Swan Song

Swan Song – Neil Baker talks to writer and director Todd Stephens

1st June 2022

Read our ★★★★★ Swan Song review here.

Swan Song arrives in UK cinemas on June 10th.

It’s hard to believe that Todd Stephens’ semi-autobiographical movie Edge of Seventeen was released twenty-four years ago or that Gypsy 83, the second film in his Ohio trilogy, is twenty-one years old. Swan Song sees Todd Stephens return to Sandusky, Ohio, his home town, to complete the trilogy with an intimate, celebratory and melancholic tribute to Mr Pat, a hairdresser and performer who was a local legend. I recently caught up with writer, director and producer Todd Stephens to discuss his new movie and its themes of mortality, forgiveness, change and the gay experience.

Neil: I thought we would start the interview by talking about the Sandusky, Ohio trilogy and the journey you have been on from Edge of Seventeen to Gypsy 83 and now Swan Song. Has the trilogy enabled you to look at your hometown differently?

Todd: You know, that’s a great question. For me growing up, Sandusky was a small town I just wanted to escape, so I couldn’t wait to move away to college in New York when I turned 18. When I went back to make Edge of Seventeen, I was around thirty and quickly realised I had romanticised the town in my mind, including the things I missed. But, you know, I had also forgotten the things that made me run away in the first place. Those feelings really came to a head during the making of Edge of Seventeen, especially as we tried to keep the subject matter of the film a secret as we filmed. In the late nineties, things were so different in terms of filming a gay-themed movie openly in a small town. It felt ironic and uncomfortable to be making a film that celebrated my journey as an out gay man when the production was in the closet; pretty soul-crushing, to be honest.

Edge of Seventeen (1998)

However, fast forward to Swan Song, and on the day we arrived, the town was celebrating its third annual gay pride festival. So much had changed that it almost blew my mind, and the process of filming Swan Song was joyous. My hometown wrapped its arms around me; so many people donated things to the production and opened their doors to the cast and crew. They wanted to celebrate Mr Pat (on who the story is based) as a beloved figure who so many people warmly remembered. So, it was just an incredible barometer of community change that played to so many of the themes in Swan Song. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mr Pat sits on a park bench watching a gay couple teach their son how to play ball, and Pat says to himself, “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore.” As we returned for Swan Song, I guess the level of community change made me consider that line even more and its relevance to older community members.

Neil: Gay life has changed so much within a relatively short period, and many older LGBTQ+ people in the community may feel that they have been left behind in the process. Do you think the voices of older community members may have been lost during this change?

Todd: I never really knew Mr Pat very well; I guess he was on the periphery of my life growing up. But in telling his story, I spent a lot of time with his surviving friends, and during those discussions, I also learned that my hometown had a long LGBTQ+ history. You know, it fascinated me to talk about a home town history I had never been aware of, and I hope older community members feel we have reflected some of that history through Pat’s story.


Neil: It’s interesting that you mention hidden LGBTQ+ community histories. Do you think the loss of many historical gay venues has airbrushed that history away? When I first went out on the gay scene, I remember how the bar was lined with the Queens of the scene, all of whom were the custodians of local queer history.

Todd: You’re right!

Neil: I guess you don’t see that much anymore as LGBTQ+ venues become trendy cocktail bars and coffee shops, and those defiant and colourful custodians vanish.

Todd: I just felt a little sad as you said that, but it’s true. I mean, what is culture? It’s the traditions we pass down from one generation to another, and maybe we have become victims of our own success. Thinking back, the gay bars of my youth were the only places where I could hold hands with my boyfriend or dance without getting the shit kicked out of us, which was true for so many of us. We gravitated to those safe spaces, and that’s where we learnt from our elders. And, you know, I like the idea that they were the community custodians of culture.

I guess that is missing now, and the AIDS pandemic ripped away far too many of those custodians from us when we needed them most. You know, I teach film in New York City, and I meet a lot of 18-year-old kids who don’t seem to know anything about LGBTQ+ history. They often have no sense of the level of devastation AIDS wreaked or our shared fight for equality and human rights. So I think, in a small way, I’m just trying to pass that history from my generation to the next.


Neil: That brings me to Mr Pat. Udo Kier is mesmerising in the role. Was Udo always top of your list for Mr Pat?

Todd: I would love to say that he was, but no. It was a challenging role to cast because I needed someone who was flamboyant but not stereotypical or over the top. Casting took time, and as time passed, it became more and more important for me to cast a gay actor. I wanted someone who understood Mr Pat’s world and instinctively knew how to reflect this on screen. Of course, the real Mr Pat was not from Cologne, Germany, but when my casting director suggested Udo, I was like, wow. Mr Pat had these beautiful blue eyes just like Udo, and when I flew out to Palm Springs to meet him and was greeted by his dog, Liza Minnelli, I knew I had my man.

Neil: Did the pandemic affect the filming and editing process?

Todd: Thankfully, we filmed just before the pandemic, and in many ways, the lockdown gave us more time to edit. Some things weren’t in the original script, some of the more magical elements in Pat’s imagination, and we found these in the edit due to having more time. But I am eternally thankful that we filmed the summer before COVID.

Swan Song

Neil: Have those who knew Mr Pat seen the film, and what’s been their reaction?

Todd: Yeah, they have, and they loved it. They felt that we captured Mr Pat, which means so much to me, Udo and the rest of the cast and crew.

Neil: So, is Swan Song the final visit to Sandusky, Ohio, or are there more stories to be told?

Todd: I wrote this script called Ode to Boy. The script is based on my experience of going home to shoot my first film, Edge of Seventeen, before putting it to one side due to Swan Song. But I recently picked it back up and was like, wow, this is an excellent combination of sadness and humour. So, who knows, maybe it could be a sequel of sorts to Edge of Seventeen, where the kid goes back home to tell his story and almost has a nervous breakdown. We’ll see.

Neil: Sounds great! It would be wonderful to see a follow-up to Edge of Seventeen, which was a seminal gay movie for so many teenagers.

Todd: Those first gay movies that we all sit and watch as teenagers are incredibly powerful and have a huge impact.

Neil: They do indeed. So while we are talking about coming out, at the start of the movie Mr Pat has been forced back into the closet in his care home before having a second ‘coming out’ as he re-enters town. Where you keen to reflect on the fact that many older LGBTQ+ people are forced back into the closet due to their care?

Todd: Totally. For years I wanted to write a TV series called Flamingos, set in a gay retirement home in Florida, and I’m now working on it. I was inspired years before by a New York Times article that discussed the effect of care on the first generation of ‘out’ men and women. These were people who had lived their lives out of the closet only to be pushed back in later life. Things are changing; for example, LGBTQ+ retirement homes are springing up here in places like Palm Springs, but there is still so much more to do. In Swan Song, I wanted to portray a Mr Pat in hiding as the film opened – a chameleon who has just blended into the walls. But on leaving, he does indeed experience a second coming out as he embraces himself again.

Neil: You have given us some tasty insights into what might come next, but is there anything else you are currently working on?

Todd: Yeah, so I am currently working on a director’s cut of the second film in the trilogy Gypsy 83. In many ways, it’s like a complete re-edit. I was never happy with the edit, which saw over 50 minutes of the film cut out. So look out for that soon.


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