Arts

Dark comedy drama Swansong opens at Belfast Film Festival

Starring Irish actresses Eva Birthistle and Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Swansong is the debut film from writer/director Douglas Ray. David Roy spoke to him about bringing his first feature to the Belfast Film Festival, which opens today

Eva Birthistle, Paul Hilton and Antonia Campbell-Hughes in Swansong

THEY say all's fair in love and war, but 'they' clearly hadn't factored in abduction, infidelity and intentional poisoning – all of which feature prominently in the crumbling relationship at the core of Douglas Ray's debut feature, Swansong.

A dark comedy about a fading musician's extreme reaction to his wife's affair with another woman, the film was at one point tellingly titled Singer, Songwriter, Kidnapper.

"That was deemed to be too long to work for the video-on-demand market," explains London-based Ray of Swansong, which stars Eva Birthistle, Paul Hilton and Antonia Campbell-Hughes.

"There was a worry that anyone trying to search for it might get as far as typing in 'Singer' and just end up watching The Wedding Singer or something."

While there are a good few chuckles on offer from this amusingly warped tale of toxic love, it's definitely not Adam Sandler territory.

Swansong opens with perpetually procrastinating muso and ex-junkie Mark (Hilton) mixing up a cocktail of pills before kidnapping his breadwinner wife Karen (Birthistle) and her lover Jamie (Campbell-Hughes) and loading them into the boot of his car.

Once safely out of the city, Mark unloads his unwilling female cargo in a remote woodland area, before poisoning them and himself with a slow-acting but lethal cordial and then announcing that he only has two shots of antidote.

What does he want? Answers, that's what – about why Karen and Jamie have got together and what exactly he's done wrong to deserve such shoddy treatment.

Then begins a deadly 'balloon debate', as each party makes a case for why they should be allowed to live.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that Mark isn't quite the psycho he first appears. In fact he's somewhat inept as a kidnapper, musician and husband.

"It's a real testament to how Paul Hilton and the others play it," enthuses Ray of his principle cast members' ability to 'find the funny' in some fairly grim goings on.

"Obviously, what Mark is doing isn't funny at all if you stop to think about it. They aren't playing it for laughs, but somehow you don't hate him – you pretty quickly realise that he is acting out of character, which is the tragedy of the story.

"He knows he shouldn't be doing what he's doing but by the time he he learns his lesson and tries to put it right, it's too late."

Ray offers us glimpses of the events that have led up to the debacle in flashbacks seen from the point of view of each character, in a film that delights in playing with audience expectations.

"Even though you might have written it, directed it and seen it a hundred times while making it, you still see things you didn't expect to," he reveals of recent experiences screening Swansong for film festival audiences.

"For example, we were still making last-minute changes before it was premiered and it's funny how even really small alterations have had a big impact on how people receive it.

"It's all in the editing, definitely – and often what you don't say. The audience sometimes don't need to know as much as you might think they do."

Indeed, the National Film and Television School-trained director explains that Swansong was originally going to be a much different, more traditionally 'horrific' cinematic affair.

In 2014, Ray had actually moved to North Carolina to make the film with an American producer. But after embarking on castings and scouting locations, the project lost its funding and momentum.

Clearly, a rethink was needed.

"I didn't want to end up like Mark in the film – always talking about it it but never quite making it," says the writer/director, who has previously worked as assistant to legendary British director Ken Loach in addition to making shorts, corporate films and advertisements.

"So I just decided to do the film anyway with however much money we could get, which was very little.

"It made much more sense to make it in Britain, which led to some big changes. Originally, it was much more of an obvious 'genre' picture: there was a gun, and the environment was hot, swampy and hostile, with alligators, snakes and the like.

"Obviously, that doesn't really apply to south east England, where you're never that far from a Tesco Metro. So I had to rethink the reasons why the two women wouldn't just run off, which in turn made me rethink the central relationship in the story.

"Also, it's a cliche, but budgetary restrictions really do breed creativity because you do have to challenge yourself more."

Dublin-born actress Eva Birthistle was nominated for an Ifta Award for Best Actress for her role as Karen.

Although she didn't win at last Saturday night's ceremony in her hometown, the Swansong actress and her director still had a great night hanging out with some famous Irish faces.

"Eva was the first person I approached for the film," says Ray of his lead actress, who heads up an impressive cast list stocked with familiar faces including Matt Berry (Toast of London), Anastasia Hille (Not Safe for Work) and James Lance (Teachers).

"We met when she was the lead in Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss and I really wanted to work with her again.

"We had an amazing time at the Ifta's. I'd never been before and I was blown away by how different the atmosphere was from some other awards ceremonies.

"I was sitting at the table next to Liam Neeson, the president of Ireland and Van Morrison – and there was no sense of demarcation by status. There was a real sense of this close community being very supportive of each other.

"Irish cinema is definitely doing incredible things at the moment."

On the basis of Swansong, Britain's film scene isn't doing too badly either.

Swansong, Sunday April 17, QFT Belfast, 1.15pm with post-screening Q&A with Douglas Ray. Tickets available via Belfastfilmfestival.org

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