The AFI FEST Interview: Director Sarah Adina Smith Talks THE MIDNIGHT SWIM
In THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, three half-sisters – Isa (Aleksa Palladino), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and June (Lindsay Burdge) – return to their childhood waterfront home to handle their mother’s affairs after she disappears in the mysterious Spirit Lake. June, the youngest, obsessively films the reunion in an attempt to deal with past psychological issues that threaten to emerge again. After the women jokingly try to summon a spirit, a series of bizarre events occur, creating tension and distrust among the sisters. Shot in a documentary style, director-screenwriter Sarah Adina Smith’s feature debut is an intimate and eerie film, with striking performances from its three leads. AFI talked with Smith about the film.
AFI: Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino share some very intimate and emotional scenes together. How much of their chemistry and closeness was natural and how much of it had to be developed throughout the shoot?
SAS: These are three tremendously wise, creative actresses. The intimacy you see on screen is a result of their willingness to trust each other and trust the process. With the exception of Jen Lafleur, none of the actresses had met me or each other before arriving on set, so it was a huge leap of faith for everyone. It helped that we all lived together in the house where we shot. No one could escape each other, and I think that’s a good thing. The most important thing we did was form both a collective and individual understanding of the invisible fourth character: the mother. She was the secret to our process … you can almost feel her presence in every scene.
AFI: THE MIDNIGHT SWIM touches on various genres, from the found-footage horror film to family dramas to the avant-garde with its poetic lyricism. Was this a conscious decision ahead of time, or did it come about organically in the scriptwriting and filming process?
SAS: I actually never really thought of this as a found-footage horror film. I hadn’t watched many found-footage films besides maybe THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and Daniel Stamm’s exceptionally smart movie A NECESSARY DEATH. The found-footage genre just wasn’t really on my radar. I chose to shoot this way because I was interested in telling a story from inside a character’s head. Having our protagonist hold a camera was the most natural way to achieve an emotional POV. I think both the lyricism and the fear come from that slightly floating, suspended feeling in the narrative … never fully touching the ground … existing somewhere between reality and dream. I believe that POV films can be more than just a gimmick. Video games have already paved the way for a more immersive storytelling experience. In fact, I’d like to make a movie where we never see the protagonist, where we lose the notion of a camera, where the characters’ eyes become our eyes.
AFI: The film features the local folklore of seven sisters that drowned in the same lake where the central characters’ mother disappeared. What is the origin of that story? Is it completely invented for the film, or does it have its roots somewhere else?
SAS: I spent every summer of my childhood swimming in the lake where we shot, often skinny dipping with my sisters late at night. My mother used to tell us the legend of the seven sisters in order to teach us to be careful when trying to save a drowning person as they might pull you under. I always found that story so haunting – because of course you want to save the person you love. I think that my mom telling me that story is perhaps why I keep writing and making movies about the paradox of letting go and not being able to let go. The local legend does come from a real story of a group of sisters who drowned in the lake where we shot. There are different versions, and none of them mesh perfectly with the facts. But I like the version my mom told me the best.
AFI: Each sister’s distinct personality is so well and simply communicated, as is the way each deals with her mother’s disappearance. How much of that was in the script, and how much was aided by the very different actresses you cast? Is there a sister you identify most with?
SAS: The sisters each had different personalities in the treatment, which were amplified in the casting, but truly brought to life by the actors. The oldest sister, Annie, has all of the responsibility on her shoulders and the most strained relationship with their mother. Jen made a special point to make sure Annie was always nurturing and loving with her sisters despite all that, and I think that’s why her character is so compelling. Jen’s Annie grounds the story and makes it relatable. Jen’s an incredibly giving collaborator to have on set – dependable, smart and inventive, but also hilarious. She kept the entire cast and crew laughing between takes. The middle sister, Isa, could have easily been played as flighty or unreliable, but Aleksa brought such a depth of spirit and unexpected strength to that character – it was truly a joy to watch her work. Isa is the magic of the movie in many ways, and that has everything to do with Aleksa’s old soul. She’s a musician as well, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to her for the part. She knows how to channel. And then – phew! – June. Lindsay had perhaps the most difficult job since her character appears on screen so few times. Because the camera IS June, we wanted every choice to be a character choice. So Lindsay and I would talk a lot about how June would be feeling, what she might be looking at. Lindsay’s instincts as an actor set the tone for the movie and inspired the shot choices Shaheen [cinematographer Shaheen Seth] and I made together. She was my muse for this project because, in the end, this is June’s movie. Even in the editing room I would think, “What would June be feeling right now?” or “If this scene were a dream or a memory, how would it look in June’s mind?” Lindsay Burdge is a force of nature. I identify with all of the sisters. But, for some reason, I think I’m most like the mother. I’ve never been particularly interested in having children, but I imagine that if I were to have them, my interest would be almost experimental. I think Amelia had children as a means of testing time-travel.
AFI: This is a film that will definitely provoke discussion. What would you most like AFI FEST audiences to take away from it?
SAS: I hope that audiences will suspend their doubts and lend me their patience. If they can do that, then I think there’s a possibility that they might enter the trance of this film. I’m trying to touch a place we don’t have language to describe, so I don’t have any message I want them to walk away with – just a feeling of weightlessness and wonder, perhaps. The threshold is a scary place. I’m still learning to breathe, to slow my heart rate, to pass through intact.
Read more about THE MIDNIGHT SWIM on the film’s official website.