Swanning into SXSW: Udo Kier and Todd Stephens on Small-Town Style

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As Swan Song premieres at SXSW, Letterboxd’s queer correspondent Leo Koziol talks to acting icon Udo Kier and filmmaker Todd Stephens about the communal energy of non-Hollywood film sets, camptastic needle drops, and making movie magic with soap queen Linda Evans.

This interview includes some minor plot point discussion, and one iconic needle drop reveal. 

With his sweet 1998 indie coming of age comedy Edge of Seventeen, writer Todd Stephens crafted a quintessential coming out film. Two decades on, as writer and director, he has crafted a quintessential coming-home story. Swan Song is the semi-fictionalized tale of a flamboyant hairdresser named Mr. Pat Pitsenberger, who was an out and proud hair stylist in 1980s Sandusky, Ohio—where Stephens grew up. 

The film is Stephens’ tribute to the small town queer hero. It’s also the third in his ‘Sandusky trilogy’ (Edge of Seventeen and Gypsy 83 were also filmed there), and is populated with beloved queer icons from across the decades: Linda Evans of Dynasty fame, Jennifer Coolidge playing a more hard-arsed hairdresser than Legally Blonde’s Paulette, Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie, and, as Mister Pat himself, the singular German actor Udo Kier

In more than 200 films, Kier has embodied multiple movie vampires, become a familiar face of action films (Blade, Barb Wire), horror (Suspiria), edgy art house fare (My Own Private Idaho),  and recent Brazilian hit Bacurau. He also hung out (and then some) with Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a teen and has long been a muse of Lars Von Trier

In Swan Song, Kier, as Mr. Pat, escapes his retirement village prison on foot and takes a reminiscent walk across Sandusky on an epic mission: to complete the final coiffure of one of the town’s grand dames, played by Linda Evans.

Letterboxd: It’s really just a privilege to have this opportunity to chat to you both about your wonderful and important film. Todd, could you perhaps kick us off by talking about the collaboration, and how the two of you came together in friendship to make such a fabulous film?

Todd Stephens: I went out to Palm Springs to meet [Udo Kier] and we really clicked. He agreed to do the part and I was highly honoured because I’ve been a big fan of his for many years. A while later, we did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money. We shot this really fun Kickstarter video, which really sparked the fundraising. So in the course of all that he and I got to be friends and got to know each other. 

We spent a couple of days together each time, Udo showed me around the desert, and we went out to eat and hung out. So by the time he came to Sandusky later on, we knew each other and had talked a lot about Pat and bonded personally. And I think that that [came through] in the performance. That trust that we had for each other.

Udo, what attracted you to this creative collaboration?

Udo Kier: Well, I made just the year before two very important films, Bacurau and The Painted Bird, where I play very evil characters. I got the script from Todd and I said, well that’s interesting. I read it again and then we met, and we talked about the script and... I really decided that I wanted to do it. I like the script because it's for me as an actor, a non-acting part. I did not have to be dramatic and act, it was all written down.

I came to Sandusky and I said “I want to be a couple of days on my own in the retirement home, no camera, nobody, just me.” I wanted to discover my room, what is in every drawer. When you open the window, what do you see? How long is the corridor? So when we came to filming, [I said to Todd I wanted to film] the retirement home first, like in the script. I wanted to [be there first and] be depressed and do this, and then when they offer me the money [in the plot] and I say “No” but then I say “Why not?” —and I can smoke finally—so [out] on the street, I go back, I go back into my past.

I met people who knew Pat and I talked to them in a bar and they explained to me and showed me little over the top things [about him], which I adopted. I showed them to Todd, and it was ok. I had a great time, and Sandusky is basically a main street with a lot of side streets, but everything—the theatre, the second hand shop, the store where we shot, where I got my green suit, everything was there. So we had really an intense time making the movie and when I saw the movie I liked the film very, very much and the only sad moment was that I cannot see the film on the big screen, I see it all on the computer or my TV.

I loved how in the journey in the film, the main character, he walks. And all I can think is he’s probably of a generation that never learned how to drive. What brought on the idea of Mr. Pat walking across Sandusky?

TS: Well he did [walk]. Sandusky’s not very big, you know. I think he wanted to take his time and go down memory lane, and not rush. He did get a lift from the country into town, you know, a woman picked him up. He was hitchhiking a little bit, but the rest of it was a [walking] trip down memory lane.

Udo, what did you do to really get into the character?

UK: Well, I had a script which explained very much the action of the character, and then I had of course Todd, who was talking to me. And, as I said, I didn’t want to act—you know, after playing always the gangster and the vampire—I wanted to… be somebody else, and become this character.

Because, you know, I knew David Bowie. I know who he was when he was the way he was dressed, so I’m kind of [from] this generation, growing up with all these people, Donna Summer, Grace Jones in New York, so I grew up with these people so [Mr. Pat's time] was my time.

Also, I’d never been to Sandusky before, in Ohio, but it wasn’t difficult at all. I just had my situation in my script, and very nice actors, Jennifer Coolidge, and especially I liked very much, I liked Linda Evans. And they were good people.

So [the only way you can make a film like this], you can only do it without the star system. You know when I have people fighting how big their trailer is, and the coffee is too cold, and all that. I make movies like that too, many in Hollywood, but I prefer movies like this, like what we made with Swan Song, there was not a big production, but Todd got what he wanted. He got [everything] for one big scene [with] Linda Evans. I mean, that’s not easy.

Do you want to talk a bit about that Todd? I felt like that was an incredible coup—was Linda always your original plan?

TS: She was one of the original ideas. I’ve worked with the same casting director for 20 years, Eve Battaglia, and I think it was originally her idea, and as soon as she said it I was like “Oh my god!” So she reached out to Linda’s people, and Linda read the script, and she was really very very moved by the story, you know.

I had forgotten at the time the whole thing about Rock Hudson and Dynasty… Before it came out that Rock Hudson had AIDS, he’d just done a love scene with Linda and they kissed and [it was such a controversy]. You remember that, how that was a big thing? Linda was such an ally at that time and was just like “Look, I’m not worried, that’s not how you get HIV,” and so I just felt like she was always an icon to me. Always an idol, and she was—Udo will say too—she was just the sweetest woman, the most down to earth, pro. She told Udo and I that she learned from Barbara Stanwyck. She had an old-time discipline, you know, which was amazing!

UK: Well for me when we got together, we went into another room, her and me, and we rehearsed and we rehearsed and we rehearsed.  And then we were called on to the scene, which was just next door in the house, and we became the people. There was no [script] - it just came from our heart, and our soul, we were there, and that’s not very often happened to me in my career. A wonderful person. 

I think too when people see the film they are going to really love the scenes in the nightclub, with the needle drop of Robyn’s ‘Dancing on my Own’ and the performance and the glamour. How did that become part of the film?

TS: Well that was a dream come true for me because that was the number one song [I wanted]. That song really means a lot to me, and to a lot of people from my generation and the younger generation. So Robyn is another sort of icon to me, and [actually] the song didn’t clear until the day before Udo and I shot that scene.

Wow.

TS: Yeah, he did an amazing job of learning the song at the last minute. you know these are like after fourteen-hour shooting days. But when we shot it, there’s something about that song that has an effect on people. All the extras and [crew] just loved it so much and it captures this joy. I’m very proud of that scene.

The film’s actually got an incredible soundtrack all throughout. Did you curate the soundtrack?

TS: I did, yeah I did!

Udo, the soundtrack must have brought back memories of times in the past?

UK: Yeah of course, well you know I grew up with Grace Jones, and Shirley Bassey in London when she gave her first concert, and Shirley Bassey was suing the company because they didn’t show her hands (laughs), that was my time, you know. I went to the first concert of The Beatles and I know Mick Jagger, so I know all these people. It was my time and when I was in a nightclub and I knew that [Todd] wanted me to perform, and so I thought that is a great song, [sings] “I’m in a corner seeing you kiss her, no no no.” So, I like that. And then of course we had to overdo it, it's a movie, so I had a little singing special in my head. 

I’ve got one last question for you both: what is your favourite queer LBGT film of all time?

TS: Well I have a lot of them, but, I don’t know if it's LGBT, one of my favourites is My Own Private Idaho and that’s one of my definite favourites.

UK: And what you want me to say, Leo, of course My Own Private Idaho was the film where I was discovered, in Berlin, for America, by Gus Van Sant. I came to America, and I made my first film in America, and that film is why I am still, thirty years later, still sitting here and talking to you. So this was definitely the film for me. Not [just] because I’m playing in it, but it was an amazing story and River Phoenix—what an actor!—and Keanu Reeves. That was my favourite film.

Magnolia Pictures has acquired the worldwide rights to Swan Song and plans to release the film later this year. Listen to the Letterboxd Spotify playlist of the soundtrack.