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An On-Set Education: Graham Swon on The World is Full of Secrets

The World is Full of Secrets

When The World is Full of Secrets showed earlier this year at a festival for debut films in remote Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia, its director, Graham Swon (a 25 New Face of Film in 2016), briefly became almost as much of interest to the public audience and critics there as did his hypnotic cinematic spectacular. That I was there as the only international journalist in attendance to witness Swon fielding eager questions from this newfound audience of intrigued Siberian spectators strikes me now as a fluke of wondrous good fortune.

The movie’s long, discursive monologues, in which 15- and 16-year-old girls narrate bloodthirsty stories to each other at night, preserve the enveloping feeling of being told a spooky story in real time. Considering that no violence is depicted, only described, the film felt and feels suitably like some kind of event and, in that particular case in Khanty-Mansiysk, a psychic trauma that I was lucky enough to experience among an audience about as alien to me as I could have possibly imagined.

Watching The World is Full of Secrets in the school hall converted for use by the festival, the shock and palpable sense of immediate challenge of an unedited 20-minute closeup of a person recounting a story registered often in the room as the seconds and minutes rolled by and the stories grew ever more gruesome. It was equally difficult to ignore the uncanny sense that an entire audience of Russian cinemagoers were simultaneously falling prey to the influence of this beguiling and protracted cinematic enchantment.

Before the film’s New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest this Saturday, I caught up with Swon via email to talk about working with a young cast, his transition from producing to directing and a lifelong obsession with crime stories. 

Filmmaker: This is a lovely and verbose film. It is also full of really nasty descriptions of violent acts. Is it true that you were an obsessive reader of true crime books when you were a kid?

Swon: Both true crime and crime fiction. I think I stumbled into both at a young age after reading Poe and Dahl, who were my favorite writers when I was a child. Around the age of 12 I was gifted a copy of The Thin Man. I started very heavily on detective fiction and hard-boiled stuff after that, and think I just started looking for anything with “crime” written anywhere on it. There was one book in particular which was a sort of encyclopedia, with short entries on every major serial killer and many small, more obscure ones. The cover was made up of all of these mugshots of the different killers, staring out at you—I remember that cover disturbing me so much as I was reading that I had to keep it in a drawer at night, with a pile of more benign books on top of it.

True crime interests me for a lot of reasons: it constantly reminds of you of the fundamental strangeness of the world, and of how thin the veil of civilization is laid across our perception of reality. Reading about certain crimes forces an awareness of the unknowable. Even if you can put it into words why a serial killer operates, or why a mass shooter does something, there remains this disjoint—the reason is never good enough. Crimes of commerce and necessity lack this mystical quality—I understand why a gangster does something, why a conman does something, and that can be interesting for psychological or sociological reasons, but it isn’t what drives my engagement.

I still read true crime quite heavily, although I have a harder time with the sensationalist style of a lot of it than I used to. It is hard to find the balance where you can get into the situation, to get a sense of the gravity, but not just be overtaken by nihilism. The best books are those that manage to find a kind of poetry and purpose without falsely anesthetizing their subject. Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song remains, for me, the greatest book in the genre. I think most of the best true crime writing in recent history is longform journalism, especially the work of Pamela Colloff and Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly.

Filmmaker: You are also a big cinephile. Did you feel those styles, temperaments, ways of working—Rivette’s, Varda’s, Dreyer’s, whoever—weighing down on you, or was it simple to feel like you were keeping the risk of being influenced to a minimum?

Swon: I think cinephilic baggage is something that comes into play when conceptualizing a film but disappears once you are actually working. There are simply too many practical concerns. I’m not actively thinking of other films or filmmakers much at all when I am on set. I might use a reference as shorthand with Bart [Cortright], the cinematographer, to help quickly communicate something to him—if I told him it should be “more Bava” or “more Imitation of Life” he would know what I meant and change the lighting accordingly. But that is about efficiency—it is a language we share.

I thought about Lillian Gish a huge amount when thinking about how I wanted the character of Emily to feel—Gish is as important to me as Bava—but I don’t think Alexa [Shae Niziak] and I ever discussed Lillian Gish. The most important influences to me were Val Lewton and Andy Warhol. The things I learned from them are baked into content of the script and my approach to production, so I didn’t have to think about them when I was actually working.

I believe that if you consume a broad enough quantity of films (and other art), the network of influences becomes complex and one’s own taste and personality comes through. To quote Rivette quoting Cocteau: “Imitate, and what is personal will eventually come despite yourself.” I think they are both right.

Filmmaker: Right. But this isn’t your first film, is it? Do you have a sense of how coming at things after producing so many films has altered your way of working?

Swon: Each film as a producer is different, but of course patterns emerge. Recognizing problems before they happen gets easier—feeling confident that the production won’t collapse 24 hours before shooting starts, even if it feels like it will. I’ve gained a huge amount from working closely with other directors. The mythology of the process breaks down, and you come to understand the reality of it and what kind of strategies you’re going to use to get the picture into its final form.

Filmmaker: Speaking for myself, on my own film, while credited as both, I can say that I felt much more like a producer than a director. It was hectic. That’s probably because I was less experienced and less interested in the former rolem and therefore it seemed to eat up a good deal of my energy on set. I imagine being well-versed in that department would to some extent free you up as a director, even if you are still technically filling both roles.

Swon: At the end of the day, both jobs are about management: time, resources, people. The directorial job is sexier on paper, but the best moments are when the production is helping to drive the aesthetic interests as well as the practical ones. I don’t think it is coincidental that the biggest influences I just cited (Lewton and Warhol) are both producers.

Filmmaker: There are certainly brilliant moments of rupture in your film—say, where a line is partially flubbed well into one of those long monologues—that reminds me of Warhol’s preservation of the circularity and imperfection of speech or even Lewton’s wobbly low-budget sets, but on the whole the film does feel very strictly controlled. I’m thinking of the sequences with those extended, Age of Innocence-style fades between what in other films would be continuity shots. Judging by their symmetry and beauty, they don’t feel like they were arrived at spontaneously but quite carefully mapped out in advance.

Swon: It is a mixture. Many, many things were planned tightly (especially the framing), but I think some of the most successful moments are when chance stepped in. The moment you are referring to, when Suzie changes the tense of a sentence in her story, is to me the climax of the film—the moment when the actor gets lost in their role and therefore the character becomes lost in their story. If it had been planned, it would probably feel mannered. The glass cracks there and I hope it lets the viewer step through into a different place.

Filmmaker: You didn’t make it easy for yourself! Yours is such a young cast, shooting a lot at night or in the evening, recording long monologues in protracted, unbroken single shots.

Swon: It is funny but many people think working with the young cast was difficult. There were some production limitations (primarily working hours—minors have certain restrictions), but overall, I found them extraordinarily focused and professional. I’d work with all of them again in a heartbeat.

I loved doing the long shots. I’d like to go longer, with movement, and more actors. Of course, it has to fit the concept. The extreme duration brings a level of focus to the work, a tension where everyone is being pushed to the edge. It reminds me of theater, this sense it is your only chance to get it right. On take 14 of Suzie’s story (the one in the film, although not the last we did), the energy as she pushed forward into the last 1/3rd and I could feel she had it in her grasp… You don’t feel that tension when you are doing 30-second shots. While you are making a film for others to enjoy watching, the true joy for me is in the moment of the shoot.

I find a big part of the role of producer is functioning as a kind of psychotherapist for the director, which is something impossible to achieve when you work on your own. It necessitates building a different kind of mental/emotional support network, which is something I relied heavily on my AD, Lio [Sigerson], for. Later, the edit was very difficult and time consuming. Much, much more so than I expected. I learned that it is harder to cut with fewer shots, not easier.

Filmmaker: The movie was initially a good deal longer, right?

Swon: There was a longer version, yes. There were things I liked about that version, but the rhythm was wrong, the length was wrong, the music was wrong. If the balance isn’t just right, the whole thing falls apart quite quickly. I find editing painful—it is like writing again, but this time you have a limited number of words and many fixed sentences. I know some filmmakers who are able to move through the editing phase quite quickly, and I am always amazed by that. The superimpositions you just referred to were planned, especially those with dialogue. But things blossom as you lay them together. If it wasn’t for the difficultly with adequately controlling the lighting and framing, I’d love to use two or three cameras at once and weave a tapestry of the viewpoints into a single continuous image.

Filmmaker: I guess for me that’s what makes such an interesting contrast with the looseness of those monologue shots. There you seem to self-consciously embrace the mistakes and surprises of performance.

Swon: Absolutely. To me, the most interesting thing is watching the struggle to tell the story, not some pristine performance, not even the content of the stories. I think this is something that is possible in the cinema and very, very difficult in theater—a feeling of spontaneity and surprise, something that had been prepared but not overly perfected.

When I speak about Warhol: the film I am thinking of above all is Face. My favorite of the films, along with Beauty #2. It is remarkable. First you see Sedgwick as a person, then as an object, then as a landscape, and finally as a person again. And when her humanness comes through—it is heart-breaking. She’s so young, so magnetic, and you know she is moving towards oblivion. It is purely cinematic and it has no camera movement, no script, only one cut. And that is for a reel change.

Filmmaker: Were you sitting on the idea for a long time?

Swon: I believe I started writing the first versions of what became this script in 2011, although absolutely nothing of that script remains in it. I was interested in what became the story that Suzie tells, about Mary-Anne and the group of teenage friends. I was working at writing a more conventional version of that narrative. I would get 20-30 pages into the idea and start to feel that it was dipping into this sensationalist nihilism that I hate, that it would be impossible for it to not turn out being a torture film where the brutality overshadows the ideas.

Filmmaker: What made you stick with it?

Swon: Well, for whatever reason, that narrative kept coming back for me. It was haunting me. It had some kind of presence that made it feel worth trying to work through. Every couple of years I would try my hand at it, but I would always get depressed once the violence against Mary-Anne started and toss it out. I did start playing with certain ideas that remain in the film though. Lines here and there, the idea of having it narrated from the future, the title. In 2015, I found myself pleasantly without other work for several months and decided I would push through and find a final version. Different formal ideas for unrelated films had been bouncing around in my head, and I started to find harmony between an idea for a feature-length monologue I had been working on, and the need for more distance to tell the story of Mary-Anne.

From there, I had the revelation about setting the narrative across different overlapping time-periodsand using the structure of the sleep-over and these elements of a certain kind of American genre cinema, and everything else started to fall quickly into place. I was really interested in digging into the experiences I had had from seeing films like Warhol’s Faceand Eustache’s Numero Zero but finding a way to make a sort of B-movie version of them, something that was also feeding off of everything from the Amicus horror anthologies to Are You Afraid of the Dark?.

I wrote the film almost entirely on a laptop with the internet turned off at the Jefferson Market Library at 425 Avenue of the Americas in NYC, which is an absolutely lovely building and one of my favorites in the city. It used to be a courthouse but it feels like a church. I finished the script Easter morning 2016 and started trying to figure out how to shoot it from there.

Filmmaker: You come from a theater background, having studied directing for that particular form. That used to be a common approach – even Richard Fleischer of all people started out as a theater-head – but not so much anymore. Did you direct many plays?

Swon: I started working as an actor in theater at the age of 12, in community theatre in New Jersey. I then attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a rather unique arts-focused boarding school, where I got a fairly classical training as an actor and started writing and directing plays. The first play I ever directed was Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair, and I think I realized quite immediately at that point that acting wasn’t what interested me—it was putting the places together from the outside instead of the inside. I spent one summer in high school working as Lee Breuer’s assistant on the tour of Mabou Mines DollHouse, a few feverish months where I learned more about directing than I ever did in a school.

I directed a theater constantly through university, mostly pieces that I wrote and designed. The largest was an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation set in an abandoned church in Pittsburgh, PA called The Conqueror Worm: A Grotesque.After university I arrived in NYC and found myself largely uninterested in the theatre that I saw being produced, and too broke to find a way to pay actors or get rehearsal space. I was going to repertory cinema with all my free time, seeing as many films as I could fit into a day, and working in film distribution to pay the rent.

Filmmaker: Well, though the idea of long monologues has obvious theatrical connotations, the fact is that those same sequences consist of single close shots of faces, far removed from the very idea of theater.

Swon: I think that cinema became very frightened of, and very disdainful towards, its roots in theater. You find this a lot in the theoretical writings in the silent period. It stays a constant for a long time—talk of cinema as a separate art form, not derived from theatre or literature, something purely modern and of itself. Out of this arises the use of the term “theatrical” as a negative descriptor in criticism.

As far as how it feels to be making films, all I can say is that to me it is a natural extension. I find that theatre is more communal and less technical. With cinema you have more control and fewer restrictions, even if you are working with very limited means. But you can never have the intimacy of putting real people together in a room. I’d love to be able to alternate between theatre and film, the way Bergman did for many years. I have lots of ideas for productions, but as always, it is a matter of available resources.

Personally, I think it is quite obvious that the structure of narrative cinema as we know it is largely derived from the stage; the structure and approach is much, much closer to a play than say, a novel. Especially once sound comes in. Of course, they are very different as well—cinema gets to take on all these other dimensions, through editing and camera placement and movement, which rapidly throw you into another place. I don’t think a good theater director is necessarily going to be a good filmmaker, and I am sure most filmmakers would be absolutely horrible at directing for the stage (not least of all because most of them seem to be completely disinterested in actors, which makes it almost impossible to make good theater). I often find myself drawn to “theatrical” filmmakers for one reason or another—Fassbinder, Mizoguchi, Griffith, Dreyer.

Filmmaker: Having said all that, once you were actually just directing the thing yourself, and the baggage of being the producer of other people’s films, the cinephile baggage, the arduousness of writing the script, getting everybody together, et cetera, was out of mind—

Swon: I don’t think of any of that as baggage—it is fuel to work off of! What I learned in this process was to always push myself to watch more closely, to listen more carefully. To be patient.

Filmmaker: What kind of on-set education did you get from actually directing it?

Swon: Completing the film has made me focus on a new set of aesthetic experiences. I’m an atheist, but I’ve started attending church services. I recently learned to drive, which has opened up a whole new way of perceiving landscape and time. I’m listening to a lot of birdsong. But I’m also re-watching all of the ’70s/’80s slashers I haven’t seen since I was a teenager, re-watching Edgar Ulmer, reading Virginia Woolf, thinking a lot generally about how all these different things can communicate with one another.

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