PRIDE 2022
Interview

Todd Stephens
SWAN SONG

There is a magic at play sometimes when a film comes around and it makes you feel love. All around Barcelona posters for Todd Stephens latest film SWAN SONG left an impression and after the 20th time seeing the poster we sat down to watch it. Almost instantly Stephens film draws you in and Udo Kier's Mr. Pat takes your heart away. SWAN SONG is a film filled with so many moments that make you feel so much joy, sadness and happiness. Mr. Pat is someone we all, in sometime in our lives, had had the pleasure of knowing, whether closely for from afar. These are special people who leave an impression on all who come into contact with them and it is part of this impression that makes SWAN SONG such an unforgettable and deeply beautiful film.

Swan Song  is your third film based in your in your hometown of Sandusky, Ohio and I was wondering how has the approach to filming in filming in your home town changed since you made The Age of 17. Are the locals used to you being there with your camera?

 

That's a good question. The the first time I shot in Ohio was a nightmare, it was like that in 1998. God it’s going on 25 years ago we shot my first movie “The Age of 17” in Ohio, it was a coming out movies set in the 1980s. My hometown used to be a lot more conservative than it is now so it was hard, we decided to keep it a secret that it was a gay story and we created a fake script changing the names and stuff like that. It seemed like a non love story but people did find out ultimately and it caused a lot of problems.

 

It was very difficult as I grew up there before moving to New York City and I hadn't been back there in 12 years so I forgot how racist and homophobic it could be. We only discovered this unfortunately when we were making the film but fast forward 20+ years when we shot “Swan Song” it was a complete different experience. When I got home to start shooting Sandusky was having its third annual Gay Pride Festival, which blew my mind. Everybody wanted to help this time, everybody, and a lot of people in town knew Mr. Pat, who was based on a real person. It showed me how much the world has changed in 20 years just by looking at my hometown, they had a completely different attitude about queerness in general. There are gay pride flags on the street of Sandusky all year long, it's almost surreal to me how much it changed.

 

As Mr Pat is based on a real person did you know much about him and his life when you were growing up?

 

I never knew him personally very well but I remember him from the time I was a little kid. Where I grew up my house was not far from where his salon was and I when I would ride my bike I'd see him every once in a while. I’d see this very flamboyant man that looked completely different to anybody else in the town wearing a pants suit with a hat and cigarette and the rings, it was like almost like spotting a space alien. 

 

I was entranced by Mr. Pat and years later I started going out to the Universal Fruit & Nut Company, our local gay bar, he was there on the dance floor. I remember walking in and connecting it all ‘oh, that's that guy I used to see when I was a kid’. I felt I had found my people, my home, my tribe. And I think he was always represented that type of person who had the courage to be themselves and didn't care about what other people thought and was living their lives. He really did have a big influence on me in that sense because I always felt like I was different, a freak in the town and he showed me that it was okay. Even though Michael Yuri's character, Dustin, is basically me he says, ‘Even though I never really knew you, I want you to know that you changed my life.’ And I think that is definitely how I felt about Mr. Pat.

 

When writing Swan Song did you have an actor in mind who you wanted to play Mr Pat?

 

Not when I wrote it. I wish that I could say that I did but I didn’t, it was a really hard role to cast. I wanted to find somebody that could personify Mr. Pat but who wouldn't make him over the top or overdo him. It took a year to find the right person until one day one of my casting directors suggested Udo Kier. But there was a couple other people that were going to do it and then it didn't work out. Over time I realised that I wanted an actor to play the part who has always been who they are. I didn't expect to cast a German actor because Mr. Pat was not German and didn't grow up in Cologne, but Udo was just perfect.  Once they suggested it I was like ‘Wow. You know, that's crazy.' But Udo's casting was a little bit of risky because it's been a long time since Udo had been a lead in something, the other big thing was he usually plays a villain and Mr. Pat obviously had whole different vibe. So I went out to Palm Springs to meet him and he opened the door of his house and introduced me to his dog Liza Minelli, I was like, 'oh, we're done. This is it Mr. Pat.'

 

The real Udo is such a sweetheart, he's a gardener, kind of like the real Mr. Pat. It's weird I didn't ultimately think of him originally when I wrote it. When I wrote it I had Gene Wilder in my head. I had this fantasy that Willy Wonka was gonna to come back, Gene was going to have this be this his comeback role. But right when we started casting, he died. So that obviously didn't work out. I realised that I wanted Mr. Pat to be represented by an actor who had lived through aids and lost people and knew what it was and didn't have to act it. Udo is Mr. Pat he's not Udo, but there are parts of him in there and I feel that comes out so much in the film.

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*Spoiler* There are a couple of scenes when Mr. Pat’s walking through the town and he keeps saying “hello” to everyone as he passes them. As much as the community seems to be on its last legs suffering closures and financial issues there was still a really nice sense of community. And I loved the scene when he goes into the black hairdressers and there’s no judgment, they welcome him and accept him. How much of that was planned or in your original script, did you give the actors some flexibility?

 

I love these small details that you are pointing out. It makes me very happy and it's very nice. Udo saying “hello”, that was not in the script. I did not tell him to say that, that’s just what Udo did. I gave people a lot of room, like Jennifer Coolidge, so much of what she did was improv and that's her style and that's her genius. And some of the stories that Udo tells at the bar, when he is talking to Gabriel the young bartender were just stories that Udo told. And I don't know the Drag Queens he was talking about Miss Cheesecake and Dirty Ankles and I didn’t know where he was getting all this from. It makes it more real I think when you can have freedom to create you never know what might happen. A number of people have mentioned the “hello” from Mr. Pat and people love that, It really conveys the the warmth of a small town.

 

Perhaps for me the most powerful scene comes when Mr. Pat is picked up by the woman in the truck. The audience knows Mr. Pat’s history so when he get inside the truck and sees all her religious paraphernalia it made me take a beat for a moment and yet she offers him no judgment whatsoever, much like the women in the Beauty Salon. As he talks about his boyfriend, freely, she listens intently and respectfully to what he says and when he leaves she shakes his hand. It’s interesting how many people use religion as a way to encompass their bigotry, whereas religion has got nothing and to do with their desire to be bigots. You can have a belief in God, in religion, much like this woman, and still have the respect and love for others no matter who they are. I thought that was a really a touching moment between these two characters.

 

Thank you. That was the point of that scene. The conversation between the woman in the car and Mr. Pat was fully improvised and I didn't even know that it existed because we were so low budget we had strap the camera to the hood of the car and the woman was actually driving, it’s not usually done this way. With a bigger budget you would have the car being towed by a rig. Another thing, I wasn't in the car and I didn't get to see everything that was happening. It was only way later when I was going through all the footage I discovered that little conversation that they had and I was like ‘wow’, this is just amazing, so we use it. This is another example of the actors ability to improvise, they both just started talking as if it was an acting exercise, talking to each other in character and it was great. I feel that this woman understands the true meaning of like her Christianity, which is love thy neighbour and not every person that's Christian is evil, never judge a book by it's cover.

 

Another important aspect of the film is the LGBTQ+ community. I think the way that you focus on the the bar that's closing down and it's getting turned into a gastropub. The young bartender Gabriel is a little unaware of anything that Mr. Pat tells him, he's completely oblivious even though he’s actually working in the heart of what that community is/was. How much responsibility is on us as the LGBTQ+ community of ensuring that these historic safe spaces remain?

 

That's one thing I was really trying to point out is that these places are disappearing and I think people are finally starting to realise this. But for a while I think they weren't and our community has perhaps slowly been dissolving and assimilating back into a larger society. I think it is on us to keep that going but if that's not what younger generations need they have to decide what they prefer and want. I was trying to point this out and not be super judgemental about it, but if younger generations don't feel like they need safe spaces then it's their world they're creating..

 

As Udo says in the movie who needs the Fruit & Nut, when they can hold hands at Applebees, and it's great that you can hold hands in Applebees in my hometown now, because God knows we would've gotten the s*** kicked out of us back when I was a kid. I would think that we should continue to support LGBTQ+ spaces and businesses, but if that's not what the younger people need I can't tell them what they do need. I am actually developing this TV show pitch called Flamingos, which is about a gay retirement home in Florida. And the series is about this question that you're asking ‘are safe spaces relevant or needed anymore?’, so it's definitely a topic that I'm fascinated by.

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"I agree with you completely but just because we think in this way it's not going to change unless newer generations support these historic LGBTQ places and they have to decide for themselves whether these places are important and needed."

In London there is this gay bar near Soho square and every afternoon you'll find a guy called Freddie holding court sat in one of their big Chesterfield chairs with his tea, always tea. He is someone who has been around the block a few times and has gained so much experience and insight.

 

It is similar to the scene in the Universal Fruit and Nut Company between Mr Pat and Gabriel (Thom Hilton). There is a real power and beauty in that conversation between them as it fantastically illustrates how there is so much knowledge and experience we can take from LGBTQ elders. There is a lot of positivity to be gained by the place we as a community are in but we must remember where we came from. I think that's what is particularly touching, Udo’s sharing his own experiences with Thom. In that moment you have a younger actor who gets to genuinely share a moment with an LGBTQ elder (and an acting legend). I think is still important that these places exist because if we don't share those stories, we lose a greater knowledge and then it will only lead to greater fiction being written later on.

 

I agree. I think it's important that these places exist and I totally agree that we need to know where we came from. I teach film in New York City and I teach first year kids and a lot of my kids are from the LGBTQ+ community, they’re amazing, but they have no idea what AIDS was like or how it changed our world. All of the brilliant people, incredible types of musicians, actors, writers and painters that we lost, but more than that what we’ve lost are all the plays, books, films that were never written, all the songs that were never written, a massive part of our community was wiped out.

 

It is important to know where your history and where you are coming from and what I tried to do with the bar scene with Gabriel is to give him a little bit in that. When Mr. Pat comes out and has the chandelier on as a hat it all kind of clicks for him. That was tough and Thom did such a great job as we tied to make him none-judgemental whilst trying to make it real. A lot of people really love that scene and it's one of my favourites. I agree with you completely but just because we think in this way it's not going to change unless newer generations support these historic LGBTQ places and they have to decide for themselves whether these places are important and needed. I hope that they do because gay culture and traditions are pass down from our elders, it's almost like RuPaul is playing that part in the community to a certain extent with Drag Race. But that isn’t enough, we learn from our elders with bars and other spaces are where we have those interactions. Just like the guy you were talking about with his tea. And I love that. I always love people, I was always drawn to those Queens.

 

Have you read Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn was Queer?

 

He is one of my good friend of mine. 

 

HIs book would make a great documentary akin to a Ken Burns film because a lot of these LGBTQ places no longer exist all we would have to go by are what images have survived over the years. This could serve as encouragement for the LGBTQ community to acknowledge what we are losing.

 

That’s the thing that his book proves how much we've always been here and it's important for people to know it. I was having my copy of my second film “Gypsy 83” restored at this amazing lab in Bridgeport, Connecticut and I'm a huge Mae West fan. I have always wanted to make a film about her and back in the day Mae tried out her new show at Loew's Poli Theatre in Bridgeport called “The Drag”. At 5 AM on 2 February in 1927 Mae’s sister Beverly West and Mae’s director Edward Elsner got arrested. Another part of the story people don’t always know is that Mae went Downtown and cast real Drag Queens from the community, talk about representation. Right before it came to New York they did these tryouts at this big theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut and it was literally right across the street from where the lab was. It's now falling apart and is all boarded up and closed but nobody knows that that happened there. I think that's such a great thing that Huge Ryan has done with When Brooklyn was Queer, he’s bringing that history to life and I'm just down with that a hundred percent.

 

Now that you have done three films based in your hometown are there any plans to go back to do a fourth film or do you think three is the magic number?

 

I think three is the magic number right now, but never say never. As I said my hometown really supported me this time, “Swan Song” is a really low budget movie. We didn't have money for hotels and locations and extras and stuff like that, this was all given free by people in town. Udo and I were staying in the spare bedrooms of somebody's house as was most of my crew and a lot of donated stuff. So it was a real labour of love and a grassroots production. Once the film was completed we played it at the local theatre and it did really well, people are always so proud to see their hometown up on the screen. I really tried to make the town a character in the film and I would love to go home again and it's nothing like going home it was great being in the middle of my town where I grew up doing my dream job with all this love surrounding me. It was like heaven, literally so I want go back, I don't have plans at the moment, but we'll see where it go.

 

And finally, what would you hope your audiences will take away from Swan Song?

 

Live while you are breathing, life is short and goes by fast and as long as you are alive do what you love and be who you really are. I think Mr. Pat was somebody that lost himself mainly because of AIDS which was kind of a domino effect that ruined his life. And I think he gave up on life and was a shadow of himself, he became someone just waiting to die but there was still life in him. There was still magic in him, deep down inside the real hymn was still there. This, in a way, is my ultimate message, live your life, live your best life while you're still alive because life is short. And then within that, similar to the conversation we've had, I hope there is a conversation about community and learning our history from LGBTQ+ elders and understand the value of safe space. I mean places like the Universal Fruit and Nut Company saved my life. Alerting people to the fact that these places are going away if we don't do something, it’s all going to slip through our fingers.

“Swan Song” is about a million things but those are some of the main things and I think it's about forgiveness. I have, as we all do, some resentments and anger about certain people in my life who are never going say they are sorry, this is something I have been waiting to hear all my life. So in a way writing this film was me letting go of that sort of resentment that Mr. Pat has in the way he loved Linda Evan's character and just felt so hurt by her. He really carried that anger and I think that anger in a way helped destroy him and destroy his life. In order to move on he had to let go of that anger in order to allow himself to shine again. That's another theme of the film, anger just holds us back, you have to let it go to allow yourself to move forward.