“The story started from Holly,” writer and director Dean Kapsalis tells us when we speak about his debut film The Swerve. “It started with a drawing. It was a woman in the supermarket and I wrote ‘midnight at the market’ and then I was like ‘what? where did that come from?’ [haha].”
We’re talking to Kapsalis and The Swerve’s star Azura Skye over the power of Zoom, just after their twistedly deep thriller about a woman who is going through a mental breakdown (or is she?) has closed the FrightFest festival amid critical acclaim. However, it’s clear the film’s journey started long before…
“I grew up around a lot of women, in my family and friends and mothers of friends, with mental anguish – physical or mental – and it never left me,” Kapsalis continues. “It left an impression on me throughout my life. As I moved on in life I was influenced by Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, more movies than I can say, and literature. It all got filtered into this character. So rather than making a film or writing about the topic of mental illness, I wanted to filter through a character that had it, but through my psyche of art. I just started writing around the character and then from life experiences that I’ve had.”
Following the tragic story of Holly, a teacher, mum and housewife who’s simple life becomes anything but when she starts having horrible vivid dreams and visions. But are they just dreams? Just how much of what Holly is seeing is real?
Played with brutal honesty by Azura Skye, Holly is frustrated with her life and her family. Her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is preoccupied with getting a promotion in his job as a manager at a supermarket, while her two sons barely notice her. Things aren’t helped when her estranged sister (Ashley Bell) turns up, making fun of her, and then there’s the mouse – endlessly scratching away in her bedroom and not being tempted with the poison she puts down for it.
“I loved the role. I was just like ‘I have to do this’,” says Skye when we discuss Holly. “That [supermarket] scene – walking barefoot through the supermarket, I was like ‘that has to be me. I have to do that. What do I need to do to make this happen?’. The role really is an actor’s dream. It’s the best role I’ve ever had. It might be the best role I ever have in terms of sinking your teeth into something.”
Holly is suffering from insomnia, the medications of insomnia and perhaps a mental breakdown. She’s desperately trying to keep things together – cooking intricate dishes for a family that doesn’t seem to notice and suffering from a potential mental illness; the plastered-on smile disappearing as soon as she’s left alone. It’s a real character study and a role that Azura clearly relished getting in to.
“I’ve had some amazing opportunities in my career, but I’ve also had a lot of jobs where it’s just blocking – you know, it’s like “stand here and he comes in and you do the thing and you say a thing”,” Skye says. “It’s fun, and it’s great and I’m always grateful to have the job, but it’s rare that you have something this juicy and this meaty to immerse yourself in. It was a wild ride. I mean, Lady Macbeth would have killed to have played Holly, right? [haha]”
“Wow,” says Kapsalis. “She’s one of my favorite heroines, so I take that as a huge compliment!”
Indeed, Holly is every bit as complex as Lady Macbeth. She’s as tragic a hero as they come. Though like with all tragic heroes, she’s sure to conjure up a number of conflicting feelings when it comes to her character, which is exactly what you want in a deep characterisation film like The Swerve. Who wants a cardboard cut-out protagonist?!
“I feel like when I started in this business everyone used to talk about likable characters like: ‘Oh, she has to be likable [or] no one will care about her, no one will watch if he or she isn’t likable’,” Skye continues. “I’m glad to see that we’re really getting away from that because there really isn’t such a thing as a likable or an unlikable character because we’re all mixes. We all have likable things about us, and unlikable things. You can be a good person and mean well, and can be deeply flawed.
“Even though [Holly] is deeply flawed I think she will be seen with empathy and sympathy because she is trying her best. What can you possibly ask of someone apart from their best? That’s really the most someone can give you, even if their best isn’t good enough. I see her as a sympathetic character. I guess I really don’t know how other people are going to see her. I guess for me playing her I had to be sympathetic to her, otherwise it wouldn’t work.”
The film is entirely shown from Holly’s point of view, but with her going through a potential breakdown, she can sometimes be an unreliable narrator, ensuring you’re never really quite sure where the film is going or even what you’re seeing on screen is in Holly’s head or not… The Swerve really does skew your perceptions as you witness Holly’s world being turned upside down.
This vibe is clearly shown from the film’s off, with Holly being shown to be involved in a terrible car accident. Then she finds herself waking up at home as if nothing had happened… Was that accident real? Or was it a dream? “I wanted [audiences] to hopefully feel something of what it would be like to be in that headspace,” Kapsalis explains. “It’s all Holly’s point of view. That’s why she’s in every scene. I wanted you to question it. What would it be like to be on medication? I read so many stories about that; I’ve seen it happen to people. I mean not to the extent that you see in the movie of course, but there is a sense of it.
“That’s why there are mirrors. Not to get too into the subtext or metaphors but it’s definitely there. That’s why the film opens and you have that opening of her driving and then the title happens and then she’s in bed. It’s not an editorial accident. The film was written that way for a reason and it should make you think whether or not later ‘did that accident really happen or not? Why is that opening where it is? Was that a dream that she’s having? Or is it a fantasy that she’s having?’”
“I personally love a sense of ambiguity in films and I like when you watch a film with someone and you come out [afterrwards] and it’s like ‘did we even watch the same movie?” I love those discussions,” adds Skye. “It’s like: ‘Whoa, it was so clear to me. But obviously you saw it in this completely different way’, and for me, these are oftentimes the most interesting movies.”
“The importance is not whether or not the accident happened. You’re seeing it happen on the screen,” Kapsalis continues. “You’re with her through that journey. So it’s irrelevant really if it happened or not. Sure, the accident happened. Sure, the accident didn’t happen. If you think it didn’t happen, then you’re correct, or if you think it did happen [you’re] correct.
“It’s like David Lynch – he liked asking questions like, how? How was the baby in Eraserhead made? He’d say: “I’m not gonna tell you!” The most important thing is that you’re coming away with [that question] because the character of Holly… you know [in the film] she screams: “Look at me! Look at me!” She’s ruled by a patriarchal society and she’s screaming: “Look at me!” On a smaller scale she’s screaming it at her husband but on the larger scale, she’s screaming at a nation, at the world… You think of characters like Madame Bovary, Lady Macbeth or books like The House Of Mirth where there are horrible, terrible things occurring. It makes them so exciting for me; so alive and memorable. It’s like a part of me is still with her.”
The Swerve takes a deep look at mental illness, but Kapsalis and Skye haven’t shied away from showing this in all its ugly details, something that Skye took seriously when gearing herself up to take on the role.
“I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for a role like this. I really don’t. I knew I was going do it for a little while before I did it, so it was helpful to live in that headspace.
“I use music a lot. I had my Holly music – that kind of brought me to my lowest kind of rawest place. It had Mad World by Gary Jules, Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares To You and a Frank Zappa instrumental track called Sofa which always makes me cry. I use music a lot when I work for the emotional stuff.
“Every morning [while filming] I would wake up and it was like going to an icy lake and jumping in with no clothes on and treading water for the whole day. Every day I had to remind myself to be fearless – I would tell myself that many times throughout the day. I couldn’t think about what I was doing because I think if I thought about it, it would be too scary, so I just had to do it. It was just action in motion and not thinking about what it was I was doing. It was just doing. I find that with really intense stuff it’s also about opening yourself up to something bigger than you are; allowing something else to come through. Almost getting out of your own way and just allowing the character to take over.”
However, with a cast and crew passionate about Holly and her journey, a lot of creativity also came out while on set. “I just kind of had to show up and see what happened in the moment,” she says. “[I had to] allow myself to be in a place where I was comfortable and felt safe enough to just be open to what was there and what was happening in that moment,” Skye remembers. “I also find I don’t like to over-prepare for things because movie-making is so much what happens on the day. If you’re too set in what you’re doing, you’re not open to what happens in the moment.”
Audiences are also clearly on-board with Holly and her journey, with The Swerve having that tremendous reception at this year’s Arrow Video FrightFest (which is usually based in London, but was virtual this year). “I was just so proud to be part of the festival,” Kapsalis tells us. “Since I was younger I would watch for the festival; it was like number one. I was so excited to be part of it, to have my first feature get to be part of it is no joke. I was just bouncing around.
“The reception to it has been fantastic. I mean, overwhelming. We didn’t expect it. A film friend of mine said: “You know the fans at FrightFest are rabid and if they like your film, they’re going to go right after you”. Twitter and Facebook were ablaze and we just started getting emails and it’s been amazing. Really amazing, beautiful.”
Indeed, it seems to have resonated with UK audiences who have really taken Holly and the movie to heart. Since the festival, The Swerve has been picked up by Epic Pictures and it’s now available to own on-demand. “Critically [the FrightFest audience] picked up on things that in America they have not. They’ve touched on different things and I said “wow, they actually got this”. I mean, it’s not a criticism against the American write-ups, but they’re just different, and it’s been very pleasing.”
“Yeah, I think the film kind of has a sort of a European quality to it,” adds Skye. “You know there is sort of a touch of a foreign film sensibility to it. I even thought so on the page when I first read it. And I think that comes through and in the film that we shot.”
The passion for this film – and for Holly – is clear. This is a character who pulls you as an audience in, ensuring you’re right there with her on this intense journey. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll and in Kapsalis’ case, long after the last scene was shot: “The last scene in the film was actually the last thing that we shot (for a very small budget film, we tried to do as much as we could in continuity, and that’s thanks to the producer, Tommy Minnix) and I was emotional.
“The only person who saw was a producer because he was just attuned to it. He saw me across the side and was like: “What’s the matter?” So I told him and he said: “Well, you know, have a moment and then you gotta get through it” and that’s what I did. I mean, I love the character deeply. It took me, no joke, it took me a while after shooting to let go of the character because she’d been with me for years. I love her.”
The Swerve is available on VOD/Digital now from Epic Pictures.