Sandusky Native Todd Stephens On ‘Swan Song’ And LGBTQ+ Filmmaking

"Swan Song" stars Udo Kier and is based on a real Sandusky hairdresser Todd Stephens encountered growing up
"Swan Song" stars Udo Kier, above, and is based on a real Sandusky hairdresser Todd Stephens encountered growing up. ["Swan Song" / Cleveland International Film Festival]
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When filmmaker Todd Stephens returned to Sandusky in the 1990s to make a movie in his hometown, he tried to keep the plot a secret.

It wasn’t so much about spoiling the coming-of-age story in “Edge of Seventeen” but controlling how he and the crew were received while filming in town.

“When you make a movie like this, that’s low budget, you need a lot of favors,” he said. “We felt like we couldn’t get permission to film places if they knew that it was a gay story.”

Despite Stephens’ efforts to conceal the film’s story, he said the word got out anyway and some people weren’t happy about it.

“It was sort of soul crushing for me, because I was like going back home to make a film that was about affirming who I was as a gay man. Yet, I kind of had to go back into the closet in a weird way,” he said.

Much has changed since he returned for his most recent film, “Swan Song,” now showing at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

“The day that I got there, the third annual Sandusky gay pride festival had just started, and it blew my mind,” he said. “The community this time welcomed us with open arms.” 

Todd Stephens

Todd Stephens wrote, directed and co-produced "Swan Song." [Tim Kaltenecker]

“Swan Song” centers on a former hairdresser, Pat, receiving word about a final wish from a high-profile client to have her hair styled one last time for her funeral. Pat ends up escaping from his retirement home to take on the assignment, and he discovers all sorts of changes in town since he’s been away.

The character, played by actor Udo Kier, is based on Pat Pisenbarger, now deceased, who made an impression upon Stephens while growing up in Sandusky.

“I would see this like, kind of outrageous man walking around in like, you know, a velvet fedora and feather boa smoking, like this crazy brown cigarette, which I had never seen before. And I always sort of was fascinated by him,” Stephens said.

The film explores changes in LGBTQ+ living since Pat moved into a retirement home several years ago. In his return to town, he encounters a gay couple playing ball with their son in the park, for instance, and he also learns the bar where he used to perform drag will soon close.   

In many ways, Pat’s generation made way for social progress in queer life, which is something Stephens’ said he wanted to convey in the film.  

“That’s how the world changed,” he said.

Last month, film distributor Magnolia Pictures acquired the rights to distribute “Swan Song” globally with a release date to be determined.

The Cleveland International Film Festival also will award Stephens its annual DReam Catcher Award, honoring LGBTQ+ filmmakers, in an online event Thursday.

When asked about the progress he’s seen in LGBTQ+ filmmaking throughout his career, Stephens said it’s similar to what he experienced returning to make films in Sandusky. Attitudes have changed as well as representation of queer stories on screen.

“Our stories are so much more accessible and being produced not just by small indie companies, but by studios and, you know, and TV networks and stuff,” he said.

“I think where it could continue to grow is that, just like with the 'Swan Song' story, you know, representing like, a gay senior citizen,” Stephens said. “I feel like that there's so many stories that still haven't been told.”

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