We chat with Erin Magill, production designer on Swallow…
What would cause someone to eat thumb tacks and batteries? IFC Film’s new feature, Swallow (directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis) explores this subject, officially known as pica, in the new horror/thriller Swallow. The official description reads: Hunter (Haley Bennett), a newly pregnant housewife, finds herself increasingly compelled to consume dangerous objects. As her husband (Austin Stowell) and his family tighten their control over her life, she must confront the dark secret behind her new obsession. While the subject is quite jarring, the visuals and style of the film make it one that you can’t turn away from, especially thanks to the production design by Erin Magill. Magill has a resume that spans many different genres and styles including Amazon’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, Lionsgate’s upcoming crime thriller The Quarry and the premiere episode of BET’s new series Twenties. Swallow is now available on VOD, so we decided to speak with Magill about her gorgeous work on the art house film along with her other recent projects. Read the exclusive Q&A below.
How did you first get involved with Swallow?
I was introduced to the producers through a mutual friend and they sent me the script. I was so taken with Hunter’s story and her complexity, I had to meet with Carlo and learn his motivations. It was in our early discussions of his personal connection, his empathy for Hunter’s journey and her mental illness, and the larger thematic conversation around gender roles and the patriarchy, that I knew Carlo was a kindred spirit and Swallow was exactly the type of project I wanted to be a part of.
How would you describe your overall production design style for Swallow?
First and foremost, my design was motivated by Hunter and her story. From the larger thematic nods to gender roles and the domesticity of women in the 50s with the mid-century modern architecture and furniture to more specifically choosing items to fill her home that had luscious texture and shapes similar to the items she was swallowing – it always came back to Hunter and her journey.
How much in advance did you begin working on Swallow? Did you have meetings with the director (Carlo Mirabella-Davis) first to get the vibe or do you work a lot from the script?
Swallow was an extremely low budget independent film. I only met with Carlo about two weeks prior to pre-production starting – which was only 18 days before our 20 day shoot. My process involved an initial look book that served as a visual jumping off point. Then through conversations with Carlo and our phenomenal DP, Kate Arizmendi, I elaborated on that initial book and created reference boards for each set. Each board illustrated how my team would use color, texture, proportion, shape and tone within the architecture and dressing to visually aide the character’s arcs and key story point.
The use of the color green is prominent throughout the film, the wall in the kitchen, the couch in the therapist’s room. What was the thought behind this?
In the thriller genre, you have a little more creative license. While Hunter’s story was specific, I think we all felt the overall film was a bit more of a fable, and to play into certain archetypes, certain choices were made with humor and the actors themselves while others were more visual in the set design. Amplifying the monochromatic palettes and neo classical designs and textures of Richie’s parents’ living room, dining room, and chosen therapist for Hunter, I wanted to visually express their overbearing pressure to fall in line, but also foreshadow certain design choices Hunter was making in dutifully trying to create a home Richie and his parents would approve of. Along with costume designer, Liene Dobraja’s savvy choice to have Hunter’s outfits blend into these environments, and Kate’s framing, we were able to complement Haley’s brilliant performance of a woman trying to fit in thereby losing herself.
What was your favorite room in Swallow to design?
In the original script, when Hunter’s mother-in-law pops by unexpectedly, Hunter was supposed to be building and painting a crib if I remember correctly. This felt too sentimental to me knowing her character’s arc. I wanted to visually show the mounting pressure of the pregnancy and the idea of motherhood while also showing the real disconnect and confusion going on within her mind. Using the existing yellow glass paneled doors in the house as an inspiration, I suggested to Carlo the idea of her putting up the red and blue colored gels for the floor to ceiling windows in the nursery. Along with my decorator, Frank Baran, we chose non-gendered, simplistic Scandinavian furniture and toy designs to decorate the space. Then in collaboration with our DP, Kate, who brilliantly and beautifully, lit, and framed the scene, I think we were able to illustrate the external and internal demons Hunter was battling.
Your other current film, The Quarry is supposed to be premiering next month. The Quarry has a lot different setting and vibe than Swallow. Between these two, which one was more challenging for you?
Swallow and Quarry both had very limited budgets and pre-production time which is really the crucial window for an art department. The challenge of Swallow was to create the believable world of their socio-economic wealth, while also having some very specific color and texture goals for the story. We spent a lot of time at estate sales, outlet stores and on chairish.com in order to achieve our goals. Quarry is a near period drama set in the late 1980s. Because of a variety of production needs, I was faced with multiple sets having one location as their exterior and another as the interior. The marrying of the two involves a fair amount of construction and scenic work that the film had originally not budgeted for. Because of some amazing and talented craftswomen in the New Orleans film community, I was able to pull this off.
The Quarry is based on an acclaimed novel by Damon Galgut. When you first signed on to the project was there time for you to go back and read the book? If not, how did you prepare for the film?
Similar to Swallow I had very little time between reading the script and heading to prep the project. Scripted for West Texas, but knowing we would be shooting outside of New Orleans, my first concern was making sure we were avoiding characteristics of the bayou region, such as the Spanish moss or above ground graves. Our director, Scott Teems, really wanted a timeless feel to our world; the idea that this small town wrestling with hard times could be anywhere in America. I used the photography of William Eggleston and Alec Soth as an inspiration to capture that mood.
You’ve worked on both TV (Twenties) and feature films. How is the role of the production designer different based on the medium?
The biggest difference is with film you know the whole story up front and can design for the scope of that accordingly. With TV, sometimes you may just be designing the pilot, or may not have all the scripts for a season. Yes, there are conversations with the showrunners, but the story still may change, so it’s really about establishing the tone and mood of the show – even if the sets and story change along the way. It’s getting to know the key characters and what they may represent visually.
Your resume is very diverse — horror, comedy, drama. Do you have a favorite genre, design wise?
I’m attracted to layered and flawed characters that speak honestly to the human experience. The stories we haven’t seen or heard before on screen. Yes, as a designer, of course, world building is enticing, but that doesn’t mean I only want to work in period films, whether it’s drama or horror, when reading a script, if I’m drawn to the world or a character that’s usually the spark. Creating an authentic world true to the story is what drives me, sometimes that involves the design being front and center, but more often that not, if I’ve done my job right, a viewer doesn’t even notice the work I’ve done, it’s that believable.
Many thanks to Erin Magill for taking the time for this interview.