Interview by Paul Salfen
Set in the near future, “Swan Song” is a powerful, emotional journey told through the eyes of Cameron (Mahershala Ali), a loving husband and father who is expecting his second child with his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris). When Cameron is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is presented with an alternative solution by his doctor (Glenn Close) to shield his family from grief. As Cameron grapples with whether or not to alter his family’s fate, he learns more about life and love than he ever imagined. Written and directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Benjamin Cleary, “Swan Song” explores how far we will go, and how much we’re willing to sacrifice, to make a happier life for the people we love.
In 2015 I was flipping chicken burgers in East London during the days and editing my first short film “Stutterer” at night, sleeping on friends’ couches to survive. If you had told me then that “Stutterer” would go on to win an Oscar and a few years later I would write and direct “Swan Song,” my first feature, with Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Glenn Close and Awkwafina, I would not have believed a word.
From the moment the idea for “Swan Song” came to me almost ten years ago, I have been both scared and excited by it. It scared me because I knew it would force me to shine a light on a lot of painful, buried personal experiences and it would be an incredibly difficult directing challenge for a first feature. But I also saw its potential as a vessel within which to explore many evocative questions about our existence, our relationships and the fleeting beauty of our time here. As a storyteller, the excitement outweighed the fear.
Growing up, I experienced a number of tragic losses. Three friends of mine passed away three
summers in a row when I was 19, 20 and 21. When a young person is here one moment, then
suddenly, without warning or a goodbye, gone forever, grief reverberates out in waves, crashing against all of those who are left behind. Those losses changed me. I began thinking about death way too much. I avoided therapy and suffered alone, becoming almost obsessively worried about the possibility of another person I loved passing away or what it would do to my family if I hit my head or got cancer. Unwittingly, my young mind had begun to see the world through a different lens.
Five years ago, I finally put pen to paper and began writing “Swan Song.” It was the start of the hardest thing I have ever done. However, when I dig into my own life – into the painful stuff – and find a way to write an imagined story imbued with real emotions and experiences, I find that people sense the truth behind the writing.
It was an indescribable experience to watch Mahershala take the words I had written and bring them to life as Cameron and Jack. It was a delight to see the magic Naomie created with Poppy and the layered, beautiful relationship she and Mahershala found together. Sometimes, after a take, I’d wipe away tears only to look around and see a whole room full of crew members doing the same.
Every day the emotion I drew from to write “Swan Song” was being projected back at me in profoundly moving ways by all of our cast. You pour everything into the words for years. You battle through all of the meticulous preparation, the daily hurdles, the endless technical challenges that a film like this presents and when you finally get to that moment as the camera rolls, you have everything you could have imagined for a scene totally surpassed by what unfolds in front of you. That is the biggest joy a writer-director can have.
I am incredibly grateful we were able to make “Swan Song,” especially during the heightened tragedy we were living through with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been – and continues to be – a deeply cathartic and personal journey for me, but it is also imbued with the experiences of love and loss of all of the cast and crew who made this film together. “Swan Song” belongs to every person who collaborated with me to make it. And it now also belongs to you, the audience. I hope we have created something meaningful that raises personal questions and sticks around in the heart and mind, long after the lights come up.