From the moment we are introduced to Hunter (Haley Bennett) in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ new film Swallow, her world captivates with gorgeous design and aesthetics. The architecture, color palette and the physical pieces that surround her everyday life represent a world many of us will only dream of. Not a single item is out of place. Not a single choice is made without deliberate and focused thought. And yet beneath this facade of decadent design resides a well of hidden trauma and repressed emotion.
Behind this stunning display of visual cohesiveness stands a team of creative and talented individuals including Production Designer, Erin Magill. With an impressive and diverse body of work, Erin has designed worlds for both the big and small screen. After starting her career at Pixar Entertainment with work on films such as Ratatouille and Toy Story 3, Erin soon moved on to the live-action sphere. Familiar projects like Mad Men, The Romanoffs, Hearts Beat Loud and Brittany Runs a Marathon all have Erin behind the curtains helping to create their unique and beautiful worlds. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Erin and we chat all about Swallow and the many layers to creating its stunning and striking world. Also, make sure to check out NOFS Senior Contributor Mary Beth McAndrews review of the film here.
Hunter, a newly pregnant housewife, finds herself increasingly compelled to consume dangerous objects. As her husband and his family tighten their control over her life, she must confront the dark secret behind her new obsession.
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: How did you first get involved with Swallow? At what stage in pre-production did you come in?
Erin Magill: I was introduced to the producers through a mutual friend. I split my time between New York and LA, and I was in LA at the time, and they were in New York. But they sent me the script, and I was immediately really taken with it. Especially, at the time not knowing much other than obviously Carlo (the director and writer) was a man. While I was very interested in the story, I was really interested in chatting with him to learn his reasoning and backstory for writing it. So, we had a conversation and just kind of immediately connected in terms of what his goal for the film was on a visual level. I had started to put together a look book to show him and we were just immediately on the same page. So very quickly, because it was a very, very small independent film, I essentially…I want to say it was a week later, I headed back out to New York. We had 18 days to prep and it was a 20 day shoot. Of all the indies I’ve done, it was definitely the smallest.
NOFS: When it came to initial design direction and conversations with Carlo and Katelin Arizmendi the cinematographer, how much of Hunter’s world was written in the script? How much of it was your creation?
EM: Part of my process is to always dig deeper with a director and the writer, or the director/writer in terms of Swallow, and to ask the questions that aren’t necessarily in the script. Who are Richie’s parents? What are their jobs? How did they meet? Where exactly do we think they live? And so we started talking about how they probably had a home on the upper East side. And the house that Hunter goes over to for the dinner party is more like their estate out in Connecticut. And they probably have a house out in the Hamptons. This kind of world of extravagant wealth.
There’s not necessarily a lot of that in the script. A lot of the more color conversations and things like that become a conversation between all of us. The overall design was something where I made that look book after a conversation with Carlo. It’s kind of a bigger picture idea. He would use a lot of films as reference with the mood and tone he was going for. Safe and Rosemary’s Baby were two really big ones in terms of my world of design. And then I come back with these boards for the houses. There were a lot of photographers I was using. I used the photography of Tina Barney, Philip Lorca-diCorcia and Greg Crewdson. There was also a little Saul Leiter in there. I’ll use a lot of those images as a jumping off point for the three of us to talk. And then it’s kind of about while we were scouting, as we were choosing a location, I offer ideas on how I can help. ‘Ok, we’ve all agreed we love the look of this image, this is how I can help turn this space into that.’
“Part of my process is to always dig deeper with a director and the writer, or the director/writer in terms of Swallow, and to ask the questions that aren’t necessarily in the script.”
NOFS: Swallow demonstrates a lot of beautiful design across multiple departments. When it came to areas like hair and wardrobe, how much input did you have there? What was it like collaborating with these other departments?
EM: It was great! We were a very small film, but no matter the size, ideally you are collaborating with those department heads. Carlo I think very wisely hired the majority of our department heads to be all female. I think the nature of the story, while he obviously had his personal connection and reasons for writing it, it was really smart of him to not only hire these women department heads, but to really empower us all to make our mark on the film, the script and the story. (In terms of our personal experiences and connections to it) Also, Haley the actress, was an Executive Producer. I think she was very passionately involved in terms of costume and hair and makeup.
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Everyone was very much communicating. When there would be decisions in terms of certain colors or textures we knew would have to exist or certain choices that I would have to make…such as Richie’s parents house. And knowing this living room is very yellow and gold and tan. I knew I was going to take out anything that didn’t exist to build that up even more. So I’d share that with Liene our costume designer. Then she, with the goal of trying to have Hunter feel as if she had to blend into that world, would take that direction for the costume and discuss it with Haley. That way she just kind of fades into that world. The same with the dining room that was very blue and green. So I knew, ‘Ok, I’m going to continue to play with that color palette on the table and that whole setup.’ And Liene could do that. And then Kate could frame and light to show that all off best. It was a constant. We were definitely in communication so we could all be on the same page. All film is collaboration, but I’d say this film was kind of an ideal example of what happens when you really have all the departments communicating. And having an opportunity to really do their best. I think this showed in the end result.
NOFS: I’d like to talk about the house Hunter lives in with Richie. This ‘gilded cage.’ How and where did you find the house? How much of the interior was pre-existing versus new pieces that you brought in?
EM: I landed in New York and the next day, the producers wanted to take me scouting. There were two houses, the house we chose and another house. So the idea in the film is that Richie’s parents had bought them this house. And the parent’s house is a little bit more traditional for their age group and this old money feel. So, we did want the idea that this was the younger, newer generation version. We wanted something that was modern and had this gilded cage, jewelry box kind of prison feel. When seeing the house we chose I was really drawn to the fact that yes, it was modern, but there was still a lot of texture in terms of the stones and the wood. And yes, there’s a lot of glass and the white kitchen, but there’s also colored panels. I liked how at times these things complimented each other, depending on the lighting and the framing, and it could feel very cohesive and warm. And at other times you could feel this tension, coldness and that prison feeling. The bones of the house were great for all of us.
The interior, the dressing and the furniture, I’d say we kept about 5%. The idea was that they were moving in and Hunter was setting up the house as the story is going along. There were little nods here and there with certain furniture pieces to Richie’s parents. This idea that she was trying to fit the mold they would approve of. But also to be the hip, modern, appropriate couple for Hunter and Richie’s age group. There were these great stone sphere sculptures outside the house that immediately looked like the marble that Hunter swallows. That was the inspiration as I was picking pieces that would go in the house. I tried to pick a lot of pieces that had a lot of texture to them. As if she was unconsciously picking things that had a lot of texture. And depending on the lighting and the framing, maybe had this more ‘appetizing’ look. Or the proportions and the shapes are similar to stuff she is swallowing. For example, there was a side table that it’s base looked kind of like a jack or like pills. All of that basically led to us having to completely redress the home.
“We wanted something that was modern and had this gilded cage, jewelry box kind of prison feel.”
NOFS: I love the utilization of glass and mirrors. Even the pool! It really conveys the isolation and pressure placed on Hunter as well as her journey through self-discovery and reflection. Was this planned or more of a perk of the house?
EM: I think it was definitely a reason I was drawn to the house. And definitely for Kate in terms of being able to frame and shoot Hunter in that journey. It was a no brainer in terms of the potential to take advantage of it. Which of course, Kate beautifully did. There were some amazing moments when we were there when this thunderstorm came through. There was a double rainbow! It was unscripted, but Kate rushed Haley out onto the deck and shot that scene. It was an amazing house for that and I think they took full advantage in a wonderful way.
NOFS: The window dressing Hunter chooses for the baby’s room was really interesting. What was the inspiration for that and how do you think it speaks towards Hunter‘s view about her pregnancy?
EM: That’s something that goes back to Carlo wisely bringing lots of women on board and empowering us. I was very conscious in terms of timeline and when certain things would be happening in her pregnancy. It was originally scripted for her to be building this crib and she’d be painting this name and it was something that I really put my foot down about. It felt like a very sentimental gesture to me for someone who was very newly pregnant. It felt much more like someone who was excited about it, even if it wasn’t planned, but was really embracing it. This wasn’t planned and I think this whole idea of becoming pregnant is what triggers a lot of these deep-seeded issues about Hunter’s own birth.
I really wanted to focus on yes, this is someone who’s trying to play this role of the perfect wife and daughter-in-law. And society is telling her as a woman she’s supposed to be very excited about being pregnant. And yet, it’s something she’s not connecting to on that sentimental level. It’s actually bringing up a lot of painful and shameful things for her. To show that disassociation, the house had these great yellow sliding glass doors. So I used that as an idea. And Kate was already doing a lot of framing Haley in groups of threes. Sometimes she’s in the center and very symmetrical. And other times not. So I suggested these colored gels, the red and the blue, just the primaries. And then the way my decorator and I purchased all the dressing was focusing on Scandinavian design. This very simple, non-gendered feel so that you could really feel this disassociation that she was having.
NOFS: Flowers seem to play a subtle, but important role in the design as well. How does this theme relate to Hunter and her journey?
EM: I’m glad you noticed that in terms of subtle themes we were playing with. She has that conversation with Richie, she builds the flower bed in back, and in the hallway we did put up a floral wallpaper. The idea that, in the designing of the home, she had made that choice. Carlo and I didn’t want this woman to feel like she was completely void of a personality and trapped by Richie. While I think she had some serious issues, she had a personality, she had a history. Even though I think it was very complicated, clearly there was an association with her mother and her childhood. I liked the larger thematic idea too of being a woman and connected to the Earth and growing. I don’t know if it’s cheesy sounding but, Mother Earth. And the idea of organic versus some of the things in the house that were much more inorganic and cold. So this was a way to show the little bit of life in Hunter. When we got to the hotel room, Hunter has kind of broken free and there’s the dirt. Plus, it makes sense for the kind of side of the road hotel she was going to. It felt like a nod to her being true to herself and kind of breaking free.
NOFS: I imagine that budget plays a big role in your job. What are some of the creative ways you’ve learned to stretch a dollar and still create a visually intriguing space?
EM: Oh yes. (laughs) Every film has it’s challenges and even on a larger film, there’s never quite enough money. I’ve definitely learned that it shouldn’t get in the way of visually helping to tell the story. There’s a lot of wonderful tools and tricks we can use. One of them is, I’ve learned how to put up wallpaper temporarily. Just reminding people that on that large screen, this will have an impact. When it came to the furniture on Swallow there was a lot of estate sale shopping, a lot of Craigslist, a lot of Chairish.com and going to furniture outlets. Sometimes it becomes a lot of making deals with certain people if you’re going to buy multiple things from them. It becomes trying to visually pick the pieces that you know are going to visually stand out. And knowing where to invest your money versus if there’s only going to be one quick scene there. It was definitely a challenge on this one, but thankfully I had a team of guys who were really great at going out and shopping for me.
“the way my decorator and I purchased all the dressing was focusing on Scandinavian design. This very simple, non-gendered feel so that you could really feel this disassociation that she was having.”
NOFS: What inspired you to pursue Production Design? Was there a particular film that resonated with you or kickstarted your interest in the field?
EM: I had always been a big movie and TV kid growing up. I was always obsessed with all of that. My undergrad was in design which was more of a graphics, visual communications emphasis. But in that program I had a teacher at UC Davis who was a production designer for theater and film. He did a lecture once on how he had designed for Honey, I Shunk the Kids. And he showed all these photos of the sets and the giant blades of grass and the huge Legos. I had never put two and two together to realize that was a real job. And that was definitely a moment of, ‘Oh! How do you do that? I’d like to do that.’
You can find more of Erin’s work in the upcoming Lionsgate film The Quarry starring Michael Shannon and directed by Scott Teems (writer for Halloween Kills). While originally scheduled to premiere at SXSW, the film still holds a tentative theatrical release of April 17th. She also worked on the upcoming film Moxie. Directed by Amy Poehler, the film centers around a teenager who organizes a feminist revolution at her school while learning all about her mother’s connections to the original Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990’s.
Swallow was released by IFC Films and is currently available on VOD across all major platforms. What did you think of Swallow? What are some of your favorite design elements of the film? Let us know what you think over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!