Horror Movies Can Make People Feel Seen: Swallow Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis

The director talks about why he decided to make a horror film about a woman who's compelled to eat non-food items
Horror Movies Can Make People Feel Seen: Swallow Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis

In Swallow, stifled American housewife Hunter (Haley Bennett) decides to fill the void inside her with some dangerous objects — a marble, a thumbtack, a chess piece, the top half of a porcelain figurine, a safety pin. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis explores this compulsion to ingest non-food items, also known as Pica, in a way that's both frightening and empathetic. Hunter's condition becomes an indictment of societal norms that push women to swallow parts of themselves to appease others. With the film now streaming on Mubi, Mirabella-Davis talks about how it was inspired by his grandmother's obsessive-compulsive behaviour and why horror is the best framework for socially relevant stories:

You'd said the film was inspired by your grandmother, who was an obsessive hand-washer. What made you decide Pica was the compulsive behaviour you wanted to depict instead?

My grandmother was a homemaker in a difficult marriage in the 1950s. She developed OCD rituals of control. She was an obsessive handwasher who would go through multiple bars of soap a day and 12 bottles of sanitizing alcohol a week. I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. At the behest of doctors, my grandfather put her into a mental institution, where she was given shock therapy and a lobotomy. I always felt like there was something punitive about it, that she was being punished for not living up to society's expectations of a wife or a mother. So I wanted to make a film about that but as I started writing, I realized that handwashing doesn't really translate well for the camera. 

The objects Hunter ingests in Swallow (2020).

I remembered seeing a photograph online of all of the contents that had been surgically removed from the stomach of someone who had Pica. And all of these objects were fanned out on the table. I was fascinated. I wanted to know what drew the patient to those objects. It almost felt like something spiritual, like some kind of communion. I began doing a lot of research into various OCD behaviours, because I wanted the story to feel universal — yes, we're making a film about someone who has the urge to eat dangerous objects, but anyone who has felt any kind of anxiety can look at that and go, 'I wouldn't necessarily do that, but I understand where she's coming from.' I reached out to the world's expert on Pica, Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, who graciously agreed to be a consultant on the movie.

Hunter, at points in the film, does feel like a 50s housewife, with the pearls and the cocktail dresses and the perfect hostess persona she has to put on. The film's set in present day, but were those nods to your grandmother's story? 

I definitely wanted to evoke the spectre of the 1950s and imply that the patriarchal ideology still lingers under the surface, even though many people are fighting against it. I was also very influenced by films that have that aesthetic like Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (1975) and Hitchcock movies, Douglas Sirk, A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Todd Haynes' film Safe (1995). So the film's retro aesthetic references other feminist horror tales. 

I wanted to make the statement that this story is very relevant today. A lot of the time, people watch period pieces and think, 'Oh well, that's done with and we don't have to worry about that anymore.' But just looking at the disparity between what women and men are paid in the workplace will show you just how virulent sexism is today still.  That situation of getting pulled into a controlling family, where you're making an effort to please those people and suddenly you find yourself being treated like a possession, happens all the time. The fact that mental illness is still very stigmatized today and not treated with empathy is also why I felt it was important to set the film in the present day.

"During one of our first screenings in Tribeca, someone in the audience fainted. That made me feel like we had enough for it to be visceral, but we were also tasteful about it."

You spoke about the family being controlling and so I wanted to ask about Hunter's husband. He doesn't start out being villainous, he's a nice guy who becomes a "nice guy". How did you approach the writing of this character?

Writing Richie was an interesting challenge. I wanted his toxic masculinity to be percolating under the surface so that you had a veneer of him seemingly being appreciative of her or nice to her. But then you start to realize that a lot of what's actually coming from him is indifference and a sense of privilege — he sees her as an augmentation to his life. He's stifling and controlling in all these subtle ways, which become more overt as the film progresses. He believes he's a good guy, he doesn't think of himself as being controlling and that's part of the problem, that he has no sense of self analysis. He just assumes, as many as many guys do. The problem is that sexism is so baked into the cake of society that when you're raised as a man, you don't see how prevalent it is.

The scenes in which Hunter is swallowing dangerous objects are so effective because they always leave more to the imagination. Especially the thumbtack scene where you see blood on her tongue and then on the toilet seat the next day. How did you figure how much to show and how much to let the audience's mind fill in?

This was a fine line to walk. Thankfully I had incredible collaborators, like my cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi and my editor Joe Murphy. We came up with a plan of what we were going to show and what we were going to leave up to the imagination. I think the imagination is so powerful that the audience will fill in many of the gaps and will find their minds plunging into visuals that you don't need to put onscreen. Having said that, I also didn't want to shy away from the bodily reality of this horror story, so it was important for me to show enough, but at the same time make sure that this tender, personal story about what the character was going through didn't stray too far into it being ostentatious. So we debated each moment. During one of our first screenings in Tribeca, someone in the audience fainted. That made me feel like we had enough for it to be visceral, but we were also tasteful about it.

You've spoken about being inspired by Jordan Peele's commitment to socially relevant horror. Swallow too makes these statements about bodily autonomy and body dysphoria and mental health. What about horror makes it the best framework to tell these stories? 

I really believe in the healing power of horror. I think that if done right, horror can allow us to go to a safe place. Whether at the movie theatre or at home, you watch your fears manifest onscreen and suddenly they seem more manageable. Horror can be a tool for processing trauma and for having a kind of psychological catharsis. It's a particularly powerful tool for examining social and sociological issues because it can be used as a sharp scalpel to point out the injustices in society. Because it's so visceral, it pulls the audience in emotionally as well. That's part of its power. You don't sit back and watch a horror movie, you're on the edge of your seat and there's all this emotion. It lends itself to some kind of revolutionary experience. If done right, horror can increase empathy, fight prejudice and make people feel seen. Films like Get Out (2017) and The Babadook (2014) do that and I hope Swallow is considered part of that movement.

Your next film is described as a 'feminist horror movie'. Does writing from a feminine point of view come more easily to you?

I was raised in a feminist family and my grandmother's story was always in my mind. My gender expression has been rather fluid over the years. When I was in my 20s, I identified as a woman. I wore women's clothing and had a different name. And that was a wonderful, important and creative time in my life. It was also kind of an eye-opener because when you're raised as a man, you don't know we see how constrictive the patriarchal systems at play are. That solidified my feminist beliefs a lot.

For Swallow, I was so fortunate that so many amazing female artists decided to come on board and make my grandmother's story their own. Two-thirds of our cast and crew, and all of our department heads, were women. I've always been interested in gender expectations and the pressures that they put on people in society and no matter what film I make, I'm sure that those themes will be at play.

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