1 October 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Benjamin Cleary and Mahershala Ali on Irish director's debut feature Swan Song for Apple Film
22 Nov 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Mahershala Ali in Swan Song.
Ahead of the release of Apple Original Film Swan Song, Oscar-winning short filmmaker Benjamin Cleary and Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali discussed the Irish directors debut feature at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles panel at the DGA Theatre.

Cleary won the Oscar for Best Short Film (Live-Action) for Stutterer in 2016, and is a multiple Irish Film & Television Award winner, claiming the top prize for Best Short Film for both Stutterer, and later Wave (alongside co-director TJ O’Grady Peyton) in 2018.

The Irish writer/director spoke about how the film had been shaped by the experience of losing three friends and his own battle to overcome grief. “When something like that happens, you see the grief emanate out and affect everyone else around you,” Cleary said at the panel event. “In a way I just started thinking about, ‘What if someone else close to me passes away? What if I were to pass away? What would happen to my family?'”

Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Green Book and Moonlight) stars in the leading role as Cameron in Cleary’s Swan Song. Ali also features as producer, alongside Adam Shulman (Defending Jacob) and Jacob Perlin (The Amazing Johnathan) for Anonymous Content (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindBeing John Malkovich.)

A genre-bending drama that is set in the near future, Swan Song follows Ali as a man diagnosed with a terminal illness who is presented with an alternative solution by his doctor (Glenn Close) to shield his family from grief.

Incredibly, Swan Song marks Ali’s first leading role in a feature with his two Oscar winning performances coming in supporting roles. Something the Green Book actor reflected on during the discussion, highlighting the additional challenge of play both the role of a dying man and the replica that is due to replace him upon his death.

“It was more complicated than I imagined, but it was just a beautiful collaborative experience to be there for each other,” said Ali, when speaking about working with Cleary.

Cleary added to this by giving insight into the nuance of Mahershala Ali’s performance between Camerson and his replica. “The way you found those interior differences between the characters, you made it look easy,” said Cleary.

“When we were editing the movie, our editor was looking at this footage and going ‘I know straight away who is who – even though they are completely identical,” added Cleary. “The choices that you made and how you did that was just breath-taking.”

Ali, who described Cleary as “a phenomenal filmmaker, a beautiful person, and a real visionary,” thanked the Irish director for entrusting the deeply personal story with him as leading actor.

“Considering the story being so personal to him, there were moments where I felt this extra responsibility because I felt I was sort of playing him (Cleary) at times,” Ali told Deadline Senior Editor Dominic Patten. “This was due to things in the story that were just so deeply personal and true to him.”

The film was shot on location in Vancouver during the pandemic something Cleary said was far from idea but that the delays were put to good use. “Working on this movie Covid had its challenges, I think we had more time to prep because we were about to shot and then we got shut down, which gave us five or six months,” said Cleary. “We (Cleary and Ali) had some great conversation during that time and continued to have them as we worked, and just did it like that.”

Cleary’s feature film, which also stars Naomi Harris, Awkwafina, and Adam Beach, recently premiered at the AFI Fest on November 12th, and joins Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar-nominated feature animation Wolfwalkers among the catalogue of Apple Original Films released on the streaming giants SVOD platform.

Swan Song releases on Apple+ next month on December 17th.

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