Interview: Director Todd Stephens and acting legend Udo Kier on ‘Swan Song,’ premiering at SXSW
“Erik, I wish I could see you. Okay, I sent you a picture of myself.”
That’s how my Zoom interview with legendary actor Udo Kier began as we set to chat about his new film Swan Song, with its writer and director, Todd Stephens (1998’s Edge of Seventeen), premiering at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
Technical difficulties be damned, I continued my interview with Stephens and Kier (sans video) but still with his lush and familiar voice.
You probably know Todd Stephens best from his breakthrough 1998 film Edge of Seventeen, still one of the best queer coming out films ever. Others might know him as the writer and director of the camp classics Another Gay Movie and its uproarious sequel, Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! It’s been 13 years since Stephens last made a film and with Swan Song he returned to his roots, taking us back to Sandusky, Ohio to tell the story of the one of the most important and impactful people in his life, Pat Pitsenbarger, a bon vivant in a buffet town, hairdresser to the city’s wealthiest women and tasked to return for one last styling job when his oldest client and closest friend (played by the legendary Linda Evans of TV’s Dynasty). The film co-stars iconic comedienne Jennifer Coolidge (Best In Show, Legally Blonde) as Pitsenbarger’s former apprentice turned rival.
You know Udo Kier as the very embodiment of recognizable and legendary queer actors with a credit sheet that spans over 260 roles in film, television and music videos beginning in the days of Andy Warhol with Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula to his work with Gus Van Sant My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” and “Erotica” videos, the Lars von Trier films Dogville and Melancholia and most recently in Bacurau and The Painted Bird. His arrival into the world was one of the most auspicious and audacious entrance imaginable; on October 14, 1944 in Cologne, Germany, during World War II as bombs literally fell on and around him and his pregnant mother about to give birth to him. On the evening of his birth Udo’s mother requested extra time with her new baby. The nurses had gathered all of the other babies and returned them to the nursery when the hospital was bombed. He and his mother were rescued from underneath the rubble in a beginning that sounds like an origin story from one of his own films.
I talked with Todd Stephens and Udo Kier about their film Swan Song, the legacy of “Mr. Pat” and how to tell such a personal story.
Erik Anderson: Todd, first before anything, I just have to tell you how much of a fan I am of Edge of Seventeen.
Todd Stephens: Thank you!
EA: I mean, even though I was older than the kids in it, it just, it meant a great deal. It’s the kind of movie that was like, “Boy, I really wish that I’d had this when I was in high school.”
TS: Thank you. Thanks. I appreciate it. Yeah, that was like my life story up through that time, so I’m glad that people still remember it.
EA: I think it’s still one of the most iconic gay movies of all time. It was a big deal. It was a big breakthrough. So…
TS: Keep talking, keep talking.
EA: What initially inspired you to want to be a filmmaker?
TS: I don’t know. I mean, I just always from the time I was a little kid I would make Super 8 movies, and I made horror movies with my friends and I used to have haunted houses in my garage before I started making movies and charged kids like a quarter to come in and scare the shit out of them, and then somehow that morphed into movie making. So I started making films when I was in middle school or whatever, and I don’t know why. It’s not something that I consciously thought of. It’s just something I always wanted to do.
EA: So with Swan Song, it’s obviously a very personal story, and you just mentioned that Edge of Seventeen was sort of like your life to that point, who was Pat Pitsenbarger to you in your own story?
TS: Interestingly enough, Mr. Pat was a big character in Edge of Seventeen and that wound up getting… We could never find the right actor to play him, and so the part kind of got cut and sort of combined into Lea DeLaria’s part as the mentor to the kid coming out. So that actually broke my heart because that was one of the main things I was excited about making the film, so after that I always knew that I wanted to pay homage to this real man from my hometown that was like a fabulous flamingo, and was very soft-spoken and quiet, but sort of outrageous and sort of gender fluid long before, that was the thing. And he just like went around and everybody accepted him. He had a very successful salon. All the rich women in town loved him, they’d give him gifts, they’d give him their…kind of like he says about the chandelier, that was all based in reality. These rich women loved him and they would give him their old furniture and cars and things, you know what I mean? But I always loved him because he had the courage to be different, and I felt different, so that’s why I always looked up to him.
EA: Udo, I’m really excited to talk to you because I think you just have one of the most iconic careers in Hollywood. Tell me a bit about what brought you to Todd and Swan Song?
Udo Kier: Well, the thing was that Todd and his script came at the right moment because I had just made Bacurau and The Painted Bird, and unfortunately also not in the cinemas because of the virus, so when I got the script for Swan Song, I liked it because it was so different. I didn’t have to kill people. I did not have to be too evil. I was just a hairdresser. A hair dresser who was famous when he was young, and now he is in the retirement home.
And as well for me, the interesting thing was, I didn’t want to act, I just wanted to be an old man who smokes from time to time little cigarettes and sit there and folding napkins, and then when they offered him the money to do, because he was a hairdresser, go back to the town to do their hair for the richest woman who died, and he does. He goes and goes in the back, people don’t recognize him and slowly, but the people are kind to him because even the younger people working the secondhand shop they remember that he did the hair for their mother, and even the first time their hair, so he went in the back and they gave him a beautiful green suit, and they felt like in the old days, and he danced through the main street in Sandusky.
There’s only one big street, with the cinema and the theater and stores and restaurants on the corner, and so he goes back in his past and he doesn’t really want to do the hair for the lady, the richest woman who died, played Linda Evans who is one of the most professional actresses I’ve worked with.
And so we had a great time. There was no, “Showtime,” and now you dance and now you’re do this and you jump. It was just an old man going back in his past and was happy when people recognized him, most of the people didn’t recognize him. And for me, it was good because I met people, I met about where the real Pat went, and I met people. They were talking about him and they showed me little movements and I saw little photographs, how he was holding his hands and front of his chin.
And so that was for me, totally different experience. And then when I saw the movie, not long ago, I saw the movie and saw it again and I was… Normally, I’m very critical because when I make a movie, I never see any material. I hate that because there’s always something you don’t like you did that you want to change and you can’t. So I saw the movie twice and I loved it and I showed it to a few friends, real friends, and they said, “This is the best thing you ever did,” and I said, “C’mon, I’m doing this for 50 years with great directors,” but I realized after short moments what they meant, because I realized that because I was the leading character that was after 20 years of film.
In [Blood for] Dracula and [Flesh for] Frankenstein I was the main character, but I did mainly other films, supporting parts, even in big films in good films, but here I start to film where this starts with me and it ends with me. And there’s a lot of beautiful scenes in between, and that’s why I love that film, not because Todd is listening now, but I really do. I really do. And I mean it, because the only wish I have now is a wish, a big wish and I will make it happen, even if I ran the cinema on my own, I want to see it on the biggest screen I can see because I’m impressed with it now on the computer, I can imagine I will be laughing and crying when I see it on the big screen.
EA: I think you’re right. Absolutely.
TS: I mean can you imagine how proud that makes me feel to hear somebody like Udo say these things? I mean, it’s really… That means more than to me than anything really.
EA: I think he’s right though and it struck me too. I mean, after 260 credits, to have this lead role and it’s somebody empathetic, but also kind of bitchy and mean and funny and fun and a huge personality. It was just so different than anything I had seen from you Udo before, and it just is fascinating to be able to see an actor do something new and get a new shade of who they are.
TS: Yeah. I think it’s like a role that really showed what he’s able to fully do, the full range of what he can do.
EA: Yeah, absolutely.
UK: And as I said before, I don’t say that because I want to make Todd a compliment. That’s not why I say that, because I can imagine how sensitive everything was on the computer. My God, how sensitive must it be when you have a big screen and you look up and you see everything. That’s what I’m waiting for, and as I said, I think it will be in summer in the cinema, and if not, I will rent a big screen and invite friends from all over, and, you know, it’s called Swan Song.
EA: Exactly. That’s perfect. Todd, I’m curious when you are this close to something and to a subject, how do you find the place between fact and fiction to tell your story?
TS: I’ve learned that you can be inspired by fact, but you can’t be locked into it, and I made that mistake when I made Edge of Seventeen. I was like, “It’s got to be exactly the way it was when I was a kid and everybody’s got to have the same name and talk exactly like the original person and stuff,” but making movies doesn’t work that way.
You start off with that inspiration, but then you have to… It’s a collaboration, and Udo is going to bring to Pat, he’s going to make his own Pat. It’s inspired by Pat, but I was never trying to have it be exactly Pat, because you can’t. That’s how I look at it. You let him do his own interpretation of what that is and trust in that, instead of trying to micromanage somebody to do something exactly.
EA: I think one of the successes is that you can tell between locations and the Fruit and Nut bar, that you have things that are very real so they just feel real, like you’re not being put on, and so that nice blend is there.
TS: Thank you. Thanks.
EA: And I was just thinking about what Udo said about seeing this with other people, and I watched it on a television at home and when it got to the bar and the dancing and dancing on my own, I mean, my God. It’s that just is what it is, and I was just crying, crying, and I just kept-
TS: Really? From that moment?
EA: Oh my God. From the happiness in that moment, that song really kind of does it, and also just because we are in this pandemic era it just made me miss being with people and dancing with my friends. So it was a great thing to see, just to give me that little bit of serotonin, a bit of a boost there. You have some really good music in this, Todd.
TS: Thank you. Yeah, we worked hard to get all the music rights to… I mean, the Robyn song we got permission to use it the day before Udo and I shot that scene. But everything went like that for this movie. It just kind of like, knock on wood, I mean things just kind of fell into place. I really felt like the spirits of Pat, and I really felt like I was making a movie that was almost like communicating with the spirit world, because all the people that were lost to AIDS in my hometown, and I felt like they were up there, not to sound corny, but I felt that they were… I felt them.
TS: I felt them and they were like part of it.
EA: I totally hear that. Udo, what did you bring to Pat that wasn’t already there from your conversations with Todd? How did you make Pat yours?
UK: I didn’t search for anything I was this character, and if there came some movements out of myself into it, I just did it. It was not calculated, because then you would have felt it that it’s calculated. It was like, okay. He goes to the bar, he has a glass of wine, and he has only one pill of Molly, and he gives an amazing tip to the waiter, and things like that. But that was all. When it came, it was all inside the story. It was not, “Okay, let’s see what I could do now. Ah, that will be…” No, it was all just a trip of a human going back in his past and doing what he did.
TS: His style of acting is obviously very naturalistic. It’s not about calculation, it’s just about being present and not thinking too much, and that comes across. I love that kind of performance. That’s like my favorite, and that comes across so well.
EA: I think so too. Todd, I have to ask you about Linda Evans and how did that happen?
TS: My casting director and I, we were brainstorming even though it’s a small part, we felt like it had to be played by somebody that had… Because she’s talked about the whole movie and stuff, that it had to be like a payoff, and played by somebody that meant that it carried weight, and we just were brainstorming a bunch of people and Eve, my casting director, said, “What about Linda Evans?” And I was like, “That’s it. Done. Oh my God,” and so she got a hold of Linda’s people and she read the script pretty quickly. And before we knew it, Linda and I were talking on the phone and she is the sweetest, most amazing, kindest person. I mean, Udo’s great and everything, but Linda! No, she’s just so wonderful and she really connected very much to the themes of the story, and so it was like a dream. We only got to shoot with her for one day really, but…
UK: I must interrupt just before that, and Linda was one of the most professional actresses I ever worked with. She took me and said, “Let’s go to the next room and rehearse,” and we went to the other room, which was just next where we were shooting later where the coffin was, and we were rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and then Todd said, “Okay, we’re ready.”
We went there and it was real. It was real, it was nasty, and we learned. It came from the feeling, even now when I see the body there I get kind of shiver. I just came and I said, “You didn’t call me when my friend died?” And she said, “I was scared. I was scared.” It was amazing, and I’ll never forget that.
EA: Well, I think you were a dynamic duo together. I think you were amazing together.
UK: Yeah, and we just talked two days ago. We called in the phone. We exchange contact from time to time.
I think it was a very good choice. The casting director and Todd what they were talking about and what they could do and what they did and who they cast. It was a good cast. It was a good cast all get on. I had from the moment that first day when I worked, I always remember my friend Lars von Trier we made 10 films together, he always says to actors, “Don’t act,” and they say, “I’m not doing anything,” and then Lars said, “What you did you do just now with your shoulder? Don’t act. Just, you have your text, you have the situation, don’t act.” And that’s what I did in this film. I don’t remember that I was trying to do something on purpose or trying to play a trick acting or something, or you know. No, I didn’t.
EA: Well, I want to thank both of you for talking with me today. I can’t wait for people to see this and congratulate you both on South by Southwest and showing your film.
TS: Thank you, Erik.
UK: Thank you Erik. It’s a pity I didn’t see you.
EA: It’s a pity I didn’t see you, but you’re always in my heart, so I’ll always see you.
UK: That’s nice. Thank you very much.
Swan Song world premieres at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival on Thursday, March 18. Magnolia Pictures has picked up the worldwide rights to the film.
Photo by Christopher Stephens – © Swan Song Film LLC