This year’s all-virtual edition of the South by Southwest Film Festival – usually held on location in Austin, Texas – featured a rather stellar selection of film and television projects, despite the understandably colossal effort of transitioning the festival from its usual format.
We had the privilege of being able to virtually cover several films from the SXSW lineup, and today we’re proud to share with you some wonderful insights into Narrative Spotlight selection Swan Song, courtesy of director Todd Stephens and cast members Udo Kier, Jonah Blechman and Linda Evans.
Inspired by the real and larger-than-life local queer icon “Mister Pat” Pitsenbarger of his small-town youth, Todd Stephens tells the story of an ageing, formally flamboyant hairdresser who is called out of retirement to style the hair of a former client who has recently passed away. It’s wickedly funny and undoubtedly one of Udo Kier’s greatest performances; but more importantly, it shines a touching and thoughtful spotlight on the oft-overlooked experiences of the queer generations before us.
Retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) has given up on life from the confines of his small-town Sandusky, Ohio nursing home. But when Pat gets word that a former client’s dying wish was for Pat to style her final hairdo, he sets out on an epic journey across Sandusky to confront the ghosts of his past – and collect the beauty supplies necessary for the job. SWAN SONG is a comical and bittersweet journey about rediscovering oneself, and looking gorgeous while doing so.
Note: the following is an excerpt from a virtual press conference with the director and cast of Swan Song. It has been edited to include just the questions + answers with Moviehole for the purposes of brevity and clarity.
In this day and age, there are so many fantastic opportunities to tell queer stories of all varieties. This one, of course, is very much about older queer people reflecting on their experiences throughout the decades and how it contrasts to the experience of today’s LGBT youth. What particular aspects of that older queer generation were you hoping to capture in Swan Song?
Todd: To me, the past generations built the gay community literally with their bare hands. In my hometown, they built the bar, and even before the bar opened in around 1977 they had a community where they would have drag shows in barns out in the country. They would have roving dinner parties where it started in one person’s house for appetisers, another for the main course, here for dessert, another for after-dinner drinks. It was this amazing, tight-knit community of people somewhere in the closet. Most of them were fully in the closet in their public lives, but there were others like Pat who weren’t. They had the courage to be who they were, and I feel that they really paved the way. They were our forefathers and foresisters.
The other thing that was really cool about the community – it was very diverse. It wasn’t just men, it was women; it was gay, straight, old, young, black, white, etc. It was this incredible melting pot of people who formed the spark, and I always felt that the stories of my elders that paved the way for rights that I have in my life now should be told. I always wanted to pay homage to that generation, the greatest gay generation.
That’s lovely. Jonah, this is not your first time working with Todd by any means. I’m curious about your reflections on your journey together over the years.
Jonah: I mean, I love Todd. He’s an incredible collaborator. I’m excited that this year is the 15th anniversary of Another Gay Movie, which was such a classic for him and for me to be a part of that. I just find he has conversations that are about and for our community. He’s always done that with his work, and this film in particular is a generational experience with Jennifer (Coolidge) being Udo’s protege, and I get to be Jennifer’s protege.
I feel that this generational representation is a new conversation and something that needs to be further explored in the forefront of not just our queer community, but really all communities. So much of that generation was lost, especially through AIDS, and there isn’t really a lot of acknowledgement there. And you know, this is certainly a youth-minded generation with TV and film and social media; I feel it’s just important for all communities.
Todd: It’s important to know our history.
Linda, although your character admittedly doesn’t have the same kind of screen time as Udo or Jonah’s characters, she is such a key part of the narrative and the tale being told. How was it for you trying to approach a character who’s so deeply embedded in the narrative without necessarily being on-screen the entire time?
Linda: Well, I was just so pleased with the scene that Todd wrote, because I felt that it said it all and gave my character a chance to have an impact on Pat’s life, because it was part of what drove him for the entire film. I think that the aging aspect that Todd wrote is so beautiful, because until you get older – and I mean seriously older, because I don’t think people truly get old until they’re in their 70s – there are so many things to deal with that you don’t realise until you get there. He poignantly shows us that if we live in the past, it’s not going to be a good ride.
Udo played Pat so beautifully. In the beginning, in the rest home, you see the despair he has with the choices he made in his life and how this journey into town changes how he views his reality. I think that’s anybody who goes to see this movie who’s older will certainly look at their own life and reflect and see that life isn’t always what we think it is. It’s just how we perceive it. And in this, I was very honoured to have this small part that made such a big difference in Pat’s life, because we get to see how powerful changing our mind can be. I mean, this film is loaded with understandings on so many levels, which is probably why I was so excited to do it and so thrilled when I saw how artfully Todd made that come to life. And Udo, of course, played it magnificently.