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'Swan Song' is a 'love letter' to disappearing gay culture, director says

The bittersweet film centers on a retired hairdresser who escapes the confines of his grim, small-town nursing home to style an ex-client for her funeral.
Udo Kier in "Swan Song."
Udo Kier in "Swan Song."Chris Stephens / Magnolia Pictures

More than 20 years after releasing “Edge of Seventeen” and “Gypsy 83,” the American filmmaker Todd Stephens has returned to his hometown of Sandusky to complete his indie Ohio trilogy with “Swan Song,” an intimate and heartfelt tribute to an eccentric, larger-than-life local hairdresser who left an immeasurable mark on his life.

Directed, written and produced by Stephens, the bittersweet new film, which has received rave reviews from critics, follows the real-life retired hairdresser named Pat Pitsenbarger (played by the 76-year-old German actor Udo Kier) — who was better known as Mr. Pat in his prime — who in this fictionalized storyline escapes the confines of his grim, small-town nursing home after being tasked to style his ex-client Rita’s (Linda Evans) hair for her funeral. In the process of collecting beauty supplies across town, Pat, whose solitary existence in Sandusky is brought into focus as one of the last surviving gay men of his generation, begins to confront the ghosts of his past on his way to the funeral home.

"'Swan Song' is a love letter to the rapidly disappearing 'gay culture' of America,” Stephens wrote in his director’s statement. “As it has become more acceptable to be queer, what used to be a thriving community is rapidly melting back into society … 'Swan Song' is dedicated to all the forgotten flaming florists and hairdressers who built the community and blazed the trail for the rights many of us cling to today. But, above all, for me this film is about learning that it’s never too late to live again.”

Born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, which is located about two hours away from Columbus, he has produced films about protagonists who have longed to leave their small hometowns in favor of living more metropolitan lifestyles in New York City. But the filmmaker said that he was inspired to return to his roots after discovering that the town, which was once “pretty conservative and a little closed-minded,” had become “much more open-minded” in recent years.

“I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my hometown, as I’m sure many of us have over the years, but I’ve begun to feel myself drawn back,” Stephens told NBC News in a recent video interview. “The town itself was kind of like a rust belt, industrial Midwestern town. Pretty much all the factories have closed, so it’s been pretty down and out. But in recent years, it’s really coming back to life, and that actually inspired me to tell this story about a man that was down and out and was coming back to life.”

When he first set out to cast the role of Pat, Stephens admitted that he had initially written the screenplay with the late Gene Wilder in mind. But it wasn’t until Kier, a legendary actor with over 250 credits to his name, expressed interest in playing a dramatically different character from the ones he’s played in the past that things began to click into place for Stephens.

“I can’t think of anybody else other than Udo that could have really done it,” he said. “We didn’t expect to cast a German actor with an accent. The other Pat is from West Virginia, and it wasn’t what I originally set out to do. But once we thought of the idea, and Udo and I met and connected, I just knew that he was the one. We knew each other for a year before we shot the film, and we really talked about it a lot and became friends.”

After a year of pre-production, the low-budget film entered production for 18 days and was shot almost entirely in chronological order, allowing Kier to take a more methodical and immersive approach to embodying one of the town’s former gay icons.

“Todd and I agreed that I’m not going to go over the top, and we had talked a lot about it before. But when we started shooting, we hardly rehearsed all the scenes, because then it would have become acting and correction, and we didn’t want that,” said Kier, who “had no fear whatsoever” when he signed onto the project and made a point to experience many of the same feelings as his onscreen counterpart throughout the shoot.

After fleeing the retirement home and visiting many of the places that had defined his life in Ohio, Pat enters a clothing store, where the owner recognizes him from his days as a prominent hairstylist and gives him a white and green suit and a purple hat.

“From the moment I put it on, I never took it off,” Kier said of the distinctive look that helped him better understand his character’s quiet flamboyance. “I’m part of the generation of David Bowie and Elton John, and they were young and very flamboyant. So, for me, the moment I had the suit on and even got the hat, I went to town, and [it felt like] Pat was in town, too.”

For Stephens, whose first two films of the Ohio trilogy centered on younger members of the LGBTQ community, it was always important to shine a spotlight on an older member in “Swan Song” whose main conflict is no longer grappling with sexuality.

“I like to call it like a post-gay film or post-coming-out film. Being gay is not the conflict; the conflict is getting old, the conflict is losing your love for what you love to do, losing your purpose,” he said.

“I wanted to make it very clear at the beginning [when] Pat goes into the gas station, and there’s kind of a redneck guy working there, and you’d expect something bad could happen,” he continued. “I think Pat’s almost trying to get a little rise out of him, but the guy just doesn’t care. A Christian woman picks him up in the pickup, and she’s very loving and accepting. Pat lost his lover and most of his friends to [old] age. He’s one of the only people — one of the only survivors — of his generation, so I suppose that’s a bit of a conflict.”

Having witnessed the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Stephens said that he also wanted to “pay tribute and homage” to the individuals whose lives were cut short by the disease.

“I came from a little small town, and the plague hit my town. Half a generation of gay men died," he said. "Just think of all the songs that were never written and all the paintings that were never painted, and just how that changed the world, and what a huge loss it was."

“I’m a film teacher, and some of my students are queer. And the 18-year-old kids, a lot of the time, they don’t know anything about the AIDS crisis, but yet, I think they have an interest in learning,” he added. “Maybe younger generations are wanting to know more about their history, because we need to know about our past to know how to live our future.”

Since premiering the film at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival in March, Stephens and Kier said they have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from people of all ages — but particularly from younger viewers.

“Now that we’ve begun to screen it in theaters and be able to talk to people and stuff, this film really seems to speak to young people, and I don’t quite understand why, but I’m very fascinated by that,” Stephens said.

“We’ve been through a horrible last 18 months, and there’s finally a film where you have tears in your eyes, you laugh, and you follow a character in a land which nobody knows,” Kier said. “I’m still surprised about the success yesterday. We had a showing at a university, and there were two young girls talking to Todd, and they were saying, ’It’s one of the best films we’ve seen this year.’ Maybe old people my age can understand and they love it, but it’s the young generations who get sucked in.”

With a body of work spanning more than half a century, Kier has played a wealth of dark, brooding supporting characters in productions directed by the likes of Paul Morrissey, Dario Argento and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He has enjoyed a late-career resurgence as an unlikely “leading man” — a title that has eluded him for much of his professional career.

“I’m very happy. I cannot believe that the critics from America are writing that this is my best film. The headline in Entertainment Weekly was, after 50 years, Udo Kier finally becomes a leading man, so that is a very big compliment,” he said incredulously. “But now in the future, I can only look for leading parts. So I’ll be a gardener, working in the garden and taking care of my animals, and I’ll wait until the leading man is requested again.”

“Swan Song” is now available in select theaters and will be available on demand starting Aug. 13.

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