Home » Interviews » Interview: Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis Talks ‘Swallow’

Interview: Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis Talks ‘Swallow’

by Kat Hughes

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At last year’s Arrow Video FrightFest Halloween event we were lucky enough to catch a screening of an exceptional feature debut. The film was so rich in visuals, sound, layers, themes and emotions that in many ways it has haunted this writer ever since that viewing. Thankfully, said film is now available on digital platforms, and that film is Swallow.

Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and starring Haley Bennett (who also executive produces), Swallow follows young trophy wife Hunter as she struggles to cope with the lack of control in her life. Every moment is dictated by her super-rich husband and his family, as Hunter does everything in her power to please them. She finally snaps, and in an attempt to seize an iota of control, she begins to consume a variety of household objects ranging from marbles to pin tacks. Before long, things spiral and as Hunter’s compulsion becomes increasingly dangerous, she must find a way to reclaim her life and body from those that are suppressing her.

Swallow is a film that has been so painstakingly put together, and lovingly crafted, that we had to speak to someone involved. Luckily, Carlo Mirabella-Davis was more than accommodating. When we caught up with him, he, like many others, was self-isolating, meaning that there was plenty of time to discuss this wondrous movie in-depth.

I read that the idea for Swallow came from a personal place, can you talk a little bit about that?

Sure, so the film was inspired by my Grandmother who was a homemaker in the 1950’s and in an unhappy marriage. She developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive hand-washer who would go through four bars of soap and twelve bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. My Grandfather, at the behest of the doctors, put her into a mental institution. She was given electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy.

I always felt that there was something punitive about how she was being treated. That she was being punished in a way for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt the life of a mother should be, for being different, and I wanted to make a film about that. Hand-washing isn’t always very cinematic, although maybe it’s becoming more cinematic? But at the time, I wanted something more visually intriguing. I remember seeing a photograph of all the contents of someone’s stomach who had Pica, fanned out like an archaeological dig. I was fascinated and I wanted to know more. It almost seemed like something mystical to me, like a Holy Communion, and that’s how the concept began.

So did you have to do much research into Pica?

I did do a lot of research about the condition, and I reached out to the world’s expert on Pica, Doctor Rachel Bryant-Waugh. She was very kind to come aboard as a consultant, we were very lucky to have her. It’s a fairly rare condition, but I also based the film on my research into more prevalent conditions like OCD. I hoped the film would have a universal appeal, that people would watch the film and say, “well I might not eat a dangerous object, but I understand the feelings and emotions that she’s having. I understand the oppressive situations she’s in that might cause her to do that, and I’ve felt similar things.” That’s the hope.

In many ways the film plays as a relationship drama, but there are moments of horror and psychological thriller within. What do you think it is about the horror genre that means you can tell these stories?

I’ve loved horror movies my entire life. I’m fascinated by how visceral they are. That visceral nature of them can tap into our most primal misgivings and concerns. Fear is the first emotion we experience. I think a lot of people’s lives are governed by fear and anxiety, and something that we all struggle with in life. I think going to a movie theatre and seeing those fears manifested on the screen, in a safe environment, allows us to gain control over them in some way. It makes the fears more manageable so that we can take them on and go forth about our day. That always appealed to me; horror movies taking on something that we’ve been avoiding in our regular lives, but see manifested on screen.

Then I think it’s also the very nature of horror films to go to dangerous and unusual places that make them so potent. That ability to led the audience anywhere is something that makes them so electric. If you can use them to tap into human experiences and psychological states that we deal with on an every day basis, then I think they can be very healing too. I think horror movies, if done right, can increase empathy and fight prejudice, and I hope that Swallow is a movie that makes people feel seen, and uses some horror movie tools to do that.

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Horror is seen as always being very graphic and gratuitous in what it shows, with Swallow it feels like you went down the ‘less is more’ route. The scenes with Hunter consuming objects leave a lot more to the imagination – which makes it almost more difficult to watch as the imagination always makes things worse  – rather than going all out gore in detail. Was it always the intention to take the more muted approach?

It was a real tightrope to walk, figuring out exactly how much we would show, and how much restraint we would use. The power of the human imagination is always underestimated. You fill in the blanks, so I didn’t feel that I had to show too much because audience members would just physiologically feel what Hunter was feeling based on the circumstances. But at the same time, I didn’t want to shy away from intensity of what was happening because it’s a film that’s very much about body autonomy, someone taking control of their body, so I didn’t want to overly sanitise the experience. It was sort of a balance between the two of them.

I love the effect, the friction that cross-genre films can create, and Swallow is sort of a tiramisu of genres. It’s a body horror film, it is a psychological horror film, but it’s also a domestic drama, and in some ways it’s got dark comedy elements as well. I felt like the combination of all of those threads would strengthen each other. That the drama imbues it with a heartfelt human quality that hopefully will connect with people, and the dark comedy helps the medicine go down a little, but so that it’s not so jarring that you can’t connect with the character. The body horror increasing the intensity of the film. It’s a movie that makes you afraid, makes you laugh and makes you cry, and I really appreciate that kind of emotional roller-coaster experience in movies that I watch, so we tried to do it here.

Hunter is quite a departure from what audiences have seen from Haley Bennett before. When did you know she was Hunter, and what did she bring to the role?

I’m so incredibly fortunate that the brilliant Haley Bennett decided to make this movie because I just think she delivers an Earth-shattering performance in this film. I was so lucky, I got the best seat in the house because I got to be on-set watching it happen. Essentially our amazing Casting Director Allison Twardziak, who I’ve worked with a bunch before, suggested Haley. I saw Girl on the Train and thought, “wow, she’s an amazing actor”. I watched all her movies and just thought, “why isn’t she the lead role?” I wanted to see her be the lead of a film because I suspected that maybe she might be interested in doing a part that was kind of bold and daring, and as you say, a little different from roles that she had been cast in. So I took a chance and I wrote her a letter and offered her the part, and thought she’ll never respond. Then amazingly she did. We had a wonderful meeting. It was a real meeting of the minds, and we had this instant telepathic connection, and I think we just knew right away that we both wanted to tell this story together.

Haley was also an executive producer on the film. She was extremely generous with her time and she just poured every iota of her soul into the project. I can’t wait for everybody to see her performance. The thing that’s amazing about Haley is that she’s so good with layers of emotion. Hunter wears multiple masks throughout the film. There’s that first mask, that placid smile, reflecting what her husband wants her to be. Then there’s that second mask that her pain, her doubt of is this where I belong? Then the third mask is her true self, her primal self emerging. Haley can give you all of those emotional layers with just a twitch of her eye, or the touch of her hair.

The house is also an important character in the film, most of the time it’s just Hunter wandering around in there. Where did you guys find it?

From the beginning of the film I knew that the house was a character. I love The Shining, and when I saw that movie years ago I thought, “yes, location is a character”, you really have to think of it that way. We spent a lot of time location-scouting, going around knocking on doors, asking people if we could film in their house. It took a long time to find that particular house. I remember a location scout found it and sent us the pictures and we went out to look at it. The moment I walked in I looked around it and thought, “this is a Hitchcock film. This is North by Northwest”. The colours immediately fascinated me. If you look at the film, there’s actually these two huge sculptures outside of the house that look like marbles, and I was like, “it’s meant to be!”

What’s interesting about the house is that when you’re in that modern environment with a lot of glass, you think you’ll be incorporated into nature, but actually when you’re inside it, you start to feel very vulnerable. The house is actually like a glass display case. Especially at night, you can feel the eyes of the forest on you. I was fascinated by that and I thought it was the perfect metaphor for the glass display case that Hunter finds herself imprisoned in. You feel that in Parasite too. When I saw Parasite, I saw that they were into modern architecture as metaphor as well as for class struggle.

The whole film just looks so expensive. The house, everything in it, looks like it’s straight out of a high-end home decor magazine. I’m guessing you didn’t have the biggest budget in the world, how did you stretch it and achieve this?

And that was the idea, that everything would look like it was out of a catalogue. We had an amazing Production Designer Erin Magill who just has an incredible imagination. She’s just an amazing artist with an incredible sense of colour and aesthetics. Erin is very resourceful and really just pulled out every trick in the book in order to be able to create the illusion that we wanted. It was just a lot of her innovation and her connections in order to be able to get us that look. She was so meticulous with the details of the space. One of the things that Erin and I talked a lot about is the idea that – production design is extremely important for every movie – but for our movie in particular it was a big storytelling element. Hunter is actively decorating the interior of the house. Every object and piece of furniture in it was chosen by her, and is an expression of her decorating the home in the way she thinks the wealthy, controlling, patriarchal family would like. But then there’s these little moments, when her true taste and personality emerge, and these bold choices that become startling, like when she puts the red gel over the babies room window, or her choice of her vanity. I just though that was such an interesting story-telling element.

Erin also came up with the other great idea, which is that every piece of furniture and larger ornament on the surfaces looks like an object that Hunter might want to consume if it were smaller. So next time you watch the movie, you can see if you can get that.

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The camerawork felt very considered. In a way it seems to mirror Hunter herself, only really coming alive when she’s with an object, was that a way to subtly guide the audience along this journey?

Absolutely. I love that interpretation, that was exactly what we were going for. Our incredible visionary cinematographer Kate Arizmendi just has this unbelievable renascence painter’s eye. It was a real dream working with her. Kate and I story-boarded every shot in the movie. We created a giant database of images from our favourite movies that we were using as inspiration. Kate and I created a very strict vernacular for the camera direction. A strict set of rules that Kate will break at key emotional junctures in the film. If you watch the movie, in the beginning there’s a lot of locked down master-shots and shots where Hunter is kind of lost in the frame. Then Kate will introduce a shallow depth of field close-up, or a little but of handheld, during the moments with the objects. Suddenly the camera direction will become more realistic as the film progresses. That was very conscious.

Kate also came up with this brilliant idea to shoot the entire movie with Master Prime lens, which are these lenses that pick up the texture of everything in incredible detail. People who have Pica talk a lot about the texture of things. Kate’s so good with frame and composition. As a filmmaker I’m obsessed with elevating the subtext through camera direction, and it was really thrilling to work with Kate on the film because she’s so good with character psychology.

You’ve mentioned quite a few female collaborators, I’m guessing that given the film is all about this one woman’s struggle, it was important to surround yourself with those female voices?

Yeah, we very much consider this to be a feminist film. Two thirds of our cast and crew are women. All our department heads are women. In the beginning of making the movie I was very concerned about my male gaze affecting the authenticity of the story. Instead of ignoring it and just saying, “well, it’ll be okay”, my producers Mollye Asher and Lauren Andrade and I spent a lot of time talking about my male gaze as a potential problem and something we should take seriously and figure out how to counteract. I was so fortunate that so many amazing female artists decided to make my Grandmother’s story their own.

It’s interesting too because the other part of the story is that when I was in my twenties, for about four years, I identified as a woman. I wore woman’s clothing, and I had a different name – my gender has always been fluid throughout my life – and that was a really important and creative and wonderful time in my life. It was also a time where I learned a lot. When you’re raised as a man you don’t always see how baked into the cake of society sexism is. Just walking down the street was an eye-opening experience, seeing how society is constantly trying to control and marginalise female identified people really solidified a lot of my feminist beliefs and made me want to make a film exploring some of those themes.

The movie also deals with issues surrounding trauma and the scars that can leave, how did you approach this?

I did a lot of research into PTSD, and the effects of PTSD from trauma. I was very influenced and inspired by the #MeToo movement, which I think is an extremely important catalyst for global change. I was fascinated by this horrendous trend I saw of people heaping blame upon the very people who were struggling with PTSD from the trauma. That to me was something I wanted to examine. And of course one of the themes of Swallow is the title itself. It is referring to the objects, but also referring to the act of swallowing and burying your feelings. The idea of everyone in Hunter’s life telling her “this is what should make you happy”, “this is who you are,” “this is where you belong.” She looks around and starts to see that every aspect of her life has been controlled by this patriarchal environment, her husband, and her in-laws, but she represses that realisation and puts on a happy face and instead says, “well I guess this is what I should want, and who I should be.” But of course the repressed emotion comes out in the form of this compulsion. Even though the Pica is dangerous, it also sort of serves as a catalyst that allows her to break out of this controlling environment and discover her true self, and what she really wants.

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The film’s already screened at a few events, what’s the reaction been so far from audiences?

The festival run was amazing. I think we’ve won something like twenty-three awards so far, which I was just really moved by. So far the audience response has been incredible. People really identify with Hunter, and connect with the story. Sometimes screenings are very emotional, people will come up to me in tears or really want to talk about the film and discuss it. Other times the screenings have a lot of energy and interest. What I’m really gratified by is it’s a film that people really want to talk about. They want to discuss it and get into the details of it. That really makes me happy. The whole point of the film is that I want people to feel seen, and connected to it. That this is a story that they maybe haven’t seen in this way before, and they can say, “oh I understand those emotions, I feel that way.” Or, “I’ve gone through something similar, this speaks to me.” I’ve been so moved and it’s so meaningful to see that response coming from people.

Just as a film fan, I’m obsessed with movies, I used to watch five films a day, but I had to cut that back to get a little sleep and make some movies of my own. So I put in a lot of references to movies that I love. Little details and Easter eggs. It’s nice to see people who love films appreciating some of those references.

Now Swallow is about to be out in the world, have you got a new project that you’re working on?

I’m writing a number of projects right now. I’m working on a supernatural feminist horror movie, and then I’m writing a few others. I’m kind of in the gestation process. Making Swallow has been the most incredible experience of my life, and I can’t wait to make another movie and work with amazing people, and try to get something on the screen that I hope has some kind of impact. A positive impact on the world. So that’s my goal and I’m just going to hunker down and keep writing.

Swallow is available on Digital HD now. 

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