Swallow: Erin Magill discusses the aesthetic choices made for the feminist body horror film

Photo Swallow.. Image Courtesy IFC Films
Photo Swallow.. Image Courtesy IFC Films /

We chatted with the production designer of IFC’s new feminist body horror film, Swallow, about how she created the movie’s aesthetic.

Swallow is a new feminist body horror film starring Haley Bennett that tells the story of a housewife living in an oppressive environment and succumbs to eating inanimate objects. It’s a thrilling and unsettling movie, if you haven’t gotten the chance to watch it, you should definitely try to find the time.

We had the chance to chat with Erin Magill, the film’s production designer, about how she carefully crafted the film’s minimalism and its gorgeous aesthetic.

Hidden Remote: To begin, what attracted you to this project?

Erin Magill: I was introduced to the producers through a mutual friend who had been tracking the project for its design potential. I was intrigued, but it was Hunter’s story, the complexity of her character, that made me want to meet with Carlo [Mirabella-Davis].

When speaking to him and discussing my look book, aesthetically we seemed to be on a similar same page, but it was in our discussion of the characters, his motivations for writing the script, the empathy he showed for Hunter’s mental illness and his desire to make a feminist film that questioned gender roles and the patriarchy’s oppressive nature that truly made the opportunity one I could not pass up.

HR: What was it like to work with a primarily female crew?

EM: It was a very small film and crew, and I think everyone involved felt very passionately about the content and the importance of getting it right even with limited means. Carlo not only empowered the female dept. heads to help shape the story, but also emboldened the entire crew, female and male, to take ownership of the film (art) we were creating.

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On top of this, with Haley Bennett not only attached as a lead but an executive producer, there was a fluidity between the “behind the camera” and “on camera’ that I think was quite special and evident in the end result.

HR: How did you collaborate with the cinematographer to decide what kind of mood you wanted to establish?

EM: In my process, I create an initial look book that serves as a jumping-off point for discussions with the director. Then elaborating on that for each set, I create boards of reference images that enable a visual dialogue between the director, DP and myself in regards to color, framing, mood, tone, themes, texture, etc.

For Swallow, the photography of Philip Lorca Dicorcia, Tina Barney, Kia Labeija, Gregory Crewdson, Vivian Maier, and Saul Leiter were all key mood and tonal references for me. Then as we begin location scouting, discussing the pros and cons of a potential space, while Kate envisions her shots and options, I am able to offer ideas of how I could alter that space in the hopes of aiding Kate and Carlo to capture the mood of the aforementioned references.

HR: The sets and scenery in this film were a big part of establishing the movie’s eerie tone and setting. How were the color schemes decided?

EM: The architecture of Richie and Hunter’s house evokes the style of the 1950s, an era synonymous with the domesticity of women. The updated materials within the house have tension; cold stone and stark glass alongside warm wood grains, reflecting the roller coaster of emotions within their marriage.

Wrestling with the news of her pregnancy, we see Hunter designing the nursery. To show this disconnection to the child and her mental state, I chose non-gendered, simplistic Scandinavian furniture and toy designs to decorate the space.

Inspired by the existing yellow glass-paneled doors within the location, I suggested the idea of the primary colored films for the windows, beautifully shot by our DP, Hunter and her mother in law, are framed in the three panels, illustrating Hunter’s fear and confusion surrounding motherhood but deep desire to be loved for who she is.

Photo Swallow.. Image Courtesy IFC Films /

HR: It seemed like a lot of the shots were designed to leave space in the shots or to have somewhat minimalistic surroundings, was that intentional?

EM: Absolutely. As I mentioned previously, this is one of the many reasons this location was specifically appealing to us.

An isolated mid-century modern inspired mansion built on a cliff above the Hudson River with floor to ceiling windows, glass railings, stone walls, warm wood panels and colored glass doors, the house was full of gorgeous potential for framing.

With drapery and furniture changes, I was able to assist Kate as she beautifully captured Hunter’s isolation and struggle within the glass box she was trapped in.

HR: How do you go about designing a space that complements the performance rather than distracting from it?

EM: In the thriller genre, you have a little more creative license. While Hunter’s story was specific, I think we all felt the overall film was a bit more of a fable, and certain choices can be made, sometimes with humor, the set design or the actors themselves, to play into those archetypes.

Richie’s parents’ house is an example of this – toeing the line of believability for their socio-economic status – we played into the monochromatic palette, neo-classical designs, and rich textures of their grand living room, dining room, and chosen therapist for Hunter.

Then along with costume designer, Liene Dobraja’s savvy choice to have Hunter’s outfits blend into these environments, we were able to complement Haley’s subtly brilliant performance of a woman in a world full of overbearing pressure for her to get in line.

Photo Swallow.. Image Courtesy IFC Films /

HR: What do you think audiences will find most appealing about the story and general aesthetic of Swallow?

EM: It is impossible to not be transfixed by Haley’s brilliant performance, no matter how foreign the PICA condition may seem, you are able to empathize with her pain and journey.

This is aided by the collaboration of design, costume, hair/makeup, camera, sound and editing, each complementing one another in creating a stylized and heightened tale whose roots are grounded in some very relatable issues of gender and mental illness.

HR: How did you approach creating the different worlds in the latter portion of the movie after Hunter leaves her husband and goes to different places beyond her comfort zone?

EM: There’s a scene in the dining room where Hunter expresses a desire to grow some flowers out back, Richie can’t really be bothered to listen. I used this small gesture of her speaking her mind and asserting herself with floral motifs throughout the film.

There’s a floral wallpaper in their hallway, the actually beds we see her working on in the backyard with a matching floral shirt, and then ultimately in the motel room – the floral comforter, finally having the dirt she desired. All symbolic of her taking her power back.

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Swallow is currently playing in a limited number of theaters.