INTERVIEW: SWALLOW’S Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Film ‘needs to take us to uncomfortable and dangerous places.’


Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis delivers a very personal film steeped in genre flavor with his latest feature, Swallow; a long-gestating project inspired by family tragedy, but one that speaks to important social and cultural conversations happening now in the world of modern genre films.

Upon viewing Swallow, the latest film from writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, you can’t help but feel a little uneasy. The film follows Hunter (Haley Bennett), a naive young housewife swept into the life of a well-to-do patrician family after her marriage to her dream man, Richie (Austin Stowell). But this ideal life is one in which she struggles to fit in; her working-class background making her feel constantly judges and her only job to please her husband on command as if she were a Stepford Wife. The pressure culminates in the condition known as pica, an obsessive-compulsive need to swallow everyday objects, from the every day like partially-melted ice cubes, to increasingly dangerous items for a lonely pregnant wife like thumb pins and razor blades. The compulsion creates a fear that becomes exciting in Hunter and she starts to see the need as a welcome friend, to give her a window of excitement in the increasingly dismal and claustrophobic life she has become trapped in.

I chatted with Mirabella-Davis, a friendly and affable guy whose filmmaking path started with raiding video stores for inspiration in high school with fellow classmate Jordan Peele, on Tuesday morning, to ask him what inspirations went into crafting the film and his thoughts on the changing world of genre film. Swallow, which earned lead actress Haley Bennett Best Actress honors at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, opens this Friday, March 6th, from IFC Films.

VM: Swallow gets in your head – As a viewer, I was initially expecting this dark genre piece about this disorder, Pica, that forces you to eat these increasingly shocking things. But instead, I found that its this nuanced piece that deals with issues of control in a claustrophobic marriage and by the end, the word Swallow comes to mean something totally different than when you’re initially thinking it’s about this bizarre disorder. What inspired this story?

CMD: Well, I’m so glad to hear that it struck a chord with you. The film was really inspired by my grandmother, who was a homemaker in the 1950s, who developed various issues of control. She was in an unhappy marriage, and she became an obsessive hand washer. She would go through 4 bars of soap a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week and I think she was looking for order in a life in which she felt increasingly powerless. And my grandfather, and her doctors, put her into a mental institution where she was subjected to insulin-shock therapies, electro-shock therapy, and a nonconsensual lobotomy.

VM: Oh, wow.

CMD: Yeah. And it was a heartbreaking thing that happened in our family history. And I always felt there was something punitive about it. How she was treated, you know? That my grandmother was being punished in a way for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife and mother should be. And I wanted to make a movie about that, but, you know, handwashing is not very cinematic. So I remember seeing a photograph of a stomach, which had been surgically removed, of a patient who had Pica. And all the objects were fanned out on the table, like an archeological dig and I was fascinated. I wanted to know more. What drew the patient to these artifacts; it seemed almost mystical, like a holy communion. So, that’s what inspired it.

VM: When I think of genre films – they’re often this disconcerting lens of horror meant to show the audience something they might only be tangentially aware of in their day to day life. The way Hunter’s opinion is denigrated throughout the film and her lack of agency because of her perception as this trophy wife reminds me of films like Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives. Were those sorts of films an influence?

CMD: Absolutely. I mean, there were a number of films that we looked to as kind of touchstones. Certainly, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE by John Cassavettes, SAFE by Todd Haynes, JEANNE DIELMAN, 23, QUAI DO COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES by Chantal Ackerman, and ROSEMARY’S BABY, were all films that we were absolutely fascinated by and looked to as torch fires of inspiration. And, I’m so please that you feel this way about genre film, because. in a way, SWALLOW, is like the Tiramisu of genre.

VM: [Laughs]

CMD: We’ve got psychological horror, we’ve got body horror. We’ve also got the dark comedy element, and it’s a domestic drama, as well. And, I find that there’s this beautiful friction that happens between the different genre influences when they’re combined in a sort of rainbow.

For example, I think that horror, as you say, has a tremendous capacity to viscerally key into our inner fears and anxieties that we manage to keep repressed throughout the day. But when you see them manifested on the screen in amazing films like THE BABADOOK, we get more mastery and control over them. And I love how, a lot of times, in really ruminating how to make the film, I think had we gone extremely horrific or extremely neolithic with the content it would’ve been harder to empathize and identify with what was happening on the screen and a little bit of that comedy, I think, helps the medicine go down in a way. And, ultimately, the film is very heartfelt. It’s a story that I felt very passionate about; Haley Bennett delivered in an incredibly epic, tour de force performance — it makes you frightened, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry. And I hope its kind of a powerful and prismatic experience for the audience.


VM: Haley Benett is tremendous in this as Hunter — she has to go to a lot of extreme places in this film. I’m familiar with her from a few other films like THE GIRL ON A TRAIN and KRISTY. Did she embody what you were hoping to find with this character? What was your relationship like?

CMD: She, I think, brought Hunter to life with such power, and clarity and authenticity; I’m over the moon about her performance. I think there’s this rather miraculous thing that happens as a filmmaker, where you spend a lot of time toiling in your lair alone, working on a project you’re passionate about and when people come in and you see this film reflected through their eyes, it’s really beautiful. But in terms of getting Haley involved, I had seen her in THE GIRL ON A TRAIN and I thought she gave an amazing performance there and I wanted to see her in the lead role. I suspected she might be interested in doing something [like this], taking a part that was bold and dangerous. So I wrote her a letter and offered her the role, and I figured she wouldn’t accept it because the part was pretty different from other things she’s done. But, amazingly, she met with me and we just had an instant sort of telepathic bond, a meeting of the minds, and right away, I think we both knew we had to make the film together. But Haley, I think, is so good at conveying layers of emotion and Hunter wears multiple masks throughout the film. She has that first mask, which is like, her plastic smile, that passes for her normal face, and that second mask, which is her pain and doubts, and that third mask, her true, primal self emerging. and Haley can deliver all those emotional layers with just the touch of her hair or a twitch of her eye.

VM: I think given the current cultural climate, that a lot of viewers will probably see this film as being very timely, in terms of addressing issues of controlling and abusive relationships and who can you turn to in order to speak out in a post #MeToo world. The film really has a feminist point of view, in calling back to the influence of Stepford Wives and the patriarchy and in Rosemary’s Baby. was that a conscious choice?

CMD: Oh yes, I think we very much considered that this would be a feminist movie. 2/3rds of our cast are women and all of our department heads are women. I’m so fortunate that so many incredible female artists decide to make my grandmother’s story their own and I very much see the story as one of this woman who is absorbed in this controlling, patriarchal family and everyone in it is telling her, this is who you are, this is what you should want, this is what should make you happy, and she begins to look around and begins to see this sinister, malignant force, lurking. And the pica, this dangerous compulsion, in a way, starts to become this sort of quiet rebellion from the controlling structure she finds herself in and its always a way for her to sort of, reclaim her body and take control over one’s identity and one’s body when the family treats Hunter as a sort of ornament. She uses [acting on the compulsion of Pica] as a way to reclaim her personhood and embarking on this journey to confront this creature from her past. And we very much saw this as a feminist film in that way and were also inspired by the #MeToo movement, which has been an extremely important catalyst for personhood and change in our culture. And I think we’re in a fascinating time right now where a lot of genre elements are taking on these issues, from GET OUT, to HEREDITARY; a lot of films are using genre to confront a lot of important issues people are talking about.


3) By the time you reach the end, the film really drops some heavy topics – did you have any worry in developing this piece about the places and issues it might touch on?

CMD: Well, I don’t want to talk too much about the ending, because I want the audience to experience it by watching the film, but I’ll just say in general.

VM: Yeah, generally.

CMD: I believe, in general, that films, have the power to increase empathy, fight prejudice, and change the world and much as we think of movies as entertainment, we think they’re a key to unlocking a kind of psychological priority and empowerment. So part of doing that is to gaze into the void and in that moment you find your character. So I think in order to have that moment of catharsis, we need to take ourselves to uncomfortable and dangerous and deserving places and hopefully, we take on those issues with tenderness and bravery. And of course, I was nervous about touching on a lot of the issues this film touches on; a lot of heavy subject matter, but I think if you’re a writer, and you’re a little frightened about what you’re writing about, you’re probably on the right path.

VM: I think you’re definitely right there. As we finish up, do you have a favorite anecdote you’d like to share that might open up the filmmaking process a bit for our audience?

CMD: Oh god, there’s so many to choose from. Let me think. I’d say I love the opening of our movie. My main editor Joe Murphy and I, we worked very hard on crafting the opening to the right calibration. The film opens with cutting this meal that everyone is going to and the preparations for the meal. And through the preparations for the meal, we get the sense of something sinister in the community, similar to the opening of BLUE VELVET. For the longest time, we had no idea how to simultaneously introduce Hunter’s character and have this idea of the opening and Joe, our editor, poured his soul into this film and I think his skills are in great display in this opening by cross-cutting between Hunter and how this meal is prepared and the violence within that, it sets up a very interesting visual metaphor about how Hunter is being sacrificed in this act.

VM: Well, I think we’re out of time here, but I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me and I hope the film does very well and opens up more doors for you because I’d love to see more from you in the future.

CMD: Thank you I really appreciate you talking to me about the movie and this has been a really great and fascinating conversation.

– Swallow opens in theaters on March 6th.