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Q&A: Sarah Adina Smith on Her Haunting “THE MIDNIGHT SWIM”

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Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith admits that her otherworldly genre-hybrid directorial debut THE MIDNIGHT SWIM may not be for everybody. “It’s a little hard to describe my audience, but I feel like it’s for people who are, for a lack of a better word, seekers,” she says at the beginning of her conversation with FANGORIA.

“It’s for people who like to look for clues and put in the work as an audience,” she continues. “It’s not necessarily going to grab everybody, but I hope it draws in the people who are willing to walk down that path.”

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, opening theatrically and on VOD today from Candy Factory Films, has been a Fango favorite since its world premiere at last year’s Fantasia festival (see our review here). Smith’s ethereal film centers on a trio of sisters (played by Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino) who reunite at their childhood home after their mother (Beth Grant) disappears while deep diving in nearby Spirit Lake. Though the three initially aim to settle their past disputes and come to terms with their mother’s presumed death, they instead soon begin grappling with former tensions arising to the surface; simultaneously, the mysteries of the alluring lake begin literally and figuratively drawing the sisters in. Protagonist June (Burdge) is especially captivated, and documents the otherworldly story with her handheld camera.

FANGORIA: The choice to tell the story from a POV perspective leaves a lot open to interpretation; the audience is never exactly sure what is real. What led you to make that creative decision?

SARAH ADINA SMITH: My cinematographer [Shaheen Seth] and I wanted it to be faux-documentary style, like a home movie; we sink more quickly into June’s head, since it’s naturalistic. We struggled not to make it too pretty initially, instead letting the magic seep in over time. Otherwise, we were afraid the audience wouldn’t buy into the family and characters, and the whole tone was dependent on that. It was an interesting balancing act—I wanted to have beautiful, cinematic moments, but not too early or too often.

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FANG: The camera is almost one with June’s character, who may or may not be an unreliable narrator.

SMITH: Lindsay Burdge and I worked really hard on this notion. She’s so incredibly talented, and not every actress would sign up to do a movie where they’re almost never on screen. She and I were both invested in telling a story where the protagonist is hidden and slowly reveals herself through how the story is told, rather than a traditional movie protagonist.

FANG: In what other ways did you go about creating the aesthetic? It’s incredibly beautiful, mystical and distinctive.

SMITH: It really started with that house, which has been in my family for many generations. It was the most magical part of my childhood, and I knew I wanted to shoot something there. The house is in Iowa, but it was worth going there because we didn’t have to do any production design.

I gave the set-dressing credit to my grandma and mom, because they were the ones who made that house so beautiful. I never got to meet my grandma, but that place in some ways almost contained her spirit. Something felt so warm and full of love there, and my mom, along with her brothers and sisters, let it retain its character. They understood the value of all the love that went into that house.

FANG: It sounds like this was a very personal movie for you. Can you talk more about its mythology and folklore, and how much of it was inspired by real life vs. what was fabricated for the movie?

SMITH: A long time ago, I wrote a script called THE SEVEN SISTERS. While doing research, one thing I was struck by was that there were multiple cultures that called this constellation the Seven Sisters, but what’s weird is you can only see six stars with the naked eye. I thought the idea of the hidden star was really interesting.

There is also a legend of the Seven Sisters, in which each one drowns trying to save the other. My mom used to tell us the story when we were growing up as a way to teach us that a drowning person can pull you under. I always found that idea so haunting—if someone you love is drowning, of course you want to jump in and save them. How could you not? This notion that they could pull you under and you could drown too—the danger of loving someone too much and not being able to let go was sort of an emotional truth I was trying to shed light on.

FANG: Beyond that previous script aiding in the shaping of THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, how did you go about the writing process?

SMITH: I wrote a 25-page treatment, but it was an improvised film—it was all about working with the actors. I was constantly writing as we were going, and rewriting it again in the editing room. It was a wonderful way to not be too precious; as a writer, you can fall in love with your words, and that’s dangerous when it comes to making a film. I was also super-fortunate because the actors I got were such talented and smart storytellers, so we put all of our brains together. It was a beautiful collaborative experience.

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FANG: Casting must have been such an integral element of this project; you had to find the perfect actresses who looked and organically acted like real sisters, which you succeeded in doing.

SMITH: There was something charmed about this movie; I think we cast in two or three weeks, and then we were off to the races and shooting. I also do tarot card readings, and that really helped me with the casting process—figuring out who was the right match for each role.

It’s funny, I hear myself talk about tarot cards and all these superstitious things, and it’s like I have two brains—part of me rolls my eyes at myself. I come from a family of science-minded people, and I have a tendency to be skeptical or look at things from a slightly more scientific point of view. But at the same time, my art calls me toward these more mysterious, dreamy, mystical notions, and as I get older, I’m realizing it’s OK to listen to those and my intuition, and not immediately be doubtful or overly analytical. Especially with storytelling—that mindset can kill magic really quickly.

FANG: Well, the two different sides of your brain made for one very interesting movie! In addition to writing and directing THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, you also edited it. Was this a challenge?

SMITH: We actually left Iowa with a rough cut, because I was editing as we shot the movie—I wanted to make sure we got everything, because there was no room for reshoots on this low-budget of a film. But the process of going from a rough cut to a finished movie…I don’t know if it’s true for everybody, but to me it feels like a dark valley the filmmaker has to cross alone. When you’re editing your film yourself and alone for many days in a dark room, after coming off of this super-collaborative, social experience of production, it’s now like, “I’m in a dungeon alone in the darkest rung of hell.” There was one day—I don’t even know how I got there—I just looked up and realized I had been in a fetal position on the ground for, like, hours. I didn’t even remember getting up from my desk!

FANG: But you made it somehow!

SMITH: That’s the job of the director: to have the stamina to stay with the project all the way through. Everyone else moves on to other things, and you’re the only one who’s still completely focused on it. You have to somehow find the reserve in your willpower to persevere till the end.

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About the author
Vivienne Vaughn
Vivienne is an undergraduate at New York University studying film and TV production and is also a horror screenwriter and director. Some of her favorite things include EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE X-FILES, SANTA SANGRE, John Hughes movies, 1950s/60s girl groups and J.D. Salinger. She currently resides in Queens.
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