Production Designer Erin Magill Discusses the Look of IFC Films’ Swallow
In need of a new film to watch while at home? If you enjoy darker, highly stylized films, such as Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals or A Single Man, then you are in for a treat because IFC Film’s Swallow is all that, plus dessert. Swallow follows Hunter (Haley Bennett), a newly pregnant housewife, who 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. Adding to the uniqueness of the film is the production design by Erin Magill. Magill does a great job of transforming Hunter’s reality for the viewer to see with their own eyes. No detail left unnoticed, including the tile color in a mall bathroom. Below Magill goes into more detail about her work on the film. Swallow is available now on VOD.
What initially drew you to Swallow?
When first reading the script, I felt a great deal of empathy for Hunter and her specific story, but it was the larger themes of mental health, body autonomy, and archaic gender roles that intrigued me as a designer and visual storyteller. A small indie film can be all consuming, so I diligently try to select projects that are attempting to speak about the social and cultural issues I passionately care about.
For people who aren’t in the film business can you let them know what some of your tasks are as a production designer?
The production designer is the person responsible for the overall visual look of the production. Taking into account the script, the director’s vision and production restraints, the designer formulates a visual plan to evoke the emotions, themes and actions within a project. This includes every location or built set – And to achieve a cohesive vision from floor to ceiling wall to a wall, inside and out, a production designer can and must wear many hats – historian, sociologist, anthropologist, color theorist, architect, artist, interior designer and engineer.
In a previous interview you mentioned that Haley Bennett, whom executive produced and stars in Swallow, gave you some insight on her character and perspective. Was there any specific scene or item in the film that she really personally influenced by an idea she had?
In the film, Hunter speaks about the flower bed she wants to grow in their backyard. Haley shared with me an image from the British film Enchanted April as an inspiration for the framing of the scene and the color palette. And then along with our costume designer, her wardrobe beautifully complimented the scene.
How closely did you work with the director of photography on this film? What sort of prep did you do together?
We had a very short prep time, but in that time, there was a constant dialogue with DP Kate Arizmendi. While location scouting together, we are also swapping inspirational images of mood and tone – Kate sharing her ideas on framing, lighting or camera movement, while I’m presenting possible colors/textures and shapes of the dressing and coverings we may be using.
There was very interesting color blocking through the whole film, with the stained glass in the house to even the bathroom at the end of the film. Did you have to do anything to that pink checkered bathroom or did you pick it specifically for that look? It fits perfectly with the film.
The color story throughout the film was a real collaborative effort spearheaded by our fearless director, Carlo Mirabella- Davis, along with our genius DP Kate Arizmendi and Costume Designer Liene Dobraja. And I’m so excited to hear of someone noticing the bathroom tiles at the end – Thank you! Kate and I both loved the look of the mall, which had a very dated feel with these existing mauve tiles, but the bathroom only had the black and white. To connect them, I suggested we bring that color back into the bathroom set. My graphic designer recreated the marble pattern and color, and then we printed and placed these mauve vinyl stickers on the walls.
It entirely depends on the script/story and tone of a project. But with all of them, story and research are always first and foremost, uncovering the motivations and backstory of characters while also examining the sociological and cultural themes within the film and how the film itself could be perceived and/or become part of the conversation in the thematic context. In taking this approach to each project, I would best describe my production design style as layered with a heavy attention to detail. Some projects’ sets visually express this idea by physically consuming space and screen, and others might be more subtle by alluding to another time in history or artist’s work that fits in thematically with our subject matter.
You worked on the premiere of BET’s new series Twenties. What was your favorite part of working on that project?
The opportunity to once again collaborate with EP/Director Justin Tipping was a gift. There are always so many unknowns and what ifs in the filmmaking process, so when you are able to bring some stability to a project by working with someone you already trust and respect, who you share a visual language with, it makes the process so much easier and enjoyable for everyone. Also, the opportunity to bring the loosely autobiographical words of Creator/Writer Lena Waithe’s life to the screen was a real honor – while staying true to Lena, her humor and the characters, we also strove to honor queer and/or black female artists that paved the way.
When you’re starting a new project, what’s your most important resource?
No matter what your role is in the filmmaking process, I believe our ability to empathize is critical. It is the foundational resource of a good storyteller. My job is to visually interpret that empathy and understanding of what I have read. It depends on the story’s content, but I always use a tremendous amount of imagery from my personal library of art, architecture and photography books and magazines as a jumping off point for discussions with collaborators.
You have worked in many different genres. Do you have a favorite?
I’m attracted to layered and flawed characters that speak honestly to the human experience. Of course, as a designer, I want to create something visually interesting, but that doesn’t mean I only want to recreate the past, whether it’s drama, action/adventure or horror. When reading a new script, if there are complexities to unpack within a character or restraints to examine further in a world, those are usually the sparks that get me excited. Creating an authentic world true to the story is what drives me, sometimes that involves the design being front and center, but more often than not, if I’ve done my job well, a viewer doesn’t even notice the work I’ve done, it’s just believable.