With his first feature Swan Song, Benjamin Cleary explores one of humanity’s longtime obsessions – our mortality. Fittingly playing on Apple TV+, this drama imagines a high tech near future that offers one type of solution. Starring Mahershala Ali as a dying man who decides to clone himself for the benefit of the family he’ll leave behind, Swan Song ponders essential questions about our heart and soul. To create the film’s distinct visual aesthetic, production designer Annie Beauchamp and set decorator Shannon Gottlieb were inspired by nature and cutting edge architecture. In a recent Awards Radar interview, they went into detail about their inspirations and their collaborative process.
SS: How did you get involved with this film?
Annie Beauchamp: Ben reached out to me through my agents ICM. And I have two beautiful women at ICM who represent me. And they introduced me and in the Zoom interview, I pitched some key images to Ben. We had this instant, instinctual response to each other. I felt like it was the first time in an interview where we connected like that.
It’s quite a funny story because after I had done the interview and thought, “Well, maybe I’ve got this job,” which is probably the first time I’ve felt that in my career, my husband was taking another job. And I had to ring back and say, “Sorry, I’m no longer available, His dates are shifted for his film edit.” And Ben asked me, luckily, three times to do the movie. And the third time, because the other film got postponed, I was able to accept. I’m so lucky.
Shannon Gottlieb: Similar for me, I had worked with Annie before in Vancouver. She came to Vancouver and I was working on another movie. And it was probably the silver lining of COVID because both our shows got shut down. I wasn’t able to work with her. And I was heartbroken. She went back to Australia, COVID started up again and she called me and I said, “Well, maybe we can make it work.” And luckily, we were able to. And when I read the script, I was just so happy that it actually did happen, because it’s probably the one of the best scripts I’ve read for sure. So I was elated.
SS: The film is set in the near future. How did you approach the look and feel of this world without anything historical to work from?
AB: Well, I first start with the script. I felt it was a very nuanced love letter from a husband to his wife, and the science fiction setting was more like the envelope. So it was terribly exciting to have the opportunity to design a near-future world. To start, I do a huge amount of research, from regeneration technology to automated cars, smartphones, AR gestures, how you relate as a human to these technological objects, closed loop, environmental packaging. I talked to architect friends, quantum computing, product design. I mean, the list is endless.
But at the same time for me, you have a very instinctive and personal response to a script. So I try and remain very open to the material, imagining the characters and environments, and really the emotion at the forefront. So I try and create with Shannon as subtext, that you feel what’s going on for the journey of the characters and the story.
SG: And I think for myself, one of the things I like about the movie is it’s in the future, but it’s sort of an understatement. And I think we did it really well. You’re aware that you’re in the future, but it’s not completely out there.
SS: When you think about futuristic sci-fi, it’s usually metallic and cold. But this film has a warm aesthetic, incorporating wood textures in the lab setting particularly. What was the thinking behind those choices?
AB: It’s very interesting. I really feel like what you said is very true. And we had a design philosophy, architecturally and in the set decoration of less is more. And the philosophy was to strip back all materials to their rawest forms. So you always saw the pureness, like the rammed earth of the lab is a future product rather than concrete, which is so bad for the environment. And that was an art approach we took that’s never been done before, where it was eight inches by eight inches, made and created on the wall with many layers. And that became for me like a very worm, or skin-like background for Mahershala. It’s almost like a cocoon. And he’s going through such an emotional journey through the script.
And it’s echoed in the layers of the lab as well, where the top floors of the apartment, accommodation areas and the middle floor, the basement of the lab reflects his emotional journey of going down into the lab with the clone, or simply rises up like a phoenix. So I think we were very influenced by the architects sphere from the Nordic pavilion in Venice. A lot of research was also taken for the set decorative pieces. And Shannon could talk a bit more about that approach. But we manufactured and built a huge amount of set decoration for the lab.
SG: I think what you were saying about how the futuristic films that we’ve watched have been very cold is true. And that’s what I loved about our film was that, even though when we were doing his home, it was layered. But there is warmth throughout the film. And I think that’s what we sort of set out to do. And even in the lab, when you’re doing a minimalist set, it’s more difficult than when you do a layered set. Because you know, that everybody sees everything. When you have a layered set, you can kind of get away with a bit of stuff, there’s so much going on.
We had a lot of fun with the whole twinning of the movie and making sure when we were dressing that it was twinned lamps. There were all sorts of different objects that we played with, that was a lot of fun. But overall, that’s what I love. It’s still warm throughout the film, every set, they’re all different. But even with the lab and the trees, the forest, it just adds a whole other element of beauty to the film. Visually, it’s so appealing.
AB: And also, really trying to point to the theme of man versus nature. Shannon just identified some of the themes we would consistently explore through the design. Pairing because of the cloning. Man and woman versus nature, how we try and tame it and control it so the lab had two trees. And those trees represent growth and life. Their roots gripping the earth like we do to life. But really, it’s a closed loop. And that represented the fragility of life and their struggle.
Also, the lab is built around it. So setting the lab on an island, and only accessible by boat also reinforced the believability of maybe this was a new technology where it’s an Elon Musk style owner who’s found this new technology that is about to be launched for everyone. And also, basing it in a beautiful setting that made you feel like you could believe that people are going to a hospice-like or a gallery-like therapy room where you could spend your final hours.
SS: It must be such a challenge to make a home feel lived-in and authentic, especially when the love story is key to the film. How did you approach the set design for the home?
AB: Well, the Turner home was very driven by the fact that Cameron’s in his final hours. So the way I wanted to shape the audience’s gaze is that it’s his point of view. So, if you know when you’re packing up to leave maybe for a very long time, you look at your home in quite a different way. You kind of look at all the details and you start really noticing things because you’re leaving. So Cameron has that point of view for his home. But the Turner house is a combination of layers and layers of art. He’s an illustrator and Poppy is creative. So it was heavily color coded. The Turner house is a metaphor for love, connection and family.
SG: I agree. The house itself was a house that we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Oh, what would this house be like in the future?” It really wasn’t the focus because I think, as you know, so many things in life are timeless. And so for us, we didn’t focus on that or obsessed about would they have this or that. Or what would the switches be? Or would it be clap on lights or anything like that. We just let that go and focused more on creating that warm, loving environment.
And it was so much fun to do Cameron’s office, exploring him as an artist and doing the layering with that. I have so many fond memories of the Turner house and the artwork that we were able to display in the house. It was really beautiful. And even even at the Turner house, we had a beautiful outdoor landscape as well, which was reminiscent of the lab in the forest. So it all tied in together.
AB: Sometimes we color coded to mirror the lab, so we could feel like those two guys were syncing. And a lot of research was done on finding the location with architects in Vancouver, which was where we shot. And we built the upper floors, so the bedrooms and the ensuite workspace and studio, were studio sets.
SS: The future setting requires using visual effects to depict some of the technology. How did you collaborate with the VFX team to ensure a cohesive vision?
AB: Ben and I are very involved as co-collaborators. He was very generous and really let me in as a filmmaker. And we had almost a revolving door relationship. So for example, maybe in the script, we didn’t have the LED screen that I pitched to him about. It brings another layer to the tech. Maybe it has an intelligence, it’s slightly claustrophobic. We could change the lighting and really affect the set beautifully through the DoP. And it harks back to one of my favorite artists James Terrell.
So of course, then I would create things for the future ear pods, contact lenses and charging stations. I had a friend who recycles plastics from the ocean to make beautiful bento boxes. So I was influenced by her beautiful work to make the charging stations. So everything was done with Ben in collaboration with Michael Diner, the supervising art director. He was able to assist in finding incredible concept illustrators, then we worked on and discuss with the four of us – Ben, Michael, myself and Shannon – continuously with everything. Then we present these concepts with our approach because everything had to be based in reality.
Everything had to have believability, everything had to have a human connection, so that were seduced and disconnected by technology. So the visual effects team would continuously come to us to find out more information. I was involved in the post-production very kindly by having Ben inviting me in that process as well. But really the vision of Ben Cleary as a first time feature director was extraordinary.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Swan Song is now streaming on Apple TV+.