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Director Todd Stephens On His New Dramedy, 'Swan Song'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And finally today, in the new film "Swan Song," we meet Pat Pitsenbarger, a retired gay hairdresser who, in his final days, escapes from a nursing home to style a former client's hair for her funeral. But getting there is a challenge, and the journey finds him back in his hometown, reliving his glory days and discovering just how much it's changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWAN SONG")

UDO KIER: (As Pat Pitsenbarger) Nobody remembers me. I used to perform here every Saturday night.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Really? What was your drag name?

KIER: (As Pat Pitsenbarger) Mr. Pat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Must have been before my time.

KIER: (As Pat Pitsenbarger) Yes. It was before you were conceived.

MCCAMMON: "Swan Song" is set in Sandusky, Ohio, hometown of the film's writer and director, Todd Stephens. It's a quirky exploration of gay identity and small-town life. And when I spoke with Todd Stephens, he told me that the film's central character is loosely based on a real-life person from his childhood.

TODD STEPHENS: The real Mr. Pat was this really flamboyant, loud and proud man that I would see even as a little boy walking around downtown. And he was really my first exposure to, like, a queer person. I didn't know that I was queer at the time, but he resonated with me, and I had a fascination with Pat. You know, he would walk around in like, a, you know, velvet fedora, smoking a long brown cigarette in these fabulous, like, pantsuits. And he was kind of genderfluid, long before that was a term.

I just related to him because I felt different, and, like, I didn't totally fit in. And he was a role model to me and helped me accept myself. So I really wanted to pay tribute to him and all the small-town, you know, florists and interior decorators and out, loud and proud folks in the '70s and '80s that had the courage to be themselves, who I really feel blazed the way. And I feel like I stand on their shoulders, you know? So I really wanted to pay tribute.

MCCAMMON: Right. In the film, Pat is this very lively, fun, colorful figure. But there is also a sadness. He's grappling with the fact that his glory days are behind him and some pain from his past. How did you think about how to bring this character to life on the screen?

STEPHENS: Well, a lot of it was just this amazing collaboration with my lead actor, Udo Kier, and I. And I wrote a script that really resonated with Udo. And it was important for me to cast someone like Udo who had lived the life that Pat had lived and had lost people to AIDS. And, you know, he's from past generation, so he walked the walk and talked the talk. And I think it allowed both Udo and I to really start, you know, with this man who had given up on life in the nursing home and sort of have him escape and gradually, you know, blossom, you know, sort of bud and ultimately blossom and come back to life in the film.

And there is a sadness when you try to go home again and things aren't - nothing's ever the same. And life changes, and life can pass you by. But he still manages to make an impact on the new people he meets like he did back in his day. So it's one of those things that's like a happy-sad film, you know, I like to say.

MCCAMMON: That sadness you talk about, about going back to your hometown and things are not the same, I mean, do you feel that sometimes when you go back and film these movies?

STEPHENS: Yeah, but the thing that I feel is that things are not the same in a great way in my hometown. I mean, when I went back about 20 years ago to make my first film, "Edge Of Seventeen," which was sort of my autobiographical coming-out story set in the '80s, we really decided as a production to kind of go into the closet and create, like, a fake script and not let people know that there was like a queer storyline because we felt that people wouldn't help us. And that was kind of soul-crushing because, you know, I was - I had moved off to New York, where I lived for 10 years, and came back home to make the film. And, you know - this film about affirming myself as a gay man, celebrating that, and yet we went back into the closet, you know, as a production, which was tough. But zoom - fast forward, you know, 20 years later, when I went back to start preproduction, my hometown was celebrating its third annual Gay Pride Festival. And my friend Jim Obergefell from the Supreme Court case was there. He grew up like a block away from me on the same street, and we went to high school together.

MCCAMMON: That, of course, is the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

STEPHENS: Yes. And so, you know, it blew my mind that now there's gay pride flags all around downtown where I used to feel like I might, you know, get beat up. And they fly not just at Pride, but all year long. And the town has changed so much. When we made "Swan Song," everybody knew what the story was about, and they celebrated it. And people remembered Pat, and they would say, oh, my mother used to go to Pat, or my grandmother. And there was this love for this man that really helped change attitudes by coming out to his clients and being himself.

I don't know. It's - you can go home again, I feel like, at least in this case. And, you know, this little kind of busted Rust Belt town is like - has had a lot of people that grew up there and moved away and now are moving back and sort of rebuilding the community. So there's a beautiful renaissance happening there. And it's weird. I mean, when I was growing up, I just wanted to, like, run away, and now I feel myself drawn back home.

MCCAMMON: Another important theme in this film is aging. Your previous films have focused on adolescents entering adulthood, kind of coming-of-age films. And in many ways, "Swan Song" feels like a coming of age film about an older generation. I wonder what inspired you to write a story looking at that stage of life.

STEPHENS: Well, I mean, as I've gotten older, you know, I've realized that life goes by pretty fast. And the older that you get, it seems like it goes by even faster. And I hadn't made a film in, like, over 10 years, and I felt I didn't know if I could even do it anymore. And I almost felt scared to take that risk again, to - could I still do what I love, you know? Could I still pull it off? And I kind of wrote "Swan Song" in a way as like - in order to tell myself that I could still do what I loved. And, like, Pat has lost his purpose at the beginning of the film, and he's just kind of, like, passing the time till he passes away. And, you know, life is short, and we need to dance while we can. And so I really - I think I wrote the film to tell myself that, you know, do what you love because, like, it all goes by so fast.

MCCAMMON: That's Todd Stephens, writer and director of the new film "Swan Song," which is in theaters now. Thank you so much for being with us.

STEPHENS: Thank you, Sarah. I had a great time. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.