Writer and director Douglas Ray considers his film “Swansong,” which screens in competition at London’s Raindance Film Festival, a blend of love story and tragedy that he calls “a love story gone wrong.” When a former pop star finds out his wife had been cheating on him and leaves him for another woman he kidnaps both and poisons all three of them. He has enough antidote to save two, and after a discussion on where everyone stands they will jointly decide who lives and who dies. The film stars Eva Birthistle, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Paul Hilton.
Where did you come up for the idea of “Swansong”?
It was during a period when I was thinking a lot about the changing nature of relationships. I’m a filmmaker with a girlfriend who, until very recently, has always earned more than me, owns the flat I live in and could largely do without me on a practical level. So I guess I partly drew on my own experience. Not that my own experience is anything like what happens in the film!
But I wanted to write something that reflected on and explored some of the things that have changed in the way people get together, stay together — and their reasons for doing so. It was only really relatively recently that there was only one type of romantic relationship that was socially, morally (and legally) acceptable in Britain — a man and a woman — getting married. Today we have same-sex marriage just coming onto the statute books in most of the U.K., plus men and women living together, having children together but not getting married, clearly things have changed — even the Pope on his recent tour of the U.S. was reflecting on how massively some parts of the world have changed in this regard (because obviously historically there has been a considerable religious angle to this).
That said, we’ve not yet reached a new consensus on relationships that’s as strong as that old one. It’s still a very live issue. And it affects different people in different ways. A lot of that was present in my mind as the idea for the film began. But it’s not a film with an agenda as such. It’s about a very particular group of people. But ultimately being in a romantic relationship — and all that goes with it — is a very important part of most of our lives in one way or another.
The script was actually written in North Carolina, U.S.A., where it was set originally, but I decided it was more appropriate to make it in Britain.
What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
The film was actually much easier than I was anticipating in some ways. Having worked a lot on bigger budgeted projects in terms of commercials and other shoots, where you have many more people and, most importantly, time, it was quite daunting to be trying to shoot a feature film in 12 days with a crew of about 10 people! But the great thing is, you are incredibly mobile. Ideas, whims, the ability to be nimble is very refreshing.
Regularly we would just stop whatever we were doing to do something else — and then go back and carry on with what we were doing before — in less time than it would take just to discuss it on a larger crew. I used to work on larger films earlier in my career and the amount of standing around waiting, discussing and disagreeing that goes on — we avoided a lot of that.
However, it does mean you don’t have much in the way of redundancy. If you need to ramp things up suddenly, you can’t. You only really have one rate you can work at, which is flat out. You’re at full capacity the whole time, so when something does go wrong, and something always goes wrong at some point, everything stops.
We also took the slightly unusual step of offering all the crew the same amount of money, and all the cast the same amount too. And while it meant a couple of very experienced crew didn’t do the film who might otherwise have done so, it was really liberating in many unexpected ways. Film sets are designed to be hierarchical with good reason, with everyone knowing their place, within their department. But with such a small group of people, it really helps if people see their role as wider — if they feel like it’s their film and that they’re just as important as everyone else — that every link in the chain is important. And they did. Probably the best note I got on the script was from the runner.
And the cast were such wonderful, ego-less collaborators anyway that very quickly everyone knew each other and it felt like a really intimate, supportive space to work and I think you can really see it in the film.
Both the cheaters and kidnapper in the movie are very relatable. Were you wanting the audience to struggle with who to side with or did you want a clear villain?
There are three main characters in the film, and the idea was that the film would kind of shift its focus between all three of them, one at a time. As the film progresses you learn a bit more about each of them that you hadn’t realized thus far, that maybe explains their actions, or gives greater poignancy to their situation and challenges your original assumptions.
The story itself has within it a device whereby each of them is ostensibly pleading for their right to live — it’s a bit of a balloon debate almost — so the film kind of follows that structure to some extent and uses that to go into each of the stories further, although we do break with that when it suits us.
But in terms of where the audience’s sympathies lie, I wasn’t trying to guide the audience too much. To some extent they all take it in turns in being the film’s protagonist, while the others become their antagonists. But also the best films I believe — and the best stories — are where everyone, the good guys, the bad guys — have equally compelling and relatable reasons for what they do.
And finally, I should point out that while as a writer you try and put down as much of that on the page as you can, ultimately the cast are the reason it works — it’s their performances that really adds humanity and depth to these characters. Even when they are doing terrible things to each other.
Would you consider this a love story or a revenge story?
I think it is a love story, but it’s a love story gone wrong, I’d say. A love story gone wrong told in reverse.
It’s a tragedy. It’s about a character — or maybe several characters — who learn their lesson, but by the time they do it’s too late.
I think it’s about the very beginnings of a relationship and the very ends of a relationship — with glances at what comes in-between. And I think it shows how the initial spark, the first attraction between two people only gets you so far. I think anyone who’s in a relationship or who wants to be in one should see the film!