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The core of ‘Swallow’ was to reclaim one’s identity: Carlo Mirabella-Davis

A still from ‘Swallow’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Loneliness creeps into the lavish penthouse and circles around Hunter Conrad’s [Haley Bennett] neck like a snake, when she spends most of the days and nights in isolation, tending to mundane household chores. She is oft-perceived as a material possession, almost like an ornament, in the eyes of her affluent husband Richie Conrad [Austin Stowell] and her in-laws.

Hunter goes through an avalanche of emotion when she discovers she is pregnant. In order to reclaim ownership of her body and to gain control from her family, she develops an obsession over consuming non-edible materials including a thumb pin. As horrific as it may sound, Swallow was inspired by the story of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ grandmother, who was a homemaker in an unhappy marriage in the ‘50s, and was obsessive with hand washing. Through the course the film, we get a sense of the horrors his grandmother and most women deal with, in an abusive relationship.

Over a Zoom call from New York, Mirabella-Davis says he is fortunate that the film has struck a chord with the audience, especially the isolation part, during the pandemic. “One of the publications called it the perfect horror film for our helpless moment right now. But I wrote this story in a non-pandemic time,” says Mirabella-Davis with a laugh.

Excerpts from the interview:

Your production designer [Erin Magill] said that the overall aesthetics of the film was inspired by Rosemary’s Baby and that makes total sense, if you consider the palpable horror that is in the air. How much of an influence has Polanski’s film had on you?

Erin and I discussed a lot of movies including A Woman Under the Influence [by John Cassavetes], Safe [Todd Haynes] and Rosemary’s Baby [Roman Polanski] as well. The concept was always to create an environment to make the house into a character itself. She was passionate about the idea that Hunter’s design of the house should reflect what the wealthy family wants her to be. In fact, all the pieces of furniture resemble objects that Hunter might want to consume if they were smaller — this was another cool concept Erin came up with. That is why you always get a sense of what is going on beneath the surface.

You have spoken quite a bit about your grandmother; how she was one of the reasons why you made Swallow. But when you make a film, especially a genre film, how vital was it for you to stick to the genre tropes? Is that why Hunter becomes obsessive with consuming non-edible material, which was not the case with your grandmother?

Interesting question. Yes, the film was inspired by my grandmother who developed various rituals of control. And yes, she was an obsessive hand washer. When I began to write this, I realised hand washing is not very cinematic and felt it wouldn’t translate well on screen. I remember seeing a photograph of someone, who had pica that had been surgically removed and fanned out on a table, like an archaeological dig. I was fascinated and wanted to know more. The patient was drawn to those objects because it felt spiritual.

In terms of genre elements, I began researching about pica and OCD, and realised they were universal. I wanted the story to allow people to sit and identify with Hunter and say: ‘Well, I might not do that, I understand what she’s feeling.’ That is one of the incredible powers of horror; it is visceral and allows filmmakers to directly to tap into their hidden fears or pain.

Filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis

Filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Though horror might be the genre in broader terms, the underlying theme is patriarchy and the roles of gender. You said you wanted to make a “feminist film addressing gender expectations and patriarchy”. This reminded me of what Richie says when he finds out that Hunter is pregnant. He says, “We are having a baby” with an emphasis on ‘we’. Don’t you think this, in itself, is patriarchal?

You are absolutely right. At its core, it is about a woman who is reclaiming her identity from a family that sees her as a possession and a vessel for their legacy. That is why the rebellion comes out in the form of pica, which is dangerous, yes, but also serves a catalyst for her, to have this quiet rebellion.

There isn’t anything wrong with what Richie says, but how he says is the problem. He is talking to his parents, but Hunter is not included in the conversation. And you see Richie’s reflection in the background. The scene was to show the beginning of his controlling aspect.

The one thing that stood out in the construct was how the conflict was first established and then the characters. You introduce Hunter and Richie in the first scene and the fact that they are having a baby, but only later do we know the dynamics between them. Was this how you intended it to be: to establish the conflict and then the characters?

That is a fascinating observation. Sometimes movies can get bogged down in backstory and that works in some cases. For this film, I wanted to create a mood for the character and her environment. Once when the audience gets a powerful first impression, then some of the backstories fill in the cracks.

I don’t want to give too much away, but it begins with an animal being sacrificed and then transformed into food, which is intercut with Hunter unpacking her belongings. This was brilliantly put together by my editor Joe Murphy. The goal was to create a metaphor between Hunter and the lamb.

One of the scenes I found interesting was when Richie’s friends come home for dinner and when one of them says he wants a hug from Hunter and that he feels lonely. I found this oddly placed at first, but then realised it was something Hunter never said out loud and deep down she knows what that hug meant. Was that the idea?

A lot of people have this assumption that if you are in a marriage, you are not lonely. In reality, you could be extremely lonely even if surrounded by people. This scene was a complex one; it is the first time Hunter’s private space is invaded by men. Richie does not even tell her they are coming. It is one of the first moments where you see him abandoning her. But there is also another guy who is trying to take control of Hunter. I just wanted to introduce the word loneliness.

Another scene I wish to talk about and which was fantastically written and acted is when Hunter goes to meet someone in the end. What were your thoughts when you wrote it and how important would you say the reassurance meant for Hunter in that scene?

I don’t want to give away spoilers [laughs]. There are a lot of things that happen in Swallow and are open to multiple interpretations. There is also Hunter’s mounting past that felt like a detailed puzzle to be unlocked and I wanted to explore that. Unfortunately, what happens with trauma is that you are dealing with PTSD but also victim-blaming. That happens in society and Hunter confronts her past in that powerful scene, punctuated by Haley Bennett’s tour de force performance.

Your grandmother was eventually sent to an institution and was subjected to electric shock. Considering how the film ends, it is tempting to know if you wished your grandmother had got a similar conclusion?

I remember at one of the screenings I went to, someone asked if I wrote this story to correct the past. It was inspired by my grandmother’s story, but the film has its own narrative. This was the arc I wanted Hunter to have and that worked for this story. But I also wish my grandmother had not been subjected to the torture that she was subjected to.

She never had a choice and most of her choices were made by the men in her life. And the loss of that choice had a profound effect on her. She preserved her core self despite everything that she went through. I hope that the movie in some way increases empathy for people with mental illness.

Is it safe to assume that Hunter is in a happy space right now?

It makes me so happy that people are thinking about that. One of the things that keeps someone in an abusive relationship is the fear of survival, especially when you are dependent on your husband and do not have a place to live. That is why I did not want to give a firm closure to Hunter. She is still in chaos, but we get a sense that she can handle it.

What next?

I have taken advantage of the isolation and have been trying to write as much as possible. There is a feminist supernatural horror movie I am working on and a couple of other projects as well.

Swallow is currently streaming on Mubi

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 2:39:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/filmmaker-carlo-mirabella-davis-on-swallow/article33022001.ece

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