Spending summers in the mountains to the far north of New York as a kid, I became fascinated by this giant swath of wilderness that seemed to exist outside of time. In the lakes was the history of the great American royalty, now in decline and often in conflict with year-round residents. My grandparents, while not members of this royalty, aspired to it. But the present was always catching up to them, as it was to all whose nostalgia gave even the sunny days a tinge of melancholy. The real sway was always out of reach.
When Elizabeth Bull and I embarked on the screenplay, we had our own kind of nostalgia, for the intimate French and Swedish summer movies that made us want to write. We decided to take on nostalgia through three characters who cannot tolerate the present: Ollie Sway, a collector of old music, hoping to erase his father’s suicide with the perfect song and the perfect girl; Nikolai, an immigrant whose adoration of a heroic fabled America meets reality in the Sway family; and the matriarch Charlie Sway, longing for a past which—in her memory—was just so.
For the character of Ollie, we needed an actor who carried the shock of recent loss on his face, and found it in the immensely sensitive Rory Culkin. My Russian director friend Serguie Bassine helped us select Robert Sheehan to play Nikolai, recognizing in him the bombastic, exaggerated “Russianness” that some immigrants use to charm gullible Americans. And for the essential role of the matriarch Charlie Sway, which required a radiant and natural beauty in her seventies--icy and loving simultaneously—we were lucky to find the magnificent Tony-nominated Mary Beth Peil.
One of the great experiences of my life was working with Elizabeth Peña, an actor of such fierce intelligence that she suggested making the character of Marlena almost silent, due to the secrets and burdens she carries. What a rare actor, asking the director to remove lines! She was right, and I will never forget rowing across the lake for midnight conversation with Elizabeth, to plot these secrets and silences. Her loss is a huge one.
We filmed on Blue Mountain Lake, New York, a public lake, selectively editing to create the sense of a glamorous once-private estate. Despite the intimate cast and crew, the schedule was in constant flux as we worked with the ever-changing weather, dancing to the piano when the power was sometimes knocked out for real. And as with the weather on the water, music was an integral part of the theme of an uncatchable, idealized reality. My twin brother Ethan Gold (with singers John Grant and The Staves channeling the era) created two versions of a song, to round out the lost world. The past reaches to us in rain, in water, in memory, in melody, and in death. But the past does not really exist. Only this exists: what’s outside our windows and in our hearts at this moment.
The story within the film, and in the making of it, is a story of meeting the present. Dance with what is: that’s the real sway.