The horror genre is experiencing a renaissance. The days of cheap jump scares and laughable narratives are (mostly) gone. In its place are films that use horror to tackle themes such as racism, abuse, grief, and trauma, in a way that fights said themes and deconstructs their power over us.
In 2020, Swallow, written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, will tackle the horrors of womanhood and how women break free of the confided expectations of patriarchy. The film is set to have its premiere on March 6, 2020 , and Talkies Network was given the amazing opportunity to interview Carlo and discuss directing his first feature film, the familial inspirations behind the story, working with Haley Bennett, and more!
Nick: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today!
Carlo: Oh, my pleasure! Thank you for your interest in the film
Nick: I have to be honest here, this film was very surprising. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting.
Carlo: Really? Is that so…
Nick: Well, when I got the initial email inquiring about covering the film, they touted the film as a psychological horror film. I guess I was more expecting something along the lines of a typical horror film filled with jumped scares and monsters.
Carlo: That’s great to hear! In a way, it’s an amalgamation of genres: horror, body horror, dark comedy, and the backdrop of it is a domestic drama. It has a lot of emotional catharsis in it and so I tend to think of it as the tiramisu of genres.
Nick: You mentioning my favourite desert has me hungry now.
Carlo: *Laughs* it’s my favourite too!
Nick: I could talk about tiramisu for hours but, going back to the film I loved it and was very happy with how uncomfortable it made me feel but also how uplifting it was in the end.
Carlo: That’s so amazing to hear.
Nick: To really kick things off, I’d love to know a little bit about yourself and how you fell in love with film.
Carlo: Oh wow, good question. Well, I grew up in upstate New York City and in my family, my parents would order food and watch movies on Sunday nights, so that had a huge impact on me. When I was 14, my sister, who is also a filmmaker, found a super 8 camera at a yard sale, so we began to film these unusual movies with our friends and so that sort of tradition of storytelling was super inspiring for me, especially through high school.
Fun fact, I actually went to high school with Jordan Peele and he took me under his wing. I was 15 and he was 16, and he showed me The Shining and Akira for the first time, and I was deeply moved by the power that cinema has to investigate the intricacies of the human mind and I’ve followed his career with awe ever since. It was really since then that I’ve been truly hooked. And I went to film school at NYU, grad in film, and there was a time where I was watching five films a day, which of course needed to be cut back to shoot my own films and sleep.
Nick: Were there any specific filmmakers, especially in the horror genres, that you gravitated towards?
Carlo: Hitchcock for sure was a major one, like one of the people that I am most intrigued by. I love Dario Argento, especially his Suspiria, and his use of colour and how it elevates the internal subext of the characters; it really mesmerized me. Of course, I love films like Woman Under the Influence and Rosemary’s Baby, Safe by Todd Haynes. Oh, and The Thing by John Carpenter.
Nick: When you were crafting Swallow, I understand that the film is somewhat autobiographical.
Carlo: Yes and no. The film itself was inspired by my grandmother and her life in 1950s. She was in an unhappy marriage and she started developing these rituals in an attempt to gain more control over her life. She was an obsessive hand washer, and my grandfather, and the behest of doctors, put her in a mental institution. She received electroshock therapy, as well as an unsanctioned lobotomy. I always felt there was something punitive about how she was being treated, like she was being punished for not living up to society’s standards, of what a wife or mother should be. But you know, hand washing isn’t very cinematic, and I remember seeing a photo of someone with Pica, and everything that the discovered in her stomach. It was all laid out on a table. And I wondered what drew a person to eating those objects, with it having almost a religious pull to it.
Nick: I’m glad you brought that up. The main character, Hunter, struggles quite a bit with living up to the standards set forth by her in-laws. Was there ever a time that you struggled with these ideals as well? Or were you mainly pulling on the stories of your grandmother?
Carlo: Well first of all, I’m glad you felt that way. The film’s whole aesthetic is that everything looks perfect and pristine on the surface, the kind of life we see reflected to us in magazines. The American ideal, if you will. The more time Hunter spends in it, she sees the sinister forces at play here. The family really only sees her as a vessel to carry on their legacy. And she starts developing Pica disease as a way to fight back.
In terms of my own experience, I was raised in a feminist family and was taught about how everyone deserves equality. And for a time in my twenties, I identified as a woman, dressed in women’s clothes, and used a different name. It was an incredible time in my life, really one of the most wonderful. It taught me a lot about how society views women. When you’re a man, you really don’t realize how baked in misogyny and sexism is. You walk down the street and you see how people look at you, simply because of your gender. Really learned about what female-identified people experience was an eye-opening experience. It solidified my feminist beliefs and furthered my need to make a film about gender expectations.
Nick: It’s almost like the USA is trying to fall back on its old ideals instead of the ones you mentioned. Sort of a “back to the way things were” mentality.
Carlo: Exactly. I think more and more that the Trump administration is catapulting the States back into a patriarchal society. There’s all the talk about MAGA, which is a horrifying slogan in my opinion. They want to bring America back to that white male-power structure. That’s why we gave the film a retro aesthetic, but as Hunter starts to rebel, the film becomes more and more realistic. And there are so many filmmakers that are fighting against this as well.
Nick: It’s interesting that you mentioned Trump’s politics specifically because when watching this film, I’d put it in the same boat as other horror films like Get Out, Midsommar, and the upcoming Invisible Man. Films that tackle serious topics such as gender norms, racism, abuse, and grief. Why do you think the horror genre is able to convey such mature themes?
Carlo: I think we’re in this beautiful renaissance of horror. You have films like Babadook, Get Out, and Hereditary that use the power and potency of horror in order to provoke an emotional and cathartic reaction. Which allows filmmakers to tackle important emotional and social issues. I think horror is so right for this is because fear is one of the most primary emotions. It’s the first emotion we experience as babies, and I feel that throughout our lives, we are just constantly in a waltz with fear and anxiety.
The beauty of horror is you can sit down and see your fears manifested on screen, and they don’t seem so scary anymore because you saw them in a controlled environment. When the film is done, it doesn’t seem as scary as before, and so you leave, ready to take on the fear with your newfound power. I think horror conations the world, and can fight fear and prejudice and I think it’s just such an exciting space right now.
Nick: In today’s age of cinema, you don’t see too many films like this: quiet, original, authentic. How difficult was it to get the project off the ground?
Carlo: Well one of the things they don’t teach you enough of in film school is that if you want to get a movie off the ground, the key is getting credible producers on board. I worked with the incredible Mollye Asher and the wonderful Mynette Louie. Mollye actually just won the Independent Spirit Award for Producing saw the film first and championed it. She was the one who brought on Mynette.
They fought with everything they have to get the film made. We got some money from the Sundance catalyst program but the majority of our funding actually came from France. There were a lot of studios in the States that were intrigued, but the thought of a project like this with a first time director did spook them a bit. When we went overseas, our French producers took a chance on us, and we’re incredibly grateful for it. I mean, it is an unusual film, I don’t kid about that.
Nick: As a first time director, did you find yourself trusting your gut more or fall on your producers for decision making?
Carlo: It’s as I said, surround yourself with an amazing team, producers especially, and you’ll do wonders. And I haven’t mentioned her yet, but the incredible Haley Bennett gave a tour-de-force performance in Swallow, and was an executive producer as well. In terms of her character, Hunter wears a lot of masks in the film, like her first one is normalcy, second is accepting her surroundings, and the third is change.
Haley was able to convey all of that, and was just wonderful. Our cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi was also a tremendous person to work with, and in collaboration with her, we developed a strict set of camera rules to craft this confided space. I’m so grateful that two thirds of our crew was women because, in a project like this, you need to have strong female guidance and point of view. The long and short of it is, when you’re directing, you’re drawing from a core passion that you feel about the story that you’re telling. A lot of it is careful planning and collaboration, and I was blessed with such a superb group of people.
Nick: Focusing on the cinematography for a second, I’m glad you mentioned the confided space point because as I mentioned before, a lot of this film made me quite uncomfortable in the way scenes were framed. I love that you linger on Hunter and really us into the emotions on her face; and really without any dialogue to explicitly say anything. What was your process behind creating such tension?
Carlo: You’re absolutely right, there are moments where the story is being told through the details of Hunter’s face. And I believe in the reductive power of the close-up. Ever since I saw Joan of Arc, where you stare into the face of Joan, and feel the weight of the world on her; I wanted to do that with Hunter. With an unusual story, you have to find a way to bond with the character. Haley is able to pull the whole world into her life, and after storyboarding the film, we realized how powerful a close-up could be. There’s one scene in particular, the dinner scene at the beginning, where we use medium shots, but Hunter is given close-up shots, which I thought was quite powerful in showcasing her current situation.
Nick: How did you convince Haley to join the project? Or did she audition for the role?
Carlo: So I’d seen Haley in The Girl on the Train and I thought she was amazing in it. I actually wrote her a letter offering her the role, passionately explain the movie and the role. And she decided to do it. After seeing her in a variety of projects, I knew I wanted to watch her lead a film. She hadn’t been given that, bold role that demonstrates her incredible talent. I hoped she’d take a chance on the film and after we met, we had this mental telepathy and we knew that this was the film we were going to do together.
Nick: How involved was Haley in fleshing out the character of Hunter?
Carlo: Oh, for sure. We spent a lot of time meeting and discussing the character, and the thing that is so interesting is that the life of a screenwriter is very solitary. You’re in your liar tinkering on this piece of writing, and it’s so interesting when others come into the process with a fresh pair of eyes. For example, Haley is doing a voice when playing Hunter, which was all her idea. Giving her a specific voice was so impactful because it evokes such emotion, and separates herself from the other characters. I was very fortunate that Haley dedicated herself so much to the character.
Nick: On the topic of Haley’s voice for Hunter, after hearing it, was it intentional that you gave all the supporting characters around her such booming voices?
Carlo: Yeah! Even in the way we film Hunter is to underline the subtext where she’s come from this working-class background, but this elite family has taken her in and placed huge expectations on her. She has a role in the marriage, a role in being a mother, and she’s very aware of this. Hunter is trying to make everyone happy, but as she discovers her true self through Pica, she’s able to fight back and realize that, while this compulsion is dangerous, she realizes who she is and what she really wants. As you said about the camera direction, when we film Hunter in public, we do a lot of shots where she’s oppressed by the frame, giving it a claustrophobic feel. When she’s alone, she’s given more presence, because for these moments, she has control of the world.
Swallow hits theatres on March 6, 2020.