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“Handwashing is Not Exactly Cinematic”: Carlo Mirabella-Davis on Swallow

Haley Bennett in Swallow

While release dates are often determined months in advance for a slew of reasons solely related to a film’s individual success,  it’s striking to see how some can be placed in indirect conversation with one another. I recently revisited Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s debut feature Swallow just a few days after taking in Leigh Whannell’s feminist blockbuster adaptation of The Invisible ManBoth are about women in emotionally abusive relationships that have grown increasingly difficult to break free from. To complicate matters, each are pregnant with their lover’s child, and that the pregnancy is carried out to term is of utmost importance to the male, looking to spawn the next generation of white-collar, five-o’-clock-shadow-sporting, entitled frat bros like their daddies before them.

Will the women carry out their respective pregnancies even as they grow increasingly apprehensive about their futures with the domineering lover from hell? And what would it mean for these women to take ownership of their life’s narrative by demanding control of their own body? A woman’s right to choose has long been a topic of conversation and debate between the bible-thumping men who make the laws and the women who face their damning consequences, and Swallow (and the also-in-theaters Premature from director Rashaad Ernesto Green and Never Rarely Sometimes Always from Eliza Hittman) tackles the thorny issue head-on. 

Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a housewife caught in a thankless, controlling marriage who, one day, decides to routinely swallow dangerous objects. Is it an act of self-harm? An aggressive display of marital defiance? A sign of past sexual trauma and abuse? Deliberately opaque at the outset, Swallow is a heady feminist concoction that barrels forward like a cross between early Todd Haynes and the plays of Henrik Ibsen. Having already inspired multiple reports of audience members fainting during its festival run, the film arrives in theaters on the heels of the disgraced Harvey Weinstein being sentenced to Rikers Island Correctional Center and Roman Polanski being controversially fêted with a 2020 César Award. For every step forward, we must apparently take two steps back; given the toxicity of our times, Swallow feels like something of a corrective. 

A few days before his film opened in limited release, I spoke with Mirabella-Davis, a 25 New Face of Independent Film last summer, about the personal origins of the project, shooting chronologically and elevating the subtext of your script. Swallow is now in theaters and on demand courtesy of IFC Films.

Filmmaker: We last spoke over the summer for your 25 New Face profile and learned about your background and career in filmmaking. Swallow is your first narrative feature, though. How did you get this solo project off the ground? Had you written the screenplay on a hunch and said, “I’m going to see where I can obtain funding, where I can pitch it to , etc.”?

Mirabella-Davis: The screenplay was inspired by my grandmother, a homemaker in the 1950s, who developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive handwasher, going through four cakes of soap a day and twelves bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I think she was looking for order in her life. She felt powerless, that the people in her life were trying to sanitize away her lack of control. My grandfather asked that the doctors put her in a mental institution, and she ultimately was, receiving electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy and a nonconsensual lobotomy (none of which cured her OCD). I always thought there was something punitive to that marriage, like she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations of what a wife or a mother should be. I wanted to make a film about that, but of course, handwashing is not exactly cinematic.

I remember seeing a photograph of all the contents that make up someone’s stomach. The person they used suffered from pica and had to have each of the items surgically removed. The objects were spread out across a table like an archeological dig and I wanted  to know what captivated the patient to [swallow them]. It almost felt like something mystical, like a Holy Communion, and I wanted to know more. That was the impetus for writing the script. I wrote the first draft in three weeks in upstate New York. It just tumbled out of me. Then came years of rewriting. It’s strange when you’re in that zone and practicing a kind of  isolated writing. When it’s really going well, it feels like you’re in a dissociative, hypnotic state. I lose track of the time and then all of a sudden it’s five o’clock in the morning. When you catch a wave with your writing, it feels like you’re summoning something from the void, some creature from the beyond, and you have to perform all kinds of rituals to bring it out into the world.

That’s how the project began in regards to the script. I then remember asking a friend who the best producers in the business were, because in film school, they don’t always teach you how important the director-producer relationship is (even though it’s the crux of what gets a movie made). So, I asked my friend, “Who are the best?” And she said, “Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie…but you’ll never get them.”

Filmmaker: Of Gamechanger Films and now The Population?

Mirabella-Davis: Yeah. I was like, “All right, well, I’m going to try.” I reached out to Mollye, wrote her a letter, and sent her the script. 

Filmmaker: You cold-emailed her?

Mirabella-Davis: No, no, my friend, [writer/director] Dagny Looper, introduced us. I sent Mollye the script. She had actually seen my short before she read the script. Rumor has it she was like, “I want to work with this guy,” off of my short film, Knife Point, that was at Sundance back in 2009. Anyway, Mollye read the script for Swallow and we had a great conversation, a real meeting of the minds. She worked with me closely on [improving the script] and then brought on Mynette Louie as well. We then formed this wonderful collaboration and I went through multiple drafts with them.

Filmmaker: Was there ever a period where you felt, “I should make a ten-minute-short of this to prove that I can turn this story into a feature?”

Mirabella-Davis: It’s funny because that’s the traditional tried-and-true method, right? In a weird way, I feel that if I made a short first, It wouldn’t have captured what the film ultimately became, because the movie is so much the sum of its parts of each of these amazing collaborators. If I had seen the lead character, Hunter, first played by someone other than Haley Bennett, it would’ve thrown me off. I’m really glad that Haley was the only person to ever bring Hunter to the screen. But I think the short-to-feature method can work for other films, most definitely, and can be a great way to raise money.

Filmmaker: So to illustrate a proof-of-concept when you met with your producers, was the screenplay your only reference? Were you clear that you wished to be the sole proprietor of this project?

Mirabella-Davis: There was never a question about that. I always wanted to direct the movie myself and Mollye and Mynette encouraged that. Our process of getting the script ready and bringing it to the world did involve a lot of proof-of-concepts, yes. We created a lookbook that I spent endless time on, fine-tuning every texture that the film would feature. We were also lucky enough to be in the Sundance Catalyst program, and Mollye and I went out there to do a whole presentation for it. 

Filmmaker: How was that experience?

Mirabella-Davis: You have a very short window of time, about ten minutes. Mollye and I rehearsed it beforehand. We reworked every detail and I cut a teaser reel, clips from other movies that possessed a similar feel to what we were trying to achieve. We felt that our presentation went really well. Raising the necessary funds for production was still a big challenge. We got some money as a result of Catalyst, but the vast portion of the budget we just couldn’t obtain in the United States. We met with wonderful indie studios of all kinds, but they were a little nervous about the prospect of a first-time director working with an unusual premise for a film (it wasn’t based on another source material already proven in an ancillary market, for example). Mollye and Mynette remained driven however, and they fought with everything they had to get the movie made. We ultimately got the majority of the money from France, as Charades and Logical Pictures decided to take a chance on our movie with hardly any time left to go. 

Filmmaker: Were you able to assemble your above-the-line team behind the camera? Did you have a hand in selecting those closest to you that you were going to go into production with?

Mirabella-Davis: I did. If you want to make a good movie, surround yourself with incredibly talented people. I was ultimately looking for people that I felt would tell this story with passion, conviction and clarity of vision. I was lucky that we had so many amazing people come on board, like Katelin Arizmendi, our cinematographer, who is just a true visionary, and Erin McGill, our amazing production designer who poured an intensity of detail into everything, our amazing costume designer, Liene Dobraja, and the list goes on and on. We wanted to build a community of artists to tell this story.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot chronologically?

Mirabella-Davis: Mostly, yeah, which turned out to be very useful, because (and Haley pointed this out at another Q&A we did the other day) the trees go from having no leaves on them to being fuller and greener as the film progresses, serving as this nice metaphor for Hunter’s awakening. You’ll also notice that Hunter’s hair has this very strict, retro bob cut to it, and as the film progresses, it grows out, and that too reflects a kind of rebellion against the paradigm she’s been in. 

Filmmaker: So much of her character is internalized. There’s so much that isn’t spoken, and that only becomes clearer the longer we’re watching the film and sticking with her. Is that a result of your direction? Do you personally encourage your cast to go for something quieter if you feel the story demands it?

Mirabella-Davis: I absolutely do. In film school, I had a great teacher who always reminded us to elevate the subtext. That’s what filmmaking, in every department, is all about, right? You’re telling a story even down to the object, the coffee cup that someone’s drinking out of, and elevating the subtext of what’s really going on there. One of the true joys of making any movie is the chance to work with incredible actors who can register both the text and the subtext, all with just a look in their eye. Haley is really skilled at that. After she came aboard the project, she also decided to be an executive producer on it, and was very generous with her time. We spent a lot of time together, going over the script and talking about the character, building her out, and really getting into the weeds of what we wanted to say in each scene. 

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the house that Hunter and her husband, Richie, live in. It’s a cold, enclosed environment that feels soulless and constricting. Did you build that house?

Mirabella-Davis: Oh no, it was a real house we happened to come across. Now, everything in the house was designed and crafted by our production designer, Erin McGill, but the actual house itself was already standing. We did not construct that as a set. 

Filmmaker: How did you find it?

Mirabella-Davis: We did location scouting all over the place. We went door-to-door in upstate New York looking for this place, because I knew that, like The Shining, the house was to be a very important character in the film. Once we stepped inside, I looked around and was like, “It’s North by Northwest. We’re in a Hitchcock film.” If you look closely, there are these giant marbles outside of the house, almost like sculptures, and I thought, “It’s perfect. There are marbles in our movie, and here are these marble sculptures outside this home.” 

One of the things I realized was that when you’re in that kind of modernist, all-glass house, you assume that you’re going to feel integrated into nature, but when you’re in it, you actually feel this intense sense of vulnerability, which you also felt in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (it’s a very similar kind of house). That feeling of, you’re inside at night, but you’re almost in a Natural History Museum display case, and you can feel the outside forest watching you. It’s very unnerving.

Filmmaker: Have you seen the new Invisible Man remake by any chance?

Mirabella-Davis: Not yet, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Filmmaker: The main character in that film lives with her boyfriend in a house very much like the one in your film. And thematically similar to yours, she’s also pregnant, and we assume at the outset that her boyfriend has committed suicide. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that, even from beyond the grave, he still wants her to go through with the pregnancy  I was reminded of Swallow, in that here are these male figures fighting to have control over their female counterpart’s reproductive rights, and how oddly clean and sterile that can feel. The male is going to have the trophy wife, the nuclear family, come hell or high water.

Mirabella-Davis: That’s right. On the surface, the world Hunter finds herself in appears perfect, and everyone’s telling her, “This is what you should want. This is what will make you happy. This is who you are,” and she starts to look around and see something lurking beneath the surface. She realizes that her in-laws are trying to control her every step of the way, and that they see her as a kind of vessel for their family legacy, and the son sees her as a kind of augmentation to his life, like one of the ornaments that she consumes. Her compulsion begins as a quiet rebellion against that patriarchal structure. It also comes from repression, because she’s repressing her true misgivings about the situation, but of course, that comes out in another way.

Each character operates in a way that represents  a certain aspect of power in society. For example, take David Rasche’s character, who plays Hunter’s father-in-law. There’s something a little Trump-esque about his character, and he has a kind of “oblivious oppressor” vibe about him. He regards Hunter as being so ancillary to their world that he’s not even thinking about her as a human being. And then you have Elizabeth Marvel’s mother-in-law character, who has a very interesting position in the family, because she too is a part of that culture. She’s reinforcing the patriarchal stranglehold, while at the same time (being a woman within it) she’s simultaneously being controlled by it. She understands what Hunter is going through, because she went through it herself. She wants to help her but she also wants to control her. Then you have their son, Richie, who is a little bit of a Trump Junior, because he’s been brought in as a result of nepotism. He’s trying so hard to hit that alpha male kind of identity, and when Hunter steps outside of the bounds of normalcy, threatening the position that he’s in, he just doesn’t know how to handle it, and reacts in a very controlling way. 

As a result, Hunter has to wear numerous metaphorical masks in the film. The first mask is her reflection of normalcy, complete with that placid smile. The second mask is her pain, her doubt, i.e. “is this where I belong?” And the third mask is her primal self, her true self that’s threatening to emerge. As an actress, Haley can provide each of those masks with just the touch of her hair, or the twitch of her eye. That’s what you look for. 

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