Of all the films I saw at this year’s all-virtual South by Southwest film festival, none took me quite so thoroughly by surprise as Todd Stephens’ Swan Song. Judging purely from the premise, one might expect an outrageous black comedy: an aging, flamboyant hairdresser (played by genre legend Udo Kier!) escapes his nursing home and sets off on foot to give one last makeover to a wealthy corpse. But while Swan Song has no shortage of humor, its campy exterior hides a moving, life-affirming story of acceptance and adversity, and a career-best performance from Kier. In the days leading up to the film’s release this weekend, I spoke to Stephens about the story’s real-life inspirations, working with a living legend, and the thrill of cinematic shoplifting. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow).
BOSTON HASSLE: There’s a title card in the end credits that reveals that Pat Pitsenbarger was a real person. What can you tell me about the real Mister Pat?
TODD STEPHENS: The real Mister Pat was this fearless queen, who had the courage to be himself in the ‘70s and ‘80s in a small town that was pretty conservative at the time. Pat was never afraid to be who he was. I remember from the time I was a little kid, seeing this strange man, almost like an alien, walking around downtown, and always being fascinated with him. He just marched to his own beat, and there weren’t many people around like that. I was always fascinated with him. When I was seventeen, I went to that bar , the Fruit and Nut Company, for the first time, and I saw the man that I had seen growing up on the dance floor, and it just sort of all made sense. I’m like, “Oh, he’s queer, I’m queer. I’m home!”
BH: Were any of the events of the film, or any of the other characters, based on real life figures and events as well, or did you create the plot around this version of Pat?
TS: Both. There’s a real Eunice, who’s actually still around. David was real– I didn’t even change his name. There’s a woman in my home town who’s kind of like a Rita Parker-Sloane type. So a lot of it was real. The actual events of him taking this particular journey were fictionalized. I knew Pat a little bit, and observed him from afar, but it wasn’t long before I left town and moved to New York, so I never really knew him very well. But I spent a lot of time after he passed away talking to his sister and his nieces and nephews, and friends that he had left and had survived AIDS– which weren’t that many. So I really did try to put a lot of elements of the real Pat into the script. For example, the folding napkins– that was all from Pat. He smoked those exact cigarettes, he wore those rings. Udo was wearing his necklace in the film. A lot of it is based on reality.
BH: I do want to talk about Udo Kier. I thought it was such an inspired choice for the role, and not something that I would necessarily have expected knowing his work. How did you come to approach Udo for the part?
TS: I wish I could say that it was my idea, but it was my casting director’s idea. It was a really, really difficult part to cast. We had spent like a year and a half trying to find somebody who could pull it off. We got close to casting a few A-list type actors, but it didn’t work out for one reason or another. Finally, Lina Todd, my casting director, was like, “What about Udo Kier?” And I was like, “What?!” It’s kind of like what you just said. I’m like, “He’s German! The real Mister Pat was from West Virginia!” But once I thought about it, and I thought about Udo’s eyes– and that was the really striking thing about the real Mister Pat, he had these big, blue eyes– and I was like, “Wow, I think that’s kind of genius!” And as time went on, it also became important to me to find a queer actor to play this queer part. I just believe in that kind of representation– not really as a rule, but for this film it was important for me for all of the queer parts to be played by queer actors. And Udo is queer in the most legendary way!
BH: What was it like working with him on set? How did he take to the character?
TS: It was a dream! Honestly, I felt like I was witnessing a historic performance. We didn’t rehearse, but we knew each other for more than a year before we shot, so we had become friends and had discussed the film for all that time. Udo was kind enough to help with our Kickstarter campaign– the movie was a really low-budget film, it all started with a grassroots Kickstarter campaign. I went out to his house in Palm Springs, and we shot a Kickstarter video. So we spent a lot of time together before he showed up. One thing that, at first, was a challenge for me was that Udo made it clear that he didn’t want to rehearse. I’m used to rehearsing– when I direct a film I like to spend four or five days right before the shoot rehearsing. But that’s not Udo’s style. He said, “You’re not going to get the best out of me if we rehearse. I don’t want it to be calculated. I want it to be really real, and in the moment.” And we talked a lot about not overdoing it. That’s the danger, I think, of playing that part, is that Pat was very flamboyant, but he was sort of quietly flamboyant. So we really wanted to make it real.
I just loved working with Udo. He’s from the old school: indie, down-and-dirty. “Oh, we don’t have permission to shoot in the drug store? Fuck it! Let’s just steal it!” When he comes out of the drug store having stolen all that stuff, we could not get a pharmacy to let us shoot that, so we just guerilla-style stole certain things like that! And Udo, he loves that. There’s no trailer, no fancy nothing, we were all staying in spare bedrooms that people in my hometown were kind enough to donate, including Udo and myself. He just was the complete opposite of a diva, which was really necessary for a film that was shot in 18 days.
BH: One of the things that I loved about the film was how much it has to say about the passage of time, both in terms of attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, and also in more general terms about being a creative person. Were these things that you had been thinking about before, or did the character of Pat guide you into these questions?
TS: A lot of the character of Pat is me, because I had not made a film in twelve years, and I almost felt like I couldn’t do it. Would I ever do it again? Did I still have what it takes? I was scared in a way. So I created this character who had this profound love for his craft and what he did, but had become disconnected from it, and lost his sense of purpose. What he did in his life defined him in so many ways, and once that was gone he kind of lost himself. That was something that I really related to a lot. I think in a lot of ways, by writing this story, I was telling myself that I could still do it. So, yeah, there’s a lot of me in there.
BH: To bring things full circle, have you gotten to show the film to anyone who knew Pat personally?
TS: I’ve shown it to his niece, Sarah, who was very close to him, and she just loved it. She absolutely loved it. Pat’s family was really helpful. There’s not much left from Pat’s life– most of it fits in a shoebox, actually– but she was kind enough to give me full access to everything in the shoebox, and tell all kinds of stories. They’re all really, really proud. I’m gonna go home in a week or so, after it opens this weekend, and do a screening back home, so that’s where a lot of Pat’s friends are going to see it for the first time. I just hope they feel like I did him justice. But I think they’ll like it.
dir. Todd Stephens
Opens theatrically Friday, 8/6 (though, sadly, nowhere in the Boston area). Available digitally Friday, 8/13