Swallow’s Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis On His Approach To Make A New Film About Women Pregnancy
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
By: Nancy Naghavi
Swallow was released in the United States in middle of March, but due to the Coronavirus outbreak, its theatrical run ended sooner than planned.. Swallow follows a pregnant woman who has an unusual appetite for eating inedible objects. Swallow begins with a classic approach to its subject, similar to typical horror/thriller films, but introduces certain twists to the story, and becomes a neat critique of patriarchy and women’s rights . Unique landscapes and modern architecture, outstanding performances and a pleasant musical score, in addition to the way the film challenges patriarchal order in society, and the director’s avant-garde approach to storytelling, all have contributed to the film being a one-a-kind experience. We had the chance to interview the director where we talked about the process of making the film, the storytelling, casting process, and selecting the musical score for the film.
Nancy Naghavi, Phoenix Journal (PJ): Can you talk a little bit about your source of inspiration for this movie? Where did the idea come from?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis (CM): The movie was inspired by my grandmother, Edith, who was a homemaker from the 1950s in an unhappy marriage who developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive handwasher who would go through four bars 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. My grandfather, at the encouragement of the doctors, committed her to a mental institution. Her treatment included electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy. I always felt, there was something punitive about how my grandmother was treated, that she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife or a mother should be. I always wanted to make a film about that.
As I began adapting her story, however, I realized that handwashing is not very cinematic. Or maybe it is becoming more cinematic now that we are all obsessively doing it! Anyway, at the time, I remember seeing a photograph on the Internet of the contents of a patient with pica’s stomach. The surgically removed objects had been fanned out on a table like an archaeological dig. I was fascinated. I wanted to know what drew the patient to these artifacts. It almost felt like something mystical, like a holy communion. That’s how it began.
PJ: How did you develop the plot of your film? Did you start with the story or the characters?
CM: I started with the story; my grandmother’s story fused with the pica compulsion. Before I write a first draft, I heavily research my subject. Then, I create a detailed treatment of where I imagine the plot might go. I also like to write psychological portraits of each character. Once I have that material, I begin my first full draft. That process takes about 3 weeks. After the first draft is finished, then begin the process of rewriting where I reconstitute the plot structure and articulate the details of my character’s persona. My late, great teacher, William Reilly, once told us that what makes a professional screenwriter is the discipline to write several hours a day, every day.
If you’re fortunate enough to have brilliant producers attached, like Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie, then you’ll get insightful feedback on your drafts. Writing is a process of introspection, discovery, and immersion. You have to frighten yourself a little while writing. If you write something that’s safe and predictable, it’s probably not going to result in a powerful film. Plot machinations need to be surprising but inevitable. A good script is about the head, but you feel it in the heart.
PJ: The last act, Act III of the film which presents the final confrontation of the movie, followed by the denouement was quite interesting. The confrontation with mother, father and choice of washing room for the closing of the film was quite a feat. This is where the film brings its own feminism critic into the film. It was a new ending for such regrettably timeless stories. I wonder if you can say more about your screenwriting choices in the last act of the film.
CM: For me, the perfect third act to a film is one that causes the audience to look back at everything that came before with new eyes. “Plants” woven into the first and second act should hopefully payoff in a revelatory way that results in expansive “psychological movement”, namely the evolution characters undergo during the plot. We don’t regularly discuss it, but we often watch films in order to observe the intricacies of psychological movement, hopefully gleaning an emotionally cathartic experience from how the character changes.
In many ways, SWALLOW is a film about hiding one’s pain in order to conform to the overwhelming expectations from a controlling power dynamic. In the final shot of the film, there is a visual metaphor that encourages the audience to reflect upon the universality of Hunter’s experience. It begs the question, “How many other people’s pain is going unnoticed?”
As you point out, we very much consider this to be a feminist film. I remember watching a Tucker Carlson clip where he had a panel of experts on his show arguing that ‘feminism is no longer needed because sexism no longer exists’. It made me livid. While writing the script, I thought a lot about how gaslighting may be the weapon of choice that a new guard of patriarchal figures are using to obscure misogyny. As they say in THE USUAL SUSPECTS, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist”.
PJ: The first time Hunter swallows something it’s framed like an act of communion. Or as though she’s been briefly touched by the divine. What relation do you see between swallowing and emancipation for her? Does the film have anything to say about the psychology of sadomasochism?
CM: The imbuing of talismans, shrines, and totems with divine energy that allows those objects to become a focal point of one’s essence has a place in many spiritual practices. Sometimes, extreme physical states can trigger spiritual experiences, like monks who take vows of silence, the act of fasting, self-flagellation, or people who dance for hours on end, like the Shakers used to. While Hunter is certainly fostering an experience that can have elements of the spiritual, I wouldn’t say she views her compulsion through a religious lens. It’s something grounded in the personal for Hunter, something for herself, something she controls.
In regard to your other question, I thought about Hunter’s experience with the physical pain that can be caused by pica to be similar to the perspective of people who cut. In my research, I discovered that ritualized self-harm is often about externalizing / physicalizing abstract emotional pain.
Just to be clear, these compulsions can be very dangerous, and one should seek treatment for them from mental health professionals one feels comfortable with, if possible. I believe in a more understanding approach to mental difference. Often, treatment is limited to repression of the symptom instead of a comprehensive investigation of the root causes. Sometimes compulsions such as these are analogous to mental alarm bells going off, alerting the person that something is wrong; some situation, some destructive cycle of thought, some inherited way of viewing oneself, some un-processed trauma still at play. A breakdown can often be a breakthrough. We see this throughout Hunter’s journey.
PJ: Unlike many pregnancy-themed horror movies, the film doesn’t linger on the monstrosity of the body, but instead it has a character who begins in a state of subjugation, who wants to fight for freedom over her body and life. How do you think about the relation between your work and other films produced in this genre?
CM: We wanted SWALLOW to be a feminist film that was resoundingly from the perspective of a woman reclaiming ownership over her body and sense of self. The true monstrosity of the movie resides in how every aspect of Hunter’s life is monitored and manipulated by this patriarchal family. I wanted the compulsion, although dangerous, to become a catalyst through which she discovers her true self and rebels against the controlling system that she’s in.
Through Haley Bennett’s incredibly empathic performance, the brilliant way Kate Arizmendi shot the film, and the way the narrative is constructed, the audience is hopefully with Hunter every step of the way. Our goal was to have Hunter be a character the audience bonds with, understands, and feels connected to.
I think horror, if done right, can be psychologically healing. Seeing our terrors manifested on the screen in a comforting environment can allow us, as viewers, to process our fears and emerge empowered.
PJ: The choice of Laith Naki as a keeper was interesting.
CM: In act 2, I wanted someone to enter the situation who had been hired by the family as a kind of keeper or jailer. I wanted that character to be someone who had lived through a war, someone who had seen violent suppression in its most overt form. The family initially tries to pit Luay and Hunter against each other, but they find common ground because, in a way, they are both employees of the family.
Laith Nakli, is from Syria, as is Luay. Laith is an extremely devoted, wondrous actor and one who brought tremendous power and emotional resonance to that character. The more time Luay spends around the family, the more he starts to recognize the kind of oppression he saw in wartime at play in a disguised form. Quite a few moviegoers have mentioned Luay as one of their favorite characters in the film, and I’m extremely gratified to hear that.
PJ: I am quite impressed by the modern building that was used as the couple’s residence. It shouldn’t be very easy to shoot in a house with glass everywhere. Why did you pick that location? What significance has it for the film?
CM: So glad you appreciate the location! Ever since I saw THE SHINING, I’ve been committed to the idea that location should be viewed as another character in the film. The all-glass house works as a perfect metaphor for Hunter’s experience because It resembles a natural history display case. Hunter is trapped in an invisible prison whose translucent walls are constructed from the controlling paradigm’s expectations. The house afforded our incredible DOP, Kate Arizmendi, ample opportunity to play around with the visual metaphor of reflection. She also sculpted a visual dialogue between the outside looking in and the inside looking out, both psychologically illuminating perspectives.
The SWALLOW house is a real location designed by the owner, but everything in the house was designed by our phenomenal, inspired production designer, Erin Magill, whose revolutionary artistry is on full display in every corner. Erin was deeply passionate about the idea that every piece of furniture and design decision was an opportunity to express Hunter’s mentality because she is actively decorating the home in an effort to please the wealthy family she’s married into. Occasionally, Hunter’s true taste emerges, like in the scene where she puts the red gel over the baby’s room window. And of course, our phenomenal costume designer, Liene Dobraja, was profoundly skilled at summoning attire that fit perfectly within the retro environment of the house.
PJ: How is your working relationship with your director of photography? Are you very into calculating everything beforehand?
CM: I thank the God that Katelin Arizmendi decided to shoot this film. Kate is a truly ingenious renaissance painter of the silver screen. She has an incredible capacity for elevating psychological subtext through her artful compositions. We did a great deal of prep work which involved storyboarding every shot in the film. Kate and I developed a rigid vernacular of camera direction, a strict set of rules that Kate would then break at key emotional hinge moments in the film.
For example, Kate uses a lot of formalistic, locked down master shots in the beginning of the film where Hunter is lost in the frame or dominated by the space. Then, all of a sudden, Kate will cut in for a shallow depth of field close up in order to usher us into Hunter’s experience. Or, Kate will suddenly use handheld at a key moment of rebellion on Hunter’s part. We tried to create a camera direction journey which begins in a more stylized space and moves into realism in order to reflect Hunter’s shift from the controlling universe she finds herself in towards empowerment and self-actualization.
Kate had the marvelous idea to use master prime lenses which, I learned, capture the world in extreme textural detail, underlining the consciousness we tried to imbue every inanimate object with. Kate’s cinematography for SWALLOW is remarkably breathtaking and powerful. I can’t wait for the world to see her work.
PJ: The performance in the film are quite powerful. How do you decide about acting in a film? What is a good acting for you?
CM: Thrilled you feel that way! Our inspired casting director, Allison Twardziak, coalesced a wonderful troupe of actors who knocked it out of the park. There are so many phenomenal actors, worth praising in the film, such as the incredible Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, Zabryna Guevara, Denis O’Hare, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Babak Tafti, Nicole Kang, and many more. And of course, the brilliant Haley Bennett who delivers a tour de force performance that I am over the moon about.
Haley brought Hunter to life with such power, clarity, authenticity, and innovation. Her performance is an intricate tapestry of heart-rending honesty. Haley was also an executive producer on the film and poured every iota of her soul into the project. I was incredibly fortunate that she decided to tell the story because she has an amazing micro calibration over her face that allows her to convey gulfs of complex emotion with just a look.
In terms of your question about what good acting is for me, there are many qualities I look for. You want an actor who can understand the nuances of every beat on an intellectual level but can also move through those beats in an experiential way when the camera rolls. The most important thing is for an actor to be able to lose themselves in the part in front of the camera. A truly great actor understands the nuances of psychological movement and has the ability to chart their character’s arc, subtly altering their personality textures as the film progresses, even while shooting out of sequence.
PJ: Swallow had a release in theatres, but with Coronavirus, your plan has been changed. What was the overall impact of Coronavirus on the film and its reception?
CM: As many have recently observed, the coronavirus has impacted the entire film industry in a profound way. We released SWALLOW theatrically in the US just as that shift to isolation was occurring. The marvelous IFC Films was set to show SWALLOW in 38 theatres across America. After playing for one glorious week in New York and LA, it was clear the dream of a wide release in theatres was over. Fortunately, IFC Films, in their savvy prescience, had decided SWALLOW would be a day and date release. Because the film was simultaneously put on VOD, we were able to easily transition to SWALLOW being an exclusively online release.
At first, we were disappointed, US audiences did not get to see the film in theatres beyond that first week (we did have a superb run in France for nine weeks on 98 screens). Luckily, the movie was reviewed by many wondrous, dedicated film journalists and embraced by the online community. A truly amazing fan base coalesced on Twitter, complete with a deluge of stunning fan art. Renowned directors and actors posted their appreciation of the film, which we were profoundly thankful for. We owe all these incredible film journalists, film devotees, and accomplished creators a huge debt of gratitude for drawing attention to the movie.
I believe films and storytelling are extremely important, especially during this trying time. Movies can bring us together, increase empathy, fight prejudice, and make people feel seen. I hope SWALLOW is part of that movement.