EXCLUSIVE: The fall festivals are fleshing out the awards season picture, but Apple Studios wasn’t ready to unveil Swan Song. Deadline can reveal it has staked out December 17 as release date in limited theatrical and Apple TV+ for the futuristic drama that stars Mahershala Ali as husband and father who is presented with the risky chance of surviving a terminal illness. Naomie Harris, Glenn Close, Awkwafina and Adam Beach star with him in a drama written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, the Irish filmmaker whose 2015 short film Stutterer won the Oscar. Swan Song is his first feature.
It also marks the producing debut of Ali, the two time Oscar winner. Apple shared some exclusive images with Deadline from a film which, for Cleary, presented a dream opportunity to team with the star of Moonlight and Green Book.
Cleary told Deadline: “This started as a premise I had ten years ago I’d stuck in a drawer, and then five years with the script, and when Mahershala’s name came up, I was like, ‘can we even get him to just read it? He did, and we sat down and it became one of those conversations you sometimes have, where each minute you feel more energized and inspired. I could see within minutes I was sitting across from someone special, who was completely tuned into the heart of the script. After two hours, he said, ‘I’d love to do this.’ We were delayed six months by Covid, and we used tht time to speak about all the elements, and he had such a beautiful way of discovering all these little things within the story.”
Ali brought up something I hadn’t considered when an actor like him takes part, and I would not be surprised if producing his vehicles becomes commonplace, a formal recognition of the input he has brought to most of his roles.
“Not everyone is at a place in their career where they’re empowered,” Ali said. “You get a job, you do your best, and you go away and you see how it comes out. There have been a few projects where I have been present enough to have an impact on how the story lays out, and that’s true for so many actors in my position. But often you don’t get acknowledgment for that. It was great to have an opportunity for those ideas and that feedback to not only have impact, but to be credited as well. Often, as a Black actor, there is a bit of work in transforming characters that aren’t necessarily written with you in mind. It’s not as easy as, plug in David Oyelowo and off you go. There has to be a lot in how culture of race impacts everything from sound design to wardrobe, to music in a film, to language and how characters choose to deal with moments.
“As a Black actor, you’re having to have those conversations all the time, because it needs to feel authentic from the place where that character comes from,” he said. “Being a Black man, it has to feel authentic first and foremost to Black culture, in trying to translate those stories. That work requires you to be very conscious and present in a certain way. When you’re producing, it felt natural, it’s a certain type of work I always had to do. Being so open to my ideas was just such a great experience.”
While the film has something of a sci-fi bent, the grounding of relationships made Swan Song an exception in all the scripts he’s offered. The incursion of the global Covid pandemic — which delayed production six months — seemed to resonate.
“You always look for something special in a script,” he said. “First and foremost, the dilemma, the choice facing this character spoke to me in such a deep way,” he said. “After I committed, it just seemed like so many of us were processing our mortality and it spoke to me in such a strong way because I had never seen anything quite like this one before and I was excited to wrestle with the character’s dilemma on a daily basis. It felt more purposeful and worthy of being in the world because we do live in such sensitive times, when so many of us have experienced losing people in a way that feels unnatural. The themes the film brings up that the character has to process, are things that so many of are having to process, either closely or by a degree or two of separation, when people were passing away. It may have contributed to some of the feelings of isolation that we all experienced. It’s a film that feels small but psychologically rich and dense. With Covid, so many of us have been in the house so long and have had to process and deal with issues, without the help we may have had access to before Covid. This quality of isolation during the pandemic, the movie features a character who has to keep a big secret to himself and feels isolated and doesn’t have a lot of outlets for processing his emotions with people. Covid, at least for me, brought parallels to the world and problems this character is trying to manage. And taking this intimate journey with Glenn and Naomie and Awkwafina was an education, a dream come true.”