Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has made one of 2020’s most interesting films thus far with Swallow, a story of a pregnant housewife with pica disorder, the psychological habit of eating objects with no nutritional value. Starring Haley Bennett, Mirabella-Davis’s film follows the woman as she fights back against those around her, including her husband, her in-laws, her therapist, and her history. Swallow is a film that has become timely in our current situation, with many of us stuck at home, isolated, and unable to control the world around us. I chatted with Mirabella-Davis about Swallow, about making horror films that resonate, about how they chose the objects she would eat, and about how Jordan Peele inspired him while they were both in high school.
MF: Carlo! How are you doing? Where are you out in the world?
CMD: I’m doing as well as can be expected. I’m isolating here in New York City. Been inside for awhile. Just sort of hunkering down as they say.
MF: I’m doing the same out in LA. It’s definitely a wild time. I caught Swallow yesterday. Enjoyed it, if that’s the right word. How did the actual story come about?
CMD: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. The film 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 handwasher, who would go through four bars of soap a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. And I think she was looking for order in a life that felt increasingly powerless in. Trying to sanitize everything and have control over her environment. She was also quite isolated. And my grandfather at behest of the doctors put her in a mental institution, where they gave her electroshock therapy, insulin-shock therapy, and non-consensual lobotomy. It was this tragic episode that happened in our family history that always stuck with me. I always felt there was something punitive about, that she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife or a mother should be and I wanted to make a movie about that. But you know, handwashing is not very cinematic, or maybe it’s becoming more cinematic now that all of us are doing it. I remember seeing a photograph of all of the contents of a patient with pica’s stomach, all of these contents had been surgically removed and fanned out on the table like an archaeological dig. And I was fascinated. I wanted to know more. It almost seemed like some sort of mystical experience like holy communion, and that’s how it started.
MF: That’s wild! How did you land on Haley Bennett?
CMD: I was so fortunate that Haley Bennett, who I think delivers a tour-de-force performance in the movie, decided to bring this character to life. My casting director, Allison Twardziak, recommended Haley and I saw Girl on the Train and I was just floored by Haley’s incredible performance in that film. And I wanted to see her in a lead role right away and I thought she might be interested in doing something a little unusual and daring. So I wrote her a letter and offered her the part, and I thought I’d never hear back from her. Amazingly, she loved the script and she met with me and we had this wonderful first meeting of the minds and there was this instant bond formed between us about how this story felt relevant and important to tell. And Haley came on board as an executive producer so she was extremely generous with her time. You know, Haley is so good at conveying the emotional journey of a character through the micro calibration of her face. There’s a lot of scenes where it’s just Hunter alone and Haley can effortlessly tell the story of the psychological narrative through the emotions in her eyes and her facial expressions. And she can so effortlessly usher the audience into her emotional cosmology. So I was so fortunate that she decided to bring Hutner into being.
MF: I think she gives an incredible performance. I feel like the movie could have been a lot more gruesome and horrific in many ways. Why did you decide to tone it down?
CMD: Right, well there was a fine tightrope to walk here. I didn’t want to shy away from the bodily reality of what was occuring. And I think those elements, the elements of body horror that are in the movie, are important to have because Hunter is connecting in a way to her body and rebelling against this controlling, sanitized patriarchal environment, so I didn’t want to shy away from what was happening. At the same time, I also wanted to tell a story that could create an emotional catharsis, that was heartfelt and personal and bonded the audience to Hutner’s struggle. Rather than create a grotesque menagerie. I wanted the audience to be drawn in and feel connected to her and say I might not eat a dangerous object but i understand why she’s doing it. I connect with what she’s going through. That was the goal and we tried to craft the right balance there. Thanks to my amazing editor Joe Murphy who is so good at calibrating tone. I think we hit the right amount of what we showed and what we didn’t show. I think the human imagination is so much more visceral than anything you can show on the screen. Audiences will fill in the blanks in their own minds. We’ve had people faint in the theater before so it’s clearly a film that people are responding to in an intense way. I also wanted the audience to feel a variety of emotions. It’s a movie you’re frightened by, but also a movie where you laugh and where you cry. A little bit of dark humor helps the medicine go down.
MF: You know. I was so curious. How did you pick the object’s themselves?
CMD: Yeah, so I had an incredible design team. My production designer Erin Magill is so amazing with the power of color and aesthetics, and we spent a long time looking for each object. I wanted each object, when I was writing the script, to represent a different emotional memory, each object has a different emotional flavor. The marble for example, there’s something nostalgic about it. When she holds it up to the light, you hear a distant beach sign with people laughing. Perhaps it’s a memory from childhood of an early moment of happiness. There’s also something about the marble, the refraction of light, it feels like a talisman, something magical and comforting and the colors are very comforting. The thumbtack is much more of a dangerous liaison, you can hear it whispering to her like a siren. Each one of the objects kind of has a trigger that comes before, a scene that causes Hunter to seek out the comfort of the compulsion.
MF: I was going to ask about the colors. Were you trying to convey the different emotions Hunter was feeling underneath or how did you go about making colors such an important aspect of the film? They were something you notice right away.
CMD: Oh good, I’m so glad to hear you say that. I’m obsessed with the language of color palettes in movies. Ever since watching Hitchcock films where he will use various colors like green to symbolize death and decay, I became really interested in the power of those aesthetic choices. I also love the original Suspiria which has such amazing and evocative uses of red. My production designer Erin Magill, I remember a conversation and she was very passionate about the idea that every aesthetic choice in the home is an opportunity for narrative, because Hutner is actively decorating the house. SHe is decorating it to reflect what she thinks the controlling wealthy family she’s absorbed into wants. But every once in awhile her true taste and her true style emerges, and one of my favorite moments is this red gel that Hunter puts over the baby room’s window. Another great idea that Erin came up with. It sort of shows Hunter’s true self, a little burst of life happening in the home. THe film itself has a stylized feel in the beginning. It’s supposed to be a little retro. It represents that corrosive 1950s patriarchal sexism still lingering under the surface of our time. As the movie progresses, our style becomes more and more realistic, both in Katelin Arizmendi’s camera direction but also in the colors and costumes in order to reflect Hunter’s journey.
MF: This is a much larger question, but why should people see this movie? Why is this movie an important movie for this time?
CMD: Well I think that one of the things I love about the movie, and I hope people take away from it, is that it’s a film about someone who’s constantly being told this is who you are, this is what you should want, and this is what will make you happy. She actually believes it and gradually she looks around to see something sinister looking underneath the surface. SHe starts to see the strings of what’s happening of the people who are controlling her and confining her. Even though pica is a dangerous compulsion, in a way it becomes a catalyst that leads her through, instead of a breakdown, into a breakthrough and it allows her to elude this controlling, constrictive environment. And to discover what she really wants and who she really is. I hope that’s a message that allows people to feel seen. I think that film, and especially horror movies too have a capacity to help us manage our fear. Seeing our fear manifested on the screen allows them to become more contrainable, more manageable, and we can understand them. We’re all trapped in our own isolated containers now and there’s a lot of that feeling of isolation, which existed before we’ve all been confined, but I hope it’s a movie that makes people feel seen and increases empathy and fights prejudice. I hope our film is part of that movement of recent genre films that have taken on emotional cathartic and socially relevant issues like The Babadook and Get Out and Hereditary and many more.
MF: What have you seen recently has inspired you?
CMD: So actually Parasite was incredible. Now that I’m isolated I’ll be able to watch a few films. The two I really want to see are Portrait of a Lady on Fire which I can’t wait to watch and The Invisible Man which some people have said that it’s a good double feature with Swallow. So maybe while people are planning out their quarantine evenings that could be a good double feature. I’m very excited to watch those two movies. I just think there are so many incredible voices coming out that are making stories that are really intriguing. I can’t wait to watch all of those new films.
MF: Anything you saw growing up that heavily influenced you now that you’re making films?
CMD: Oh, yeah. I mean there are so many movies that influenced this film in particular, like Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman, Safe by Todd Haynes, Woman Under the Influence by Cassavetes, Psycho. But I remember a very specific moment when I was younger. This person from my high school, this other student, invited me over to his house and he was like there are two films I think you ought to see, that I think you’d really like. And we watched The Shining and Akira double-feature and they were incredible for the level of psychologically intricacy and the visceral power and the bold aesthetic choices blew me away. And that fellow student of mine turned out to be Jordan Peele, who of course went on to create horror masterpieces Get Out and Us. So I’ll always be grateful to Jordan for showing me those films and inspiring me at that early age.
MF: Wait, that’s wild!
CMD: Yeah, I know. It’s something I’ll always be grateful for. Yeah, we went to high school together.
MF: He showed you those films?
CMD: Yeah I was like 15 or 16. Incredible double feature.
MF: Where’d you grow up?
CMD: I grew up in New York. Born and raised. I can’t drive. I crashed my car during my driver’s test. So, I’m always on the subway, which is not good during this current crisis. I wish I could drive, but I also spend a lot of time in upstate New York as well.
MF: In terms of stories you want to make going forward, do you want to continue making horror films? Feminist films? What’re you looking for on the horizon?
CMD: I’m currently writing a supernatural feminist horror movie. Ultimately, I just want to make films I’m passionate about with characters I haven’t seen on the screen before and stories that I find daring and unusual and emotionally relevant. I’m just going to go where my heart leads me as a writer and I hope I get a chance to make another movie and work with such incredible collaborators as I did on this one. It’s an exciting time to be making movies because I think the world is more and more processing our experiences through storytelling. I think that storytelling can change the world and I really believe that. I hope the next movies I make have some kind of positive effect on the world.