It’s interesting to gain insight into how a film is made. One significant factor is the production design. Erin Magill recently worked on the acclaimed Carlo Mirabella-Davis thriller, Swallow (2020 – read our review here), a film that centers around Haley Bennett’s character, Hunter, a pregnant woman who develops a bizarre obsession with swallowing inanimate objects. What’s the likely cause of her condition, and how might production design help convey it on film? Magill gives us both facts and opinions on the subject.
PopHorror: In Swallow, the house Hunter lives in is like a prison. The character seems to be under pressure to live a pristine life. Was it a challenge to convey that in production design?
Erin Magill: The challenge wasn’t in conveying the pressure of her prison – that was, in fact, what drew me to the project. The challenge was to authentically create the socio-economic world of the Conrad family with a very limited budget. While Hunter’s story was specific, I think we all felt the overall film was a bit more of a fable, and certain choices could be made, sometimes with humor, the set design or the actors themselves, to represent certain archetypes.
The film opens at Richie’s (Austin Stowell) parents’ house, where we first get a glimpse of Hunter’s supposed dream life. In hopes of heightening that world, we played into the monochromatic palette, neo-classical furniture designs, and rich textures of their grand living room, dining room, and chosen therapist for Hunter. Then, along with costume designer Liene Dobraja’s savvy choice to have Hunter’s outfits blend into these environments, we were able to complement Haley’s nuanced performance of a woman in a world full of overbearing pressure for her to get in line.
PopHorror: Do you think most viewers will relate to Hunter’s unique struggle?
Erin Magill: While her compulsion may be foreign and off-putting for some viewers, I think it is impossible to not be transfixed by Haley’s brilliant performance. You are able to empathize with her pain and journey. This is aided by the collaboration of design, costume, hair/makeup, camera, sound, and editing, each complementing one another in creating a stylized and heightened tale that is grounded by some very relatable issues of gender, autonomy, and mental illness.
PopHorror: You’ve worked in projects like Straight Outta Compton, Mad Men, The Eric Andre Show, Toy Story 3, and Ratatouille. Those are all different thematically, but are there any ways in which they’re surprisingly similar?
Erin Magill: I feel incredibly fortunate for the opportunities I had to work in the art department of Mad Men and at Pixar. While the common thread might not be overtly obvious, I believe the reason both are symbolic with excellence in their field is their commitment to storytelling. A solid script is the basis for everything in filmmaking. When deciding between projects, I have tried to make a concerted effort to follow the aforementioned. Kicks, Love After Love, Brittany Runs a Marathon, and Swallow may not seem similar at first glance, but each project started with a thoughtful and empathetic script about a character or world I didn’t feel I had seen on screen before. And, that is what excites me as a designer, digging into those stories and respectfully building their world.
PopHorror: What projects will you be working on next?
Erin Magill: Based on the novel by Damon Galgut, The Quarry, starring Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham, is a timeless story of good and evil set in West Texas in the late 1980s. We were set to premiere at SXSW, but Lionsgate will now be releasing the film in select theaters and On Demand on April 17th. This past fall, I designed Moxie, a Netflix dramedy based on the bestselling YA book, directed by Amy Poehler. It’s a coming of age film where a teenage girl inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement starts a feminist revolution at her high school.
Challenges and Misconceptions of Production Design
PopHorror: What was one of the biggest challenges you had working on Swallow? How did you overcome it?
Erin Magill: Ten of our twenty-day shoot was in Richie and Hunter’s house. On a script level, she is tasked with decorating the home, and she dutifully executes a vision that Richie and his family would approve of. My goal was to create a world of updated classical silhouettes and high-end mid-century modern designer pieces, while also focusing on the shape, proportion, color, and texture of the items and their context within the story. In doing this, I had to completely redress their home, and it was a huge undertaking. I could have never accomplished this without my decorator, Frank Baran, and leadman, Jake Harmony. We were diligently haggling at estate sales, bidding on Chairish.com and making last minute runs to Home Goods.
PopHorror: Swallow is not very easy to describe, but I’ve noticed a claustrophobic feel, despite the house being quite large. What are your thoughts on that? Did you place things in the house to heighten this feeling?
Erin Magill: We chose Richie and Hunter’s house location – an isolated mid-century modern inspired mansion built on a cliff above the Hudson River with floor to ceiling windows, glass railings, and colored glass partition walls – exactly for this reason. The house imprisons Hunter with the weight of keeping up the slick perfection of this gender role. We wanted the interior design of the home to feel appropriate for Richie’s wealth and their age, and while the result is stunning, there is no lived-in feeling; she is not comfortable in this home or with herself. The claustrophobic feeling can be credited to our masterful DP, Kate Arizmendi, and her genius framing of Hunter and Richie throughout the home.
PopHorror: What are some misconceptions about work such as yours?
Erin Magill: Unless a film is period or fantasy where the design creation is fairly obvious, I think there can often be misconceptions about who to attribute the “look” of a film to. A designer’s work often mistakenly attributed to the cinematographer and/or director. Granted, filmmaking is impossible without the collaboration between the three roles, and it is the director’s medium. They are the visionaries in charge. But in those films, where the design might not be as obvious, someone still made the choice of the location, the geography of the set build, the color of paint on the walls, the flooring material, and furniture fabric pattern.
The director entrusts the designer and their team to be the expert of their craft, to aid the DP/Director in their work of framing the story, and to use their skills and contributions for the betterment of the film. Designers, along with their decorator, create the rich canvas base for a director and their cast to play on. But I will note that Swallow was a dream collaboration between Director Carlo Mirabella Davis and DP Kate Arizmendi. We were all very empowered to do our best work, and I think the final result of that is evident in the film.
Translating Themes to the Film’s Look
PopHorror: In some ways, Swallow reminds me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Both movies have villainous characters who aren’t 100% evil and convey environments intended to be sterile and joyless. Did any other films cross your mind when working on this one?
Erin Magill: Safe and Rosemary’s Baby were some film references Carlo and I spoke about. But I tend to only use other films in visual dialogue with a director in terms of a shot or tone they might want to emulate. Personally, I use more photography and paintings as references. The photography of Philip Lorca Dicorcia, Tina Barney, Kia Labeija, Gregory Crewdson, Vivian Maier, and Saul Leiter were all great inspirations for me, as well as the interior design of Ann Getty.
PopHorror: Are there dos and don’ts to production design?
Erin Magill: I don’t think there are any set rules, since each project is unique in its challenges and restraints. I view the opportunity to work in this industry as a great privilege. As a professional storyteller and world creator, one can hope for the work to be a part of the cultural dialogue, but having even just a single individual find something in the project is incredibly meaningful. Respecting the story first and foremost is the most important rule for me. The world, the characters live in, who they are…
More often then not, you are creating a world that is very different than the one you personally know. So, with all my projects, I start at the basics of where they came from, how/why they became who they are, bigger social or political themes. The story may be about and effect the look of the character’s world. Creating an authentic environment for the characters of our story, whether it’s a period drama or psychological thriller, is still the most important guide for me as a designer.
PopHorror: Obviously, gender figures into Swallow’s storyline, but class does as well. Do you think Hunter could have ever felt at home in her house?
Erin Magill: I don’t think Hunter didn’t feel comfortable in her home because of where she came from on a class level. I think she would have never felt comfortable in that “home” – or rather role – until she worked through her trauma and the shame associated with her birth, and then started the very hard work of self-compassion and love for who she really is. As I mentioned previously, using the genre, we played into and heightened the look of certain aspects of the story, such as class, to really nail home the point about power and patriarchy.
PopHorror would again like to thank Erin Magill for answering our questions. Let us know what you think about Swallow in the comments!