Holly seems to have it all: two kids, a nice house, a good job as a teacher, and a husband with his career on the way up. But there are troubling signs that all is not right in her world. The insomnia. The medication for the insomnia. The dreams from the medication for the insomnia. The arrival of her estranged sister and a mouse invading her home doesn’t help either. Add the weight of a dark secret, and her already delicate balance collapses, sending her spiraling out of control.
Last year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival brought a movie into my world that still haunts me. The Swerve is a film that, in many ways, made me feel seen. You can read my review here. This week, The Swerve finally comes to audiences nationwide. I was lucky enough to chat with writer/director Dean Kapsalis and star Azura Skye this week. When I say this film will stick with you longer than it should, I am not exaggerating one bit. It is unpredictable, it gets under your skin, and Skye is remarkable. Pay attention to this carefully crafted script. There is foreshadowing everywhere, the classroom especially. These are deliberate choices made by Kapsalis. They are genius.
Here is my interview with Dean and Azura…
Firstly, congratulations to you both on an extraordinary film. There is so much amazing material to talk about in The Swerve, so let’s dive right in!
Dean, what or who inspired this script?
Dean – I was raised by and around strong women. Over time, I witnessed the weight of living manifest in them as mental illnesses. My experiences and observations became lodged somewhere deep in my psyche and coincided with (or perhaps fueled?) my appreciation for Gothic literature, Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, etc.
Azura, what was the first thing in this script that made you think, “I have to tell this woman’s story.”
Azura – When I first read the script, I immediately recognized Holly as the role of a lifetime. As an actor, you can only hope that you’re given something this juicy, and layered, to work with — but it’s rare. This is without a doubt the most challenging role I’ve ever tackled, but given the opportunity, how could I say no? I knew it was something I had to do, as daunting, and intimidating as it was.
Dean and Azura, Moms are so often pushed aside in narratives. This script highlights the weight of motherhood in such a real way. The isolation, the stress, the pressure to be everyone’s caretaker. What were you hoping the take away would be for an audience? I imagine it might be different, perhaps based on gender?
Dean – My hope is that audiences feel something from it. The reign of patriarchy over women is as powerful and relevant now as it was during the era of Shakespeare. Different, modern pressures, surely, but it hasn’t changed much on an emotional level. I think that’s why the characters and themes in Shakespeare are still so identifiable.
Azura – A big part of Holly is her silent suffering. She puts on a smile, and a brave face as she seems to adeptly juggle the various roles of wife, mother, sister, daughter, teacher — but inside she’s nearing a breaking point, as she struggles to keep it together. She’s right at that tenuous edge, where something as small as a mouse can be the tipping point that sends her spiraling downward. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, if you will.
One thing I hope audiences of all genders take from this movie is a reminder that you never know what’s going on with the person next to you at the grocery store. You have no idea what kind of day they’ve had. Maybe they’ve just lost a loved one, or are dealing with any number of possible traumas or tragedies. Everyone’s having to cope with a lot, some more than others — especially now. I hope this film is a reminder not to assume that you know what’s going on in someone else’s life, or in someone else’s head. Often times, we don’t even know what’s really going on with our closest friends and family. Or even our partners, for that matter. Everyone suffers, in ways we often never know, so let’s try to be kind and careful with one another.
As a 40-year-old mom of two toddlers who used to teach high school, this obviously hit me in a personal way. The character of Paul is so impactful. Even with the inappropriate power dynamic, you understand why his presence is so consequential to Holly’s entire journey. Dean, can you talk about the decision to use him as a catalyst? And for Azura, what was your reaction to Holly’s choice to go along with such an affair?
Dean – I never thought of it as an affair, but as a need for Holly to express and connect. But there is no joy in it. Paul has a kindness to him. He sees Holly in a different way than the other male characters in the film, but it is absolutely an adolescent’s fantasy and is no less dangerous.
Azura – Holly feels invisible most of the time. Especially at home, where she feels taken for granted, unappreciated; unseen. Paul is so pivotal because here’s someone who really sees her — and thinks she’s amazing. Thinks she’s beautiful. With Paul, Holly feels recognized, and appreciated, for the first time in far too long.
When I first read the script, this particular storyline was so interesting to me, because it was written in such a way that even though this woman is clearly behaving in an abhorrent, and inexcusably inappropriate way, I did not see her as a monster. It just made me really sad. This thread of the story is also one of my favorite parts of the film. Zack Rand, who plays Paul, was so brilliantly cast, and he gives a phenomenal performance.
Let’s talk about the score. It really makes the mundane feel important. The grocery shopping in the beginning, for example. It’s a melancholy that puts you into Holly’s state of mind.
Dean – I noticed mothers, my own included, that seemed to take grocery shopping not as a chore, but as a respite from other activities. However, the aura of the past and the outside world is inescapable. It was important that the score reflect that.
Dean, Paul’s sketchbook is stunning. Who did the illustrations?
Dean – The artist is Jocelyn Henry. She was a recent fine arts graduate and I took a shine to her work. Her initial sketches were a little too polished and I had her scale them back so that they were more reflective of the hand of a developing high school student.
Azura, had you seen the drawings prior to filming?
Dean – I showed them to Azura, but explained little or nothing. I guided her to the reactions needed for the scene.
Azura – I don’t think I saw the illustrations until the day of filming. I definitely had a visceral reaction to the ones of myself. There’s something quite intimate and slightly jarring about it. There were a couple that I actually wanted to keep, but sadly I was denied. I was told they were done by an artist in New York, but I’ve always secretly suspected that perhaps Dean himself is the artist. I’m curious to see how he answers this question.
Holly’s very buttoned-up, very conservatively presented. Can you tell me how her wardrobe affected your physicality?
Azura – It affected me very much. As wardrobe always does. In some ways, I don’t really know who a character is until I put on their clothes, and it was no different with Holly. I didn’t meet the costume designer (Eric Hall) until a few days before we started filming, and as soon as I started putting on the wardrobe I started to get a really strong sense of who Holly was. She really started to make sense, and take shape, quite literally. I thought her clothes were a little sad, sometimes even a little silly. Someone who’s really making an effort, but doesn’t always get it quite right. There was a vulnerability and a self-conscious quality to the way she put herself together. I found the buttoned-up rigidity to be very informative, and it was helpful in that it was a constant reminder as to the way Holly held herself. It very much affected the way I moved. In her restrained, buttoned-up attire, she herself is contained, and restrained; even slightly holding her breath.
You’re really rooting for Holly when she stands up for herself but the emotional abuse from her family is endless. They are incredibly manipulative. But Dean’s script and your performance are so strong that I began to wonder if I was seeing things along with her. Azura, did you ever think that what Holly was seeing and experiencing wasn’t real?
Azura – Of course I thought about it, and that was something I discussed with Dean. I like that certain parts of Holly’s experience are open to interpretation, but for me the actor, I had to play it as if it were all 100% real, because for the character it is.
Let’s talk about the mouse. Is the mouse Holly?
Dean – It could be. Or was it a warning? A guardian? Was it ever even there? It’s more important how the viewer feels about it. And I never discussed meaning with the cast or crew.
The final chapter of this film is nothing short of devastating. As a mother, as a human, it has stayed with me since I saw the film last year. It’s truly haunting. It’s a bold choice that is not only a beautiful recall to the story in the beginning but one hell of a gut-punch to the viewer. Did you both hope the audience would sympathize with Holly as the credits rolled?
Dean – Yes. Prior to the pandemic, abuse, mental illness, and suicide were on the rise across genders, and since it’s only increased. My hope is that audiences feel something and can relate in some way to her plight. We’re all human. We’re all in this together.
Azura – It is a harrowing and haunting final act. One that in large part made me want to do the film. I think I was probably far too consumed with the task at hand to really think about how an audience might interpret it.
Mental illness is a hot button issue. Do you think people are now more comfortable talking about it openly?
Dean – Social media is a two-edged sword, but people seem to be more open about sharing their experiences. The world can be so overwhelming. They want to connect. They want to heal.
Azura – It does seem like we’ve started to talk about it a lot more in recent years, which is so great. You have people like Michael Phelps doing commercials encouraging people to seek help, and so many other public figures speaking candidly about their struggles, which makes it so much more accessible, and perhaps even acceptable. It definitely seems like something we’re discussing more and discussing more openly.
Massive thanks to Dean and Azura for their very generous time with this interview. THE SWERVE is now available on Digital and VOD
THE SWERVE celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Cinepocalypse Film Festival, and screened at the 2019 Panic Film Festival; winning both awards for Best Actress for Azura Skye. The film will be releasing on major VOD/Digital platforms beginning Tuesday, September 22, 2020.