Ever since his MFA thesis project Knife Point made waves in 2009 at Sundance, many have eagerly anticipated what Carlo Mirabella-Davis would work on next. While his work was accepted into both the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Sundance Directors Lab, the next project that made waves was the black and white documentary The Swell Season, which he co-directed with Chris Dapkins. Now back to pursuing his goal to tackle his first feature, Carlo Mirabella-Davis is making his presence known once more with his feminist body-horror film, SWALLOW.
In his first feature film, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has tapped into the lengths a housewife will go to regain control of her life through the use of consuming dangerous objects. For the release of the film, we had a chance to speak with Mirabella-Davis where we discussed everything from the inception of the film’s story, the specific meaning behind some of the objects Hunter swallows in the film, and the extraordinary color palette utilized throughout the course of the film.
First and foremost, how did the story for SWALLOW come to be?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: The story was inspired by my grandmother who was a homemaker in the 1950s, in an unhappy marriage, who developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive hand-washer who would go through four cakes of soap a day and twelve bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I think she was looking for order in a life that she felt increasingly powerless in. 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 that they messed up and she lost her sense of taste and smell. It was this really tragic thing that happened within our family. I always felt like she was being punished, in a way, for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife or mother should be. I wanted to make a film about that but handwashing isn’t very cinematic, you know? I remember seeing all the contents of someone’s stomach who had pica that had been surgically removed. They were fanned out on the table like an archeological dig. I was so fascinated and I wanted to know what drew the patients to those artifacts. It almost felt kind of like a mystical experience or a holy communion so I wanted to know more.
When it came to the items that Hunter consumes, were there specific reasons for choosing those pieces?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Yes, the film is so much about the power of these talismans that she becomes hypnotized by. We wanted every one of the objects to be a different emotional memory, to have a different emotional texture. The marble, there’s something almost nostalgic about it. You hear the sound design and some sounds of the beach, and it calls her back to an earlier, simpler time. Whereas the thumbtack is a much more dangerous relationship. Every object Hunter approaches differently based on sort of the emotional triggers that happened in the scene before. They were all chosen with extreme care.
When it came to Hunter swallowing the items, I’m assuming she didn’t actually eat them, though it looked like she did. How were you able to achieve that?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: A magician never reveals his tricks! I will not talk about how we did the special effects but it was all trickery (laughs). I’m glad that it felt so real and visceral, though. That means a lot.
Since we’ve been speaking a lot about Hunter, I have to say that Haley Bennett was extraordinary in the film. What was that casting process like?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: We were so incredibly fortunate that Haley decided to do the movie. I had seen her in The Girl on the Train and I just thought she was an incredible actor. I thought she might be interested in doing a role that was a leading role. I wanted to see her in a lead role so that everyone could see the full range of her talent. I also thought she might be interested in doing something that was kind of bold and daring. I wrote her a passionate letter and hoped that she would meet with me and she did. Immediately, we had sort of this telepathic bond and understanding about the character. She’s also an Executive Producer [on the film] so she devoted a lot of time. She poured every iota of her soul into this performance which I think is really a tour-de-force. Haley is so good with layers of emotion and Hunter wears multiple masks throughout the film. There’s that first mask that’s like the plastic smile reflecting normalcy, reflecting what her husband wants her to be. Then there is the second mask which shows her pain and her doubts on if this is where she belongs. Then the third mask is her true self, her primal, powerful self threatening to emerge. Haley can give you all of those emotional textures with just the touch of her hair or the twitch of her eyes.
One of my favorite aspects of this film was the color palette and design. I felt that some of the colors represented what society deemed appropriate for gender roles as well as there is a wonderful juxtaposition between bright colors and soft pastels. Was that a conscious decision?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I love that interpretation! I was very fortunate to work with the amazing production designer, Erin Magill, and this wonderful costume designer, Liene Dobraja. We talked a lot about the idea of the power of color to elevate the subtext and internal mind of the character. The scene that, aesthetically, I love is when Hunter puts up these red gels in the baby’s room. She is decorating the entire home which Erin took very seriously. Every choice she made as a production designer was a storytelling element that was reflecting what was going on in Hunter’s mind. Hunter is decorating part of the house in the way she imagines the wealthy patriarchal family she’s a part of would want. Then in other areas, she’s decorating with more boldness and her true taste. It was interesting to use red because it feels so potent and dangerous in that baby’s room’s space. Also, [Hunter’s] vanity, where she places the objects, is very different from other things in the house. There’s something kind of 1930s about it – it has these sharp edges and a metallic feel to it. Erin came up with this amazing idea that all of the bigger pieces of furniture and tchotchke’s on the tables, should look like objects that Hunter might want to swallow if they were smaller.
The biggest theme that I took away from this film was having control, losing control, and then finding freedom. What is it that you are hoping viewers take away from this film?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: We very much conserved the movie to be a feminist film and that the idea that even though Hunter’s compulsions are dangerous, it becomes this catalyst for her to rebel against this patriarchal power structure to discover her true self and what she really wants. Her rituals start like a pebble being knocked down a mountainside that begins an avalanche. I hope this is a film that makes people feel seen and if anybody is going through some kind of mental illness that they would see the movie and feel a connection to it. Even though they might say, “Well, I wouldn’t swallow a dangerous object” they can say, “I understand why she’s feeling that way in such a constricting, controlling environment.” I also wanted the film to be about society’s expectations of gender roles and breaking away from that.
SWALLOW is available today in select theaters and Digital and VOD. Read our review of the film here.