Writer-Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis Takes An Unflinching Look Into ‘Swallow’ And Mental Illness

March 3, 2020

Written by Kelli Marchman McNeely

Kelli Marchman McNeely is the owner of HorrorFuel.com. She is an Executive Producer of "13 Slays Till Christmas" which is out on Digital and DVD and now streaming on Tubi. She has several other films in the works. Kelli is an animal lover and a true horror addict since the age of 9 when she saw Friday the 13th. Email: horrorfuelinfo@gmail.com

Carlo Mirabella-Davis‘  thriller Swallow (review) is heading towards its March release. I had a chance to review it ahead of time. I found it bold and beautiful, so when I got the chance to interview its writer-director, so I jumped at the chance.



On the surface, Hunter (Haley Bennett) appears to have it all. A newly pregnant housewife, she seems content to spend her time tending to an immaculate home and doting on her Ken-doll husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). However, as the pressure to meet her controlling in-laws and husband’s rigid expectations mounts, cracks begin to appear in her carefully created facade. Hunter develops a dangerous habit, and a dark secret from her past seeps out in the form of a disorder called pica – a condition that has her compulsively swallowing inedible, and oftentimes life-threatening, objects. A provocative and squirm-inducing psychological thriller, Swallow follows one woman’s unraveling as she struggles to reclaim independence in the face of an oppressive system by whatever means possible.



Horror Fuel: “While writing Swallow, what made you chose Pica?”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “The film is inspired by my grandmother who was a homemaker in the 1950s who had these rituals of control. She was in an unhappy marriage and she was an excessive hand-washer who would go through four cakes of soap a day and twelve bottles of alcohol a week. And I think that she was looking for order in life when she was feeling increasingly powerless. My grandfather at the behest of the doctors put her into a mental institution where she was given electroshock therapy, shock, and a nonconsensual lobotomy. I always felt like there was something punitive about it like she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations and what they felt like a wife and mother should be. But handwashing isn’t very cinematic.

I remember seeing a photo of a patient’s stomach with Pica that had been surgically removed and all the objects were fanned out on a table, like an archeological dig. I was fascinated. I wanted to know what drew the patient to those artifacts. It almost seemed like something mystical, like a holy communion.”


Horror Fuel: “I am so sorry for what your grandmother went through. I grew up in a family with members that experienced mental illness. I am very familiar with OCD. I’ve seen the type of Pica images you are referring to. ”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “I see. I have OCD myself as well.”


Horror Fuel: “I’m so sorry. I know how difficult life can be with it. I have a touch of it too.

What was it about Ms. Bennett that made you know she was your star. It was a fantastic choice by the way.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “Thank you. I was so fortunate that Haley agreed to be the lead, she’s an incredible actor and collaborator and gives a tour de force performance. I saw her in Girl on a Train and she was amazing. I wanted to see her in a lead role. I wrote her a passionate letter and hoped she’d meet with me. She did and we had a kind of telepathic bond over the character and so from there, she became an E.P. of the film and she poured every bit of her soul into it.

Haley is so good with layers of emotion. She kind of wears multiple masks throughout the film. There’s that first mask, which is like a mirror reflecting normalcy and what her husband wants her to be. There’s that second mask where she’s in pain and trying to figure out where she’s meant to be, then there’s the third mask, where she’s discovering her primal self and it’s starting to emerge. Haley can give you all of those emotional layers with just a flip of her hair or the look in her eyes.”



Horror Fuel: “She nailed it. You could feel all of the emotion, the struggle, the sadness. She did it flawlessly.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “Thank you.”


Horror Fuel: “It’s the truth. If you will tell us what it is that you hope viewers take away from the film?”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “It’s a film that’s about somebody who finds herself in this wealthy, patriarchal power structure. Everything on the surface of her marriage seems perfect, but the more time she spends in the marriage the more you realize that the family is using her as a vessel, her husband sees her as an object like the ones she consumes. She begins to realize that every aspect of her life is being controlled. She isn’t really sure she wants to be this person in this life. She represses that and they are telling her that this is what she should want, so she represses it. Even though the compulsion is dangerous, I wanted it to be the catalyst that allows her to discover her true self, which allows her to fight that patriarchal power structure and leads her to what she really wants.

A film about fighting back against authoritarian paradigms. It’s about experiencing mental illness. I think ultimately, I hope it’s a film that makes people feel something. I think there’s an unfortunate return these days with the current Trump administration to these old-world patriarchal power structures. Luckily, we have a lot of incredible voices fighting back against that sexist control. Filmmakers are making amazing films that are fighting back against that.

I think horror and genre films have a real opportunity to, because they are so potent – because they have that direct connection to fear – they have an ability to increase empathy and fight prejudice. Just because you are sitting in the theater, you’re invested in the screen, they seem more manageable.”


Horror Fuel: “Right. Films like yours that put these issues and mental health upfront. The more we see that, the more people will feel safe so that they can discuss their issues.  Like that it’s gone from a closed-door discussion to an open one, that the shame they may feel will go away. The film also makes a statement about giving away your power.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “I’m not a mental health professional or anything, but I do think a lot of the problem is because people don’t talk about it. There is a lot of shame associated with things like OCD, I hope that that changes.”


Horror Fuel: “The more films that come out that don’t place blame on victims for their mental illness, the more we talk about it, the easier the discussion will be.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “You see it with amazing films like Get Out, The Babadook, Hereditary, where the human experience is portrayed in all its painful complexity. I think films which are bold and dangerous, which horror tends toward, can shock people out of complacency and make them feel seen, which I hope our movie does.”


Horror Fuel: “As a woman, the message I got from Swallow is about a woman taking her power back. We need that. Thank you for creating characters that are relatable and that can lead by example, that a woman’s life doesn’t have to be about just focusing on and  serving a man before ourselves because it’s something society has drilled in our heads.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “It thrills me to hear that. I really agree with the interpretation that it’s about her taking her power back and regaining control over her body. Much of the people involved were women. I’m glad that so many talented people were willing to make my grandmother’s story their own.

Movies have always been a beacon for me for change.”


Horror Fuel: “You did it so beautifully. The film itself is beautiful, the cinematography is fantastic. I noticed that there seems to be some involvement with color, the red and orange palette, for example, the red window. Was that deliberate?”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “It was very much on purpose. I was very fortunate to work with an incredible design team, my cinematographer, Katelin Arizmendi is a visual genius. My production designer, Erin Magill, has an incredible sense of aesthetics. Liene Dobraja, my costume designer was amazing and highly skilled at translating characters’ psychological states into what they wear. Basically, we talked a lot about how to tell Hunter’s story through the aesthetic choices and how to elevate the subtext.

Kate had this really great idea that we should shoot on Master Prime lenses which captures everything with this intense textural detail. Swallow is so much about the texture of things. Also, Kate and I talked a lot about the idea that we should set up this ridged vernacular of how the filming should be done in the beginning so we filmed in a lot of lockdown shots like she is oppressed by the frame. Then, later on, we break the rules at key emotional junctions, like when Hunter has these emotional breakthroughs.

I love the whole Hitchcock color scheme, reds, yellows, and green which is seen as a color of decay and death. Erin and I talked a lot about it and she came with this idea that Hunter puts up these color gels in the window of the baby’s room. That’s one of my favorite scenes aesthetically. Hunter puts up that red color, it’s not something you would expect to find in a nursery. It’s her true self emerging.”



Horror Fuel: “It’s a gorgeous scene, I love the way she is cast in that red light. The orange swirl in the marble caught my eye like they were linked.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “Exactly. You are the first person to mention that. Erin was very passionate about the house. Hunter is decorating the house, every piece of furniture and object in there is her expression of what she thinks they want her to be. Then Hunter is breaking away from that in certain areas of the house, like with the vanity, it has a metallic energy.

My grandmother’s story was very much in my mind as a kid. When I was in my 20s, for about five years I identified as a woman, I had a different name, I wore women’s clothing. It was an amazing time in my life. There was so much creativity and one of the most important times in my life. It was also a big eye-opener. It made me more aware of the sexism baked into the cake of society. Just walking down the street, I experiences the way society treats female-identified people. It solidified my feminist beliefs and made me want to make a film about these issues.”


Horror Fuel: “Now that you’ve said that it makes sense. There’s an extra bit of understanding into women’s lives, our point of view. The movie is deep yet delicate in a way.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “Thank you. I’m glad to hear that.”


Horror Fuel: “Have you already picked out your next project?”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “I’m working on a number of different projects right now. I’m currently writing a feminist supernatural horror movie right now. That’s something I’m excited about. So, I’m working on that and other projects as well. I just want to keep making movies. I’m watching films – I used to watch five films a day, but I had to cut back to make my own films.”


Horror Fuel: “I really hope that you do continue to make films. You said that you’re working on a supernatural film, that’s one of my favorite subgenres.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “Oh, good.”


Horror Fuel: “I can’t wait to see your next film.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: ‘I think we’re in a very exciting time in horror. I actually went to high school with Jordan Peele. He introduced me to The Shining as a kid. That was a real pivotal moment. It opened my eyes. Horror really takes on a lot of social issues and delves into lives. I hope that Swallow reaches people.”


Horror Fuel: “I think it will. It’s sophisticated, but it also something the general audience can understand. It’s something everyone can get, especially women, anyone who has ever loved a woman. I would love to see another film from you on a similar topic, something that continues the discussion.”


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “I’m very passionate about the subject and I would love to continue that discussion. I can’t wait to have another movie.”



Carlo Mirabella-Davis is not only brilliant, but kind, understanding, and joy to talk with. He revealed things about the film, his family and himself that were brutally honest and unflinching. I feel so honored that he revealed those things to me, to us (our readers).

I can not wait to find out what’s to come from Carlo, to see his future films. This is one filmmaker you are going to want to keep your eye on. Follow Carlo on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to learn more about him and his projects.


Swallow opens in select theaters and debuts on Demand on March 6, 2020, from IFC Films.

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