In a time when the heart and soul of storytelling can get lost in overly produced studio films, indie films remind us why we love this art form. When talking about nostalgia for a different time and the love of filmmaking, it would be impossible to not include stand out film, The Song of Sway Lake, by Ari Gold. The film center’s around three characters all looking to find their way into the present. Featuring actors such as, Rory Culkin as Ollie Sway, Mary Beth Peil as Charlie Sway, Robert Sheehan as Nikolai, and the late Elizabeth Pena as Marlena, this film should capture anyone’s attention for the sheer talent cast.
This lovely story takes place on fictional Sway Lake in the Adirondacks, which in many ways is an area that is still frozen in time. During the festival, I got to chat with Ari Gold, the director and co-writer of the film to talk about the themes, shooting schedule, and feelings he wants the audience to experience.
In the beginning of the film you have such amazing footage of people vacationing in the Adirondacks. Was that found footage or did you use some movie magic to re-create those scenes?
Gold: In order to create the past we used a mix of found footage. The Adirondack Museum archive had footage that was very useful. Amazingly, there was 16 millimeter footage of my actual grandparents wedding, which wasn’t in the Adirondacks. But, the young couple in the movie that play young Hal and Charlie Sway are my actual grandparents. Mary Beth Peil looks enough like my grandmother back then that it worked. It was a powerful thing for me to take this wedding footage which was found miraculously (I think my Aunt found it in their attic in a dusty box). I thought okay let me get this transferred and see what it is, and it was colored footage of their wedding. They were dressed perfectly and they looked like they could be the aristocrats of the movie. Once I cast Mary beth Peil and realized she looked enough like my grandmother, I used pictures of my grandmother for all of the pictures of young Charlie Sway. I have this great picture of Mary Beth Peil posing next to a picture of my young grandmother and Robert Sheehan as Nikolai swooning over both of them.
There are some wonderfully talented veteran actors in this film such as, Elizabeth Pena and Mary Beth Peil. Were there any nerves to give your actors notes or adjustments?
Gold: We did a sort of crash course in terms of getting to know each other while we were all up there together. It certainly helped that we were at summer camp, in a sense, all of the actors were far from their teams, friends, and their cell phones didn’t always work. So that helped a lot.
In terms of working with actors who are as experienced as Elizabeth Pena and Mary Beth Peil, they were both so generous with their ideas I didn’t feel intimidated by them. Mary Beth was trained as an Opera singer, and that kind of theatrical presentation, in her bones as an actor was something that was so appealing to me. Just the way she walked. For her to represent this era, she had to carry all of that history when she walks across the room.
Elizabeth, it’s just totally heartbreaking that she’s not with us anymore. But, she did a really incredible thing, she went at it with such force and generosity, then said to me, “I want less lines. I want less lines, because I can give you more in my performance if I say less.” We had a private agreement about what happened in the past and why she and the Charlie character were so hostile to each other without ever coming to blows. We had a secret on set as to why, and I don’t think anyone knows- still.
What was it like filming in the Adirondacks?
Gold: The Adirondacks are so gorgeous. Which is a nice thing for a low budget film that can’t pay its crew very well. To know that when we were on break they were in this beautiful summer camp-it was good for morale. The weather changes every 12 seconds, so the first AD and I were in a constant state of panic. We would be moving entire sets down to the minute. He was always looking at the weather radar, “Are we shooting the sunny scene where Ollie first sees the beautiful purple haired girl at the dock, or are we shooting the thunderstorm where the two of them get to know each other better and get stuck in the rain?” We would never know. Not that we had a transformer size crew, but it was still a bit of organizing. On any given morning we didn’t know what we were going to shoot because it would be raining, or sleet, or clouds, or wild winds, or sunny. Our plan had been to start with the sunny stuff. Then, right when the shoot started it started raining and it rained for a week. We were terrified. Are we going to be up here this whole time with what is supposed to be a sun dazzled movie and not get any sun? So that was the beginning of having to go with the flow, or the sway with the weather.
Did the community participate at all in the film?
Gold: The local community was awesome, and we used lots of locals. They were psyched to come out and be in the party scene or the scene in the town hall. I think everyone on that lake is in the movie. The women who busts Isadora for flirting and talking with Ollie as she’s working, worked at that same hotel. She got a couple of lines and she was great. Her costume was the uniform she was already wearing. She would be working checking people in, then walk over to set and say her lines, and then went back to work. It was great.
You are a multi-hyphenate person in every sense of the word. You are a director, writer, producer, musician, and actor. What was it like on this film wearing one less hat?
Gold: Not being in front of the camera, as well as, working behind was a relief. When I did my first feature, I acted in it and was running back and forth between the director’s mind and the character’s mind, it was really challenging. So at least taking the actor’s hat off of my head for this shoot was a big relief. I couldn’t imagine I could have done it, but there was no part for me anyway. However, I do make an Alfred Hitchcockian brief appearance in the film which you can debate in film classes a 100 yrs from now (laughs). It’s my favorite cameo of all time. I am on the cover of a record that Ollie and Charlie open and Charlie says, “Oh not an attractive singer.” Basically, we were doing Andy Williams who was considered attractive. We imitated that look, and did the photoshoot on the other side of the lake with a neighbor that had an incredible dog. I had been wanting to use the title for an album cover for so long and the name used was, “Solitaire for Two”.
There were some flashbacks in the film that really captured how visceral grief can be for people. What made you want to use that as a storytelling device?
I made a short film (Helicopter) about my mother’s death, and that was something I played with a lot. For Ollie’s character I wanted to explore it deeper. He is also a character that lives in silences. I wanted to use these kind of refracting memories since he’s trying to work out his fathers suicide, and do something for his dead dad. His father told him, ‘the record from 1942 should be yours and you should have it”, so he is trying to be a dutiful son. But at the same time, deep down when you are dealing with someone who has died, particularly someone who has committed suicide, and if you loved them and they loved you, there is an energy that is pulling you with them. The character Ollie Sway, blessed as he is to be born into this rich aristocratic family is cursed by his father. Whether or not it is a real spirit, there is a manevolence in the energy of a suicide that could kill him. Rory Culkin is someone who carried that, you could see it in his face, the risk that he might go off the deep end. When he smiles it’s heartachingly beautiful, because you know how hard it is for someone carrying that kind of weight to actually smile.
It was tough to get a balance as to how much information about their relationship I can put into these dreams or these visions, or how much I should let the energy of the ghost play. Some people after I described the film to them said, “Oh it’s a ghost story”. I never really thought of it that way, but there are two ghosts in the movie. So I guess it is a ghost story in a way.
Well you could say that in life we are surrounded by ghosts?
Gold: Yeah for me this is the theme of the movie. To be honest, I didn’t know deeply what I was telling the story for until I was editing. I console myself, that someone like Picasso said, “If I knew what I was painting before I painted it what would be the point of painting it?’”
I was editing the film and didn’t know what the theme was yet. I had a vague sense, but as I got deeper into it I found that every single character had a deeply unhealthy relationship to the past. All of them were in the process of becoming present if they could make it. That really resonates for me, because one of my great challenges in life is I tend to get stuck in the past. I tend towards nostalgia, which can be intoxicating. We had music from that era because it pulls you in, and you think it must have been so great back then and everything now is so vulgar and unappealing. But then, there were also super imperfections in the past too, and the shadow of that can be really damaging because you miss what’s right in front of you.
What is it about this story that you felt you needed to tell above all others?
Gold: The subject of the lost glamour. The subject of a young Russian just after the fall of the Soviet Union who falls in love with this woman who represents the America he has always dreamed of. The music that I adored that I wanted to celebrate in the movie. All of that was on the page and script that I wrote with Elizabeth Bull (co-writer). The meaning of it though, was not as clear to me then as it is now. We knew when we wrote it that it had something to do with nostalgia, music, friendship, loss… with the way memory works and doesn’t work correctly. But it wasn’t until I was cutting that I realized what I said before about the main characters. Everyone is not totally comfortable in their skin now today the way things are. It was finding that in myself that made me realize-oh this is something I am dealing with in my life and all of the characters as varied from a Russian immigrant kid, women in her 70s, an unkempt record collector- all of these characters are different versions of myself. I found that in meditation on a Buddhist retreat.
On the retreat in the middle of the lawn meditation, I had an image pop into my head of an antique watch sinking in water. I thought why wouldn’t this image be in it? It has do with frozen time, stuck time, and our ability to flow with time. Which is one of the big challenges of being human because we are aware of time. It is really hard to deal with (time), since we get caught up with the future and the past. That image of the clock ticking was a central image of what the film is about, and now it starts the movie.
What is your favorite scene in the film?
Gold: It’s hard for me not to love the dance between Nikolai and Charlie Sway. I just love them dancing in the barn. I think the two actors fell in love with each other a little bit doing that scene, and that was so exciting to see happen. Because you don’t know what is going to happen when you are dealing with something like a woman in her 70s and a guy in his early 20s. You don’t want the audience to laugh-unless you are doing Harold and Maude and that sort of charming comedy. But, that’s not what I was doing here. I wanted something you could actually feel, that wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable, and doesn’t make you doubt the characters. So it was making sure that was a real moment between two people. Each of them reaching out towards some dream that they think might still be possible for them to be happy, with the other person as a representation of that dream. Yet, at the same time there is a recognition of each other not just as symbols, but of who they are- and they felt that. Everyone on set could feel it.
If there is one feeling you wish the audience would carry with them after seeing this film what would it be?
The feeling of being present. Because, that is what the movie is about for me, becoming present. Often people find presence for a split second, and I think the characters find it for a split second at the end of the movie. The taste of the present is like a taste of pure water. You’re connecting to life, so that would be the feeling I would want. Cool, pure water.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
– Pablo Picasso
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(Images courtesy of Grack Films)