By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
A throwback to ’80s cult favorites like Night of the Creeps and Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders from Mars, THE PASSENGER (La Pasajera) from Spanish filmmakers Fernando González Gómez and Raúl Cerezo lovingly wears its influences on its sleeve. Yet, to discount the film as a mere homage is to sell this innovative, funny and frightening shocker short. Despite its overtures to everything from The Thing to the early work of Peter Jackson, THE PASSENGER stands on its own slimy, blood-soaked merits.
In the film, a disparate group of travelers shares a van ride across the Spanish countryside with a brash driver named Blasco (Ramiro Blas). When an accident brings them into contact with an alien entity capable of transforming humans into killer, zombie-like creatures, the trip turns into a cross-country fight for survival. In the end, it’s up to Blasco and his teen passenger, Marta (Paula Gallego) to stop the extraterrestrial menace.
Co-director Fernando González Gómez recently spoke to Rue Morgue about the making of THE PASSENGER, his love of genre film and his next project with creative partner Raúl Cerezo.
Fernando, thanks for taking some time to speak with me about THE PASSENGER. While preparing for our chat, I discovered that you were trained as an aeronautical engineer. How does someone with that background become a filmmaker?
I don’t know! [Laughs] Well, the road was long and I was young. I remember the first year, when I started the career, I always wanted to tell stories. I wanted to do movies, but it was impossible. Finally, I discovered short films as this incredible platform for creation and freedom. I really love short films. When I started, there was no social media. I began talking with people on computer bulletin boards that were studying sound and lighting. Step by step, I made a team, and I started writing stories. Over fifteen years, I directed 36 short films.
One day, I got my opportunity. A producer saw one of my short films. He asked if I had a bigger story, and I said yes. Then, I directed my first feature film. That was Estándar. It was presented at the Austin Film Festival in 2020. We won there. It was a really crazy experience. Then, I met my friend Raúl Cerezo, a crazy lover of genre movies. He showed me the PASSENGER script written by Luis Sánchez-Polack. The moment I read it, I said, “Raúl, we need to go for it.” Then he offered me the chance to do it together. We presented it to my producers from Estándar, and we’re here with the second movie.
THE PASSENGER reminds me of those great horror movies I used to watch in the 1980s. It’s scary and it’s funny. It’s a real wild ride.
Yes! The main influences for the film were all those horror movies from the ’80s and the early ’90s.
What attracted you to the script for THE PASSENGER? How did the project come about?
It’s really fun. The original idea came from Raúl. He was doing ride-sharing, and he was the driver with his friend Helion Ramalho, who is also one of the producers of the film. They were driving to the Sitges Film Festival – just to be part of the audience. That was about five years ago. They were traveling with this old woman. In Spain, it’s very common that people share trips. There’s a mobile app. Like, “Okay. I’m going to Barcelona tomorrow by car. The trip starts at 9:00 p.m., and you can join me. We’ll share the all costs.” [Raúl] was driving. At one point in the trip, he had to stop to let on a new passenger. The new passenger was a Black guy. The Black guy gets in the van, and the old woman – the kindly old woman – transformed into a racist monster. They were even thinking of leaving her at the next gas station. They started thinking about what it would be like to do a ride-sharing trip with an actual monster in the van and what would happen. They got together with Luis, and finally, we had a complete story.
You co-directed THE PASSENGER with Raúl Cerezo. I always find it fascinating when a movie has two directors. How does that partnership work?
We always say it’s a jump into a pool with no water. [Laughs] We know each through the world of short films. We are well-known names in the small world of short films in Spain. We knew each other’s work, but we had never worked together. We jumped into THE PASSENGER, and we made it. We have one must: If one of us has an idea that the other doesn’t like, it’s not going to be in the movie. We need to love everything that is in the movie. Raúl can say it is his movie, and I can say it is my movie because everything was shared and loved by both of us. Also, we are maniacs when it comes to filmmaking. We love the language of cinematography. I’m going to put the camera here. Why? What are we expressing to the audience with this camera position or this movement of the camera? We work a lot at home [on preproduction]. When we arrive on the set, we know what we have designed.
Tell me about THE PASSENGER’S amazing special effects. There are many wonderful, gruesome practical makeup effects in the film.
Yes. Mostly practical. In the very first moment, we said – and Raúl is a crazy lover of the practical effects – we are going to go with practical effects until we can’t, until it’s impossible to go practical. We did drawings; We did the design of the ship; We came up with how the monster controls the brain inside [its victims] – a lot of things that you are not going to see in the movie, but we designed them in order to understand the alien.
The decision to go with practical effects was really good, but not so good for the camera team. I can’t tell you how bad the smell was! [Laughs] It was crazy! There are 542 shots that have digital visual effects that are invisible, like greenscreens and the reflections in Blasco’s glasses as he’s driving. Just a crazy, crazy amount of small special effects done by User T38, the company that did the effects for Color Out of Space with Nicolas Cage. They did a really good job and we used only the minimum amount of digital effects necessary. We are very proud of how all these elements came together.
What were some of the challenges of doing those big practical effects shots in the cramped confines of Nessa the van?
The biggest problem was figuring out what we were going to do because we’re in the van 80 percent of the time. We have this, this, this, and this. There are no more places to put the camera and all these cables – it’s not a GoPro! So with the art department, we designed a replica of Nessa’s interior. And it’s a little bit bigger. We could go in from the front or go in with the crane. The biggest challenge was combining all the shots from the real Nessa in the forest and the fake Nessa inside the building.
The film hinges on Blasco and Marta. Did developing that relationship between an older man and a young woman pose any problems?
Whew! A lot of challenges! Raúl and I worked a lot on finding the correct tone. It starts out comedic and gets darker. Marta loses her mother. How are we going to position the audience to feel all of this naturally and go with these characters naturally? The moment when we found the correct tone and the chemistry with the actors was when Paula Gallego arrived. She entered the movie a week and a half before we started. We had a problem with the actress we first cast as Marta. Two weeks before we started we had to find a new Marta. We found Paula, and when she started reading the script with Ramiro Blas, we said, “There it is!”
Why do you enjoy horror?
Horror or any genre. We love all the genres because you have the freedom to tell every story. In genre films, you have everything. You can move from the comedy to the horror to the thriller to the fantasy in the same movie. This is why we like to tell a story in a genre film because we can add some subtext.
We touched briefly on the influence of ’80s and ’90s horror movies on THE PASSENGER. Specifically, what were some of the films that inspired you?
All the movies that we have ever watched influence us in our work. Everything. All of the time, you really can’t see it, but the audience says. “I’m seeing here Evil Dead,” and [as a filmmaker] you say, “I was not thinking of Evil Dead when we made it, but yes! There it is!” It’s there, but why? I don’t know. You have this influence inside, but you’re not aware. Someone has to tell you.
Obviously, The Thing from John Carpenter was an influence since we decided to go with practical effects. We had to follow Carpenter and go practical, even if we’re in the 2020s. That was the model. If we have to choose two, we have The Thing and we have Invasion of the Body Snatchers from Philip Kaufman. Even Prince of Darkness influenced the tone of the movie. There are a lot [of influences] and probably a lot more I wasn’t even thinking about.
What’s next?[Raúl and I] have just finished our next film. The title is The Elderly. It’s also a horror movie, but we’re moving more into drama. How can I say it? THE PASSENGER is like a small Blumhouse and The Elderly is a small A24.
The Passenger from Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting is now available on DVD and On-Demand.