Past Imperfect

With “Swan Song,” Todd Stephens Remembers a Lost, Vibrant Generation of Queer Men

Todd Stephens knows what it’s like to be queer in an ever-changing American landscape. His first feature, 1998’s Edge of Seventeen, was a seminal queer coming-of-age tale that saw Stephens returning to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, to tell the film’s autobiographical story of a painful coming-out and first love. Ohio, at that point, wasn’t quite ready to embrace Stephens as their queer town herald. When Stephens returned to make his latest feature Swan Song, however, things had changed. The film follows Pat, an elderly hairdresser who once served Sandusky’s elite as something of a hairdresser-to-the-stars. Now, an old client who dropped him years ago has dropped dead, and it’s her last request that Pat do her hair for the funeral.

But Pat, whose lover died of complications due to AIDS, whose house is now owned by a young straight couple, and whose friends have all either died or disappeared on him, lives in a nursing home. The film follows Pat’s exodus across town to do one last job for an old friend, and come to terms with the world that left him, and a whole generation of queer men, behind. Udo Kier’s perfect performance underscores Pat’s tragedy: he lived through homophobia, the AIDS crisis, and Prop 8 only to get left behind by a world that’s now full of happy gay parents and chosen families. 

INTO caught up with Stephens to talk about what we all owe to our queer elders and the lost generation. 

INTO: What was filming in Sandusky like this time around?

STEPHENS: It’s home. I grew up there. When I made my first film, Edge of Seventeen, in Sandusky about 20 years ago, that was more like my autobiographical coming out story. And it was kind of a nightmare. I came back to my hometown to make this movie about me being a queer, self-affirming gay man, and I forgot how racist and homophobic the town could be. We had to stop telling people it was a queer story if we wanted their help. But fast-forward 20 years later and they just celebrated their third Pride festival downtown. 

There’s this thing that’s happened, I think, where a lot of people grew up and for whatever reason they’ve been drawn back in adulthood. So they’ve transformed this busted old industrial town that was really like falling apart back into this vibrant place. I was really inspired by that, because Swan Song is about somebody who’s kind of dead inside. It’s about coming back to life. Sandusky’s revival helped inspire the plot, and I tried to like the town like a character in the movie. As Mr. Pat comes back to life, so does the town. And this time around, it was the complete opposite experience filming there. Everybody knew the story. Udo was walking around downtown in the green suit, and making friends. People could not have been more supportive. Pat was like this magical person who was remembered. He really saw you. And to be seen is almost the most primal like human need. I think that was like his superpower. And it’s really ironic, because Sandusky used to be a place I wanted to run away from, and now I’m drawn back, because it’s home. 

Pat was forced into an invisible life by people like Miss Rita, who Mr. Pat worked for for years. 

Exactly. I think he feels like resentment about that. To an extent, he feels abandoned in that everything and everyone he knew, including his lover, is gone. His house is gone, and he has a lot of resentment and anger. I was also trying to talk about anger and resentment because I have my own anger and resentment about certain things that I was trying to tell myself that, by writing the film, I was helping to let go of. I think that’s Pat’s ultimate journey: He is a kind-hearted person, you know, but he’s angry that his life has passed him by to some extent. And he blames Rita and but, but he ultimately can’t have a real conversation about it, because she’s gone. But he decides to let it go, and then he’s able to fly. To work his magic. 

The movie is so much about how a whole generation of gay men did get left behind in one way or another. 

Yes. Even in my little town, I remember when I walked into the Fruit and Nut (The Universal Fruit and Nut Company) in 1994 and there was a big poster right above the door, with a picture of a life-sized man wearing a giant condom over his body. And it’s like: AIDS: be scared! Even in our little town, it took a little while to hit us, but when it hit it was devastating. It really did wipe out the community even in a little town. And it’s amazing what a loss of joy and culture comes with that. From losing that generation. I’m a teacher, I teach film at SVA and a lot of my students are queer and it’s like, I talk to them about AIDS and the AIDS crisis, and they’ve heard of it, but they don’t really get it. Which is great for them. But I want them to earn their history, to sort of know where they came from. 

It’s important on so many levels.

It’s always been a  challenge, trying to connect with older gay generation and creating communicating with the younger gay generation, just because I guess it’s probably always disconnect. But it certainly doesn’t help when half of your elders are dead. So I hope it inspires people to think about that. ♦

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