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“The Frame Is a Proscenium”: Graham Swon on An Evening Song (for three voices)

An Evening Song (in three parts)

Set in 1939 and told through the intertwining perspectives of characters enmeshed in a bizarre love triangle, writer-director Graham Swon’s sophomore feature An Evening Song (for three voices) is as visually robust as it is dramatically intimate. The story revolves around married couple Richard (Peter Vack) and Barbara (Hannah Gross)—a pulpy crime writer and a prodigious novelist, respectively—who move to a rural Midwestern town after years of city living. Shortly after arriving, they hire a local young woman named Martha (Deragh Campbell) who the couple find independently alluring despite (or perhaps largely due to) her striking innocence and pious nature.

Each character shares their internal thoughts through ample voiceover, sometimes contradicting or adding vital context to scenes carried out between the trio. Shooting with a combination of a large format photography camera and digital, Swon’s film boasts a vignette effect that blurs the edges of the frame—akin to the murky parameters of the blossoming and evolving relationship between these subjects.

I spoke with Swon the week before An Evening Song (for three voices) screens at the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look Festival. Below, we discuss the complex camera rig Swon utilized for the shoot, the thorny nature of true crime as a genre and his ongoing collaboration with his wife, Rae Swon.

Filmmaker: Both explicitly and symbolically, your film concerns those that have vanished from existence. The character of Barbara is based on novelist Barbara Newall Follett, who did actually disappear mysteriously in 1939. The character of Martha is named for the last living passenger pigeon, which died in 1914. A story written in the film is named after a plant discovered in Chicago in 1914 that has not been observed again since 1916. What made you want to weave these disparate disappearances into one narrative?

Swon: It’s always kind of organic. Of course, it changes at each stage to a certain extent. This film didn’t start off as a melodrama, and it didn’t even necessarily start by weaving all of those different influences and ideas together. It started by trying to make a short film, actually. I wanted to make a film that revolved around this plant, Thismia Americana, that was briefly observed outside of Chicago by a PhD student in botany. It didn’t really make any sense that this type of plant was growing in Chicago. She observed it for several years, wrote her dissertation on it, then graduated and left. When she came back several years later, she couldn’t find any trace of the plant anymore. I got really fascinated by this idea of something that is fleeting. If this single person hadn’t observed this plant, we wouldn’t know that it ever existed. There are other Thismias in different places, mostly subtropical. But the idea that there are these little traces of reality that don’t even exist if one person doesn’t happen to look at them made me think about the number of plants, animals, languages and cultures that we don’t know don’t exist anymore, because we just have no record of them ever existing.

I was trying to do something short because a really close friend of mine, Ted Fendt, was in the process of moving to Berlin. He had these reels of expired 35mm motion picture stock that he couldn’t take with him. He was like, “Oh, maybe you’d be interested in doing something with this?” And I was like, “Yes, I’m going to write this short.” As I kept working on it and piecing things together, it got bigger and more ornate. I got focused on this whole idea of endlings, which is the last known individual of a species. Martha, the passenger pigeon, is the rare instance where, as far as we know, she was the last of her species. And the film just kind of kept building out in different directions until it turned into this kind of period melodrama that was very far away from the original concept. But I wanted to leave that “in memoriam” page at the end, because even though the film is its own beast, I felt like I never would have found the film without those three elements in particular: Thismia Americana, Martha the pigeon and Barbara Newall Follett, the novelist.

Filmmaker: What made you want to flesh out Barbara as a character?

Swon: I was really interested in disappearances. In a lot of movies that deal with strange, mysterious disappearance, things happen near the beginning of the movie that set the narrative in motion. I thought, if we’re going to have somebody who disappears, then it would be really interesting to focus on the moments building up to that disappearance—not to answer it, but to give context for the viewer to contemplate what it might mean, why it might happen and what could be gleaned from it. There’s always something really appealing to me about the idea of trying to photograph something that can’t be photographed. Of course, you can shoot an absence, but trying to get the sensation of an absence or a disappearance [is much different]. I was thinking about an individual and how in the same way that maybe the environment can change in such a way that it’s impossible for a plant or an animal to exist, that society or culture can change in such a way that it’s similarly impossible for a given individual or type of individual to exist. So that was why I was kind of drawing these loose parallels. Ultimately, the finished film, I think, is for the viewer to parse what they want out of those elements more than my personal interpretation of them.

Filmmaker: Your last film, The World Is Full of Secrets, similarly narrativized real, often macabre occurrences. You’re a self-described true crime obsessive, yet your films stray pleasantly far from the stylistic and moral shortcomings of what we now consider to be the “true crime” film genre. How has your relationship to crime media changed over the years, and how has that influenced your filmmaking?

Swon: True crime is a really tricky genre. I don’t pass moral judgment on genres, but it’s one of the more potentially unsavory semi-mainstream genres of media. What true crime basically does almost definitionally is take a really specifically awful, tragic real-life event and regurgitate it into a type of entertainment. In that sense, it strays into some of the same kinds of moral issues you get any time you deal with a real life event, but you’re grappling with something that’s very awful for the people who were touched by the actual event. There are certain things, like Jack the Ripper-type narratives, where you go so far back that nobody actually involved with this is still alive to be affected by what you’re doing. Obviously, most true crime is dealing with something that happened in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Often, the perpetrators, the victims and their families are still alive. That is one of the queasy things about the genre, but it also functions by touching something real. It’s horror plus documentary, basically.

I became fascinated with true crime and horror at a really young age. When I first became interested in true crime, specifically, it was something that was almost wholly fictional to me, even though I understood that it wasn’t. I think most people who consume true crime media treat it as fiction. Especially with The World Is Full of Secrets, which is maybe more clearly entwined with that kind of moral quandary, I want to interrogate why I’m interested in this material, because there’s something there. I don’t think it’s just some kind of unsavory interest. There’s something important in the genre that draws people to it; it’s hugely popular for a reason. I could get into why I think it’s hugely popular, but for me, it’s always like, “How can you understand this?” Or, “How can you gain something from it while maintaining the framing that can prevent it from spilling over into a crass exploitation?” Everything I just said is way more related, honestly, to The World Is Full of Secrets than Evening Song, probably. But there are threads running through both. In both instances, I have some kind of aesthetic interest in absence, voids and untold elements of stories that maybe dovetails with that ethical truth crime interest, but is also maybe its own separate beast. I don’t know, you can only psychoanalyze yourself so much when you do this.

Filmmaker: I’d like to know more about how you and cinematographer, Barton Cortright, captured the film’s distinct visual style. Tell me about equipment, movement, framing and any other tools you utilized to execute your vision.

Swon: The biggest elements were photography, of course, and lighting. But we built something that we’ve been referring to as “the rig.” Barton and I had had this idea some years ago, and other people have experimented with this in different ways, but if you use a large format photography camera—have you ever used one?

Filmmaker: I have not, but I’m following.

Swon: I always feel like I should bring one to interviews to demonstrate to people, because I realize a lot of people have never used one, so it’s a little abstract. Basically, unlike an SLR—which is what most people have encountered—the lens is projecting onto a mirror, which is projecting onto a glass, which is going to another mirror, which is going to your eye. A large format camera doesn’t have all those contraptions. Bellows control the focus, so if you ever see people using a bellows camera that have the sheet over their heads while they’re focusing, that’s because they have to keep the light off the glass so they can see the projected image. The first time I ever used a large format camera, I was just so blown away by what the image on the glass looked like, which really looks different from the resulting photograph. The resulting photograph, if you use a 4×5 or 8×10, will be this big, sharp, high-resolution negative. But since you’re looking at a projection on this textured surface, the color is kind of soft and diffuse. There’s this painterly, almost water color quality to the way the image looks on the glass. Right away when I started using them, I was like, “How do I get the photograph to look more like the glass?” Surely people are using these cameras to make a sharper, crisper image, and I want it to be softer and murkier. I did a couple experiments in this regard a long time ago, but I didn’t have the resources. It’s fussy to deal with, and you lose a huge amount of light using this process.

Anyway, we built a rig and we settled on a 4×5 camera after a lot of discussion. The image is really being produced by the lens on the 4×5 camera, and then there’s a very small digital cinema camera mounted onto the back with a macro lens recording the image off the glass. So we did use some filters on the 4×5 “taking lens,” we would call it, but for the most part, the primary texture that the image has is really the result of the projection on the glass. Sometimes people think it’s expired film stock or something, but if you watch, the texture doesn’t really move because it’s glass, not grain. So that’s the core principle. Of course, lighting, filters, color grading and a lot of other elements went into building the image, but using this device was almost like doing an in-camera effect. The quality of the image was baked-in at the capture. It wasn’t like we shot a clean image and then decided how we were going to mess it up. You have to struggle with this device and its limitations, because it has very shallow depth of field. You have, in general, a light loss, but you also have a really big discrepancy between the exposure in the center of the frame and the exposure in the corners of the frame. It’s about six stops, generally speaking, between the center and the corner. I think a lot of people, when I’ve talked to them, think that I’ve thrown a lot of vignette on top of the image. In fact, we’re fighting the vignette like crazy the whole time. You’re trying to light the corners so they don’t fall to black, you’re trying to keep the corners brighter than the center so that there’s a degree of balance.

My wife and I also color graded the film ourselves, partially because I knew it was going to take a long time, and that trying to go to a conventional color house, would not be economically feasible, and would put me in a place where I was rushing to decide exactly how to balance certain elements of the image. So we kind of built out a studio and graded it ourselves, which was, I think, another important part of the final look. In my experience, professional colorists tend to push you towards certain conventions that are good for certain reasons, but I wanted there to be a degree of oddness to the way this film looked in the end.

Filmmaker: Moving back to in front of the camera, the chemistry between cast members is remarkable. Is that something you worked to build as a director, or something that the actors naturally created amongst themselves?

Swon: I know that the actors could speak better than me, but I like to think of myself as a relatively collaborative director in that I have a lot of huge respect for what actors are able to do. Performances and characters are most interesting when the actor is an active participant in the creation of how they’re going to function. This is essentially a film with three characters, so the casting is really important, because you don’t have a lot of margin for error when you’re pretty much trapped with these three people, and in their heads, the whole time. I don’t think about casting before I finish writing, because there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get the thing that’s in your head at that stage. But I tried to really take a careful, considered approach to how the casting operated and how we would figure it out. Obviously, it was extremely important to me that the trio felt like they all could exist in the same world, but that they also kind of existed in their own separate realities. And I think Deragh, Hannah, and Peter all have a different cadence, a different way they approach a scene and a different reality they naturally exist in as people. Deragh and Hannah are really close and have acted together a lot of times before. I think there’s a good reason for that, because they have a really interesting chemistry. But I was also interested here in pushing them into the extremes of what I find interesting about them as actors rather than trying to pull them into the same space, which is sometimes what I’ve seen done with them before. They were all really amazing to work with. I was already a fan of all three of them as actors and knew them personally as individuals before working with them in this film, which I think another important part about doing something this intimate, is that you feel they’ll be able to be the right balance.

Filmmaker: You already brought up the work that you did with your spouse Rae on the color correction, but I also want to ask about the set decoration and costume design, respectively tackled by Megann Kurth and Rae. The domestic details feel faithful yet surreal; there’s also an air of thespian influence. I know your background is in theater, but I’m curious how you might straddle the line between film and stage not just as a director, but in terms of visual details like set decoration and costume?

Swon: Theater is always really important to me, I think that’s just in my DNA of how I even think about blocking a scene. Ultimately, they are very different mediums in a lot of ways, but I think the anti-theatrical impulse in film theory over the years has tried to iron out some of the aesthetic connections between the two mediums. I mean, the frame is a proscenium. When you’re blocking a scene in a frame, it’s just that you can keep moving and readjusting your proscenium in the same way you can move and readjust an actor. So it’s one more blocking element that honestly makes it easier, because you can get yourself out of all sorts of weird problems. On a stage, you can never move the frame, so you’ve got to move other stuff. It’s also a lot harder to avoid uncomfortable stasis on a stage, especially when you’re dealing with a 3/4 stage, where you’ve got the audience on three sides. But you get all of these problems with the viewers not seeing the same thing. A film is fantastic, because you control the viewer’s position as well as the actor’s position, so I’m sure all of that thinking is visible in the way I stage stuff. I think in terms of the decoration, I really wanted the film to feel like it existed in the space between reality and a studio film.

We weren’t shooting on sets, really, other than a couple of actors that are on makeshift sets to a certain extent. But the interiors are real houses that we redecorated, but I wanted them to feel almost like they were sets, if that makes sense. The whole film is kind of happening in this sort of hazy recollection, and I feel like when you remember things, you don’t remember them in this really clean, concrete space, but in this slightly fluid space that’s a little over-idealized, where certain elements are kind of highlighted. I wanted to have that kind of quality.

I appreciate you noting the amount of attention to period, because we really did try, in our very low-budget way. Usually, people would advocate that you don’t try to make a period film with the kind of budget we were working with. You have to make a lot of choices, because obviously, if you want to have street scenes or crowd scenes, you need huge amounts of resources to do that with a period film. But this film was so intimate and used so few people in so few spaces that it seemed possible to control what was going to be in this frame so that we could be within a realm of reasonability, anyway, in terms of hitting the period elements. I really have to highlight the amount of design work and conceptualization that Rae, my wife, did. One of the benefits of working with a partner on something like this is, again, time. The prep could be done over months in a way that would have been very challenging if I were working with another set designer and costume designer. Some of the clothes, especially Richard’s costumes, are mostly period, but an awful lot of the women’s costumes, especially Martha’s, basically had to be handmade, because she would be wearing handmade clothes, in fact. You’re not going to really be able to get new-condition clothes from that period, so we ended up deciding that it made more sense to use period patterns and handmake Martha’s costumes, because that’s probably what she’d be wearing—clothes that her or a family member sewed in that place at that time. Anyway, keeping the team intimate allowed us to do stuff like that without massive resources.

Filmmaker: I’m glad to hear that these details were as faithful as I thought, because I’m certainly no scholar.

Swon: There were even times when Rae was showing me designs where I was like, “I don’t know, maybe it’s too much.” Then she would present a folder of reference images where I realized this stuff very much would have existed in ‘39, even something like Barbara’s nails.

Filmmaker: Yes, one of my favorite details!

Swon: I don’t remember where it was, but some critic or someone online was like, “There are these modern elements that are maybe intentionally breaking period,” and they mentioned the nails. But that’s a period nail design! It was a very flamboyant moment, the post-depression, pre-war aesthetic. You’re still at this place where things are handmade and really crafted, a little bit before the massive industrialization of design. It was a really interesting moment for all that stuff.

Filmmaker: You edited this film, a task you also undertook with your first feature. What was enriching or challenging about the process this time around, and what have you learned between editing both films?

Swon: The biggest thing for me was with this film versus my first film was that we storyboarded the whole film. Things change in film production, regardless of anything: circumstances change, locations change. You don’t always have this absolute control over what frame you get. But it was storyboarded and the cross dissolves were really planned in advance this time. In The World Is Full of Secrets, I knew I was going to use a certain amount of cross dissolves, but I think the quantity of them was something I discovered for myself while editing and re-editing that movie. This film was following a much more pre-planned structure. Not that it made the editing easier, per se, because there were a lot more shots and things to struggle with on this film. But those transitions were basically all pre-planned, both in the process and with the framing. We knew that if there was going to be a long cross dissolve from this shot to this shot, when you’re framing them, you’ve got to leave a certain amount of empty space so the frame doesn’t get muddy so the two images can kind of mingle and create a new image as they pass across each other. I had a lot more experience and a lot more planning this time.

I really love editing. I find it to be a really beautiful experience. It is one of the hardest parts of the entire process for me, because it really feels like rewriting the film in a way that nothing else does. You write and modify the script, and of course things change during the shoot, but the shoot doesn’t feel like writing at all to me. Honestly, the shoot feels very much like theater to me. You’re in the moment, you have all these people, you’re reacting to things in the moment together and finding your way through the shape. Then when you go back to editing, it’s almost like having to re-write the script again, but you’ve been given a very finite number of available pieces that you have to pick from. There’s a jigsaw/crossword puzzle feeling to me when I’m editing.

I kept everything within one program. I did all of the editing and color in DaVinci Resolve rather than bouncing between Avid or Premiere and Resolve, which allowed me to do things like go in and do test colors of a scene, and then go back and look at how it was playing and adjust the frames, which is another thing you don’t usually get to do when you go through the conventional process. So I hope that there is a unification between the color and the edit. That was the hope that I had in trying to do it this way.

Filmmaker: Finally, what’s inspiring you creatively at this moment? What might your next focus be as a filmmaker, producer and person?

Swon: One of the pleasures of producing is that you don’t have to move that needle in the same way, because you’re there in more of a midwife capacity. I love producing. I love getting to work with different filmmakers, seeing their ideas and how they approach things differently. I’m working on a few projects as a producer with directors I’ve primarily worked with before: Ricky D’Ambrose, Joanna Arnow, Dan Sallitt. There are different things going in that regard, and I greatly enjoy getting to bask in their brilliant ideas without having to generate them in the same way myself. Those are all moving on their various timelines.

I just finished the first draft of a new script, which is much more of a conventional horror film. I would say it doesn’t shy away from the violent elements in the same way that my two previous films have. It’s a horror film that deals with true crime elements, although it’s not built off of existing cases in the same way. It would require more resources than I’ve used on my first two films, so we’ll have to see how that goes. I also think it’s a more commercial endeavor, but I feel good about the script.

I’m really trying to continue exploring the aesthetic and conceptual ideas that I’ve explored in these two films, but I’m more and more interested in trying to find how to reach larger audiences and connect more with people. As a filmmaker, it’s great to show at festivals. It’s great to have the filmmaking and critical communities to interface and talk about movies. But as I get older, I become more interested, honestly, in elements of commercial film and how to communicate these ideas and emotions to a broader audience. That is something I’m grappling with, because I think everybody wants to find ways to expand and have a larger number of people be able to see their films and hopefully have interesting experiences with them.

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