[Interview] The downward spiral: Writer/director Dean Kapsalis and star Azura Skye talk The Swerve

    The Swerve is writer/director Dean Kapsalis’ feature debut, starring Azura Skye (Buffy the Vampire SlayerAmerican Horror Story: Murder HouseRiverdale) as Holly, an emotionally over-burdened mother whose split-second decision sets off a crushing set of events.

It’s an incredible performance from Azura; most certainly one of the best we’ve seen this year. Dean’s script goes down some very dark places that hit close to home for anyone who’s struggled with mental illness, and the character of Holly is truly compelling.

Dean and Azura sat down for a (virtual) chat with Kyle Milner about plenty of things, including the process of putting together The Swerve, its subtle nods to genre film and – on a lighter note – what they’ve been getting up to in the kitchen during the time of COVID.

Kyle: Mental health is a topic that’s often approached by filmmakers, especially in the thriller and horror genres. But I find it’s often handled quite clumsily, and in some cases tastelessly. I found The Swerve to fare a lot better in that regard. What was your approach to trying to avoid those kinds of pitfalls?

Dean: From experience, I just tried to be as empathetic as possible. The whole film was designed around Azura’s character, Holly. It really was character-first, everything else came from my psyche. It came from my experiences with family and friends – to make a long story short – and mental illness, anxiety and domestic abuse, as well as growing up with many women around me – some in my family and others just very close to me.

I didn’t set out to make an ‘issue’ film, it just started with the character of Holly – and essentially, over a long period of time, she told me what she wanted to be. That’s how I wrote it, just trying to be as empathetic and considerate as possible to the character. The reason it’s not a straight ‘issue’ film is that I think often those films get it wrong. I love the way genre films, which are my favourite, handle issues. I think they take more care and consideration and have a more visceral, emotional feeling to them.

Kyle: Speaking from my own personal experience, the degradation of mental health can be a very subtle, cumulative effect. What informed your approach to actually depicting this very gradual breakdown that Holly goes through?

Azura: One thing that was really fortunate is that we actually shot most of this film in sequence. So we really did start on day one, with Holly in her kitchen before the dominoes start to fall, if you will. It’s so rare that you actually get to shoot a film in order like that; usually the sequence is all jumbled up. But it was no coincidence that we shot it that way.

I believe it was very important to Dean that we shoot it that way for my own process and performance, so that was helpful. And makeup, of course, helps it along – the dark circles under my eyes gradually getting darker, etc. It really was this slow, daily decline into madness which ended very dramatically. And then I went home, and it was all over!

Kyle: That was probably a relief, in an odd sort of way!

Azura: Going into it, I didn’t even know how I was gonna get through it. I couldn’t even picture myself on the other side. And then somehow I actually found myself there, and it was very surreal.

Dean: Yeah, she’s not kidding. It was one of her chief concerns before shooting on the set: “are you going to shoot this in sequence?”. And I said that this is a very small budget film, so we’ll do the best we can. I knew it would be very important. It was one of the chief concerns for the producer and myself. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but during the filming process, (producer) Tommy would on a daily basis redo the shooting schedule to accommodate just what was requested.

We’d view the dailies every night and see the process, and I’d insist. So we were basically re-writing the first AD’s (assistant director) stuff, because we knew that it was very important for you, Azura. It was never to knock anybody down, we just knew how important that was and wanted to do it right. And movies never do this! Hardly ever, unless it’s a big studio picture. But we somehow made it work without killing ourselves or our finances.

Kyle: Azura, among the many factors in Holly’s life that lead to her eventual breakdown, there is a lot of emotional labour expected of her from everybody in her life. She’s expected to be a motherly figure to everyone, even her own husband. And I’ve wondered how true that experience rings to you as a woman.

Azura: It’s something that I see a lot. It’s something that, in my own life, I have very cleverly avoided – but I see it in friends and family. And that’s this woman who seemingly has it all – or what we think of being it all – the house with the white picket fence, the job, the husband and kids. And that can be a very idyllic reality, but I also think that a lot of women find it to be very stifling.

And I think that what I can relate to as a woman is that we are maternal by nature, and it’s our natural instinct to take care of others; to put others first before ourselves without even realising we’re doing it so much of the time. That’s something I definitely do; I put other people ahead of myself constantly. Even though that’s beautiful in a certain way, it’s important to remember yourself, because I don’t think you can take good care of the people around you unless you have a good grasp of yourself.

Kyle: It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?

Azura: I have to look out for number one.

Kyle: I’m trying not to spoil too much here, but there’s a scene in the latter half of the film where Holly has to make a very upsetting, frantic phone call. And that was an absolutely heart-wrenching performance; truly fantastic. That really hit home as somebody who has had to make the same kind of phone calls. What was shooting that scene like for you – it can’t have been the easiest emotional process.

Azura: I think it was the most challenging scene of the film, probably. I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for that. My process was, I suppose, opening myself up to something greater than myself, and allowing something bigger to move through me. That’s actually a lot of my process, and you see it with athletes too: getting out of my own way and letting something else take over.

In terms of tapping into that pain, the only thing I had to work with is a sort of magical, mystical element that factors into that moment. It’s such an in-the-moment, God kind of thing. I’m not even a religious person. It was such a wounded-animal moment – I wanted the vocal quality to be that of a dying animal.

But I really didn’t know what was going to happen or what exactly I was going to do until we were there, doing it. I’ve only seen the film once, it’s a difficult film for me to watch for obvious reasons. But when I watch that scene, I just shake. It’s almost too much to handle. Even speaking about it, I get kind of emotional.

Kyle: That’s totally understandable. On a slightly lighter note, I did notice that there’s a lot of old-school B-movie references hidden in there. The kid wearing the Plan 9 from Outer Space t-shirt, the films being watched by the family. I’m curious; is that just a little nod to your personal influences, Dean? Or is there more going on there?

Dean: Yeah, I cut quite a bit of that stuff. And that’s a really good catch, Kyle! I think you’re the first one to ever catch that. They’re just little things that show my appreciation for the genre. These movies played constantly on cable TV when I was a kid, and I just have a fondness for them. It’s not that I don’t watch them now, but they have that special place for me. I think every single one of the characters was a part of me. Like Azura said, and I agree with her, there’s this sort of mystical element that comes when you’re dealing with art.

There’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, I think there’s a Vincent Price face somewhere in there. I did cut some stuff out; there was a scene with Francis Ford Coppola’s first film on the soundtrack, Dementia 13, that was edited out. It’s just this fondness I have for films like that, and I didn’t want to make it an overt element or anything. I had been thinking, “who is this boy?”. And I think he had a fondness for movies like that, just as I did, and I just wanted to slip that in there. Thanks for catching it.

Kyle: Oh, yeah, my ears are completely attuned to that kind of thing. I could tell what era those films were from just from the dialogue in the soundtrack.

Dean: I wanted that feeling on the soundtrack. This is very important, and I guess I haven’t thought of it since I was working on the film’s sound design. But I specifically picked those out of many, many different things because I thought it would work on the viewer in a retro way. It has a sense of unease to it. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but the way it struck me was eerie. And without explicitly saying that, I’d ask my co-editor, or the producer, or my friends: what do you think of this? And they more or less said similar things that let me know it was right.

Kyle: What do you both have on the horizon, professionally or even just at home?

Azura: Well, I bake now! I think Dean bakes too, I was speaking to him the other day. I make sourdough bread, he makes banana bread.

Dean: Yeah, I was good at banana bread. It was dangerous. I was like, “I have to stop doing this”, because I was putting on pandemic weight. But I made a lot of it – I think a dozen, two dozen loads. I lost count!

Azura: I even bought an apron. I hardly even recognise the person I’ve become! But I’m sorry, I think that was kind of a silly answer to your question.

Kyle: Not at all, I’m glad to hear it!

Azura: It seems like just in the last few weeks, our industry has started whispering about coming back and how to do that safely. So I do not yet know what my next project is.

Dean: You’re gonna be great with whatever you do.

Azura: I don’t think anything could be as good as Holly. They’re tough shoes to fill.

Dean: Well, you’re great in whatever you do, that’s no question. But for me, I’ve been writing. Working with this movie and having the release of it has been kind of all-encompassing. Without giving the ending of The Swerve away, I don’t want to be known as the guy who ends all his movies in a similar fashion. But I can’t do anything that’s not my viewpoint, something that doesn’t have something to say to my particular lens. I think that’s all I’ll say for now, but it’ll be something genre, genre-adjacent.

Kyle: I’ll be excited to see whatever the both of you end up doing next. And I must say, as much as you felt saying you’re been baking is a silly answer, I really like to hear that. People are just finding simple things to keep themselves busy during all this calamity. It makes me happy to eat banana bread and sourdough loaf, and right now, that’s the sort of thing we need to do. Lots of simple, happy things.

Dean: Agreed. And I’m sorry that the film shook you up. But I’m also very grateful that it did, in a way, because it’s designed to. I’m glad you felt something from it, and that’s a really important thing to do, in a cathartic way.

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