The Midnight Swim is a film that had an immense impact on me after I first saw it. From director Sarah Adina Smith, who went on to do Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) and a segment for the Holidays (2016) anthology horror movie, The Midnight Swim visually resembles a found footage horror film, but completely reinvents the wheel and has a distinctly emotional and feminine touch to it that makes it a truly unique movie that will remain a personal favorite.
Which is why I was excited to hear of the upcoming re-release of The Midnight Swim by Yellow Veil Pictures as a Collector’s Edition Bluray through Vinegar Syndrome (who also recently re-released cult-classic Arrebato). The film is available for pre-order now and will be available on VOD Jan. 25.
The re-release will include commentary with Smith and stars Aleksa Palladino, Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Ross Patridge, Smith’s shorts The Sirens and The Phoenix and the Turtle, and the special featurette “The Three Sisters; A look back at The Midnight Swim with Sarah Adina Smith. It will also include a limited edition booklet with artwork drawn by Smith, and essays from film critic Justine Smith and culture writer Nicole Cliffe. The reversible cover art and slipcover were designed by Aleksander Walijewski.
The Midnight Swim is a beautifully haunting POV film from the perspective of one of three sisters, June (Lindsay Burdge), who have gathered in their family home in adulthood after their mother mysteriously drowned in their lake. They reminisce about their childhood while also experiencing potentially supernatural occurrences related to a myth surrounding the lake their mother was never recovered from.
We got to sit down with Smith to reflect upon almost a decade since her first feature and the impact its had on her later films.
Bri Spieldenner: Hey Sarah, it’s great to be talking with you today. I’m super excited to interview you about your film’s re-release. The Midnight Swim is one of my absolute favorite movies.
Sarah Adina Smith: Oh, that’s so cool. I love hearing that.
BS: I love found footage and POV films and what I really love about The Midnight Swim is that it’s a surreal and very feminine take on found footage. Do you consider the film found footage and what is the influence of found footage on your film?
SAS: It could be classified as found footage but I never imagined it to be like the kind of found footage movie where somewhere there was a box of tapes that was discovered. And I actually in some ways thought perhaps there never really was tape in June’s camera. And I wanted it to be an emotional POV movie like a movie from inside our character’s head more than anything else. So yes, she had the camera but it’s really just like her eyeball to the world rather than necessarily like a found footage movie where there’s an artifact of these tapes that someone finds and puts together, if that makes sense.
“I actually in some ways thought perhaps there never really was tape in June’s camera.”
BS: Yeah, I definitely get what you mean. And that’s really interesting that maybe there’s not even tape in June’s camera.
SAS: Yeah, it’s kind of just how she mediates the world because it’s a very overwhelming experience to her. So it’s like her way of safely existing is through being behind the camera.
BS: Since it is classified, technically, as a horror film, it’s very unique. So I was wondering, in your words, where is the horror found in The Midnight Swim?
SAS: I didn’t necessarily set out to make a horror film, but I found that this movie was embraced by the genre community which was really cool, even if that wasn’t necessarily my intention from the get go. But I do think it’s sort of an existential horror film, and it’s certainly like the horror of mental illness. And you know, I think I like to make movies about people who may be to outsiders seem to be easily dismissed or classified as mentally ill, but might be actually accessing some kind of truth about the world that others don’t quite understand. And so I think that there’s a real tension in that. And it’s certainly horrifying to me the idea of losing your mind or being considered crazy as you’re sort of scratching at these truths, or getting access to another version of reality.
BS: Yeah, I definitely get that as well. Like I said, I love your film a lot. Since I first saw it, I was really moved by it. And I do find that it’s very subtly unnerving, and uncomfortable.
SAS: Yeah. And there’s a real horror to this story that their mother told them about the Seven Sisters with the idea that you shouldn’t try to save somebody who’s drowning, because they might pull you under. And that’s a really gruesome, violent lesson, because how could you not try to save someone you love. There’s a real ruthlessness to that lesson and at the same time, it’s also true that it’s very dangerous and you could be pulled under. So I thought that the horror is from that family drama of the sisters who love each other, but are also in some ways strangers to each other. They’re so intimately connected, but also so different. And it’s a movie about letting go or not being able to let go. June, the character behind the camera can’t let go of her mother, who has disappeared at the bottom of the lake. And the question is whether her sisters will go with her or not, will they continue to try and save her? Or do they feel like they need to let her go?
BS: Definitely. And I also think that, since it is very much tied to fables and myths, that a lot of myths and especially in this case do have that kind of darker tone to them that I feel like is really reflected well in the film.
SAS: That particular story of the Seven Sisters was actually a story my mom used to tell us growing up to warn us against trying to save a drowning person and to scare us from going swimming alone at night at the lake where we grew up. So that particular part of the story is very autobiographical. That myth of the Seven Sisters was always kind of really haunting.
“That particular story of the Seven Sisters was actually a story my mom used to tell us growing up.”
BS: Wow, that is very interesting. Is that something that your mother made up?
SAS: I don’t know. I should ask her again. I think maybe it was something her mother told her that she made her own version of, but when I was writing the movie, I used that story that she told us as a centerpiece to the movie. But then as I was doing research, I found it was really interesting that the Pleiades, the constellation of the Seven Sisters, also was rich in mythology, and I was struck by many cultures around the world, calling them the Seven Sisters. I thought that was interesting. And even more a lot of people say that only six of the stars are actually visible to the naked eye. So I thought there was something really interesting and kind of haunting about that to this idea of this myth that seemed to span across cultures.
BS: Yeah, that is really interesting. And it speaks also to myths and these stories that we pass along down person to person can change and alter based on who has that myth at that current time.
SAS: Yeah, definitely. I think storytelling is iterative in that way. And it’s like there are sort of no new stories to tell. No one starts with a blank canvas. Everybody is born into a context and born into some type of family and some fabric of stories that then we make our own or tell our own version of.
BS: The Midnight Swim, which as a first feature is definitely more of a bare bones, minimalist film, but since then you have gone on to do films with bigger budgets and more established cast members, like Buster’s Mal Heart and Birds of Paradise only last year, what was that transition like and what is it like to look back on The Midnight Swim?
SAS: I think there’s a real purity of process to The Midnight Swim that I took for granted in my early days because I didn’t really have any choice or didn’t really know any different. And it was such a micro budget movie. But because of that, the cast and crew was tiny, and we all lived in the same house where we shot, and it created this real family environment, and it made the process itself of the filmmaking really beautiful. And I think there was a real intimacy to that movie, that sometimes is now hard to capture and hard to achieve. When you get movies with bigger budgets, or, you know, much bigger cast and crew.
I tell filmmakers, when they’re just starting out, they should really cherish those early days. And those early films when everyone’s just doing it for the love of filmmaking together, because even though that can be frustrating and you feel like you’re always barely scraping by to make the thing you love, there’s just something really special and magic that happens when people come together for that reason that as you progress in your career, seems harder and harder to find. So I love making films at all levels, but I look back on The Midnight Swim and I see there’s a real beauty to the perhaps naivete of that process in those early days.
BS: Yeah, I definitely understand that. And I think that you can really tell it as well.
SAS: I think so. Like they say, the classic adage, “Mo Money Mo Problems.” I mean, it’s obviously great to have resources and to be able to use more toys and there’s all kinds of things that a bigger budget can get you. But at the same time, budgets in films are small, so even my studio movie Birds of Paradise, we still only had a 30 day shoot, it was still really tight. And in fact, you find yourself boxed in a little bit more of a regimented way. And I actually think The Midnight Swim contains a lot more fluidity and freedom in it than Birds of Paradise, even though I’m proud of both films, I think there is something really kind of special and magical, and it’s why I’m so excited it’s getting re-released.
“I think The Midnight Swim is a movie that’s told in a whisper. And for those who do succumb to its hypnosis, I think it’s a kind of film that’s a bit more of a trance-like experience.”
BS: What do you feel is the lasting impact of The Midnight Swim in the time that has passed?
SAS: I think The Midnight Swim is a movie that’s told in a whisper. And for those who do succumb to its hypnosis, I think it’s a kind of film that’s a bit more of a trance-like experience that I think can resonate with people in a way that it’s scratching at the possibility of a kind of transcendence. But it’s not a film that’s necessarily of any particular moment. I think it’s a deeply felt family drama. So I don’t know that there’s gonna be any particular resonance with this day and age or this particular time, but I just hope it’ll have a chance to find more of an audience. The first release we had was fantastic, but it was a little bit small. It was much more reliant on festivals and word of mouth, and there wasn’t really any marketing at all behind it. So I’m just hoping that this next push has a chance to find more love and hopefully speak to more people.
BS: I hope so as well. I do feel that perhaps nowadays, at least with the themes that are present in your film with motherhood and the strained relationship between the mother and the daughters and the sisters between each other, that seems to be more popular nowadays with films like Hereditary and The Babadook, people seem to really want to see more of that strained family relationship.
SAS: Well good I hope so. When you lose somebody, I think what can be really challenging is when that relationship was complicated, and when you never really got to make peace with that person, and then they’re suddenly gone. And so I think in a lot of ways, that’s what this movie is about, too, is these three half sisters each had a very different relationship with their mother. But a very complicated relationship. And it wasn’t a simple death. Where the grief was complicated by the fact that there was anger there too or at least unresolved sadness and hurt.
BS: So when The Midnight Swim first came out, in an interview that you did you described yourself as a midwife for the film or like a mother birthing the film. Do you still feel that way about your filmmaking?
SAS: When it’s at its best I do, I try. I think The Midnight Swim that process was particularly like that, because I was trying to make a film that was very much observed rather than trying to execute a vision that was already perfectly planned out, I was trying to discover and be a witness to something happening in real time. So I really wanted to get myself out of the way and really let the film speak to me in what it wanted to be. And I really do try to do that with all of my movies. And I think that there’s something about that way also because The Midnight Swim, Buster’s Mal Heart and then my new movie, which hasn’t been announced yet, but we’re doing post on now, were all made from scriptments rather than fully fleshed out scripts. And I think working that way, lends itself to a kind of alchemy that happens on the day that then I just get to be the witness of with the camera. So I’m hoping to do more of those kinds of movies. It’s like walking a tightrope, but it’s really exciting, as well, and I think it makes it more of a process of discovery. And it’s more humbling, and it’s less about ego and more about collaboration.
BS: And by scriptment, I assume that you mean like kind of not a full set in stone script more like the ideas.
SAS: A robust outline. So The Midnight Swim I think was about a 25 page outline, and Buster was about 60 some pages. And then my new movie was more like 30 or 40 pages, something like that. So really specific in its structure and sort of what’s happening in each scene, but then with a lot of room for improvisation and fluidity and for actors to really flesh out the characters.
BS: On the subject, can you share what your new film is or what your future holds?
SAS: It’s totally unannounced. The only thing I can say is it’s a comedy, which is really exciting and surprising for me, not something I would have thought I’d be doing but has been a real joy.
BS: That’s awesome. I’m excited to see it when it finally comes out.
SAS: Glad to share it. Thank you so much for taking time to promote this movie. And for being a fan, it means a lot. This is a real honor for me that The Midnight Swim is getting another chance to get out into the world. So I hope people will watch it.
BS: Yeah, same here. Like I said, it really is like a film that has really affected me in a way that many films have not so if I can get more eyes on it, I am very excited to do that and I’m very happy to have been able to talk to you as well and seeing your retrospective on the film now.
SAS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you.
The Midnight Swim re-release Collector’s Edition Bluray is available now through Vinegar Syndrome and on VOD Jan. 25. Pre-order it here.