Carter Smith is an accomplished, multitalented filmmaker and photographer.
By day, he takes captivating portraits of globally recognizable supermodels and celebrities. Carter’s photos have been featured on covers of magazines like GQ, Elle, Glamour and Vanity Fair, to name a few. By night, he’s writing and directing some of the most unsettling yet beautiful horror movies out there.
We had a great time chatting with him and learning about his proficiency as an artist.
ROVE: Good morning Carter, how you doing??
Carter: Goooood. Dripping w sweat – just out of a soulcycle class… How are you?
ROVE: I’m good!
ROVE: Is now still a good time to hit you with some questions ??
Carter: Yeah sure
ROVE: Alright, let’s dive right in then 🙂
ROVE: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Carter: I grew up in Maine. For a gay kid growing up in a small town in Maine it was surprisingly not all that traumatic. Lots of time spent alone in my bedroom. Drawing and listening to melancholic British records. And of course – watching as many horror movies as I could get my hands on.
ROVE: So your love for the horror genre was found early on. What drew you in?
Carter: Yeah horror always felt like a safe space for me. It felt okay to be different. The jocks and the popular girls always died first. It was the outsiders who made it to the end of the stories.
ROVE: Do you have any early memories of taking photographs / making movies as a kid?
Carter: I used to dress up my younger sister and her friends. Wrap them in tattered blankets and smear them with makeup and fake blood. Then drag them through the fields behind our house to photograph them.Photography was my gateway into storytelling.
ROVE: When did you start taking fashion photos?
Carter: I started taking “fashion” photos in high school. I was dressing up friends. Doing their hair and makeup and even making their outfits. By the time I was 17 I had moved to NYC and had put together a portfolio that I was dropping off at magazines.
ROVE: You chose to drop out of college to pursue your fashion career. Can you talk about that? Was it a hard decision?
Carter: Leaving college wasn’t a hard decision – I’d made it to NYC and I was getting jobs as a photographer. Small jobs. Nothing that paid all that well and nothing glamorous. But jobs. It was also that most of the other students in my program wanted to be wedding photographer or open a portrait studio. I wanted to travel the world and shoot supermodels 😉
ROVE: Well I’d say it was a good decision because that’s exactly what you did! The list of icons that you’ve photographed is sooo extensive. Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Aniston, and many many MANY more… Any standout models / actors that you love to work with?
Carter: Nicole is always great to work with. She loves the creative process and is always down to “play”. It’s usually the most fun when we’ve already worked together multiple times. They trust me. And its more like hanging out (with a camera) than some big “photo shoot”. Its not always like that – but when it is – it’s the best.
ROVE: Was there a pivotal moment that launched your career? Or was it a gradual ramp up to success?
Carter: There was one story I did while I was traveling through the midwest. It was a series of portraits I did of kids I met on the road. Skaters, carnival workers, cowboys. It was all 100% personal work. When I got back to NYC I showed it to Edward Enniful who was at i-D magazine. He loved it and asked to run it as a story in the magazine.The DAY that story came out everything changed. I got an agent. I got a job shooting for Vogue. I got the Levis campaign. All from that one story. But of course I’d been shooting and traveling and struggling for like 5 years before that. So it was hardly overnight.
ROVE: Wow. It really goes to show how important passion projects are and how quickly everything can change.
Carter: Yeah. It’s easy to forget when you’re getting paid to do work for other people. Especially if you’re being paid well 😉
ROVE: So, your photography career had taken off. You’re dreams of traveling the world and shooting supermodels became a reality – what was it that made you want to dive into the world of filmmaking? Also – how the hell did you have the time?
Carter: I’d always wanted to make films. Photography was always kinduv meant to be a step in that direction. I never thought I’d end up with the career I had. But it was hard to say no. And then I just realized that if I didn’t MAKE THE DECISION to make a film – it wasn’t going to happen. There would always be another campaign. Another amazing trip or celebrity. So I made my first short film, BUGCRUSH. Self financed it (thank you fashion $$$) and made it happen.
Carter: There’s always time. You just have to choose what you want to do with that time. Because if you don’t other people will choose for you.
ROVE: BUGCRUSH won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2006. Can you talk about how that propelled your career as a filmmaker??
Carter: It opened so many doors. I got an agent. I got all the woo-ing and courting you’d expect from “Hollywood”. I got to make THE RUINS as a direct result of BUGCRUSH. Steven Spielberg (whose studio Dreamworks was doing THE RUINS) saw the short and believed in me.
ROVE: That must have been surreal…. Did you have to present a treatment to Steven Spielberg face to face at all?
Carter: Yeah. There was this crazy long meeting room table. He was at one end. I was at the other. There were about 25 other people in the room (including the original E.T.). The only two people who spoke for an entire hour were Steven and I. Everyone else just listened and took furious notes. So surreal.
ROVE: Your most recent film MIDNIGHT KISS is a super fun gay slasher film. How was it working on a Blumhouse film? And what specifically inspired you to make that movie?
Carter: Seems like so long ago. I’ve made 2 movies since then (that haven’t come out yet). Blumhouse sent me the script and it just felt right. It was a super fast process. Within a week of my first meeting I was in LA scouting locations and casting. By the next week we were shooting. It was great to jump aboard a speeding train. As opposed to the incredibly hard work of putting together an indie film – which can take years and years. And often feels like you’re trying to roll a boulder up a hill. Alone. It also felt nice with MIDNIGHT KISS knowing that it was gonna be on Hulu. That people were gonna be able to actually WATCH it.
ROVE: You mentioned making movies since then. I know that you just wrapped one. Can you talk at all about that film / the other one that has yet to be released? Or is that top secret info?
Carter: I made SWALLOWED in Maine last summer. 100% indie micro budget. That’ll be having its festival premiere VERY soon. Then I just wrapped last week on THE PASSENGER – again for Blumhouse . It’s a fucked up coming of age hostage road trip thriller. SWALLOWED is straight up queer horror. My sweet spot.
ROVE: When can folks expect to be able to watch THE PASSENGER on Hulu? (I’m assuming it’ll be on Hulu?)
Carter: It’s for Blumhouse’s slate of streaming films they do for Epix. But it’ll also be on Hulu I think. We are exactly 3 days into the edit so very beginning stages. I think they plan to release it in 2023.
ROVE: Nice! I can’t wait to see both of these.
Carter: You’re gonna love SWALLOWED. It was done in Maine – with a mostly Maine based crew. Shot in remote northern townships. At my parent’s off the grid “camp”.
ROVE: Love that. It’s great that you’ve been able to make a hometown movie.
ROVE: Can you tell us about All The Dead Boys?
Carter: ALL THE DEAD BOYS came out of me being tired of taking pictures for other people. A return to the one on one shoots I did in high school. Where I did the makeup and wardrobe and it was more intimate one on one way to create. I got so sick of being on set surrounded by dozens and dozens of people. Hoarding around the monitor. Putting in their two cents. I’d fallen out of love with taking pictures. And I needed to fall in love with it again. So I started shooting ATBD. A way to blend the beautiful and the horrific. Something that could be just for me and the model I was creating with.
ROVE: It’s got such a unique feel to it. Almost feels like a twisted corner of the dark web. Can you shed some light on the ideas behind the photos?
Carter: I love horror. I love hot naked guys. ALL THE DEAD BOYS 😉 I wanted to explore that peculiar place where the beautiful and the horrific meet. Where you can’t decide if an image turns you on or makes you turn away. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But the ones who like ATDB – REALLY like it.
ROVE: It’s really haunting. Like nothing I’ve seen before.
Carter: And just to be clear – it’s not some simulated “dead” makeups. It’s all based around body horror. The idea that our bodies can bring so much pleasure. But they can also turn on you. And disease and infection are both things that fascinate me. Especially when they’re jumbled into more traditional “sexy” images. It probably has to do with growing up gay in the age of AIDS. Being scared of sex was natural.
ROVE: Ah wow. That makes total sense.
ROVE: Do you have any advice for up and coming photographers / filmmakers out there?
Carter: Make work that no one else can make. That’s yours. That comes from somewhere deep inside you. Tell the stories that keep you up at night. No matter how painful or dirty they are. Those are the stories that people are gonna respond to.
ROVE: I love that. Thank you so much for your time Carter. It was great to catch up with you 🙌