Filmmaker Todd Stephens returns to his hometown of Sandusky, following 1998’s Edge of Seventeen and 2001’s Gypsy 83, to complete his Ohio trilogy with Swan Song, “an instant queer classic” (TheQueer Review), now playing in US theaters. The bittersweet comedy which premiered at SWXW Online 2021, stars the legendary Udo Kier as Mister Pat, a real-life queer trailblazer who Stephens encountered while growing up in the small conservative town.
Stephens, who also wrote, produced, and directed the hit Another Gay Movie, and is currently a professor of film at School of Visual Arts in New York. The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Todd Stephens about casting Udo Kier and his subsequent close friendship with the actor, why Dynasty star Linda Evans connected with the script, reflecting on how queer life has changed over the past few decades, and his favoueite queer culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: the character of Mister Pat is based on a real-life figure, someone who you knew in Sandusky, Ohio. When did you first encounter him and what impression did he have on you as a young gay man growing up in a small town?
Todd Stephens: “I remember him from when I was around eight or 10-years-old. I lived close to downtown and would ride my bike down there, and I would occasionally spot this almost space alien kind of creature walking around who looked completely different to everybody else. Sandusky back then was pretty conservative and I always felt like a bit of an alien myself, so I was really drawn to this guy. I found out that he was a hairdresser and that he had a shop right in the center of downtown. He was flamboyant, but quietly flamboyant. He would wear a fedora hat and rings on every finger and smoke. He was a really tiny guy and he drove this gigantic canary yellow Lincoln convertible.”
“Later, when I turned 17, I snuck into our gay bar, which was the Fruit and Nut Company. I was petrified to go in there by myself for the first time, but when I walked in I saw something sparkling. I looked over and there was Mister Pat, this man that I had seen from the time that I was a little kid. I was like, wow, that’s me, I’m home. I’m very much speaking through one of the characters in the film that Michael Urie plays when he talks about him. I moved away not long after that to go to college, so I never really knew Pat very much personally, but he did have a profound impact on my life just from having the courage to be openly queer in a small conservative town in the 1960s and 70s. He’s a trailblazer, so I really tried to pay homage to him with the film, that’s pretty much what it’s about.”
You had originally intended for him to appear as a character in Edge of Seventeen, but now it’s even better because he gets his own film! It’s rare for older characters of his age to be at the centre of any film, regardless of whether they’re queer or not, but particularly rare that we see a queer older person that’s living in retirement home, so it’s fascinating from that point of view. What made you think of Udo Kier to play Mister Pat and what was his reaction when you managed to get the script to him?
“I didn’t think of him originally, it was the idea of one of my casting directors Lina Todd. One of the reasons why we weren’t able to have the character in Edge of Seventeen was because we couldn’t find an actor who was suitable to play the part. Before I met Udo we were casting for over a year. We had some nice A-list actors interested that came and went, but as time went on I really felt I wanted to cast a queer actor to play this queer part. Lina had mentioned Udo whom she had just hung out with at the Berlin Film Festival, and I was like, ‘Udo Kier? Wait a minute, he’s German and he’s got this accent and the real Mister Pat was from West Virginia!'”
“So it took me a second to wrap my head around it, but then I rewound back in my mind to Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Udo in My Own Private Idaho, which is probably my favorite queer film of all time. Also, the real Mister Pat had these giant blue eyes that were really magnetic. It was a brilliant idea, but it did take a bit of like courage to cast Udo for all of us, to cast away from his normal type which is usually playing bad guys.”
“We got the script to him and he really loved it. He called me right away and I hopped on a plane to Palm Springs where he lives. As soon as he opened the door I knew that he was Pat and we formed a friendship. We met a year before we ended up shooting, so by the time we shot the film Udo and I were already like family. We still are. We talk almost every day. I feel really proud of giving him the opportunity to show the full range of what he can do, because I think sometimes we stereotype people based on an accent or being German or whatever. In casting, especially these days, we need to think more outside the box. At this point, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. Who else could do it like he did?”
It’s a wonderful marriage of role and actor. As he’s reflecting back over his life a contrast between queer life then and now emerges. Why was that something that you wanted to explore with the film?
“I see gay life disappearing in so many areas, not just in small towns, but in big cities too. When I came out the Universal Fruit and Nut Company was the only place where we go to be ourselves. I couldn’t hold my boyfriend’s hand or kiss him in public, we would have gotten killed back in the day. I feel like those types of safe spaces saved my life. But now in my hometown even it’s completely changed. There are gay pride flags flying all over town, not just during pride month. It’s really transformed. Now you can openly be yourself and that’s meant that younger generations don’t have the same need to find their Fruit and Nut Company. As Eunice says in the film, ‘Who needs a Fruit and Nut when they can hold hands at Applebee’s?’ Not that you’d want to go to Applebee’s! But you know what I mean.
“Back in the day that’s where we needed to go to meet each other and now with apps that’s changed. I wanted to create a dialogue around these places disappearing. In a way it’s amazing because it’s more accepted to be queer in society, but on the other hand there’s the loss of this tight-knit, almost underground world, even in small towns. It was a beautiful world because there was such a sense of family and it’s not like that anymore. My hometown still has a queer bar, but it’s just not the same sense of family. So it’s bittersweet.”
In the past you’ve spoken about your experience of going back to your hometown to make Edge of Seventeen being pretty distressing in some ways because it was such an autobiographical movie. You’ve mentioned that it’s a different place now, so what was your experience of shooting there like this time?
“When we arrived there to start pre-production it was right in the middle of the third annual gay pride festival, which blew my mind! It’s almost like it’d advanced so far that I couldn’t even keep up with it myself. In the 20 years that have past the attitude amongst the general public about being queer has completely transformed. With Edge of Seventeen we felt that we needed to keep it a secret that it was a film that had gay subject matter. This time around people couldn’t have been more excited about the content. People knew Pat, they remembered him and their grandmother or their mother went to him as a hairdresser. The community really wrapped their arms around us and let us stay in spare bedrooms. We didn’t pay money for hotels, we were all sleeping in people’s spare bedrooms, including Udo and myself. It was a pretty low budget movie, so we were trying to put all the money on the screen.”
“There’s no way we could have done it without their help. The guy that runs the funeral home who I played Little League with was like, ‘What coffin do you want? Take it wherever you want.’ So we wound up with his highest-end copper coffin for Linda Evans. He was like, ‘Take the stand. Take the lights. Just bring it back whenever you want’. Everybody in town was like that, so it was like a dream going back. It just goes to show you can go home again! It was amazing. It was one of the best experiences of my life and completely opposite to the Edge of Seventeen experience.”
You mentioned Linda Evans, I have to ask you about her because it’s so great to see her in the movie. How did that happen?
“Eve Battaglia, my casting director who I’ve worked with for over 20 years, and I were brainstorming about who had the gravitas for the role. It’s a small part but the whole movie kind of revolves around her character. Almost at the same time we were both like, ‘Oh my God, Linda Evans!’ So Eve reached out to her manager and within days Linda had read the script and she just loved it. It really spoke to her and she came out of retirement to do the movie. She hadn’t done anything in around 20 years. She didn’t do it for the money obviously, but it was really very kind of her to do that and I think she adds a really wonderful ingredient to the film and helps bring it to the next level. She’s really amazing.”
“I had forgotten the whole thing with Dynasty and Rock Hudson. Right when it came out that Rock Hudson had AIDS, the Dynasty episode where Linda Evans kissed him aired and everybody was like, ‘Oh my God! Can you get AIDS from kissing?!’ It was this big deal that I think was on the cover of People magazine. Even back then Linda was an incredible educator and so there’s something about this topic that is close to her and it was it was a dream to work with her. Udo loved her too, they adored each other.”
The film opens with a Judy Garland number on the soundtrack but then later on we get some Robyn, so you’re also reflecting old and new queer culture in the music too. Can you give us an insight into your music choices?
“A lot of them were songs that Mister Pat loved, like This Is My Life by Shirley Bassey which was kind of his theme song. He also loved Judy Garland and Dusty Springfield. I’ve had this playlist which started off as a mixtape from when I made Edge of Seventeen. These songs have been in my mind for 20 years and I can’t believe that we got the rights to every single song that we wanted. I felt like Pat and his partner David and all the queens from my hometown that were lost over the years were up there like pulling strings and getting the songs cleared for us!
Not to sound corny, but I was making a film about all these people who had passed away, I was almost rousing the spirits of the dead, and I felt like they were on my side. I felt them during the making of it.”
One last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“For some reason Jimmy Somerville just popped into my mind, Bronski Beat was a huge thing for me when I was coming out and I was fascinated with reading about them. The album had that big pink triangle on the cover. Music is a big one for me. Sylvester, all of that stuff. Boy George is another one—I’m an 80s child—people like Mister Pat in a way, who had the courage to be queer and were huge influences on me. With films, I love Maurice, that’s one of my favorite queer films and My Own Private Idaho, Parting Glances is another favorite; films from back in the day that helped give me inspiration and courage to tell my own stories.”
Watch the full interview below:
By James Kleinmann
Swan Song opens in US theaters on Friday August 6th and is available on demand from Friday August 13th 2021.