Udo Kier, the popular character actor seen in hundreds of films over the years, is finally getting his share of the spotlight as a lead actor in the indie “Swan Song,” in which he plays a retired small-town hairdresser. The film’s hair and makeup team took their inspirations from the real-life character who inspired the film.
“The original inspiration came from the real Mr. Pat. He was somebody that I would see from the time I was a little kid walking around downtown, “remembers director Todd Stephens. “He would always wear these fabulous pantsuits; he always had a ring on every finger. He was gender-fluid back in the seventies and eighties, long before that was a word. And, I just was obsessed with him as this little queer kid trying to figure himself out in a small town. He was like a beacon of hope.”
Long gone are the days when Mr. Pat (Kier) was the most in-demand hair guru in Sandusky, Ohio. But, when an old friend and star client (Linda Evans) dies, leaving a provision in her will that Mr. Pat must style her hair for her funeral, Pat embarks on a journey across town, and in many ways time, to reconnect with his fabulous alter ego.
Stephens entrusted the role of Mr. Pat to the veteran character actor, whose striking blue eyes and penchant for chameleonic performances made him the perfect person to embody the flamboyant Mr. Pat. To complete Kier’s physical transformation into his childhood hero, Stephens enlisted the help of Lydia Kane, head of hair and makeup and costume designers Kitty Boots and Shawna-Nova Foley.
The team behind “Swan Song,” ( in select theaters now and on demand August 13, ) breaks down the key moments of Kier’s most memorable looks.
A Dreamy Opening Sequence
“Swan Song” opens with Pat Pitsenbarger performing on stage as his alter ego, Mr. Pat. The short, but pivotal dream sequence represents Pat at his very best, basking in the glory he then spends the rest of the film trying to reclaim.
To create the look, Foley relied on Mr. Pat’s signature accessory. “I was speaking with Pat Pitsenbarger’s niece, Sarah. She was telling me about her uncle, all of these great stories about him,” Foley recalls. “And she said, “He would wear these short-shorts all the time. And he would always wear a white fur coat. If there was any way you could get a white fur coat, then that would just be Pat, that would be my uncle. I just always remember him in a white fur coat.’
When Todd came up to me and said we needed another look for Udo, I knew I needed a white fur coat.” And I had one, in my stock wardrobe, in my basement, which was two hours away! and I called up my fiancé and said, ‘Tim, I need you to do me a huge favor. Can you please go in the basement and dig out this white fur coat? I’ll meet you halfway.”
“I saw Liberace perform in Las Vegas when I was young,” Kier said. And he had a ring on each finger, and he went to the audience, and he put his finger down and said, ‘You paid for this.’ I’ll never forget it and that’s why at the beginning of the film, I’m coming from behind the curtain, I show my hands, and say, ‘I’m Pat and I’m back, ‘and show my rings.”
The Comfy Tracksuit
“The whole movie was about coming back to life. I wanted everything, including Pat, to look drained and dead at the beginning,” Stephens says. And as the film went on, as Pat filled with life, I tried to pump up the color palette and introduce brighter colors.”
Kane mirrored Pat’s character arc in Kier’s physical transformation. “We start the film when he’s at the nursing home, I went in and did some fine detail work and added dark circles to his face, made it look a little sunk in and withdrawn. Like there wasn’t any life,” Kane said. And then by the time he moves out and encounters all of these people, he starts coming to life a little bit. His skin becomes brighter and more luminous as the story continues.”
Pat’s grey and drab nursing home loungewear represent his down-and-out state, but it also introduces a recurring poodle motif, seen throughout the film.
“Starting with the very faded poodle decal on the white t-shirt, the backstory being that maybe he and his partner, David, had poodles, and the t-shirt is what remains of his life back home,” Boots says. And if you look on David’s gravestone, there’s a poodle. I also found a poodle brooch from Etsy that we placed on the lapel of the lime green suit.
Each accessory Kier dons in the film is rife with meaning, including the pink hat he’s gifted shortly after leaving the nursing home — the first of several head ornaments Kier is outfitted with on his journey.
“The pink hat is that first pop of color. Here’s a moment where Pat is becoming more himself, becoming more alive,” says Stephens. “That hat sort of helped him to that next phase,”
Foley found the hat during a last-minute scavenger hunt through Target. “Kitty and I had many hats to choose from at first, but everything was too small for Udo’s head,” Foley said. I found that hat laying on one of the side tables, discarded—there is a return tag on it. Somehow it ended up at this Target, and it was the exact right size. It fit his head like it was meant for it.”
The Signature Green Suit
Gifted the item by a grateful former client, the pistachio green suit becomes Pat’s signature outfit for most of ‘Swan Song.’ Restricted by a fast-paced shooting schedule and tight budget, costume designers Kitty Boots and Shawna-Nova Foley scoured thrift stores in New York City and throughout Ohio, struggling to find the right piece. The 1970s era mint suit taking center stage in the film was a late discovery on Etsy.
“It was scripted as a teal suit, David Bowie during his ‘Life on Mars’ era,” Boots says. “Getting something made was just not within the budget of this film. I go on to Etsy and I just sort of found the suit and the caption said, ‘Where will she take you on your adventures?’ I was like, it’s not the right color, but it feels so right.” Adds Boots, “It was a woman’s suit and it was a larger size. It didn’t fit perfectly because, you know, nothing ever does. But, I liked the way it fits him in the film because it feels poignant and real.”
While most productions keep duplicates of key costume changes on hand, the “Swan Song” crew only had one suit, with Foley often handwashing the piece to prevent accidental damage.
“We were so nervous something might happen to it,” Foley says with a laugh. And we were shooting out of sequence. There were days when I would take the sleeves off and sew back on four times. I had to carry my sewing machine around with me. I got really good at sewing sleeves.”
Foley and Boots accessorized the suited look with a mauve hat and handmade flower, echoing the natural green and purple tones found throughout the film. Flowers marked another visual representation of Pat’s inner transformation.
“We divided the film into three sections, almost like a flower, that became dormant and in the middle was kind of like budding and then the full blossom in the end,” Stephens said.
To further emphasize the floral motif, Foley hand-painted flowers on the cream silk scarf seen on Kier. Foley created a second version of the scarf, seen later in the film, featuring more prominent flowers, symbolizing Mr. Pat’s further blossoming and eventual return.
The Return to the Stage
‘Swan Song’s’ thematic climax and most memorable moment arrives in the third act when Mr. Pat takes the stage late in a spirited lip-sync of Robyn’s ‘”Dancing on My Own” — with a lit chandelier on his head.
“I had several producers that were going to make the movie with me at one point or another say, ‘I think you should cut the chandelier out. It’s too over the top.’ But it really wound up becoming the iconic thing. Some members of my cast and crew got chandelier tattoos after the film wrapped,” Stephens said.
The admittedly ‘tough’ scene for Stephens and his crew involved a cross-department collaboration between props, production design and lighting.
For her part, Kane dialed up the makeup, making sure that Kier ‘popped’ on stage. “By the time we get to the scene where Udo came out in the chandelier, that one was a big one because it’s the first time Pat is actually coming out and embracing himself again. We wanted it to be special,” Kane said. “So it was kind of like, ‘When he went back there to grab the chandelier, Mr. Pat definitely would be putting on some sort of makeup.’ We added eyeliner to make his eyes pop, some mascara and a little bit of lipstick and helped bring Mr. Pat’s feminine energy back into his character.”