A sharp selection from 2021’s SXSW film slate, Swan Song is a poignant comedy that manages to be both deeply moving and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Retired hair-stylist Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) is caught off guard when he receives an unexpected visitor at his nursing home. An old client who had a falling-out with Pat has passed away, and now she wants Pat to style her funeral hair. Conflicted about whether or not to take the job, Pat sets out on a journey that will change the course of life as he knows it. Legendary actor Kier, and seasoned director Todd Stephens, joined me this week to speak about the film’s inception, paying tribute to the iconic real-life Mister Pat, commentary on the film’s approach to modern gay culture, and the formation of Pat’s complex on-screen persona. Read on for my exclusive interview with Udo and Todd.
So, first I just wanted to say that I really adored the film. What made you want to tell Pat’s story, and how did you both get involved in bringing it to life?
TODD STEPHENS: Pat was a real person in my hometown that I grew up admiring from afar, because he was always kind of quietly outrageous. That was very different than most people that I knew, where everybody dressed the same and acted the same.
I felt different myself, and I always admired him, and always knew that I wanted to tell a story about him. It was actually a very difficult role to cast. Finding Udo is what really sparked the whole thing into actually finally happening.
UDO KIER: It was a great experience to make this film, because it was so different from all the movies I have done (especially last year, Bacurau and Painted Bird.) It was totally different—this passive person, powerful, but not acting. It was the same old thing. I’m not acting in that film.
We started shooting the beginning scene in the retirement home. That was the first two days of shooting. I was staying there for two days on my own, to sleep on the bed, to see what all is in the room. So I knew everything. It was not just ‘the actor steps out of the trailer, with the assistant, and the makeup, and the costume. Then I say, where is it? I’d say, okay, I’m lying on the bed.’
I was just the old man. My only thing was to have my special cigarettes, which I had to hide in front of the nurse. They offered me the money, and then the cigarettes were gone. I made my decision. I accepted the offer, and do go back in my past. I fall down a few times, but it doesn’t matter. People were kind to me—they gave me clothes. They gave me some other shit, and it was all good. I had to put stuff under my clothes, and wander away. It’s an experience for me, which I will never forget. I will definitely not regret that I made the movie.
Did you merely use Pat’s real-life story as inspiration, or were you aiming for accuracy when depicting him?
TODD: I did a lot of research on the character. I talked to his sister, and hung out with his nieces and nephews. I talked to his old friends, and I knew him vaguely. I had also talked to David, his lover, before he died many years ago.
I had all these stories in my head about the character, but then the whole idea of this final journey—that was made up. Pat really did fold napkins. After he died, they cleaned out his stuff and there were just boxes and boxes filled with those napkins. He really smoked those More cigarettes. Udo wore one of Pat’s necklaces in the film. The real essence of him came through.
I loved how Pat’s wardrobe evolves through the film to the point where by the end, it’s entirely different from head to toe. Did you have fun discovering Pat’s onscreen evolution, and what that looked like?
UDO: I didn’t know Pat of course, but I had the script, which was very detailed. And I was also waiting for when I saw the costumes I would wear. I grew up with David Bowie, and extra flamboyantly-dressed people. I wanted something special, and then they brought me this suit, which was amazing.
I enjoyed it, thinking about David Bowie, and moving differently. It was these kind of clothes from a different time; you automatically cannot walk like a truck driver in a green suit and a hat. I knew that by the way the character and the script was described, that he had special clothes and a hat, and I enjoyed it. Other people want to have Gucci—for me, it was that suit. I was different.
Can you guys tell me about filming the scenes at the drag club? I thought every scene set there was really fun.
TODD: That was actually not shot in a gay bar, but in a club that’s been in my hometown forever called Louie’s. We didn’t pay $1 for any location in the film because my hometown was so excited to be involved. A place like that, we shot there two or three days. They just gave it to us. It was open arms—that was fun to shoot.
UDO: We have great music!
TODD: That Robyn song Udo sings and lip syncs, we didn’t get cleared until literally the day before we shot the scene. A lot of things magically came together for this movie, and that was one of them.
This film lovingly embraces gay culture in a way I found to be tender and thought-provoking. Why do you think, now more than ever, people are gravitating towards these LGBT stories that are more than just ‘coming out of the closet,’ or typical things we’ve seen before?
TODD: There’s so many LGBTQ stories that haven’t been told throughout history. I made a coming out film that I love, but I always wanted to go beyond that, and go deeper. Even with Another Gay Movie, I didn’t want being gay to be the conflict. It’s taking it to the next level.
A big thing that I was trying to comment on about this film is that you mentioned ‘gay culture.’ To me, gay culture is sort of disappearing. In small towns, a lot of these safe places are closing, in large part because people don’t need them anymore, or don’t think they do.
Even in my hometown, you can be who you are at McDonald’s; whereas back when I was a kid, The Fruit and Nut was one of the only places to go where you could be who you were. It’s like a double-edged sword. In my hometown was a really close-knit community, and almost a family. It’s more acceptable to be gay in the world, but yet gay culture itself is dissolving. That’s the downside of it. It’s great that we’re making all these advances, but there’s a loss. Yin-yang, that’s life.
The dialogue in this is so sharp and relatable. I think my favorite was “How can someone so flawless be on social security.” Do you have a favorite line from the movie?
TODD: One of my favorites is “where’s my shampoo?” It’s just a little tiny line. When Pat goes back to his house, and they give him a hat. He doesn’t give a shit about the hat. “Where’s my shampoo?” I love that one.
Did you have anything to add before we close?
TODD: For me, being a fan of Udo’s work for many years, I’m most proud that it really shows what this guy can do as an actor, his full range. I think we see Udo in a way we’ve never seen him before, you know? I’m just very excited to have the world see what he did.
UDO: It was such a good feeling after Armageddon (and all these big films), to make a real movie, with a real story. I have made many, many movies, but I haven’t done (for 20 years or more) where it’s about one character, the whole movie. He laughs, he cries, and that is important for me. I’ve played parts in big financially-successful movies with a lot of stars, but not one this intense, from the beginning till the end.
My big wish is to see that movie on the big screen. I will see it on the big screen! Maybe it opens up this summer. If not, I will rent a cinema next year, and invite my friends. All the movies—like Blazing World— which were on the Internet! I have an awesome film coming out from Columbia, called My Neighbor Adolf, which I did two years ago. It will also be on the internet. I want to see movies! On the screen! That’s why it’s called ‘movie theater.’
Thanks again to Udo Kier and Todd Stephens for speaking with me, ahead of Swan Song’s premiere. The film was one of my favorites at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. This year, South By Southwest has gone completely virtual, and takes places March 16th – 20th.
To register for the festival, or obtain more information, please visit www.sxsw.com.