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‘Swallow’: How a Modern Character Study Successfully Used a Retro Thriller Score

Halpern explains how he and director Carlo Mirabella-Davis brought Hitchcockian obsession to their present day indie.

Haley Bennett in Swallow

“Swallow”

Tribeca Film Festival

Editor’s Note: Nathan Halpern is the Emmy-nominated composer behind the scores for “The Rider,” the Oscar-nominated documentary feature “Minding the Gap,” “One Child Nation,” and many other award-winning and critically acclaimed documentaries and independent films. You can read his previous IndieWire essay about collaborating with Chloé Zhao on “The Rider” here.

From the beginning, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis was drawn to the idea that the music for “Swallow” would connect to mid-century Hollywood aesthetics, evoking what he called a “Douglas Sirk-ian kind of callback to the Hitchcock style of filmmaking.” At the same time, this film – set in the modern day – is not a retro exercise. The music needed to be in authentic dialogue with the psychological state of our lead character Hunter (Haley Bennett), whose complex emotional journey takes her to some unexpected places.

This meant “Swallow” had an exciting and unique mandate for a composer: The score would dial into these more stylized cinematic and sonic aesthetics of Hollywood genre filmmaking of the studio era, while at the same time making sure that the emotions and sonic style was grounded in the inner life of a nuanced, character study.

When we are introduced to Hunter – a young housewife married to the wealthy scion of a prestigious financial firm – she is living what appears to the American Dream in an opulent glass house overlooking the Hudson River. Carlo deployed cinematic aesthetics to put Hunter’s idealized world in conversation with mid-century studio era cinema as a means of drawing attention to the facade of her life and evoking the gender dynamics of the 1950s. In the film’s early moments, the elegant colorful cinematography (Katelin Arizmendi), Hunter’s retro-chic Chanel outfits (costume designer Liene Dobraja), and mid-century decor (production designer Erin Magill) subtly evoke the domestic melodramas of filmmakers like Douglas Sirk. My score during these moments dovetails with this aesthetic, employing a classicist palette of delicate piano, strings, and woodwinds.

The immediate contrast between the contemporary era and these period musical gestures cues the audience to sense that we are in for a more heightened style of cinematic experience. And the nod to the domestic world of a housewife in the 1950s may subtly invite the audience to reflect upon the parallels between the gender dynamics of that era and those of the present day. But while the surface of this music is romantic, there is an undercurrent of melancholy in the melody, pointing to some of the emotional ambivalence that lies beneath the surface.

Hunter soon learns that she is pregnant, a discovery that will incite a chain reaction of emotional and narrative events that eventually will send her on her journey into pica, a psychological disorder that drives her to consume dangerous objects. Therefore in this pregnancy scene (Below) we wanted to use the music to signal a feeling of what Carlo called “disquiet,” the unease beneath the surface of the scene. So we introduce a quiet theme of silky violins playing a slightly discordant pattern that ebbs and flows against a rumbling bass of dark cellos, whispering that all is not well.

The careful visual composition and Haley’s performance signal there is trouble brewing in the marriage during what is supposed to be a joyous moment. In the use of score in this scene, we are dialing up the sense of discord that exists not just in the relationship, but within Hunter herself. We are also using a distinct musical style that introduces the element of genre – Carlo’s depiction of the early stages of Hunter’s compulsion will eschew the naturalism of indie dramas for a heightened cinematic aesthetic designed to take us deeper into Hunter’s subjectivity. So the score here evokes the musical language of the psychological thrillers of Hitchcock and DePalma – a cinema of compulsion and obsession.

For Hunter, that compulsion will be swallowing dangerous objects. When she finds herself drawn to swallow a thumbtack, Carlo didn’t want the music to play into our horror of watching her put it in her mouth, but rather to bring us into her inner world, to help us feel the allure of the object. As Hunter ponders putting the thumbtack to her tongue Carlo wanted to be sure that the music did not play the audience’s revulsion, but rather what he described as a kind of “dark romance.” Carlo told me that he and Haley sometimes discussed this sequence as being the film’s first “love scene.” So while the cue here (“Temptation”) has a noirish minor-key chordal motion, we also emphasized a lushness with the string melodies, a romantic delicacy in the harp, along high fluttering harp sounds that played the sensuousness of the experience at hand.

And as the facade of Hunter’s life and self-image falls away, the cinematic style and language of the film moves with it. The camerawork, costuming and Haley’s performance become raw, unmannered, present in truth. The initially silky surface of the music grows increasingly dissonant. Discordant sounds – evoking the glass and metal objects she is drawn to – emerge. The classical instrumentation gradually warps beyond recognition.

Carlo’s vision was to use an evolution of cinematic form and tonal development to track Hunter’s journey. To make sure that we stayed true to her unique arc, he encouraged me to score the film in a more linear fashion than one might do on a typical film.

At the same time, he also encouraged me to step away from the film and to write some key themes from a purely intuitive and emotional angle. We discussed the character of Hunter extensively, and he shared some impressionistic and poetic language he’d written about the soul of her character (much of which had been developed for when he and Haley worked together on her performance). With these ideas percolating in my unconscious mind, I wrote freely, developing melodic motifs and sounds that I shared with him, which we then adapted to picture, becoming central themes in the film.

And in the final production of the score, producers Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie were committed to sonic authenticity by making sure that we had the resources to bring in some key musicians (like string player Robert Pycior) – an luxury not normally afforded on the limited music budget of an independent film.

“Swallow” is available to stream on VOD. The score for the film is available on Lakeshore Records on all digital music services.

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