I was honoured to interview writer and director, Todd Stephens, and producer, Eric Eisenbrey, about their new film supported by Peccadillo Pictures: Swan Song. It tells the story of Pat Pitsenbarger (played by legendary actor, Udo Kier), who escapes his nursing home to fulfil his most famous client’s dying wish of styling her for her funeral. This launches an odyssey of rediscovery and recognising a world that has moved on without him.
I spoke with Todd and Eric in Bethnal Green on the 9th of June, during their stay in London. The audio recording will be available on the Gaydio website and will be updated.
Carrie: Absolutely lovely to be talking with you both today about Swan Song. I watched it the other day and I really fell in love with it. It’s a really great film. Tom, I know this is a very personal story for you as it’s a tribute to someone that you knew well, could you tell us about the real Pat and what he meant to you?
Todd: Yeah. The real Pat was a person in my hometown, that was pretty conservative, that always had the courage to be outrageous and fabulous. And I would notice the strange alien-like man walking around in my town when I was pretty young. There was just something about him that I related to and was drawn to ‘cause he was kinda like a rock star to me. You wouldn’t see him all the time, but on occasion, there would be this fabulous queen. This is in the seventies, walking down the street and, you know, leisure suit, pants suit with a cigarette and fedora and feather boa. And, he just was living his best life and I was really drawn to him.
Years later, when I went to our local gay bar, The Universal Fruit and Nut Company, I walked in and he was there and I knew I was home, that I had found my people, that it all connected, you know? So, Swan Song for me was writing a love letter to Pat and that whole generation of queer folk that, to me, built the gay community and the queer community, and really paved the way for all of us that came after. I don’t want those people to be forgotten, the small town hairdressers and florists and interior decorators that really were the ones that had the courage to openly be themselves. And influenced everyone else around them to know what it was like to know a gay person, you know what I mean? And that’s what transformed the world in my opinion.
Carrie: Yeah and Eric, you have previously worked together before making this movie how has that dynamic compared to doing previous projects and doing Swan Song?
Eric: I would say that… Tom and I’ve been friends for like 15 years and so our, our relationship we’re very in sync, you know, we’re both Geminis and so –
Todd: Oh my god!
Carrie: 27th May, just on the cusp!
Eric: Nice! 21. He’s a June though.
Todd: June 4. Hey, Gemini!
Eric: Right? I mean, it’s always progressed deeper between us. And there’s just such a shorthand. A lot of the time, at least when we’re on set, I’ve just always got Todd’s back. ‘Cause he’s like, so in the moment and sometimes there are things that he might not see or whatever, and I’m always just right there to give him that extra fuel and that extra critique. We really bounce off each other so well and so closely. And it’s just such a lovely matchup.
Carrie: Yeah that’s wonderful. And I just wanted to touch on what you said Todd, cause you said in the statement that this is a love letter to a disappearing gay culture in America. And I know for my generation, we owe a lot of our gay culture to like Paris is Burning, the Club Kids scene and things like that. I’m interested in hearing both of your thoughts. What is that aspect of gay culture that you think is melting away or disappearing?
Todd: The community part. The part where everyone gets together in real space and hangs out and talks and learns from each other. As a young gay kid, when I went to our community bar, I met these old gay and lesbian men and women and trans folks that told me stories about the old days and told me where we came from. And they taught me how to talk and things to say and little, you know what I mean? Just our traditions of being queer that were passed down from generation to generation. And I feel like that, without having those gathering spaces as much, there’s more of a disconnect between generations now, perhaps.
Carrie: What do you think, Eric?
Eric: I definitely agree with the community aspect. I know we were just talking [before recording] about the pandemic and cabin fever and I feel like a lot of that’s even just accelerated with losing touch with each other. And the younger generation, they just… I don’t know if it’s social media or just assimilating into the culture, but they really are losing touch with knowing what came before us. I feel like if we’re not passing these stories and this information down, we’re not going to have it, it’s going to disappear. And so is our identity.
Carrie: So there was a deep level of almost sentimentality and almost like a mission when making this film?
Todd: ‘Cause I started writing it a while ago when I first started noticing that gay culture was starting to melt away and that was kind of a mission to get people to talk about it or say what does it mean that that queer safe spaces are disappearing? Is it okay? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing, and just like, get that conversation going. And I really feel like it, in a small way, that it has sparked a little conversation, which is cool.
Eric: Yeah, I think so. And I think to piggyback on that, in this day and age where, the younger generation especially, with wokeness and political correctness – which I definitely think there’s a place for that – but I feel like we’re losing a sense of freedom that we especially had in these safe spaces. Where you can go and be yourself and express yourself in all these kinds of ways. And I felt like with a lot of that disappearing with the wokeness and everything, I feel like the community is becoming more conservative. It’s almost like in a way going backwards. And we’re seeing sex-shaming and not sex-positivity. Everyone’s getting attacked and cancelled for – especially the older generation – maybe they’re just a little ignorant or they don’t understand something. But they’re immediately being cancelled instead of like, trying to maybe understand that person a little more.
Carrie: There’s a lack of conversation and nuance.
Carrie: And is that what you wanted to bring into Swan Song, specifically?
Eric: Definitely that conversation between the older and the younger generation and how they’re not really understanding each other.
Todd: Yeah, there’s a scene in the film when pat goes back to his old bar and there’s a young, young –
Carrie: I was thinking about that scene!
Todd: Yeah, there’s a young, gay bartender. Pat’s kind of reminiscing talking about the olden days. ‘Oh, I used to be a drag queen here. Do you remember me? Did you ever hear of me now?’ ‘No.’ I think Pat’s looking to be remembered, like did his life mean anything? And the young kid just, you know, way before his time. And I think Pat’s looking to be kind of seen in a certain way. And the kid is a little distracted with his phone, they’re having a conversation. But I think that Gabriel, the bartender’s name who is played by an actor named Tom Hilton, who I think just did it just exactly perfectly, Gabriel really does see Pat ultimately and connects with him. That was what I was trying to say with that. Without being too heavy-handed. It was really easy to be like, ‘oh, here’s the gen Z kid on his phone who doesn’t care’. We really tried to make it real, but also get a point across. But I think that Gabriel really does see Pat, ultimately, and learns a little lesson.
Eric: The hope is that maybe we can put our phones down for a second and really connect with a human being.
Carrie: I think especially, and one of my favourite scenes, the chandelier scene. This perfect unity of all different backgrounds and cultures just all coming together and celebrating. How was that to make that scene? Because it really was fantastic.
Eric: It’s a scene in the movie that makes me cry every time I see it. I think part of that is the pandemic and having been inside so long and I’ve heard this a lot from people. Seeing that moment where all the different types of people are out there dancing and being together and happy and singing along and then to have that moment where he comes out with the chandelier, it’s like Pat is reborn. He’s there. He’s back in his space, and everyone in that moment feels it. As far as filming it, it was a lot of these similar thoughts, but one of the coolest things, at least from a production standpoint in filming this is that it involved basically every department in the production. We had lighting because of the chandelier. We had costumes, we had props. We had, obviously, the actors, it was everyone coming together and seeing all the different people make this moment work. It was so special. And everyone felt that.
Carrie: And thinking about the costumes as well, that was a genuine question I was going to ask was, how was it like to style the film with Shawna-Nova [Foley], Kitty [Boots], and Lydia Kane?
Todd: That’s some of my most favourite stuff, working with those people in particular. Costumes, to me, are very important in a film. ‘Cause I like to express the character’s evolution, you know, emotional evolution through the clothing arc almost.
Carrie: I really got that.
Todd: Thank you.
Carrie: You can really tell it was a journey through clothes –
Todd: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Carrie: Which feels like a weird thing to say…
Todd: Well, I don’t want to ruin the end, but the last line in the script says, ‘Mr Pat’s outfit is complete’. That was a thing that it was like getting pieces of himself back to become whole again at the end. But with Kitty and Shawna, and I’ve worked with Kitty before on my film, Gypsy 83 and she’s just brilliant. And Shawna I met in Ohio. Originally, Mr Pat wears this green suit, Kitty had sketched the suit out. Like, we were gonna build it. And we didn’t have the money to make it. So we had to buy a vintage suit, which was almost impossible to find. They actually, on eBay, found that suit in London and had it shipped from London.
Carrie: That’s amazing.
Todd: Yeah. But the problem is there’s only one of them, so God forbid anything goes wrong with it. You don’t have a backup if [actor Udo Kier] falls and rips it, which he didn’t. But, I’m so proud of the work that they did. You have an idea when you write something or as a director, and then the magic of… film is the most collaborative art form. You have an idea, but then you get like these amazing people involved, they take your idea and then bring it to another whole place beyond what you ever would have thought with your own limited mind.
The way [Kassandra DeAngelis] did the production design. Mr Pat’s nursing home room, which was just an office with white walls and transformed into a nursing home, that prison, basically. That’s the most fun thing, seeing how people take a kernel of your idea and make it sing. And also with actors, half the things Jennifer Coolidge says in the movie I didn’t write, she improvs –
Carrie: Of course it was!
Todd: Of course. That’s the fun of it.
Eric: I don’t know if people always notice this, but speaking of that chandelier scene when he goes back and we see him in the dressing room and he picks up scissors. When he comes out with the chandelier, he has cut the sleeves off the jacket to reveal the very poofy shirt that he has on. We mostly filmed in a linear fashion, but there were some things that we had to move around because of production and some of the costume designers literally had to sew and take off, and sew, and take off those sleeves so many times. That was a very unique addition that we had to deal with.
Todd: She had a sewing machine in the back.
Eric: And I also just want to give a shout-out to Lydia [Kane] because she is an amazing makeup artist. And in a lot of this film, it’s a lot of subtlety.
There’s not a lot of diversity going on in the makeup, but [actor] Linda Evans in the coffin is something that… it looked like Linda Evans was dead. It was so wild to me.
And then also the makeup for [the character] David, when he was in the bed dying of AIDS. That quick shot. Just the way that she was put the Kaposi sarcoma and all the little lesions on him. It was just so intense because it was so realistic.
Carrie: I have one final, quick question. Is the trick about the cigarette ashes for styling hair real? Because I was like, ‘that’s magic’.
Todd: I just totally made it up.
Carrie: Oh no!
Eric: He did, but I read recently that in some other fashion that it was used as glue. For something. It wasn’t in hair, but –
Todd: Maybe it would work.
Carrie: You were just a genius and you didn’t know it.
Eric: Right? Just a genius.
Carrie: Well thank you so much for talking with me today.
Todd: Thank you.
Carrie: And I hope you have a great rest of the time in London.
Eric: Thank you so much!
Swan Song is in selected cinemas in the UK and available to stream on Hulu in the United States.
Todd Stephens is a writer and director. His most recognised work is for when he wrote, produced and directed “Another Gay Movie” and “Gypsy 83”. Todd also wrote and
produced “Edge Of Seventeen.” All four of his previous features won numerous festival awards and were released theatrically all over the world. Todd is currently a Professor of Film at School of Visual Arts in NYC.
Eric Eisenbrey is a producer, writer and actor. He associate produced Todd Stephens’ teen comedy “Another Gay Movie” and was a story writer & co-produced “Another Gay Sequel.” Eric is an associate producer on the Revry TV series “Pet Peeves”. Additional projects include having narrated the America ReFramed documentary “Broken Heart Land” and directed the theatrical west coast premiere of Ping Chong’s “Truth and Beauty.” Eric is an alumnus of the University of California, Irvine, and currently lives in Los Angeles with his best fur-friend Betty.