The idea for Ben Cleary’s directorial debut — the Apple TV+ sci-fi drama Swan Song starring Mahershala Ali — began as an obsessive thought.
Ali plays Cameron, a husband and father who finds out he has a terminal disease and must decide whether to participate in a groundbreaking new procedure that could transfer all of his memories to a genetically identical duplicate of himself in order to prevent his family from having to lose him. Ali also plays the duplicate, nicknamed Jack.
For Cleary, the concept was extremely close to home.
“It came from a personal place. I when I was 19, 20, 21, three summers in a row, I lost three friends,” Cleary told MovieMaker.
“I saw that the grief sort of crashes out in waves to everyone who’s left behind. Not getting a goodbye also hits you, and I think in the years that followed — and it’s, like, 16 years ago now — I just started to constantly think about what would happen if someone else I loved passed away. What would happen to my family if something happened to me? It became almost like an obsessive thought thing. I think that with difficult things like that, writers — for me anyway — that stuff bubbles up, and then a premise comes. It’s totally imagined and it’s set in the near future and it’s nothing autobiographical in any way, but I’m like, Oh, that’s what my subconscious is doing. It’s shining a light back on that stuff. And you’re like, Okay, this is going to be painful, probably. But also, in a sense, when I get those ideas, I feel like they’re the ones that are worth keeping going on a little because maybe you know the story better. There’s some truth in that.”
Swan Song is also Cleary’s first writing and directing at the same time. Couple that with the fact that the story was so rooted in his own personal experiences, and you’ve got a recipe for a good on-set cry.
“It had an emotional toll,” Cleary said. “I did break down one day on set as we were rehearsing. I don’t have breakdowns [very often]. I started crying, basically, as we were rehearsing one morning. I was hearing Mahershala say these words that had come from quite a personal place.”
Plus, they shot the movie in the middle of the pandemic.
“We were shooting during COVID. I think everybody probably had a cry at one point. It was a really emotional time to be making a film, and what was going on outside the bubble of making that film was so tragic,” he said. “We all knew people who were going through really tough times… I think we just became this big family. It started as really a big challenge, and I think ended up being something that we rallied against.”
However painful, Cleary is able to put his toughest life experiences to good use in his screenwriting.
“The painful stuff that happens to you — not that everyone does this or needs to do it or anything like that — but for me personally, I guess that those are the things that you can kind of work out on the page, and then if anyone likes what you’ve written, maybe they’ll work it out with you in making a movie,” he said. “As a writer, it’s everything — everything you’ve ever experienced goes into it.”
Of course, we had to ask Cleary one more question — if he were in Cameron’s shoes, would he do it? Would he let a duplicate version of himself keep living his life in his place if he knew he was going to die?
“I’ve spent whole dinners with friends and family talking about this, because it’s such a multifaceted question. And really, I think the answer completely depends on the circumstances,” he said. “In the movie, it’s a burgeoning technology that’s barely tested… if this is something where, oh, okay, I know this can realistically work and it’s tried and tested and I can just recede into the shadows, as lonely a goodbye as that is, if I could save the people I love from that, I think I would definitely do it if I knew it was going to be safe and cool and all that. Because from my point of view, with people I’ve lost, like, what you’d give for just an hour with the person, you know?”
Swan Song begins streaming Dec. 17 on Apple TV+.
Main Image: (L-R) Naomi Harris, Ben Cleary, Ace Lever and Mahershala Ali on the set of Swan Song, courtesy of Apple TV+