With Swan Song, Sandusky-native Todd Stephens has again returned to his Ohio roots, writing and directing a bittersweet film that pays loving homage to all the inspiring out, proud queens of decades past.
Swan Song is already garnering much-deserved attention, with critics hailing the film as one of 2021’s best films after screenings at SXSW and being acquired by film distributor Magnolia Pictures for a global release later this year.
Swan Song is currently screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival, where Stephens is being honored with the DReam Catcher award. This award was established in 2019 to honor the life and memory of David K. Ream (1949–2017), a beloved CIFF trustee.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Stephens about his Sandusky roots, the gay culture he explores through his work, and how the pandemic created a whole different lens for audiences to view Swan Song.
When little Todd Stephens was running around Sandusky, was filmmaking always the dream?
It was. I started making movies when I was in grade school. My parents had a Super 8 camera and I would get my friends together and make little short films. Then we started doing these haunted houses in our garage. For years, I would charge a quarter and kids would be lined up down the driveway and we would scare the shit out of them. That same group of friends made a horror movie in high school on Kelley’s Island called “Rest in Peace,” which was my first real movie.
Tell me there is some of that is some super 8 footage somewhere.
Somewhere! In an attic in Ohio probably.
Was there a pivotal moment when you said, “Ok this is it, I’m making filmmaking my life.”
It might have been when I was a sophomore in high school. I did a movie for English class, an adaption of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I think by that time, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.
I went to my guidance counselors and said I want to study film. And they looked at me like I was crazy. But then they looked it up and said, “You should go to [Ohio University] in Athens.” I applied there and I really considered going. But I wanted to get out of Ohio. I wanted to fly away.
It was time to leave Ohio and check out another place. I really wanted to live in New York even though I had never been there before. So I moved to New York to go to NYU and I have been here the whole time.
What was that transition like from Ohio to New York City?
I sometimes say that Sandusky was a nice place to grow up and get out of and leave. But now it has changed a bit. I do feel more of a draw to home. It will always be home. My parents still live in the house that I grew up in, my two brothers are there, and I have lots of family and friends there. And now I have new friends that I met through making this film.
Not that I would want to live there full-time, but I would love to have a house near the water. I love Ohio. I love home. It’s kind of a place that I ran away from but now I find myself drawn back to it which is pretty fascinating. In a way we’re always drawn back home.
I remember being a student at NYU and there were all these film students running around thinking they were the first to capture a specific angle in Washington Square Park. Were you one of those?
[laughs]Yes. I was making movies in Washington Square Park. But since everyone was doing it that way, I tried to find more exotic locations.
I’m currently a film professor at [School of Visual Arts]. My students are constantly making movies in Madison Square Park and I’m like, “There’s a whole city out there!”
Swan Song is the 3rd in this trilogy. As you look back, how would you say you have grown as a filmmaker?
I think that my writing is a bit more sophisticated. I have moved from teen angst and apparently skipped right to senior citizen angst. [laughs]I think I’m a better writer. I’ve always loved working with actors, but I’ve gotten even better at it over the years. I’ve also definitely gotten more comfortable working with the cameras and visuals and stuff.
I had the wonderful opportunity to watch Swan Song earlier today. And there was one line in there that just destroyed me. The main character Mr. Pat is lamenting how empty it is in a gay bar and he says, “This place was family.” Talk about that strong theme of gay culture in the film.
I came up in a time when gay culture saved my life: growing up, not feeling like I fit in to a town that at the time was very conservative.
The amazing thing about Sandusky was that there was this fabulous bar right by the Cedar Point entrance, right on Cleveland Road, called The Universal Fruit and Nut Company. I got up the nerve to go there when I was 17. I remember on the door going in, there was a sign that said, “The Universal Fruit and Nut Company is a gay establishment, but all are welcome.” That was major to me.
It was so diverse. There were men, women, gay, lesbian, trans, old, young, black, white, straight. It was an incredible melting pot of queers and freaks. Of course it was the best place to go to dance because they played the best new wave music.
Going there made me feel like I was home and that I wasn’t alone. I met the person that I’m married to there. My husband Tim and I met at the Fruit and Nut Company in 1985. That place was like a family.
I would talk to my gay elders, this guy Harvey Heys, who owned a gay bar in town for years. He would tell me that Sandusky, Ohio had this rich gay history. The first gay bar opened there in 1977. But even in the 50s and 60s there was a bar downtown that was the unofficial queer bar. Even more in his generation, it was a more closely knit family. They would go to the bar and then they would have these dinner parties, It would start at one person’s house at appetizers, and the next place for cocktails, and the next place for main course. It was a family of people. To me, that’s a whole other movie.
It’s amazing that even Sandusky—when I went back home to start filming this movie—was celebrating it’s 3rd Pride Festival, which blew my mind.
Yes! I remember you posted about it on social media, which is how I found out that we were there at Sandusky Pride on the very same day,.
Yes! I met Jim Obergefell there that day.
Jim grew up on the same street as me a block away, so there was something in the water on Central Avenue.
That question of “Are gay bars still important?” is one that comes up a lot.
So many of those Fruit and Nut Companies are vanishing for so many different reason. Part of it is good because we’re able to—as I say in the movie—hold hands in Applebees now. But the loss is this actual culture. What is gay culture? Well, it’s the things that are passed down, the way we talk, the way we dance, all of that.
It’s amazing that we don’t need places like the Fruit and Nut as much as we used to. But there’s also something really sad about it too. There’s a loss in the community of something that just doesn’t exist anymore. Going back home now is just not the same. It’s not the same gay community that it used to be. Everybody is fragmented and assimilated back into the world for the most part.
Now, we have one reader submitted question, and I hope I’m not outing the reader with this question. But, would the film have been just as good without the Tim Murray cameo?
[laughs]The whole thing would have fallen completely apart without Tim Murray cameo. He steals the whole movie and makes the whole movie worth watching.
What does it mean to be recognized with the DReam catcher award?
It’s really the highest honor. I consider Cleveland my hometown film festival. I went there with Edge of Seventeen like 20 years ago and had an incredible experience. It was almost like a coming out experience. My aunt Judy and others came and everyone in my extended family learned I was gay. I have really primal, amazing, and wonderful feelings about the festival. It’s almost a little surreal.
Sure, it makes me feel a little old that I’m being honored. But I’m really thrilled.
As part of the award, you will be speaking with so many different communities. What’s that patented Todd Stephens wisdom that you want people to walk away with?
Be yourself, which you know. Take your broken heart and make it into art, that’s what I tell my students.
I hope people see themselves in my films in some way. I love hearing people say, “How did you know that was my life? How did you know that was my world?” That way that we come together and connect—especially having missed in the pandemic for so long—I really look forward having that connection again.
Watching Swan Song during a pandemic was really significant. Not that the film about a pandemic, but some of those themes of isolation and yearning for connection were so present.
Totally. The Mr. Pat character is basically in quarantine at the beginning, kind of quarantined from life. It’s all about going back into the world, reconnecting with humans and starting to live again. None of it was planned. It was all written and produced before the pandemic.
But I’ve had other people say the same thing. Even the scene when Pat goes to the gay bar and performs and everyone is dancing. People were having an emotional reaction to that, because we miss that. We miss being with our people and people in general.
The film is going to be released theatrically in August. I hope by that time, people will be coming out of their caves and that this film resonates. It would be perfect to have this film about coming back to life be released right when everyone is coming back to life.