The Song Of Sway Lake is an absolutely stunning film, visually beautiful and haunting, with a fantastic period soundtrack with original music to complement the story of a family that can’t let go of the past. Winner of 15 awards from International Film Festivals, it’s poignant and available for viewing on iTunes or in select theaters until September 27th.
The Song Of Sway Lake manages to be nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. Set in the early 90’s in a family cabin/estate/retreat in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, it follows Ollie Sway, whose record collecting father committed suicide at the lake, and Nikolai, a young Russian accomplice who are traveling to the lake to find a a rare original recording of a hit song from the 40’s hidden at the cabin.
We are treated to performances by stellar actor Mary Beth Peil as Charlie Sway, a Grandmother who can’t let go of the past, Rory Culkin as Ollie, the grandson stuck in the past, Robert Sheehan as Nikolai, who is obsessed with a past. With period music and original music written by Ethan Gold, Director Ari Gold’s brother, this film manages to be both a paean to family while simultaneously exposing cracks in the veneer of a family’s public face and the humanity that lies beneath.
We had the privilege of speaking not only with Director Ari Gold but also the great Mary Beth Peil, star of stage and screen. What follows is an excerpt of our conversations, and also an exclusive preview of a track called “Orphan Finale” from The Song Of Sway Lake. It’s a gorgeous slice of the score performed and composed by avant rock artist and producer Ethan Gold (Elvis Perkins). Gold’s bravura effort to create original music to both fit the jazz age theme as well as pushing the boundaries by blending elements of classical and new music and enlisting artists such Jon Hassell, John Grant, The Staves and Fred Frith, results in one of the most striking and extensive scores we’ve heard in a while.
AMFM: The Song of Sway Lake was really beautiful. It was a rich tapestry of details. Can you talk about the themes that are interwoven through the movie? There’s inter-generational squabbling, there’s a Russian kid looking for a home, there’s love, and then there’s young love…
Ari Gold: The plot themes have to do with young love, coming of age, male friendship, a possible obsession for a woman in her 70s, the grace of the past, the burden of inheritance, all these things were something my co-writer Liz Bull and I were aware of as we were writing. What we weren’t aware of is something that took me the whole editing process to discover is the deeper theme, which is connecting with the present, connecting through the heart through letting go of the past. That was something, working in the edit, that I had to continually ask myself. Why are all these characters in the same movie?
We have a 75 year old matriarch of a kind of American royal family, we have a Russian 23 year old who is obsessed with her. We have a grumpy grandson (played by Rory Culkin) trying to find love and solve his problems. So what is linking all of these characters? They are all stuck in the past. Rory’s character is stuck in the past, the Russian is trying to steal someone else’s past, and Grandmother is trying to return to her own past.
The result of this is no one is really living. The story of the movie is going through all that intoxication of nostalgia. The nostalgia of the old music, the possibility of love, and being in your own skin in the present. When I was editing, I discovered that really, that was my story. I made my own story for each of these characters.
AMFM: Well ok, which of these characters is you, or are you all of them?
Ari Gold: Sometimes I’m Rory Culkin’s character, bitter about the past and full of regrets, not living up to what I want to be, looking for a perfect love. Sometimes I’m the Russian, trying to add wildness, but completely uncentered. Sometimes the grandma, nostalgic and lost. I feel all those characters. The pina character, changing her identity to fit in.
AMFM: You managed to bring it all together with music too. The time you chose to portray with music (and it very much enhances the cinematography) – so is the record collector you as well?
Ari Gold: I’m not a record collector in real life, but I’m certainly a music fan. My brother worked with me on creating these melodies, to create a feeling for someone you can’t have, and a past you can’t have because it’s gone. So he wove these melodies throughout the whole thing, that seed a memory, then you perceive the memory is coming which is the song – The Song of Sway Lake itself. You perceive it in advance even though you’ve never heard it. You perceive it as though you remember it from your childhood. That’s what we wanted to create.
We had to weave it together with all these real vintage songs from the period which I had collected. My brother and I worked very long and very intensely for an untold amount of time to try and create this symphony of emotion that comes through these three different types of music. The score that he wrote, the original songs that he wrote, then the real song from the period that I collected. They all play in the background in a way that you shouldn’t notice it. So when Rory Culkin’s character throws on a record, it’s very specific what he’s putting on, and building towards that unlocking of the spirit that happens in the movie.
AMFM: So how hard was that process? Did you come up with the music first then write the film around it? Cause I know it’s a hodge-podge of filming, editing and composition, but I’m interested in how the composition happened between the two of you and how you fit it all together like a great big puzzle. The way it came together was so beautiful. How was that process – for example the lyrics. Done first? After the movie was pulled together and edited?
Ari Gold: In this case (and I don’t always advise this) it came after. We shot the movie expecting to use a original Cole Porter song – and not have an original Song of Sway Lake. The idea is that there is a lost version of a known song. We fought like the Oasis guys. He said “Hey what if there’s a lost version of an original song that no one has ever heard before.” I said no one is going to believe that. A hit song that no one’s heard before?
So this was all done after the fact. There was a lot of trial and error and a LOT of feeling it out. The melodies that we ended up going with for the song – he had a lot of different melodic themes that we were trying for the background music, for the score. The melodies that were the most lyrical and haunting became the source for the song itself. So it’s based on melodies he wrote.
Recording it and getting the singers and musicians and mixing it. We had to make it sound like the period, or the spell would be broken. People would say “oh, that’s a modern song.” Then it would be out the window.
AMFM: I do think you succeeded because I tried to google the song and couldn’t find it…I thought I had missed a hit song. It was pretty authentic.
AMFM: So can we talk about why you cast the actors? Mary Beth Peil, Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Isabelle McNally all of that?
Ari Gold: It’s a very challenging thing to cast a movie. It’s a soup, and you don’t know if the celery and the carrots and spices are all going to fit – or how much of each is going to be necessary. Usually the actors have never met each other, and they’re going to be playing best friends or relatives, or lovers. All of this was the case here. T
It’s interesting to see an actor and they don’t look necessarily like you’d expect them to, but there’s an instinct, spirit of the character and ability to understand. So Rory came in, and that was good ’cause some actors at his level refuse to audition. He came in, he had the heartbreak, he had the softness on the surface and the anger down below that the character needed, he understood all that. Plus, he carries a family legacy with him that’s very different from the Sway family of the movie, but there was something in the spirit that was right.
The same thing for Robert Sheehan. In a very different way he had the spirit of this wild Russian, even though he’s Irish.
AMFM: He did a good job, he even sounded Russian.
Ari Gold: My friend, who the character is inspired by coached Robbie on his accent, but then he took it in an entirely new direction. He captured the vitality of the broken person who’s pretending to be zesty, and he’s also very funny, which works really nicely as a contrast to his sexiness, so he’s able to be both those things at the same time.
That’s what I needed, a counter-point to Rory’s character, who’s very insular and stuck in himself. He needs this wild man to take him out of himself but he’s not sure that he trusts him.
And Mary Beth Peil, she’s an incredible performer, and an opera-trained actor, and also someone who in her 70s is just as beautiful as she’s ever been. More beautiful. She’s just a knockout.
AMFM: I thought so too.
Ari Gold: That was so important and it was a little bit challenging, because a lot of performers of that age get work done. I can’t blame anyone for what they need to do, but a character like this needed to look like a natural woman, and Mary Beth is that.
The character is someone who would have been born in the 1920s, and this is taking place in the 90’s. Also she also has this incredible grace and power that has to swing between pissing off the Rory Culkin character and enchanting the Russian character. She also transfixes the Isabelle McNally character, who is outclassed by Mary Beth but is also inspired by her.
The Marlena character, played by Elizabeth Pena, is willing to go toe to toe with Mary Beth’s character. It’s such a loss that Elizabeth Pena died. She was such an amazing person to work with, and a great teacher to me in some ways. She came on set, and we had all these ideas and secrets about the back story of her character, and I remember saying well, let me add some lines to help.
She suggested to me that her character had an affair with the patriarch of the family, who is dead by the time the story starts. And that is why she and the grandmother don’t get along – being that she was the maid. I totally loved the idea. It made sense, because they have a bitterness about each other. I said let’s drop a little hint into one of the scenes. She said “No! Don’t drop a hint, don’t tell any of the other actors, and don’t add a line. In fact I want less lines, I can do more with my face. People may not know, but they’ll feel something.”
(laughs) Most actors are like “Give me more closeups! Give me more lines!” But she said I see this like a silent film world and I want to do it all with my eyes.
AMFM: She was so expressive. I saw a lot of pain there.
AMFM: So your brother had a traumatic head injury, and couldn’t speak let alone compose. How long did that go on?
Ari Gold: He’s fine now, it became an interesting spiritual challenge for him to connect with himself without language for a while. He’s recovered completely, but it delayed the completion of the film. He’s a very spiritually connected person, and this was certainly part of that process, but it was terrifying and rough.
AMFM: All filmmakers face what seem like insurmountable challenges, it’s such a tough thing to do, if you don’t mind I’ll just include this and no more about it. There’s a quote I love in the movie “It’s conscious grace that separates us from the animals,” where did that come from
Ari Gold: Oddly enough, spoken by the Robert Sheehan character, who acts like an animal. He has idealized an era of the American past that he wants to be part of. Of course, he’s Russian and his character would have been born in 1968 or 70, so he missed the World War II era, but he’s fantasizing about it. He says that to the Grandmother, he’s showing off – but he believes it. There was a time when people moved in a different way. Men were men, they interacted with each other and the world in a different way. He wants to be like that, but he’s not at all, actually.
AMFM: But his ferocity is met by the Grandmother’s ferocity too. She reminds of someone very close to me, who thinks that now she’s older she can say whatever she wants – but it actually makes people uncomfortable. It’s kind of that age. That’s a common, everyday thing, where people react to it and say “Whoa! Did you just say that?” to themselves.
And let’s talk about the family dynamics. That’s real life. Parents saying something to a child, or someone who’s close to the family, and they take it the wrong way. Then there’s so much built up emotion they can’t even interact properly at a table.
Ari Gold: I don’t think Rory’s character takes it the wrong way when Grandmother says of his father “I wish he’d never been born.” That’s the kind of unfiltered thing that people particularly of that generation would say to their own family. They would NEVER say that to a stranger, they would never say that to a guest. These people have a grace and politeness to them in their public persona, but their close family members will get the worst of it. At the dinner table, Rory Culkin’s character is squirming, he can’t even breathe the proper way, whereas his best friend, the handsome young Russian can curse at the table and she thinks it’s charming.
AMFM: That was real life. I’m not going to ask you where you got that, I’m not getting into your family dynamics – I’d say it’s all of us.
Ari Gold: Well…I’ve been in a family before. I wasn’t exactly in THIS family , but I’ve observed family dynamics with my own eyeballs.
Mary Beth Peil: It felt like a European film to me, so I immediately pictured a Catherine Deneuve, one of those wonderful older French or Italian actress, then I thought “well maybe I could pretend.”
Just to have a part like this, a role for an older actress that has so much dimension, and ability to show her as a fully rounded human being – both in present time and who she might have been when she was younger. She still is in a way, inside, the same person. It’s very rare! I felt very lucky to be asked to be Charlie.
AMFM: I thought the relationship between Nikolai and Charlie transcended time. This young man was able to see her as she is.
Mary Beth Peil: That’s exactly right.
AMFM: Very unusual and revolutionary to picture that. I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed the setting too.
Mary Beth Peil: Isn’t it beautiful?
Mary Beth Peil: The setting is another character, actually a leading character. It greatly contributed to all the shades and possibilities the script called for. It wouldn’t have been the same if it had been on a farm or in the city. It had to be in the woods and the magic of that pristine lake and that old family heirloom of a home. It brought it all together.
AMFM: It brought it all together. The film was skipping through time, and in that way it made it timeless. There were the 30’s, 40’s, the 70’s, the 90’s. The music was incredible too.
Mary Beth Peil: Yes, the music contributed greatly.
AMFM: As a singer yourself, I’m sure you appreciated the idea that it was about a lost record.
Mary Beth Peil: Indeed I did, yes! Absolutely. I’m so glad to hear your reaction to the film. It isn’t exactly timeless, but you are in the fluidity of time, where you can be in the past and the present. It’s wonderful.
AMFM: What was it like working with Ari Gold as Director, and the other actors?
Mary Beth Peil: You know, what made shooting this film so unique for me is in most film and television work you’re fairly isolated from your fellow cast members, you often only get to know one or two people you are in scenes with. You never really see the full company or cast until you see the TV episodes or film.
In this case we all camped out at the beautiful Blue Mountain Lake – one of the last “you can drink the water” lakes in the Adirondacks. The compound, the family home, this beautiful sprawling turn of the century home, was in Ari Gold’s family. He actually spent childhood summers there with his Grandmother, who my character Charlie is loosely based on.
So in that respect it was very unusual. We were a company, a small troupe of players like a theater company. We ate together, we slept together, we played together for a month. I think that informs the film in a really beautiful, subtle way that isn’t usually possible in most film and television experiences. At least not in my experience.
AMFM: I thought the dinner scene was very funny but uncomfortable to watch as a lot of us have experienced that with our own families. I told Ari that it was intense, a dinner scene where everyone is trying to behave at first and then it quickly goes off the rails.
Mary Beth Peil: Yes, we all know that! Everyone’s trying their best, then no matter what you say it gets worse. Then it’s over and everyone’s leaving. (laughs)
AMFM: I thought it was great. You know, I’d like to know the main difference between working in theater and working in film, and we already started this subject so can we continue?
Mary Beth Peil: Yes, I would say I had a wonderful…when I first started doing Dawson’s Creek 20 years ago…when we first started the kids in that show really were kids…so they turned to me. But the truth is, I was inexperienced. I had done an episode of Law and Order, like any New York actor, but Dawson’s Creek was also my first television experience, really. I tried to not let them know that I was as green as they were. But there was a wonderful older director who said to all of us “In the theater you must show people what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling” because the person far away in the back row has to see it and feel it and understand it as quickly as the person sitting in the front row. On camera when you’re doing film or television you don’t want to show it – you want to think it.
He didn’t use the word feel it, he said “think it.” I found that to be tremendously helpful. Its sounds simple, but it’s not simple, it’s boiling the two different techniques down to a simple formula but it takes a lot of practice to understand. it.
AMFM: I think he was talking about subtlety?
Mary Beth Peil: Yes. And of course, we’ve already discussed the fact that in the theater you form a family. You rehearse together. You go to the theater at the same time. You leave the theater at the same time. Even if you are not in scenes together you are automatically a family – a troupe.
AMFM: What’s next for you?
Mary Beth Peil: A musical adaptation of Harold and Maude! It’s wonderful. It’s another story about a young man and an older woman, but not at all like the relationship between Charlie and Nikolai in The Song Of Sway Lake.