing to think about this, and I’ve got to see if the rights are available and if this is something that would be possible. Luckily, it was.”

Getting the Film Off the Ground: “With The Ruins, when I got hired, we had a release date when we were opening in, you know, how many, many thousand theaters. You know, it was like 'GO!' I was on a plane to Australia the very next day to start scouting. Jamie Marks took a good three years or so to get going … just the standard sort of indie film stuff, our financing fell through or actor availability, you know, all the complicated pieces that need to align just, it seems like they take their time to align when it’s a small little project like this. But, at the same time, it’s something that I wrote. I did the adaptation, and it was, I was lucky to work with producers that were totally on board with supporting the film that I wanted to make. So it was kind of a great experience. And a hundred thousand times more difficult than anything just because we didn’t have all the resources, probably, that you have on a studio film.”

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The Biggest Challenge: “The main thing that I had to crack was the lead character, Adam McCormick. He is a kid, you know, not entirely sure where he fits in with his family, with his friends, at his school and he’s kind of an outsider. He spends a lot of time removed from what’s going on around him and one of the biggest challenges was [making] him as the main character. I was like, OK I’ve got this incredibly passive kid that is very much sort of a follower and is my main character. It [was about] finding a way to make his story move forward and be as thematic and cinematic as I needed him to be. I mean, the book is told from his perspective and it’s in first person, and you come away from reading the book with intimate knowledge and you feel like you know this big soul incredibly well, but a lot of it is internal.”

The Mission: “Before I was ever into fashion and photography, I was a fan of genre stuff, whether it was books or films. Always, I loved stories that were a little bit darker and that were a little bit, you know, had a darker sensibility. I think it also, it might come from, you know, in the day job everything has to be pretty and beautiful and clean and happy, so it’s quite a contrast and also at the same time, really fun for me to get to work in a world that’s quite a bit different.”

Twitter: @misterpatches