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Graham Swon

Love triangles have long delighted cinema, literature and the tabloids. For his second film (after The World is Full of Secrets, which explored the workings of fear), Graham Swon uses this simple plot as the basis for a highly original cinematic experience. Somewhere in the Midwest at the end of the 1930s, an intimate portrait of three protagonists: Barbara, a writer forbidden from writing in her youth; her husband Richard, author of airport novels of limited success; and their dedicated maid Martha (the bewitching Deragh Campbell). With these ingredients of a provincial, bourgeois melodrama (the film never completely relinquishes them), along with a few dashes of political critique (men fare better socially), Graham Swon leads his film a long way from naturalism.
The three voices, interwoven like swansongs, explore the recesses and secrets of memory, of fantasized lives, of restorative thoughts and dreams.
Obsessions, superimposed lives, thwarted or tragic destinies, the narrative is fluid and changing, playing with superimpositions and fades, overplaying hushed, sweet, ethereal, and nocturnal atmospheres to the point of dizziness, as well as revisited stylistic elements of pre-war cinema. Streams of consciousness (reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves) come together to dissolve as much as to lead us astray. These stories of love and frustration evoke a certain past America, but also a whole field of cinema, carried to faraway shores.

Nicolas Feodoroff

The World is Full of Secrets was your first feature in 2018. For the second, An Evening Song (For Three Voices), you are making a period film set in 1939. Why did you choose to explore this particular era?

The World is Full of Secrets was set in 1996 and An Evening Song is set in the late summer of 1939, but I don’t think either of these are traditional period films; they are set in imagined and intentionally artificial worlds. I feel that the distance of time can help take viewers out of their preconceived notions and help provide a greater space for contemplation. I was attracted to 1939 as it was in many ways a year of transition, even if it wasn’t understood as such in that moment. The U.S. had come out of the great depression and industrialization was spreading at a remarkable rate. Culturally, the classical Hollywood studio system was at its apex, literary modernism was coming to an end. World War II would utterly change the world, culturally, socially and economically. This entirety of An Evening Song takes place somewhere between ‘the end’ and ‘the beginning’ and I wanted the period to enforce that sensation.

How did you develop the script?

In 2018, my friend Ted Fendt gave me five reels of 35mm film stock that he had in his freezer. He was moving to Germany and could not take them with him, and asked me if I would use them to make a film. I had an idea to make something relating to “endlings” – the last known individual members of a species about to go extinct. I wanted to draw a parallel between a being which is unable to continue existing and a human individual who is similarly the last of their kind. I thought the use of the expired film stock could work well conceptually with this subject, so I attempted to write something very short, but it kept spiraling and growing as I worked on it and it eventually became the script for An Evening Song. The core ideas of the script came out of studying the three individuals (one human, one animal, one plant) listed on the in memoriam card at the end of the film.

An Evening Song is built around three characters, three voices that intertwine and overlap at different times. Why did you choose this particular style of storytelling?

I love the sensation of a disembodied voice speaking into the ear. There is a soothing quality, reminiscent of falling asleep to a bedtime story as a child. In cinema, a narrator is usually a single individual – either omnipresent or a specific character within the narrative. In Evening Song I wanted to achieve something more novelistic in structure, where multiple characters thoughts could be deployed in tandem to move the story forward. This film is more about the interior worlds of the characters than any individual action – in fact, in the shooting and editing of the film I often found myself reducing action and instead focusing further on what was happening inside each characters mind. It was very important to me that we understand both Richard and Barbara not only as people, but as writers. I think that through their narration we can get a small taste of what reading their work might be like. Martha is not a writer in the traditional sense, but she is the author of this story, whether she realizes it or not.

The aesthetics of the film are very unusual, especially the photography. Can you tell us something about that process?

The photography of the film was very specific. We utilized a custom rig that Barton Cortright, the cinematographer, and I designed and constructed together. It uses a 4×5 view camera as its basis, with a digital camera fixed to the back to photograph the images off of the ground glass of the camera. The digital camera is then merely a capture device, whereas the images are really being made by the large format photography camera. This resulted in the delicate and textured images, with a strong inherent vignette from the projection of the taking lens.

You also used superimposed images and cross-fades. How did you go about editing this impressionistic melodrama?

The cross-fades and superimpositions were part of the concept from the very beginning. I had used these techniques before in the editing of my first film, and I wanted to go much further with them in Evening Song. When Rae Swon and I were making the storyboards, and then again when Barton and I were framing the film, I always knew and was designing images that would be able to go on top of one another to create something new. This planning was very important to allow new images to be constructed in a meaningful way, and to prevent the final results from being too busy or chaotic. I wanted the film to feel hypnotic, like a vision one has in a trance or dream state. The goal was to achieve a continuous flow, images which morph into one another and further emphasize the fluidity of the narrators voices and allow the viewer to get lost in them.

How did you choose the three actors?

In a film like this, one that is almost a chamber play, the cast is absolutely essential. All three of the central performers had qualities that attracted me to them. I wanted each of the trio have very clear distinctions in their manner of movement and speech. This was a delicate balance to strike – if their energies were too similar the film could become monotonous, but if they were too different the cohesion of the world might be broken. Deragh, Hannah and Peter are all remarkably intelligent performers, as well as writers and filmmakers in their own rights. I wanted to give all of the performers a great deal of freedom in how they approached their characters, and I felt great confidence in the impulses and ideas that came out of these three.

Can you tell me how you and the composer, Rachel Evans, designed the soundtrack together?

I discovered Rachel’s music, which she mostly releases under the moniker Motion Sickness of Time Travel, by utter chance. I was instantly transfixed by it – she has released a large number of compositions, and the more I delved into her catalog the more fascinated I became. I listen to music when I write, and her work provided my soundtrack while I was writing the screenplay, so her music informed not only the final film but every phase of its construction. For the actual process of the score, we would go back and forth; she would watch the film and improvise tracks, which I would layer throughout the film and send back to her, then she would improvise further. Over the course of several months going back and forth in this manner, we reached the final composition. The result came from complex layering and superimposition, found over time, much like the image.

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Technical sheet

United States / 2023 / 86’

Music: Rachel Evans
Cast: Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, Peter Vack

Production: Graham Swon (Ravenser Odd), Lio Sigerson (Ravenser Odd), Jeremy Ungar (other Desert Cities), Mustafa Uzuner (Acephale)