IFC Films is set to release Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ haunting psychological drama Swallow into select theaters and onto VOD and various digital platforms this Friday. Starring Haley Bennett, the film is centered around a housewife named Hunter who seemingly has it all, but after she begins to exhibit unseemly behavior in the eyes of her husband and his family, Hunter begins to reclaim aspects of her life in very unconventional ways.
Daily Dead recently spoke with Mirabella-Davis about Swallow, and he discussed how his grandmother inspired him to write this story about a woman struggling with PICA (a psychological disorder where someone craves eating non-nutritional items, like dirt, paper, etc.) and how he convinced Bennett to take on the role of Hunter in the first place. The up-and-coming filmmaker also talked about the steps he took to subvert his male gaze while working on Swallow, the film’s visual style, and more.
Great to speak with you, Carlo. I would love to hear about how this project came together, in terms of the ideas for this story, and then bringing Haley on board for it as well. She’s so fantastic in Swallow.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Well, the film was inspired by my grandmother, who was a homemaker in the '50s in an unhappy marriage. She developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive hand washer who would go through four cakes of soap a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. And my grandfather, at the encouragement of the doctors, put her into a mental institution where they gave her insulin shock therapy, and electroshock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy that they messed up. She lost her sense of taste and smell.
It was this real heartbreaking thing that happened in our family, and I always felt that she was being punished in a way for not living up to society's expectations of what they felt a wife or a mother should be. So, I wanted to make film about that. But hand washing is not very cinematic. I remember seeing a photograph of all the contents of a patient’s stomach who had PICA, that had been surgically removed and laid out on this table, like an archeological dig. I was fascinated by those artifacts, and I wanted to know what drew the patient to those objects. It almost seemed like something mystical, like a Holy Communion, and I wanted to know more. So, that's how it started.
And then in terms of Haley getting involved, I knew from the moment I wrote the first draft of the script, that this whole movie would hinge on getting an incredible actor to play Hunter, because she's in every single scene. The movie is really a journey that requires a real empath, an actor who can bring an audience into their internal cosmology, with real clarity of spirit. So I began casting and I saw Haley in Girl On The Train, and I was just mesmerized by her performance. I thought she was an amazing actor, and I wanted to see her in the lead role. I felt that she would be perfect for Hunter, and I hoped that maybe she would want to take on a part that was a little bold and unusual.
I wrote her a passionate letter offering her the role, and amazingly, she decided to meet with me. The moment we began to talk about this character in this narrative, there was this telepathic bond between the two of us, this meeting of the minds. And it was just an incredible collaboration from then on. And Haley, she just gives a tour de force performance in the film. I'm so glad that she decided to make the film. She's an incredible artist and collaborator and performer, and it was a real honor to work with her.
When you both were digging into the character of Hunter and getting to the heart of who she is, did you and Haley then collaborate in terms of pulling back the layers a little bit on her emotionally? Even though I know you identify as a man, this story feels like it has a very unique female perspective to it.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Absolutely. And I'm so glad that you feel that way about this film. There are a few different answers to that. So an immediate response, Haley was also an executive producer on the film, and she was so generous with her insights and she poured every iota of her soul into this part of the character. She brought so much authenticity and insight to a very complicated role. I think there's so much of her soul in this part. And me and my incredible producers, Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie, we were all concerned that my male gaze would affect the story in some way. We really wanted to tell something that felt truthful. So, instead of just ignoring the problem, we decided to take it very seriously, and we spent a lot of time talking about how to counteract my male gaze, and what we could do to make the story feel as powerful as possible.
We were very fortunate that so many amazing female artists decided to make my grandmother's story their own. Two-thirds of our cast and crew were women. All of our department heads were women. Of course, there were so many amazing creators who were a part of the film, there was this wonderful synergy between all of us. My incredible cinematographer, Kate Arizmendi, was really a visual genius who just had the perfect way of framing Hunter's journey through her lens. And then the other interesting element, is that when I was younger in my 20s, for about four and a half years, I actually identified as a woman and I wore women's clothing and I had a different name. That was this wonderful, extremely creative and inspiring time in my life. And it's interesting because when you're raised as a man, you don't always see how baked into the cake of society sexism is.
I remember what an eye opener it was, just even walking down the street, and being catcalled and men staring at me, or trying to touch my body. That realization of what women go through every single day, that the world is constantly trying to control female-identified people, was a real revelation, and solidified a lot of my feminist beliefs and made me want to make a film about that. Of course, I've been a man for most of my life. So again, as I said, I was still quite concerned about my male gaze, but I hope we managed to make something that feels truthful to this woman's story.
You mentioned the cinematography in this, which I thought was just absolutely gorgeous. Katelin does a really great job of capturing the isolation and this frigid world that Hunter is stuck in the middle of. Can you talk about that? Because it's really interesting to me, the way that certain shots are staged, in terms of just making her feel as small as possible inside of that big house.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I'm so pleased you feel that way. Kate Arizmendi is a true visionary, and it was such a joy working with her on this. I remember that Kate had this idea, from the beginning, that we should shoot everything on master prime lenses, because they capture the world with this incredible clarity of texture. PICA is so much about the texture of things, and Kate and I talked a lot about the idea where we wanted to create a rigid vernacular in the camera direction, that we would establish early on. Kate would then break those rules at key emotional moments in the film, when Hunter has a breakthrough. So if you look, you'll see that in Kate's frames, we use a lot of master shots, a lot of lockdown shots, where as you say, Hunter feels oppressed by the frame, or lost in the composition or the space.
We paid careful attention to how we would film Hunter when she was in public and on display with her relatives, versus her moments of being alone in her own universe. And in those moments where she's alone and interacting with the objects, that's when Kate used her incredibly, beautifully designed close-ups. And also, there's the moment that we start to use handheld as a very stark, surprising approach.
It really was an incredible experience working with Kate, and seeing her astounding aesthetic vision, as well as the rest of our design team, too. Our production designer, Erin Magill, has an unbelievable eye for color and detail. If you look at the film, Erin came up with this idea that all of the larger pieces of furniture in the house should look like objects that Hunter might want to consume if they were smaller. This is true of every object on a table, every vase, and every end table, they all look like something Hunter might be mesmerized by.
Visit our online hub to read reviews of Swallow by Heather Wixson and Emily von Seele, respectively.