The Swerve: an interview with Dean Kapsalis and Azura Skye

September 22, 2020
Alix Turner 0
Features

Sometimes a film can stay with you, whether you want it to or not. The Swerve was a recent example for me: great quality, but difficult to enjoy because it touched so many raw personal nerves. The writer and director Dean Kapsalis picked up on these feelings via Twitter and graciously offered me a video interview, which took place a couple of days ago; and at times it felt like what he had actually offered me was therapy.

The interview also included the lead actor Azura Skye, and it was wonderful to see her looking so bright and laid back in comparison to her character, Holly. Interviewing from home probably contributed to how relaxed she seemed; we talked briefly about what press functions are like since life has gone more virtual. We are clearly all managing the technology differently too, and as Dean arrived on the call there were some connection glitches, but that kind of broke the ice for us.

I opened the interview properly declaring that The Swerve was the only film I reviewed as part of my FrightFest coverage which I gave five stars to: it stunned me. Consequently, I struggled to think what on Earth I was going to ask: the film itself said so much. So I asked about the title: where did “The Swerve” come from? Dean responded, “It actually comes from a Roman philosopher called Lucretius. He wrote a book called The Nature of the Universe, and the essay, which is like a long-form poem, is about atomism, the universe, our state of being, and the choices we make. And it stuck with me, so that’s where the title comes from.”

I asked whether the story of The Swerve is necessarily about a woman, or whether they thought the central character could be someone of any gender. Azura responded that “oftentimes, women do take the brunt of the domestic responsibilities, the child-rearing, the spouse rearing (which can sometimes be an additional child) and there is a lot of quiet suffering. Not to say that men don’t experience that as well, but I do think that that plight of woman and mother is unique.”

Dean’s view was naturally a little different: “The germ of the idea came from the character of Holly which always I thought of as a woman. I drew a character sketch, a thumbnail sketch in my notebook, of a woman at midnight in a supermarket, and everything revolved around the character. I guess the movements of the character, what she goes through emotionally comes from my background, growing up with family members and a family of friends who dealt with abuse and mental illness and as I grew older I got to understand it more. When you’re young, you don’t quite understand it, and it kind of sat there in the back of my mind. I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies and gothic novels, and I thought of the story of the film of the character as a kind of “haunted house of the mind”, which is why I thought of it as a psychological horror film. I think one of the most frightening things to me is if your mind is slipping: that’s frightening. To see someone in a psychosis is jarring, terrifying. Still, that’s where the character comes from. I didn’t want to do an “issue movie”, the themes and issues in the film – of which there are more than one, I think – are filtered through my love of film and literature and art, and so I think that puts a distinct stamp on it that’s different from just doing a film about mental illness. I don’t think those films are ever entirely honest anyway; TV films usually. But I also think it can be seen through another viewpoint as well: could the film have been about a man, a gay man, or a gay woman? Absolutely. Speaking as a gay man, you can see it through that lens too. With the pressures of society, we live under a patriarchal rule: they try to condition you from an early age to be a certain way, and then you grow and try to find your own way if you’re lucky. And you can either bend and become stronger, or some people just break.”

I saw societal expectations adding to Holly’s pressure from several angles, so this made perfect sense. I found it interesting though that such a complex female character had been written by a man, and I asked whether Dean considered it difficult, or a responsibility to get it right. “For me? No. It was definitely a responsibility, but not difficult to write. What was more difficult was to let go of the character. I pride myself on my sense of observation, and empathy as well; so no, I didn’t find it difficult getting into the head of the character. I’d done two short films with the same producer and they also had female leads. The same question was asked for those films – how did you write this, as a man? – and I wrote just as a human being, maybe it’s just an ability. I wanted to be honest, respectful and empathetic towards the character. I really love the character. It was difficult for me to put her through some of the range that I did put her through.”

I asked Azura, when she was presenting the character of Holly, whether there were people in roles she had previously played or people she had known who fed into this part. “I wasn’t drawing directly on characters I’d played before, but I suppose everything you do accumulates and builds on top of each other. So I guess they are all a part of her. I wouldn’t say there was anyone particular I modeled her after: it was more about how I would metabolize this life and this situation if I were in it. I found there was really no way to prepare for Holly. I would have liked to: I thought about it a lot, but there really isn’t anything you can do. I made a pie, mind you, because I’d never made a pie before, so I put myself through that, as an exercise. But there’s so much sadness and pain in the world, and it’s so close to all of us, and if you just sit still and look at what’s going on around us, it’s enough to devastate you in a second. So I think for me, finding Holly’s pain and connecting with that was all about tapping into a cosmic consciousness. There’s such a great, deep, overwhelming sea of sadness in the world, and it was more about allowing myself to access that and opening myself to that, something larger, a universal sadness.”

I recalled Caroline Williams (during our Ten Minutes to Midnight interview) saying she tried hard not to let her similar role from years ago bleed into the new role, and commented that if Holly was such a unique character to Azura, this may not have been a problem. But she wonders if it might be in the future: “Let’s see if I get offered a bunch of roles playing tormented, disturbed women. I hope I do, they’re the most fun to play. I probably won’t be so lucky.” Fun? “I think it’s an actor’s dream. You wait a whole career for a part to dive into like this. A lot of the time, it’s very surface and superficial. This role is like an Ophelia or Lady Macbeth, the best role I’ve had, and very well may be the best role I ever get.

The comment about fun caught me by surprise. From my perspective, on this side of the screen, it was harrowing to watch; perhaps because I could feel a lot of what I was watching. The writing, the acting, and my own experience all informed my interpretation of what I watched. The Swerve touched many nerves for me, especially that part when Holly seems to feel invisible.

I asked what Azura would have done differently in Holly’s situation. “I hope I could have been able to bear it better. But that thing about invisibility was interesting: when you see the same people every day, it’s so easy to take people for granted. You can start to talk to someone and not really see them anymore, as you have the memory of what they look like and you’re so self-absorbed; and not taking the time to look at someone, really see them clearly. I feel like so much of our lives are spent explaining ourselves to people, through our words and our actions and our art and our work, to help people understand us. But once in a while, if someone is able to look at you and see you so clearly, and you don’t have to explain yourself, they just see you for who you are, it’s amazing, such a gift. And that’s really all Holly wants: she wants to be seen, appreciated, and valued. And she doesn’t get that.”

I referred back to Dean’s phrase “haunted house of the mind”, which brought back to me stories like “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, and some of the stories about women apparently losing their marbles from decades ago. Sometimes when one looks at mental health issues in women particularly, there is a risk it can look like Edwardian hysteria or something dreadfully old-fashioned like that. I asked Dean how he avoided that, how he kept the story contemporary. “I definitely wanted to avoid that. There were certain films I remember showing Tommy Minnix (producer) to give him certain things I wanted to avoid. I said I don’t want mental illness to be portrayed like ‘this’. Oftentimes they’ll shoot like jittery camera, staccato cutting, a soundtrack that’s full of noise and bleeding electrical sounds and I wanted to avoid that because it’s not this story, not this film. I don’t think people feel that when they’re dealing with anxiety or mental illness: it’s not how you see it or deal with it, it’s dishonest. So I just took the approach of you know, we live in this time: what does Holly do? Who are her kids? When we enter the story, she is in the final week of her life, so that’s how we planned it: what does she do on each day? Where does she shop, what does she do, where does she teach? As much as I love characters like Madame Bovary or someone like that, they were contemporary at the time, and we still find relevance in them; and it’s the same when I read any of the tragedies: they’re obviously not contemporary now, but we find a relevance emotionally or an attachment to those characters. I think people are people and we haven’t changed much emotionally. We go through the same things like a Mobius strip, over and over again, to teach us lessons from generation to generation, art form to art form.”

I tentatively challenged that: surely we’ve learned to treat each other differently over time, and stories treat people differently over time. We narrowly avoided a debate about faith in human development… Dean was adamant: “I think we do change somewhat, but I don’t think the human condition had changed much. We only have to look at what’s going on in society today, in America, what we’re going through.” He didn’t want to be specific about what was on his mind there, but there was at least one issue concerning him “a great deal”.

So I turned back to an earlier comment of Dean’s that the film was about “more than one issue” and I asked what I might have missed. But he just wanted to turn it back to me and ask why The Swerve had affected me so much. He hopes everyone feels something from the film, but wanted to understand what it was for me. I shall keep the bulk of my response to that private here, but I did manage to link my own experiences to what I found interesting in the film: one’s frame of mind is affected by other people, and in reverse can affect other people. The impact can go in various directions that you’re not always aware of. The domestic setting and the ripples out from it were what kept The Swerve in my mind.

Phew, Azura intervened: “One thing that I really like about this movie, one of the messages I take from it is that you never know what someone else is going through. When you’re standing next to someone in a grocery store, or in a car next to them at a red light, you never know what they’re going through, you know? You never know what family member they have in the hospital, what twenty-year relationship they’re getting out of: everyone’s dealing with their own things. For the most part, we’re all good at putting on a brave face, stepping out into the world and doing our best, but I think the lesson is to never assume. Treat people with care and respect that we need to handle each other with.”

Dean picked up on that point. “Stories like this stick with us because they’re more than entertainment. We connect with the characters, and they act as cautionary tales. We recognize their foibles and the greatness and evil as well that they do. We know that it’s fiction, but we can take from it things like I can treat my family members better, I can talk to my Mom more sincerely, have a connection with my ex. There are challenges, but it connects with us as well. That’s one of the great things about movies and why I wanted to do something like this.”

I referred back then to the chats Dean and I had had on Twitter, about whether The Swerve is to be labeled horror, psychological drama, etc. Dean had told me then that “I consider the definition of “horror” to be something that arouses feelings of fear and anxiety. So, to me The Swerve is horror. The themes frightened me, made me anxious even from the writing stage. Even as a child, werewolves, vampires, and really any type of monster instilled zero fear in me. They’re fantasies that instilled wonder, and I could always see behind the curtain. On the other hand, humans have always scared me. And the disintegration of the mind in an individual and the possible repercussions terrifies me.”

I’m so used to directors denying the label “horror”, as though it is an inferior genre, but Dean had not. He expanded on this: “I’ve had lots of discussions with people, who call it a psychological drama. I call it a psychological thriller or horror, but it’s not really an issue with me. I just think you can call it either, but the best term might be a character study. I’ve heard it compared to RepulsionRequiem for a DreamHereditary, all sorts; and what do you call those?”

Azura added “I wonder if this film doesn’t really fit into one category, it’s more of a blend, and I think that was one of the challenges in the film: what box does this fit into for selling? And it doesn’t really fit into any box, and yet it checks several. So I think that was a challenge, and in considering the challenge, I’m glad it’s getting out into the world, and people are able to see it.”

I responded that I thought those easy labels were avoided partly because Dean had rejected the formulaic camera techniques and so on that he’d mentioned earlier. “I really wanted to do something I hadn’t seen before. If I couldn’t make a film that was better, then what’s the point? Monsters don’t scare me, and I wanted to do a movie that did scare me. It scared a few people who worked on it, and I think it’s also affected a lot of people who like horror movies as well because it’s not an easy film in many ways: there’s very little violence, but what is there really hurts. I see Twitter dialogues about horror fans delighting in decapitation and blood and so on, and that can be a lot of fun, but they don’t find that frightening; but yet approached with what happens in our film, words like ‘horrifying’ and ‘brutal’ crop up, it touches a nerve.”

From my perspective, The Swerve works because of how real it comes across: there’s nothing overdramatic, and what we see is a normal week (a person’s week doesn’t change because their frame of mind is changing). On the subject of the realism, there was one element to The Swerve that was left ambiguous, which I found interesting: a car accident was mentioned on the news, and Holly believed she had been involved, but as an audience, I couldn’t tell whether she really had been or not. That kind of losing track of reality can also be realistic. Dean agreed that was what he had wanted to come across: “You can see it as a melodramatic thing that really happened to Holly, or not. There was a conversation I had in an interview when the interviewer told me that she and her husband had watched the film, she thought the accident had happened and her husband didn’t. I think it’s pretty wonderful that there can be different perspectives and it prompts conversation.”

I asked what’s next for both Azura and Dean. “Just living”, said Azura. “It seems in the last few weeks our business has just started to crawl back a little, so hopefully there will be more opportunities on the horizon. Strange days indeed.” Dean said he is “working on something else, different. I couldn’t go through the same thing again. It was disorienting: I’ve only just been able to get over it after living so long with the character and ideas. Even without me fully realizing it for a while, she was an attachment for me, and the film itself, a huge effort to get on screen. It’s a very surreal thing to get a film out into the world, and to speak to people – like yourself – who it’s affected. I didn’t know if anyone would even like it. The producer had warned me it could rub people up the wrong way: you’ll get a lot of different reactions. He knew it, and said ‘otherwise, why would you make a film like this?’”

I blurted out that I hated the film (and regretted saying so immediately) because it had hurt so much to watch it. It was a damned effective story, and I’ve recommended it to several others since. In my opinion, a film that is uncomfortable to watch deserves a lot of respect.

The Swerve will be available on VOD/Digital from Tuesday 22 September 2020. 


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