Benjamin Cleary interview: ‘Swan Song’ writer-director
Oscar-winning filmmaker Benjamin Cleary drew on his own feelings about mortality with his new Apple TV+ film, “Swan Song,” which tells the futuristic story of a dying man who clones himself so his family doesn’t have to grieve. The director lost three friends over the course of three years, which set off some profound existential questions in his mind, namely what would happen if he died or if someone he loved died. “All of these things as a writer and a filmmaker, they end up bubbling up from the subconscious,” says Cleary in an exclusive new interview for Gold Derby. “In a sense, I’d been thinking about things like that for a long time.” Watch the full interview above.
With “Swan Song” being set in the future, there are some major technological advancements depicted throughout the film, from AR screens to the cloning process itself. To work out the details of those sci-fi elements, Cleary conversed with futurists and scientists about where our modern-day technology is heading. “The amazing thing was that every single person I talked to, with all the elements of tech that were in the movie, said it’s a matter of when, not if, that this tech was going to happen,” he reveals. Thus, everything we see in the film is entirely plausible. But Cleary still wanted to keep the story focused on the human drama behind it, feeling that delving too much into the science would “rob from the human story at the heart of this.”
Luckily, Cleary had a great collaborator in Mahershala Ali, who stars as Cameron, the dying man, and his clone, sometimes sharing the screen with himself. As Cleary recalls, Ali spent a great deal of time thinking about the physicality and the differences in how these two characters would carry themselves, down to the heaviness of Cameron’s lungs compared to his clone’s. “We spoke a huge amount about the questions at the heart of the story on set,” notes Cleary. “Hearing an actor get into that beautiful level of intricacy, I just knew I had a collaborator there that was gonna go all the way.”
“Swan Song” also marks Cleary’s feature directorial debut, having won an Oscar in 2016 for the live-action short film “Stutterer.” He admits he feels “insanely lucky” to have assembled such a great cast, with Naomie Harris, Awkwafina and Glenn Close filling out the key supporting roles. “It was magic.”