Clearly, Kristen Stewart knows what heartbreak feels like.
I don’t know this because of all the tabloid headlines, or because she confided in me, or because she finally revealed the detailed history of her widely obsessed-over love life in a confessional interview. I know Stewart has experienced heart-wrenching sadness because of what I saw in her directorial debut, Come Swim, a 17-minute short film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week.
Stewart wrote and directed the film as part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology film series. The short focuses on one man’s day, alternating between abstract, artistic representations of his broken heart (walls caving in, enormous waves collapsing on top of him) and alarmingly realistic scenes showing him in a cubicle, attempting to get through the workday. All throughout the movie, we hear remnants of past conversations between our hero (Josh Kaye) and his ex, seemingly unimportant exchanges about swimming and water. They’re the kinds of conversations we all replay in our minds after a breakup — wishing we’d appreciated them at the time, wishing we could get them out of our heads.
We asked Stewart why she made the film, how it feels to be a citizen under President Trump, and what it will take for more women directors to get films made.
Where did you first get the idea for Come Swim? I read that you were inspired by one of your own paintings.
“I was fixated on capturing the image of this man very content with sleeping on the ocean floor. I was really obsessed with putting someone somewhere that they wouldn’t naturally inhabit, and having them sort of dwell. In that time in my life, that was incredibly appealing to me, it was just sort of about isolation. The years progressed and I was busy doing other things, and I realized that everything I’ve ever written in the last five years, it’s been the same thing. It’s like the same poem, again and again and again. It’s like what the fuck, it’s so redundant, and obviously this needs to get out so I can move on.
“So I did a painting of it. It’s pretty simple — the climax of the movie is initially incredibly grand and epic, in his own personal experience. Then the second time we see it, it’s incredibly regular and kind of stupid, like kind of funny. [The point is to] stop aggrandizing your own pain. Everyone is the fucking same. We are plain as day, dude.”
Most people haven’t seen Come Swim yet, so explain what it’s about.
“Oh dude, this movie is like full-frontal heartbreak. I’m definitely not shying away from that, that’s absolutely what it’s about. It’s that first fall to this existential netherworld. You can attack yourself with memories or, depending on perspective, you can take a step back and say, ‘Actually, it wasn’t so bad. That was fun, we did have fun and it was nice.’ So I had my two actors play in a pool and talk to each other and I gave them a couple of key words. But they said some stuff that we pulled and made really negative and terrifying and kind of ominous in the beginning.
“He’s killing himself with these memories and his brain is so scattered and he literally cannot get the voices out of his head, but in reality it wasn’t so bad. He regrets everything he said and he’s like ‘Ugh, why couldn’t I have just done this different?’ He’s just reevaluating everything and going over every word he ever said to her being like, ‘How could I have saved this, how could I have fixed this, it’s all my fault, I fucked it all up.’ In the second part of the film, you’re just like, ‘Dude you didn’t, it just kind of fell apart, that’s what happened.’ I just wanted to externalize an incredibly internal struggle and then see it again from the outside.”
How would you describe yourself as a director?
“I’m a pretty obsessive person, which is I think entirely necessary. You have to be a little crazy to put yourself through something like that and actually make it happen. I was probably a little bit more controlling than I thought I would have been. My favorite thing in the world is when it feels like something starts to get up and walk itself. When something’s really good, and it’s rare — honestly I’ve made a million bad movies. Not bad, it’s just like sometimes they don’t come together in a way that feels miraculous and when they do, it genuinely feels like something is floating and you’re all sort of blowing on it to keep it up and it’s like, that fully happened. It’s so cliché, it feels like super pretentious to say this, but you genuinely feel like this vessel and you’re like, ‘That was sick, I don’t even know what just happened,’ and it’s just fucking real.”
There’s a lot of discussion these days about women in Hollywood, and the need for more female directors. How do you see the problem?
“I’m really happy to be living in the year I’m in now because it’s been a slow-moving process. But I see that progress and it’s all desire based. It’s contagious. Honestly, as soon as that’s happening a little bit more, it’s just going to pick up and snowball. Women watch male-dominated films, like more women watch movies than guys do. We need to start realizing that we can actually focus on ourselves and explore that. There’s so many fucking untold stories, it’s insane. Someone needs to do a fucking modern love story, somebody needs to do something that’s topically now, instead of the shit that we’ve been regurgitating for years. It’s satisfying but it’s not what people are actually going through.
“Not to bring up the [inauguration], but right now, people are so fucking angry and it feels so good. It’s the farthest thing from complacent, and I know that it’s easy to turn that around because there are manipulative fucking crazy people saying, ‘Why are you guys so angry, don’t be so hateful.’ But, ‘No, I fucking hate you and I’m going to talk about it.’ I think we’re going to experience a serious artistic revolution. That’s my life.”
Do you see yourself directing feature-length films next?
“Yeah. Honestly it took me too long, like I can’t believe I’m already 26 and I just made my first short. I don’t see like a huge distinction between acting and directing the way I approach it. So, I want to allow myself to ride some momentum and allow that to give me confidence. Still, I love what I do. It’s kind of the same thing. It’s like when it’s good and it’s fucking cohesive and right… I have manic happy eyes, like I get so fucking stoked when something works, I literally look like an insane person. It’s so satisfying, it’s crazy, I grit my teeth.”
Do you have any advice for young women who really want to become directors?
“Anyone I’ve met that’s doing things for themselves and really compelled to do so, you can’t get in their way. There’s just no stopping them and I would say, trust that. There are people that just desperately see things and just want to explain the beauty of something. If you have that, you fucking have it. It’s the worst advice ever, but just believe in desire. It’s the worst fucking feeling in the world just to want something and deprive yourself of it. Just fucking do it.”