New York-based writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis makes his feature film debut with the deeply affecting Swallow.
The film screened during the Arrow Video FrightFest Halloween all-dayer last year and now it’s available on digital platforms. Swallow tells the story of Hunter (Haley Bennett), a seemingly perfect housewife whose battle who finds control in her life through a condition known as pica, which is when a person has a compulsion to eat objects they shouldn’t.
I caught up with Carlo recently to talk about the inspiration behind the film, discuss Haley’s incredible central performance, and find out about the visual style and costume design that makes the film feel timeless…
Before I saw Swallow all I’d read was a two-line synopsis and I thought it was going to be the weirdest film I’d ever seen. When I came out of the cinema, I was in tears. I found it so incredibly affecting and moving. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
I’m so pleased to hear you say that. That means a lot to me that you had that response. I was inspired by my grandmother, who was a homemaker in the 1950s in an unhappy marriage, who developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive hand washer 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 put her into a mental institution where she received electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy. They messed up the lobotomy and she lost her sense of taste and smell.
I always felt that there was something punitive about it, 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 and for being different. I always wanted to make a film about that. As I began doing that, I realised that hand washing wasn’t particularly cinematic, although maybe it’s becoming more cinematic now (laughs). I remember seeing an image of all the contents of a patient’s stomach who had pica, all these objects that had been surgically removed and they were fanned out on a table like an archeological dig. I was fascinated. I wanted to know what drew the patient to those artefacts. It almost seemed like something mystical like a holy communion and I wanted to know more.
At the start of the film I really struggled to find anything relatable about Hunter but by the end I felt like I’d gone through, and embraced, her journey with her. Tell me how you developed Hunter fleshing her out from a seemingly perfect housewife into a complex and layered character…
I’ve always been fascinated by the intricacies of the human mind. I love nuanced characters that have some kind of conflicts between their conscious mind and their unconscious mind. A lot of times when you sit down to write a story, one of the basic questions is, ‘what does your character want?’ I find it interesting if a character is being told by everyone else, that they should want something or that this is who they are, or that this is where they belong, but unconsciously they know that’s not true. They repress that misgiving and then it comes out in some other form, in this case the form of Hunter’s compulsion.
She’s in a place where everyone is trying to convince her that this is who she is and she knows underneath it all that there’s something sinister lurking about her husband’s patriarchal family’s controlling agenda for her. She represses it and puts on a happy face. I was really interested in the tension between the facade of normalcy that the family has layered upon Hunter’s existence, her attempts to fit into that, and then her quiet rebellion from that controlling structure. That was the idea. Pica itself is a compulsion that is dangerous, but I liked the idea that it served as a kind of catalyst that allows her to break free from this oppressive paradigm and also discover her true self. That was the overarching concept.
Hunter’s husband Richie is such an infuriating character. On the one hand you can understand why his patience wears thin with his wife, but on the other you wish he’d support her and try to understand what she’s going through. How did you approach writing the conflict between those two characters?
Richie is played by the wonderful Austin Stowell and I thought a lot about Don (Trump) Jr in a way. There’s those photographs of Don Jr, posing with those dead animals and there’s a kind of desperate attempt, I think, that you see in those photographs to achieve a certain approval from his father and establish an alpha male persona. Nepotism has brought Richie to the financially superior situation he’s in and he’s very aware of the fact that he’s expected to achieve a certain kind of alpha male supremacy. He’s willing to do anything to achieve that including sacrifice his wife. This need for control and toxic masculinity bubbles to the surface when he sees that his wife, who he assumed would be a kind of augmentation to his life, is not going with the program. At the same time he’s caught because there’s also a part of him that has genuine affection for her and he wants to solve the problem; it’s just that his solutions and the family’s solutions to the problem and the cure becomes worse in a way than the condition. His family swoops in to reestablish order and his is sort of a downward trajectory in a way and one that I think is both chilling and happens a lot in our society.
This could have been such an incredibly different film had you not got the casting so spot on. Let’s talk about Haley Bennett’s performance, which is absolutely magnificent. Why did you feel she was the right person to play Hunter?
I’m so glad you feel that way. Haley Bennett delivers an earth-shattering performance in this movie. One of the things that I knew from the start is that I needed an actor who had an ability to instantly pull the audience into their emotional cosmology. Someone with incredible power of control over their face and over the amount of empathy that they could impart to the audience. Without that, I knew the audience would not go along on this journey. My casting director Allison Twardziak, who I’ve worked with a lot, mentioned Haley. I went and saw Girl on a Train and I thought Haley delivered an incredible performance in that film. I thought to myself, ‘I want to see her in a lead role’ and I suspected that maybe she might be interested in playing a role that was daring and unusual, a little different from the parts that she’d been cast in.
I wrote her a letter and I offered her the part, and I figured I’d never hear from her again, but then she wrote back and she wanted to meet and it was just this wonderful meeting of the minds where we instantly had this kind of telepathic bond and knew that we wanted to tell this story together. Haley was also an executive producer on the film and she was extremely generous with her time. She poured every iota of her soul into this part. One of the things that Haley is so good at is layers of emotion, multiple layers of emotion. Hunter wears multiple masks throughout the film.
There’s that first mask, which is reflecting normalcy with that placid smile, reflecting what her husband wants her to be. There’s that second mask, which is her pain and her doubt; is this where I belong? And the third mask, that true self, that primal self emerging. Haley can give you all of those layers with just the touch of her hair or the twitch of her eye. The other thing is close-ups became extremely important to this movie because there’s not that much dialogue actually. I really needed an actor who could convey a wide range of psychological movement, just through their reaction shots. Haley has this micro calibration control over storytelling through changes in her eyes and her expressions. That allowed our incredible cinematographer Kate Arizmendi, to really capture the soul of Hunter through the reductive power of close ups.
I loved those little moments where you could see her expression change from the pain of wanting to eat something she shouldn’t and then the satisfaction after she did. They were just so subtle, but so effective…
Yeah, I agree. Those shifts were really, really fascinating to observe and be a part of onset. We also have an incredible score by Nathan Halpern, whose melodious. soundscape is also a sort of a character in the film; a Douglas Sirk-ian kind of callback to the Hitchcock style of filmmaking, but at the same time it has all these little modern metallic sensations within it.
This was your feature film debut and you assembled such an incredible cast to surround Haley including Austin, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel and Luna Lauren Velez. What was it like having a cast like that in your first feature film?
It was incredible. I really have so much gratitude to my amazing casting director Allison Twardziak who’s so excellent at divining character from script. It was a true dream working with this cast. To be able to work with actors I’ve long admired suddenly see them evoking the characters from the screenplay was just a dream come true. Each one of them, I thought, did such an incredible job. Elizabeth Marvel’s character, Katherine walks a very interesting tightrope. She is a part of the patriarchal structure now. She’s been absorbed into it and in many ways she’s enforcing that structure upon Hunter, but she is also being oppressed because she’s a woman and she is one of the people who understands and sees what Hunter’s going through because she went through it in a different form herself. Elizabeth Marvel beautifully walks that line. Denis O’Hare is just a legendary actor who is mesmerising to watch. know, Zabryna Guevara, who plays the therapist, I think is amazing. And Laith Nakli, who plays Louis, I think just does a magnificent job. David Rasche I think is perfect. As Michael he has this casual oppressiveness that’s really unnerving and incredible to watch. Austin Stowell does an amazing job. It was a wonderful cast and I was really honored that they all decided to work with me.
The look-and-feel of the film felt Mad Men-esque but also very classic, especially the costume design. Why did you decide to go for that approach?
I was really fortunate to work with an unbelievable design team. I mentioned Kate Arizmendi before, our incredible cinematographer, she was a true visionary and I mean every frame is like a Renaissance painting. She and I talked a lot about the idea of establishing a rigid vernacular for the camera direction; a strict set of rules that we would establish and then break at key emotional junctures. For example, you see Hunter in the beginning, in a lot of locked down master shots where she’s lost in the frame. Then we introduce close-ups and shallow depth of field when Hunter has her mesmerizing moments with the objects, or, for example, Kate will use just a little bit of Dolly and keep the camera on the tripod and then during the thumbtack scene, she will suddenly use handheld, which sort of throws you throws you off and plunges you into the idea that things are breaking apart. Kate came up with this amazing idea to shoot the film with master prime lenses, which capture everything in this kind of textural detail. People who have pica talk a lot about the textures of things.
In our production design we had the amazing Erin Magill who had worked on Mad Men and has such an incredible sense of color and aesthetic. Eric was really passionate about the idea that every piece of furniture and object in the house is an opportunity for storytelling because Hunter is literally decorating the entire house. Every item has been chosen by her. If you go back and look at the movie, every larger piece of furniture and ornament on the tables or in tables looks like an object that Hunter might want to consume, if it was smaller. Also you see that Hunter’s decorating the house the way she thinks the family would like, but then her true personality comes out in these bursts of intense color, like when she puts the red gel up in the baby’s room, which I just loved Erin’s innovation there. Our costumes with Liene Dobraja have a 1950s kind of feel. Liene is so good at bringing out a person’s psychology through what they wear. The idea essentially was that we would give the film a kind of 1950s style a little bit to imply that the sexism and old guard patriarchy from the 50s, while we’ve made a lot of advances, is still lurking somewhere in our modern era affecting things. As Hunter goes through her journey, the film becomes less and less stylised and more and more realistic to reflect her growing empowerment.
I don’t envy you having to follow this film at all, because that’s gonna be hard but what else are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing a supernatural feminist horror movie and I’m working on a few other projects, that are gestating. I’m going to try and take advantage of this period of confinement and immerse myself in writing. I ultimately just want to keep making films that I hope make people feel seen, that are dangerous and visceral but also heartfelt and resonate. One of the things I’m so proud of about our film is that it’s a movie that has a roller coaster of an emotional experience. Audiences go and they get frightened but they also laugh a little and they also cry. Movies like that can be an intense cathartic experience. I’m very inspired and encouraged by how many new genre films are taking on social issues or putting in characters that we don’t often see on the screen; films like The Babadook, Get Out and Hereditary and many more. Because horror movies are so visceral and because they tap into a physiological response, I think they can actually be quite healing. You see something you’re frightened of manifested on the screen and then it seems more manageable. You can then deal with it in your everyday life. I just want to make another movie and collaborate with amazing artists and I hope I get a chance to do that.
Swallow is now available digitally on all major platforms courtesy of Blue Finch Film Releasing. Watch the trailer below: