In the realm of great storylines, “A formerly flamboyant hairdresser takes a long walk across a small town to style a dead woman’s hair” certainly hits the jackpot. Throw in two contrasting legends in the shape of Udo Kier and Jennifer Coolidge and a cinematic gold mine is almost certain. One would worry Swan Song – which premiered at SXSW 2021 – might not live up to the hype of its premise, but it delivers all of it and some. 

Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) currently lives in a care home after losing his partner, his house and his business, the latter a direct consequence of a former mentee opening a rival salon across the street from his own. One day, the man is visited by an executor who states one of his past clients, prominent town figure Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), has passed away and asked him to be the one to do her hair and make up for the funeral – the task worth a 25k sum. 

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Source: SXSW

For Swan Song, Director Todd Stephens returned to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, to tell a story based on a man he met in his youth, a hairdresser also named Pat. On coming back to his small town, the director said “When my producer and I first got there [in Sandusky] to start pre-production, it was in the middle of the third annual Gay Pride Festival, which literally blew my mind, you know, because when I was there 20 years ago to shoot my first film, we literally created a fake script then cut the gay elements out of it because we were afraid that if people in town knew what the movie was really about they wouldn’t help us. It’s a contrast to now when people completely celebrated the film, they welcomed us all with open arms. The funeral home let us borrow the most expensive casket, and all kinds of free extras so I always like to say that $1 in my hometown equals $10 of production value on screen. It is fun and glamorous and people like to be involved. Udo and Linda were out in town having dinner, walking around, and everybody just got to know everybody. The town fell in love with them. I couldn’t have done it without my own town. I could not have made this movie without the support of my hometown.”

Famously known as a character actor with a career spanning over 50 years and more than 200 film credits – including working with Andy Warhol, Fassbinder, Gus Van Sant and Lars Von Trier – Udo Kier walks straight into the spotlight with the confidence of an actor deeply in tune with his craft. Most recently, Kier worked with Kléber Mendonça Filho on the acclaimed Brazilian futuristic western Bacurau, playing a vastly different part as a quintessential bad guy. On the two divergent experiences, Udo says, “I had two good directors. Kleber was telling me exactly how he wanted me to be, how not to be evil but to be strong. And I’m also strong in Todd’s film, in another way. It was a mixture of being serious, fulfilling the acting in the story while also trying not to act, but also having funny moments, and that’s what I like about the film.”

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Source: SXSW

“When I read the script, and then we met twice, he told me about the little city, about the real Pat, and it all came alive on the day we started the movie. The camera came in, I was lying on the bed and there it goes. There wasn’t anything to add to that, it was “what do you want me to do?”, I was just being there and just having a good time.” Kier greatly translates the fun he had on set to his portrayal of Pat, whose life is drenched in sorrow yet not fully drowned by it, his spirit unbreakable. After leaving the care home to start his journey towards Rita and the lump of money, Pat gets into a small shop and blatantly tells the cashier “I know what you’re thinking, how can someone so gorgeous possibly be on social security?”, the line delivered through a fatal combination of his thick German accent and sheer sass. 

Kier’s performance is enhanced by Shawna-Nova Foley’s impeccable costume design, from the bland grey matching set Pat wears at the home to the already iconic duck egg suit he changes into midway through. “The whole thing to me was about somebody who had disengaged and had given up on life. I wrote in the script that Pat blends into the faded room like a chameleon, you know like I wanted him to just blend into the walls like he had just totally lost himself, and it was all about somebody rediscovering the joy of life and what they do and we really wanted the palette the colour palette to kind of start off faded and dead.” says Stephens, adding that “If you look really closely, he’s got like two or three different versions of his scarf, and it becomes more and more colourful as he comes to life. A huge part of pulling that off was my amazing crew collaborators, my cast, my production designer, my DP, my costume designer… We all just got on the same wavelength of having this palette being dead and coming back to life, and Udo embraced this so well. I mean, I wonder what actor is going to be able to pull off wearing that pink Sunday church hat! To be honest, I don’t know how many people could have pulled it off.”

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Source: SXSW

When discussing his wardrobe, the always-excited Kier lights up even further. “It was very good, I liked it. I like the suit because putting that suit on, that scene in the film when the lady comes over and says ‘I have something for you’, and I open the curtains, it was opening the curtains to my past because I grew up with that boy, I went to the first tour of the Beatles, I was there when every boy started. So the whole scene was really important for us young people. For me, it was a trip to the past. And I walked, and I danced down the street! (laughs). Very good.” And the bridge the clothing builds to his past, to a sense of youth is echoed by Stephens who states that “When he looks at himself in the mirror, when he comes out in the suit, there’s something like a little boy almost like there’s just the beauty of a young person discovering themselves and their identity. That moment is a real moment for me. But then, the look on Udo’s face is so beautiful and I just… I just love that scene.” 

Stephens puts on an impressive display of confidence when working with veterans such as Kier and TV legend and Golden Globe winner Linda Evans. The latter gushed over her experience with the director, stating “[Stephens] tends to every detail. I only worked with one other person in my life as a filmmaker who was like that and it was Steve McQueen, in the love of his life, Tom Horn, which he waited all his life to do. When he hired me he was there with me for the wardrobe, the dentist to put my gold tooth on… You did the same thing for me, you cared about every single detail of it, and it was exciting to watch you be creative like that.” Stephens, for his part, could not praise Evans enough “I mean, Linda was such a trooper, you know, here’s this big Hollywood star coming to a small town doing this little indie film in a room that’s like 100 degrees, and who has zero attitude whatsoever. She allowed herself to be dead in a coffin and that takes a lot of guts, you know, and I’m so thankful that there was no ego involved in that whatsoever.”

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Source: SXSW

With charm to spare, Swan Song is as funny as it is tender. Pat is the embodiment of resilience, and yet the manner in which he never allows his wit to be eclipsed by pain is a searing consequence of the years he spent serving as nothing more than a cheerful prop to madams whose afternoons began at 10AM with a sharp cocktail. Kier, here in a career-best, beautifully portrays Pat’s conflicting dispositions, his characteristic big blue eyes consumed by sorrow and ecstasy as he shifts from the bleakness of his predicament to the low-budget glamour of the small town gay club. 

Aided by a fantastic cast, including a criminally underused Michael Urie, Stephens aptly employs his past to build a film that is filled with warmth and joy, a tale crafted and delivered with palpable passion. “I always knew my place”, says a beaten Pat when reminiscing about the complicated dynamics he had with longtime clients. And Swan Song’s greatness comes precisely from the fact Stephens also knew what Pat’s place was: front and centre.

Swan Song premiered at SXSW 2021. Further release information is upcoming.

With thanks to Todd Stephens, Udo Kier, Linda Evans, and Emily Lu Aldrich at Accolade Publicity & Consulting. The interview portions of this feature have been edited for length and clarity.