‘Swallow’ Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis On Sound Design, the Horror Genre and the Dangers of Patriarchy

Images: IFC Films

With our current political climate, described by many as the age of #MeToo, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s been a surge of feminist-leaning films popping up lately, such as last year’s divisive Fox News drama Bombshell and Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed Little Women adaptation, with filmmakers using their voices and their platforms to tell women’s timely stories. Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow is no exception, with the director drawing inspiration from his grandmother, who was forced into shock therapy and given a non-consensual lobotomy in the 1950s, to tell the story of a woman attempting to take back control of her life in the face of a patriarchal system.

Screen Queens guest contributor Ahmad W. had the chance to speak with Mirabella-Davis about the film, Bennett’s masterful performance in it, how the horror genre influenced his film-making techniques, and how he intended for Swallow to be a direct response to the current US administration.

Screen Queens: I wanted to talk to you about the sound design in this movie. I don’t think I’ve winced as much during a movie from sheer sound alone. Did you always intend for the movie to be such a sensory experience?

Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Yes. I wanted the movie to sort of draw you in completely in Hunter’s (Haley Bennett) experience. I wanted the world to feel very tactile and for the reality to be heightened so that every object took on a magical hue and every interaction with the world felt like something slightly magical was afoot, or that any space contained a multitude of details and information. Pica is actually a lot about texture. People who have pica talk about the texture and taste of certain things, like mattress bedding having a specific texture, and I wanted to view the film with that. 

In terms of the sound, we had an amazing sound editor, Michael Kurihara, who has a real ear for Foleys, for the use of Foleys. He was very passionate about creating a lot of Foleys for the film. Foleys are handmade sound effects that are created by looking at the screen [with the intent of] crafting them specifically for the movie, basically, as opposed to sound effects you would get in a [digital] library. For example, in one of the opening scenes when you see salt being sprinkled on a lamb chop, [Michael] made sure that he got that sound, I think he dropped little rocks on a belt, so that you really feel the impact of all of those inanimate objects taking on a life of their own. I also talked to [Michael] a lot about the idea of each moment that Hunter has with the objects bringing us into an almost phantasmagorical state so if you listen, you can almost hear that we sort of leave reality a little bit when Hunter first sees the ice and we hear the distant sounds of a cavernous frozen wasteland or we hear tinkling sounds like a fortress made of ice kind of melting in the sun and [Michael] put in all those details beautifully. 

And then of course we haveq2 an amazing score by the composer Nathan Helpern, who just did a magnificent job of marrying a Douglas Sirk-style orchestral Hitchockian score with a modern, incredibly intricate layering of little notes and musical elements together that would reflect the objects themselves. So the combination of Michael, Nathan and I was a very exciting collaboration.

SQ: I noticed during close-ups that some of the items that Hunter ends up swallowing have this hypnotic, almost seductive whispering behind them too, almost like they were beckoning her to them.

CMD: Yes. If you listen during the thumb tack scenes, you can hear that the thumb tack kind of has a voice. Michael put that in. Like a little whispering, like a siren sort of calling her. Haley Bennett’s incredible performance in that scene shows you that there’s this sort of siren call happening, the way she looks at the thumb tack and looks away and then looks back at it. And the marble, if you listen closely, you can hear, when she’s looking at it, the distant sounds of a beach scene with people laughing and waves [in the background]. The marble is supposed to be like the memory of a moment of happiness from her childhood or a moment of nostalgia.

SQ: Speaking of the items, how did you decide which items you’d have Hunter swallow during the course of the movie? Were there a few items that didn’t end up making the cut?

CMD: Interesting question. I thought carefully about the progression of items and to me, the ice seemed like the perfect first experience because eating ice is something a lot of us do but it is technically pica. A lot of people don’t know that but eating ice is considered pica. So I felt like the ice would be kind of like a gateway drug in a way. Something simple that a lot of people do but it’s the first moment where Hunter actually completes the “ritual”, if you will. And then the marble, I felt was prismatic, like a talisman. There’s something about a marble that feels very comfortable and safe. I have long collected little objects that I carry around with me and I have in my home and there’s something about a marble that just feels like it’s filled with a mystical energy so I thought that that would be good for Hunter’s first moment. And then by the time we get to the thumb tack, things have changed a little bit. The walls are closing in on Hunter more in this patriarchal prison she finds herself in and therefore her compulsion takes on a more extreme edge in that moment. I don’t want to go through all the objects because I want some of them to be a surprise for the audience but I thought of each as a storytelling tool, reflecting a different mood or emotional state of being for the character.

SQ: Haley Bennett delivers a powerhouse of a performance in this. Was she always your first choice for Hunter?

CMD: I think Haley delivers an earth shattering performance in this movie and I had the best seat in the house because I got to see it happen live. So as a movie fan, it was such a joy to watch her performance be captured on a screen. But the key to getting a great cast together is having a great casting director. I worked with a casting director I collaborated with on my first short [Knife Point], Allison Twardziak, and Allison has an amazing sense of character and how to find the right person to bring a fictional character to life, and she suggested Haley Bennett for the role. I saw Haley in The Girl on the Train and I thought she did an incredible job. I was just blown away by her performance and I thought to myself, ‘She should be the star of a movie’. I wanted to see her in the lead role and I suspected she was maybe interested in doing a part that was really intricate, bold and a little different from the roles she’s been playing. So I sent her the script and I wrote her a letter offering her the part and I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ll never hear back’. But amazingly, she was really intrigued and we met and we had an incredible meeting and right away, there was a meeting of the minds and we knew we wanted to tell this story together so that’s how it started. Hunter wears multiple masks throughout the film. There’s that first mask where she’s reflecting what her husband wants her to be. There’s that second mask that’s reflecting her pain and her doubts. And then the third mask, which is her true self emerging. Haley is so incredibly skilled at the micro details and the changes in her face that she can give you all of those layers with just a twitch of her eye. In fact, there are a lot of scenes in the movie where there’s no dialogue so the whole story is told through these intricate changes in Haley’s face and the emotions in her eyes. And so I really hope everyone gets a chance to see her tour-de-force performance [in this film].

SQ: One thing I admired a lot was the amount of restraint shown when it came to body horror. A Cronenberg movie, this is definitely not. How did you decide how far to go when it came to showing the actual acts of swallowing and the effects they’d have on Hunter?

CMD: It was a real sort of tightrope walk figuring out how what to show and what not to show. I wanted to be truthful to what was happening and this is a film that’s a lot about gender expectations. Hunter’s rebellion is a bodily rebellion. She’s reclaiming body autonomy. I didn’t want to stand off the edges of what that was because her interactions with the objects have an effect on her body and I didn’t want to hide that. But at the same time, I also wanted the audience to remain connected to the story and I felt that if I was too graphic with the horror and the gore, as it were, the audience would just be turned off and see the film as an aesthetic exercise rather than an emotional, heartfelt psychological journey so we tried to hit a balance. I also felt the audiences can do a lot with their imagination. There’s a scene in the movie where we had multiple people faint during our screenings. I think we had a total of three people faint so far during one of the scenes and you don’t see that much in the scene. It’s really just her face and the sound design but the audience’s imagination fills in the blanks. But when we do have those moments of body horror, I tried to film them in a way that would not provoke something grotesque. I wanted to film them in the same way that you’d film a landscape or a beautiful vista. I wanted to treat those moments with as much care and artistry as you would treat any other shot in the film.

SQ: I feel like that restraint really benefited the movie because it ends up having a very universal quality to it even though it tells a very specific story. So much so, that I personally felt like I could relate to Hunter’s predicament and her journey fighting these expectations and these restrictions that were forced on her by her environment. And I feel like that is just such a huge testament to how you approached the story, with so much empathy and so much humanity, and how you decided to tell it because in another filmmaker’s hands, they probably would’ve focused more on the grotesque aspects instead, and the message would have been diluted and the film wouldn’t have had the same impact.

CMD: I’m really glad you feel that way. That was the hope. I really think that there’s this idea that can sometimes happen in movies where certain human experiences are sort of relegated to certain genres. Human life is a complicated and often painful and often beautiful one so I thought, ‘Let’s try to render it with all of that beauty and that pain together in a heartfelt tale’. In some ways, there’s this cross genre element to the film. I like to say it’s kind of a tiramisu of genres because we have psychological horror, we’ve got body horror but we’ve also got domestic drama and we’ve also got some dark comedy in there which I think helps the medicine go down. But the glue holding the film together for me is that this story was one that I cared very deeply about because it was inspired by my grandmother, who was a homemaker in the 1950s who developed obsessive hand-washing as a ritual of control. She was in an unhappy marriage and my grandfather, at the behest of the doctors, put her into a mental institution, where she received electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy and a non-consensual lobotomy. So the horror of that story stuck with me and I really thought, ‘That really happened to her’. Unfortunately, that kind of controlling oppression is still afoot in our society in a lot of different forms, as you see with the Trump administration’s kind of return to this old world patriarchy but a lot of great voices are fighting against that and I wanted Swallow to be one of those voices.

SQ: Now obviously, Hunter is the main character of this movie and who we care about and root for but I also kind of felt like Richie (Austin Stowell) and Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) were themselves also victims of the very same patriarchal structure that Hunter herself is a victim of as well, what with Katherine giving up on her dreams in order to be a housewife and Richie seeming like just an empty vessel for his father to pass his life onto. How important was it to you to not make these characters seem one-dimensional or like stereotypes because that would have been such an easy route to take?

CMD: I really believe that every character in the film, no matter the size of the part, should have their own psychological movement, their own spark within the story. So for me, every one of the characters in the movie, I thought of in that way and I really wanted to bring some nuance. I like complicated, nuanced characters that are sort of hard to pin down and stereotype. So with Elizabeth Marvel, who I think does an amazing job in the role of Katherine, Hunter’s mother-in-law, it’s complicated for her because in a lot of ways, she’s part of the patriarchal structure now. She’s been absorbed into it. And she spends a lot of time enforcing its paradigm on Hunter. But at the same time, she’s also being oppressed by it because she’s also a woman and she therefore can see the struggles that Hunter is having in a way before everybody else notices them. She tries to reach out to Hunter to control her but also to try and help her and it’s complicated because of that, her relationship to Hunter. Elizabeth walks that line really well. And I think Austin Stowell just did an excellent job as Richie. He’s so sensitive to the nuances of Richie’s journey and the various different forces that are molding him into what he eventually becomes. I thought a lot about [Donald Trump, Jr] while writing Richie, those photos of Don Jr posing with dead animals. You can tell that there’s kind of a desperation to earn his father’s approval. You see that with Richie as well. There’s this idea of the alpha male that he is sacrificing everything to, including his wife. The toxic masculinity he displays, the control and the restrictions on Hunter are also dancing with his affections for her, which is highlighted really well by Auston Stowell, so he’s a tragic figure that I think Austin did a wonderful job portraying. But he ultimately does become this villainous figure who, in many ways, holds up the walls that keep Hunter imprisoned.

SQ: I want to talk about the hugging guy, Aaron (Babak Tafti). We kind of get a glimpse into how emotionally starved Hunter is during this scene. You know this guy’s motives are completely off – and I think it very much says a lot about the entitlement some men feel over women and their bodies –  and Hunter is very hesitant at first but she ends up giving in and kind of ends up cherishing this moment. What was the origin of that character and how did you develop that scene?

CMD: I don’t want to talk too much about that scene because it gets into spoiler territory. What I will say is this comment on what you were touching on, which is that, yeah, there’s this complicated thing at play. I remember when I was in my 20s, for four and a half years, I identified as a woman. I wore women’s clothing and I had a different name. It was an incredible time in my life. My gender expression has always been fluid in a way and that was a time of pure joy for me. And it was also a real eye-opener in terms of seeing how society is always trying to control and marginalise female-identified people, because when you’re raised as a man, you don’t always see how far the extent of society’s sexism is. I remember just walking down the street, it was interesting to see the way that men try to control women. Hunter is often abandoned in spaces by Richie and in that moment, she has this interaction with somebody at this party and it’s complicated because he is also trying to control her but Hunter’s mask starts to slip at that point as well and she’s starting to sort of see what’s happening in the world around her and begins to take control of it. I won’t talk much about it because I want people to see that scene but it’s something that I think you start to see these micro-interactions occurring socially in that world and Hunter becoming aware of them.

SQ: Although I wouldn’t necessarily call Swallow a horror movie, a lot of sequences in it felt, to me, like they could’ve been part of a horror movie, the way that they were shot, edited and scored. There was even a scene where Hunter after she applied the red gel to the window very much reminded me of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Was horror ever an influence on this movie?

CMD: Oh yeah. I’ve been a horror fan my entire life and there were many horror movies that I was drawing inspiration from. As you say, the original Suspiria by Dario Argento, which is one of my favourite films. I have the poster in my apartment and it’s a movie that has a fascinating aesthetic and use of colour. Its bold use of colour as a psychological tool really inspired me. And then of course films like Safe by Todd Haynes and The Thing by John Carpenter, which deals with body horror perfectly and has a nice psychological context. All these movies. I also love the film Psycho. It was the first horror movie I’ve seen that really embraced a detailed psychological road map, that made really bold choices about character and narrative, so that one was obviously a big influence. And David Lynch’s films, obviously, Blue Velvet. His version of horror that exposes the malignant forces at play under the surface of things, was a big influence. In terms of how the horror manifests in the film, which also has a lot of trauma elements, I tried to work in certain horror movie themes or tropes that you would feel sort of lurking in the background. Because the house was in the woods, we tried to imbue the woods around the house with a lot of animal sounds and strange, murmuring voices. Even little scenes in the house with the mother-in-law chopping up the fruit to make the drink for Hunter feels a little bit like it could be from a horror film. So the elements are there but they’re sort of mingling with the other genre elements to keep the audience on edge and reference the hidden danger of the patriarchal environment.

SQ: Have you started developing or working on a follow-up project to Swallow yet? If so, what can you tell me about it?

CMD: I’m currently writing a feminist supernatural horror movie, which I can’t really speak too much about right now but I’m working on that and there’s a couple of other projects. I’m kind of in the gestation period. I’d love to do a television show at some point and I have a couple of feature ideas. Ultimately, for me, what I’m always fascinated with is how the human mind works, and films that in some ways challenge the status quo or put an experience we haven’t necessarily seen on the screen yet. So that’s what drives me. I want to make films that I’m extremely passionate about and films that hopefully give people some kind of visceral and emotional catharsis. That’s what I love in the movies that I see and I hope to make movies like that as I go forward from here. One of the things I hope to do as a filmmaker is to keep working with amazing people. Being a director, you get to interact with all these wonderful human beings, these incredible artists, such as my cinematographer, Katelin Arizmendi. Collaborating with her on the film was absolutely incredible. Her sense of framing, storytelling and composition, and her love of movies and focus on character was amazing. And my composer, Nathan Helbern, it was such a joy leading the soundtrack with him. I remember one moment where I was talking with Nathan and I don’t know music so I can only talk in images so I said something to him, like ‘This piece of music should kind of be like a dead tree that slowly sprouts and like a leaf in it begins to grow’, and he was like, ‘Got it!’ and came back with exactly that in music form. So I hope I get another chance to make another movie and collaborate with cool people and make a film I’m passionate about.

Swallow is now available on Digital

by Ahmad W

Currently based in the UK and the UAE, Ahmad W. is a poster designer, budding screenwriter and journalist from Boston and the (self-proclaimed) #1 Robert Eggers stan. His favorite films include mother!, The Witch, Black Swan, Hereditary and Scream. His claim to fame is a DM he got from Ari Aster (who has since left him on read) and his favorite pastime is spending the day in a cold, half-empty movie theater. You can follow him on Twitter at @ephwinslow.

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