Carlo Mirabella-Davis discusses Swallow, his prescient film about isolation and self-destruction. Read about more horror films about women in Beyond Empowertainment, our book about feminist horror.
While it’s easy enough these days to relate just about any cultural artifact to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Swallow is the rare film that is eerily predictive of our current self-isolated moment, concerned as it is with a woman’s lonely alienation and her invisible illness that keeps her distant from others. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s solo feature debut is an energetic thriller that uses genre tropes to burrow into harrowing subject matter. As Hunter, a traumatised housewife who develops pica (the compulsion to consume non-edible objects), Haley Bennett gives an exquisitely detailed performance that shows a perfect facade cracking a little more in each scene.
Stuck in an oppressive modernist house surrounded by a forest that no-one seems to enter, new wife Hunter is alone all day, and treated like a Stepford wife at night by Austin Stonewall’s Ritchie. She attempts to fit into her subservient role, spending her days constantly tweaking the house’s interior decoration, making sure everything is strictly color-coordinated; her pink cashmere sweater dissolves into the leather sofa. In down time, a Candy-Crush-like app sucks at her consciousness like the television set Jane Wyman is gifted in All That Heaven Allows (1955). When Ritchie has friends over, one corners Hunter and asks for a hug, admitting in earnest, “I’m so lonely.” The lack of intimacy anywhere would feel dystopian if we weren’t already living it.
Before long, Ritchie is yelling, “Mom we’re pregnant,” down the phone from a different room while Hunter twiddles her thumbs. It’s clear that Ritchie and his family mostly see Hunter as a vessel for reproduction. “There’s the future CEO!” Ritchie’s father (David Rasche) says at dinner, poking at Hunter’s belly. Hunter develops pica compulsions — eating household objects, including paper and batteries — which satisfy her impulses enough to slip into housewife mode. This isn’t just a new Freudian oral stage of her psychosexual development. There is a purifying aspect to seeing these material objects pass through something living in the airless, sterile environment of Hunter’s marital home. As Mirabella-Davis increasingly tightens into Hunter’s point of view, the audience experiences how items passing through her body make Hunter’s surroundings feel alive again, emphasised by anthropomorphic sound design and sugary lens flare.
Soon, her condition escalates, and that’s where Mirabella-Davis’s pastiche of the ‘50s suburban housewife melodrama comes into its own. Films like Bigger than Life (Nicolas Ray, 1956) and Caught (Max Ophüls, 1949) lure you in with appealing visuals and soapy storytelling, but here, the pastel colours and instagram-filter aesthetics feel unpleasant right from the off. The image of a bloody hairpin being removed from Hunter’s mouth is among the least nightmarish of the abject tableau on offer in Swallow. If the self-reflexive films inspired by Hollywood melodrama like Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) and A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1975) inject realism into the genre, Mirabella-Davis’s film goes a step further to constantly dance the viewer in and out of reality, with Bennett’s generous performance offering a glimpse outside of this hermetically-sealed world, where her new husband and in-laws become benevolent captors who frown upon impulse and control Hunter’s bodily functions.
I spoke to Mirabella-Davis about releasing a film like Swallow in the current crisis, his love of collaboration, and how he let Bennett lead the way with her incredible performance.
Seventh Row (7R): Between the isolation of the landscape, fear of the body, and joys of touch, Swallow has become weirdly relevant to our current situation. How do you think your film will play to audiences now?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Our film has struck a chord with people during this period of isolation, feeling out of control and unsure of when confinement will end. Rolling Stone said our film was the perfect horror film for our helpless moment, and I hope the film is bringing some solace to people during this trying time.
7R: It’s strange because, obviously, you didn’t write Swallow with this in mind,
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: It’s a weird feeling. Of course I had no idea that this was going to happen. But I was certainly inspired by the kind of isolation that was increasing even before this through social media, through the idea that all of us are together but also ensconced in our own corners of the human experience.
7R: I read that you based Swallow on your grandmother’s experiences as a housewife in the 1950s.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: The film was inspired by my grandmother who was a homemaker in the 1940s and ‘50s. In an unhappy marriage, she developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive handwasher who would go through 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week and 4 bars of soap a day. I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. At the behest of the doctors, my grandfather put her into a mental institution where she was given electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy. She lost her sense of taste and smell.
I always felt that there was something punitive about the way that she was treated, that she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife or mother should be. I always wanted to make a film about that. But you know, handwashing is not very cinematic. Or maybe it is becoming more cinematic since we’re all doing it obsessively.
I remember seeing a photograph of all the contents that had been removed from the stomach of a patient with pica. I was fascinated, and I wanted to know what drew the patient to those artifacts. It almost felt like a mystical experience. I wanted to know more, and that’s how it began.
7R: Why did you choose to set Swallow in the present day?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I wanted to make a film that felt relevant and timely. I could have set this story in the ‘50s. I remember watching this Tucker Carlson show, and he has these experts on arguing that feminism was no longer needed because sexism didn’t exist. They were trying to prove it scientifically, and it made me furious. I thought, “Right, this is the new system by which this new guard of patriarchal figures are going to enforce this kind of sexism — through gaslighting, convincing everyone that there’s nothing to worry about anymore.” And I think that by setting the film in the modern era but giving it a little bit of a retro-style was our way of implying that these pernicious beliefs from the ‘50s are still here in some form, lurking beneath the surface. As the film progresses and Hunter rebels from that paradigm, the style of the film becomes less retro and more realistic to reflect her growing empowerment.
My grandmother’s story is becoming more relevant than ever these days. So I felt it was important to set it in the current era.
7R: Watching Swallow, I was really put in the mindset of ‘50s suburban melodramas like All That Heaven Allows, Bigger than Life, and Caught. How did you negotiate translating a real story through a fairly well-worn genre?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I’m so glad you mention Bigger than Life, that’s an incredible film. Obviously, I was influenced by Douglas Sirk’s tapestry of colour and plot. And Hitchcock was a huge influence, as was Jeanne Dielman (1973, dir. Chantal Akerman) and films like A Woman Under The Influence and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). The film has a lot of stylistic and thematic hearkening back to Hitchcock and Argento.
Movies have always been an obsession [of mine]. I used to watch five films a day, but I had to cut that back to make time for other things, to make a few movies of my own. As you watch more and more, you see the plot machinations, the structure, and [ideas] occur as to how to upend that plot structure and mix it around in a way that’s inspiring and intriguing.I’m deeply inspired by the whole world of movie-making. Specifically, the investigation of the psychological and how the psychological stakes of the characters’ minds are elevated through the camera direction.
It was very important to us that this [could be] considered a feminist film, and that our main character would be the person whose eyes we saw the plot unfolding through. Even though the main character has a compulsion that is unusual, through an incredibly empathic performance by the amazing Haley Bennett, and through [cinematographer] Katelin Arizmendi’s incredible renaissance-painter frames, the audience would bond strongly with the main character and think, “Okay, well I might not necessarily eat a dangerous object, but I understand what she’s going through. I can understand her pain in that moment.”
7R: Even though I don’t have pica, I projected my own compulsion — to watch five movies a day. I feel a kinship between cinephilia and consumption.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Even in films like Bigger than Life, there are moments where the character can be held at arm’s length regarding seeing everything through their eyes. It was important to me to dial up that empathy and connection so that the character would resonate. Someone with a dangerous compulsion, yes, but a compulsion that becomes a catalyst to reclaim her sense of self, her autonomy over her body —which the family [is trying to] use as a kind of vessel for their legacy — to process untold trauma and to rebel against patriarchal society. In a way, the breakdown becomes a breakthrough.
7R: A.S. Hamrah talks about sound design “as getting so extreme that there would be a movie in which we heard not just the sound of salt leaving a saltshaker, but also the sound of it hitting the food.” I feel like Swallow is that film. Can you tell me about your process for putting sound to images?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Sound is an incredible storytelling opportunity. Every aspect of production is a storytelling opportunity down to what mug someone’s drinking a cup of coffee from. Sound has so many nuances.
First of all, there’s the score by Nathan Halpern, who brought in the Sirk-Hitchcock sound, but also the untone of metallic and tension-producing sonic elements.
Our sound designer, Michael Kurihara, infused intricate details and elements within the foley and ambience and sound effects. You end up with layers and layers of tracks, building the sonic tapestry of scenes. I’m intrigued by giving a hyperreality to the world that Hunter is in, where everything has its sound, where you hear the beads of salt hitting the plate, and everything has a consciousness.
Sound effects allowed us to gain entry into Hunter’s internal cosmology. When she interacts with each object, it has its own emotional texture and emotional memory. When she holds the marble up, you hear the distant sounds of birds calling and people on the beach. It seems to evoke a kind of nostalgic childhood memory. The thumbtack is a dangerous liaison which whispers to her like a siren’s call.
The film’s editor Joe Murphy —who is an incredible human being and artist — and I worked closely on the pacing and the rhythm. A great editor will hone the beats of the story and craft an experience that refines your vision to the fullest extent. I was very lucky. I wanted the film to have wheels.
7R: What was your approach to the very mannered visual palette of the film?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: We were so fortunate that Kate was the eyes of our film. Kate and I share a fascination with bold and unusual aesthetic choices. We spent a lot of time storyboarding the film and developing a rigid vernacular of camera direction.
[We constructed] a strict set of rules that Kate would then break at key emotional hinge moments. In the beginning, Kate used a lot of locked-down master shots where Hunter is lost or dominated by the frame. Later on, Kate will suddenly use a closeup with shallow depth of field, or a bit of handheld. Because she’s not used those techniques earlier, it feels like a startling burst of psychological connectivity.
7R: When she first eats the pin…
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: It’s the first bit of handheld, exactly! Creating rules and then breaking them is a key way that we achieve that.
Kate pioneered the concept of using these master prime lenses in the film, which captured the world with this incredible textural accuracy. Kate felt it reflected Hunter’s compulsion. Pica is a lot about the texture of things.
We wanted the space Hunter was in to feel like it had come out of a magazine or an advertisement. The world she has been sold is being sold back to the rest of us; this wealthy patriarchal environment is something we should all aspire towards. Once she gets into it, she notices this sinisterness beneath the surface.
A lot of that had to do with our incredible production designer, Aaron McGill, who is such an imaginative artist, and our wonderful costume designer, Liene Dobraja. Aaron was very passionate about the idea that every object and piece of furniture in the house was a storytelling opportunity because Hunter is actively decorating the interior to reflect what the family expects her to create for them. Occasionally, her true self emerges, like when the red gel is put over the baby’s room or window.
7R: One shot, in particular, really stuck out at the first dinner, where she’s pushed right to the corner of the frame
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I’m very proud of how that scene works, structurally, in the camera direction. There are a lot of moments in that scene, and in other scenes, where Hunter is edged out of the frame or where someone else is encroaching.
That scene is shot entirely with medium shots until the moment where Hunter is interrupted by the father-, and that’s our first closeup. By having the closeup be only between her and a glass of ice, it emphasises her connection to the ice and makes the ice seem like some magical fortress, a tundra that is a safe protective place she wants to evaporate into.
7R: There’s a separation between Hunter and other objects, like she floats through space.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: We tried to imbue all of the objects, food, and elements that she interacts with with a consciousness before the compulsion ever starts to happen. They are inanimate objects with a soul.
Even in the beginning, we use the sound design to give every object its own personality through foley: the lambs transmogrifying into food, and even the way she arranges the artichoke on the plate and carefully places all the baubles in the house. We tap up the production sound a little for the moments when objects are making noise.
Aaron McGill, on the production design, wanted the furniture to look like objects Hunter might want to consume if they were smaller.
7R: Did that come out of your research into pica?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I reached out to the world’s expert on pica, Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, who was really gracious. We were so lucky that she came on board as a consultant. During my research, I discovered a lot of connections between pica and other rituals of control: OCD rituals, eating disorders. That made me feel that even though the compulsion was obscure, it has a lot of parallels that would foster a universal story if done right and told in an empathic way.
7R: How did you work with Haley Bennett to create an authentic depiction of the condition?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I was so fortunate that Haley decided to bring Hunter to life. She was also an executive producer on the film and just poured every iota of her soul into this movie. My casting director Allison Twardziak recommended Haley for the role. I watched The Girl on a Train and was floored by her performance. We all thought she would be perfect for the part. I wrote her a letter offering her the role and figured she’d never respond. But she did! We had this wonderful meeting where we instantly found an artistic bond. Because she was an executive producer, she was extremely generous with her time. We had a lot of time to discuss the film before we even got on set.
Hunter wears multiple emotional masks throughout the film. Haley is so good at conveying multiple textures of emotion simultaneously with just a twitch of her eye or the touch or her hair. There’s that first mask of Hunter reflecting normalcy and what her husband wants her to be. There’s that second mask which is her pain and doubt. Then the mask which is her true self, yet to emerge.
Haley can play Hunter’s surface and conscious emotions all at once. It’s a hypnotic dance of psychological intimacy with just a look in her eyes. Because there are so many scenes without dialogue, it was very important that we had an actor with that kind of micro-calibration with their face. Haley really delivers an incredible performance. I can’t wait for the world to see it.
7R: When an actor is bringing so much to the table, how do you direct them on set, so they don’t run the show?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: The relationship between an actor and a director is the magic of filmmaking. That connection is something which is a sacred bond. You develop a dialogue, a shorthand, a way of communicating scenes. There was a kind of telepathic bond that formed between us, which allowed us to really intricately design the emotional beats of the character.
Something you look for in an actor is the ability for them to intellectually understand and analyse with you all the aspects of what’s occurring throughout the story, [both the] psychology and emotion. When they’re in front of the camera, [they have] to move through those beats.
7R: At times, Hunter feels like the only living person onscreen. How do you create that effect? Even the other characters feel flattened. Do you have to approach them differently?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: In relation to working with actors, in general, I’m fascinated by the idea of psychological movement. The characters start in a certain psychological, emotional, physiological position when the movie begins. As they go through the film, they are taken on this journey of psychological movement where a change of some kind occurs. Although we don’t talk about it a lot, the reason we go to the movies is for intricate psychological movement. In the writing and narrative arc, Hunter has the largest psychological movement. The others also have movement, but it’s more tame. Perhaps that’s what you’re reacting to.
I will say that with Richie and Luay [the Syrian bodyguard hired by the family to watch Hunter, played by Laith Nakli], I tried to give each character their own movement. We strove with everything from camera direction and other storytelling elements to square us in Hunter’s shoes.
A great actor will be aware of the psychological movement throughout the movie and will imbue those subtle shifts and changes. As a director, you work closely with them to chart that movement or arc. Often, you’re shooting out of sequence, so think how incredible that actor has to be to follow that movement out of order.
As a director, my goal is to give adjustments and create conditions that will allow an actor to completely lose themselves in a character, so a performance is not indicating emotion but rather, there is true emotion that the actor is conjuring in front of the camera through their connection to the material.
As a director, it is important to learn the techniques an actor is trained in, so you can give the most helpful and creative adjustments to foster an organic performance. I am fascinated by the methods of Meisner and Adler. It’s important to click into the wavelength of how an actor likes to work and then help them evoke the character.
7R: Does that ever cause conflict between actors with disparate methods?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: [You have to have] this ability to work in multiple techniques to find what is most comfortable and effective for an actor. If you only find one way of working, it can create a period of adjustment. Whatever gets it on screen, as long as it’s healthy and holistic.
To craft and conjure a performance together is the joy of making movies. As a film goer, I have the best seat in the house, right in front of the monitor, watching Haley Bennett delivering a show-stopping performance as it happens!
7R: I appreciate your holistic approach to collaboration, highlighting a lot of others’ work.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I really believe that film is a collaborative medium. It takes a family of artists to bring something to life. In this current pandemic, the film industry and those who work on sets, the people who make it come to life are in dire straits. We need to find a way to support those who make films!
7R: What are you working on after lockdown?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I’m in the process of writing a number of scripts. I’m working on a feminist supernatural horror movie and writing a few television projects. I’m at the point where the isolation is hopefully a time of creation. I’m excited to make a new film.
I hope Swallow is a film that resonates. I really believe that storytelling is extremely important. Especially now, movies can bring us together, fight prejudice, increase empathy, and make people feel seen. I hope Swallow is a part of that movement.