Don Swaynos is an Austin-based film editor, writer, and director. Mr. Swaynos served as the editor of two widely acclaimed features in 2013: Yen Tan’s Sundance drama Pit Stop, and Bryan Poyser’s hit SXSW comedy The Bounceback. In addition, he directed, wrote, produced and edited his feature film debut, Pictures of Superheroes (2012), starring John Merriman, Kerri Lendo, Shannon McCormick, and Byron Brown. Pictures of Superheroes, which had its world premiere at the 2012 Austin Film Festival, will be available on Video-on-Demand October 15, 2013 and continues to tour the international festival circuit. Mr. Swaynos, already in the editorial process on several other short and feature-length pictures, spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary to discuss the reception to his directorial debut, feeling jealous of Oklahoma filmmakers, and how he ranks with the late Andy Warhol. This interview has been transcribed, compressed, and edited from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: When I spoke to Yen Tan, the director of Pit Stop, earlier this year, he explained that working on and watching the film so often had started to take away from its emotional impact. Does that happen to you when you make movies?
Don Swaynos: Normally, I get sick of things, but Pit Stop still chokes me up when I watch it. That’s the only movie [I’ve worked on] where that still happens. The score, the sound mix, and the coloring all do so much, I think – I never saw the film with those things. One scene at the end is so much more intense with the current sound than when I saw it that it feels like a new thing to me.
SM: It must be difficult to make a comedy like Pictures of Superheroes for you. Wouldn’t anything funny or novel the first time around stop being funny when you are forced to watch it over and over again?
DS: It totally does, which is why you have to have test screenings. By the end you have no idea what’s funny, and you can’t keep cutting scenes because none of them makes you laugh. Also, there are certain days where a joke just does not work, but then the next day I’ll hear it and be fine with it. So putting a film in test screenings gets you out of that little bubble. Test screening a drama is hard, though. When you screen a comedy, people laughing means the movie’s working. But you don’t really know how people will react to a drama until the end.
SM: You have worked on several projects now making their rounds on festival circuits around the world. Have you been to any first screenings where people booed or were vocally disrespectful?
DS: I don’t think I have yet, but I’d like to be. The worst I’ve ever seen are awkward screenings where it’s clear that not everyone in the audience wants to be there. But I’d love to make something that could upset people that much. I think the extremes are always better: that people either really love something or they just HATE it.
SM: The largest collection of your work has been in editing independent features and shorts. Is that how you carve out a living?
DS: Editing is, but not on indie films as much as commercials and reality shows.
SM: Reality shows, really?
DS: At the end of the day, the editor’s job is to help get the director’s vision across. Because of that, editing a reality show can still be satisfying. You are helping to make that vision – whatever that might be, whether it be that of an indie drama or a reality show – get to what the director(s) are looking for. Also, many of these shows have ratings where millions of people last night watched that joke or that thing we cut together. That is just fun.
SM: Does your artistic side as a filmmaker suffer at all when you work on these less personal projects?
DS: It doesn’t because I really like the process of documentary editing and going on a search for the story. However, the process of making a documentary film I do not like as much – it can take a very long time. When I make documentaries, I have these stress dreams: what if the story we’re telling is the absolute wrong story? What I like about the reality shows, corporate documentaries or commercial work I have done is being told, “Make this raw footage into a new narrative. It’s due next week.” Finding what is interesting, what’s funny, and what works together gives me the sort of creative challenge I love. Solving those problems with a deadline and a budget, too, is nicer than, say, preparing a documentary for five years.
SM: How rigorous were the self-imposed deadlines on Pictures of Superheroes?
DS: At the end of 2011, I was getting ready to produce a film with [Superheroes producer] Kelly Williams, who produced Pit Stop, called Cinema Six. It was directed by my friends Mark [Potts] and Cole [Selix], and I was scheduled to edit it in early 2012. Around that time, I didn’t get an editing gig that I had wanted; I figured I was going to be broke and have nothing to do until that started and I needed to energize myself before Mark and Cole’s movie. I had the script for Superheroes already, and sent it to Kelly and [producer] Tate [English]. We shot a bulk of it in January and segued immediately into Cinema Six. In the weeks I spent cutting that, we planned for things we needed for my film and shot whenever we got them. Even with the intensive work I was doing on Cinema, we managed to finish a cut of Superheroes just before the end of the year.
SM: Were the actors in your film expecting such a jumpy filming schedule? They showed a lot of patience by working with you to complete the film.
DS: Everyone was great about doing pickups and short days as it kept going. We shot a lot in the first three weekends by working around some outside work schedules. After that, the days would be really short: “Hey, we’re doing a three-hour day. Can you guys come out for three hours and I’ll buy everybody lunch?” So even if we had shot it all together, it would not have been a big time-suck for anybody.
SM: Several of the main roles in your film are played by comics rather than straight actors. Did that change the process in any certain ways?
DS: It was weird! *Laughs* John Merriman [who appears in Superheroes, Pit Stop, and Cinema Six] and I had worked together on some funny little things, and I’d already worked with [Superheroes costar] Shannon McCormick as a voice actor on some animated projects I’d done with my friend’s company, Collection Agency Films. Both of these guys were people who had made funny things that I had written funnier, and I wanted badly to work with both of them again. They were each my ideal casting for their roles. For the actors I had not worked with prior to shooting – like Byron Brown, who plays Phil and who I’d seen audition for Cinema Six, or Chris Doubek, from Lovers of Hate – I had an idea already of what shots and when I needed to get coverage for them without much issue.
SM: What constitutes a shot in a trance-like, Surrealist dark comedy like yours that you “have to get” coverage for?
DS: There are not many [directorially] difficult scenes in the film – no huge crowds or effects – and it is dialogue heavy. But I would still need to have “Medium shot, medium close-up, close-up, close-up” to get the scene properly. I was able to shoot so that if I made a specific insert with that coverage in hand, I could make our little scenes into a movie, at the bare minimum. *Laughs* As long as people know where these characters were and that they’re talking to each other, it will make sense. Sometimes that was much easier for me; Shannon, especially, has the perfect head for continuity and made getting coverage simple.
SM: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker and tried to make that happen? Or have you worked as an editor for so long in such a film-rich community and on so many projects of quality that you started to catch the bug for it?
DS: I think, as a filmmaker, you always have “that thing” in the back of your head going, “I want to make movies…someday.” When we were making things in school, I said, “Cool, I’ll edit right now and we’ll figure out the rest later!” I had never considered editing my focus but I do think it was what I wanted to do then; and eventually, you lose sight of “right now.” Originally, I had made an eight-page idea for a television show with my friends Dano [Johnson], who runs an animation company, and Tate English. I had thought for a while about being a writer professionally but then I realized: Nobody ever sells spec scripts anymore. So I started writing Pictures of Superheroes as a feature before I got busy with documentary stuff. By the time I was able to make it, the script was seventy-five pages, and weird. I thought, “No one else is going to buy this, much less make it…”
SM: Maybe it’s a good thing – your first produced script is also your directorial debut, not someone else’s version of it. Any cache that comes from showing your film around the world belongs to you.
DS: That’s true, and also, when I did actually finish writing the film, I was picturing the house I was living in [in Austin, Texas] for it. That was part of the final inspiration, and so was what Mark Potts, one of the writer/directors of Cinema Six, was doing in Oklahoma. While Mark was at school, he was making something like a feature a year for a thousand dollars a piece. Austin is much easier to shoot in than Los Angeles and New York City, but not compared to Norman, Oklahoma, where you can just approach the owner of a grocery store and ask to film there and they’ll say, “Sure – do you need us to turn the music off? Anything we can do to help!”
SM: What did it take for you to feel like Pictures of Superheroes was a worthy debut feature after rewriting the script over many years and many interruptions, seeing your friends and employers all make films, and worrying that no one would ever help you make the film?
DS: It only happened just now. *Laughs* Recently, we got things settled for an October Video-on-Demand release, and we’re also being distributed through the iTunes store later in the year. We’ve been chosen to play the Sydney Underground Film Festival in September, which is perfect – it may sound strange, but this is a kind of underground movie. The film was also chosen to play RevFest in Perth in July by a programmer whose writing I had been unwittingly reading for years. For a guy I knew was an advocate for underground filmmakers and a big fan of, for instance, later Andy Warhol movies to say how much he liked MY movie meant that I had succeeded in a way.
Editor’s Note: All posters and images used with permission of Don Swaynos and graphic designer Yen Tan (ottoistheone.com). We wish to thank Mr. Swaynos and Mr. Tan for their contribution to this article.