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.”
Kristen Stewart knows the kind of thoughts people are going to have about her directorial debut. And she’s not especially concerned with them.
“I wasn’t fearful in confronting what this was about,” the star said of her new work, a short film titled “Come Swim.” “I mean, I put a relationship right in the middle of it.”
Stewart's fame these days comes primarily from two areas: her relationships, which draw the interest of tens of millions of people, and her studiously independent film work, which garners the ticket sales of, well, somewhat fewer.
Those two strands converge in “Come Swim,” a piece that pushes the 26-year-old in ever-new artistic directions while also offering some of the clearest tea leaves yet about her closely guarded personal life.
The actress, who has determinedly done it her way since wrapping “The Twilight Saga” five (!) years ago, is continuing her Sinatran act with her eighth Sundance Film Festival appearance. Or is it her ninth? She can’t remember.
Either way, this go-round is different. The former teen queen has for the first time come to the festival as a writer-director, for her new movie that was backed by, and will appear shortly on, the women-oriented website Refinery 29.
As she sat in a storefront media lounge here on a snowy Friday afternoon, wearing a leather jacket, burgundy Adidas sneakers and a generous amount of makeup, Stewart described the animating principal of the 17-minute film.
“I wanted to externalize a literally internal thought process,” she said. “I read through poems of mine from the past few years and I was like 'I’m writing the same poem over and over. If I don’t make this movie I can’t move on.’"
Was that poem about lost love? Stewart didn’t elaborate. But she did say it was informed by a breakup-related observation. “It’s looking around at people every day and saying — screaming — inside ‘How are you OK? I’m not OK!’”
“Come Swim” features a 30-ish man (Josh Kaye) in various states of desperation. He drinks liquids fervently — from a water bottle, a sink, any source, really — but manages to slake his thirst. A woman's voice, meanwhile, bangs around his head, saying the same things and triggering his quenching urges. Themes of wetness and dryness run throughout — a man lying at the bottom of the ocean, or crawling parched across an expanse of sand. (The movie, it bears noting, was scored by St. Vincent, a recent Stewart ex.)
Unapologetically awash in symbolism and inscrutable imagery, “Come Swim” could test Stewart's fan base, or at least divide it into two camps: those who devotedly follow her wherever she goes and those who want to see her in a more conventional story (or see her, period). As with Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River,” "Come Swim" makes few concessions to accessibility: it’s a star saying they didn’t build up all that leverage or wade through all that paparazzi muck not to earn a license for full-on experimentalism.
Not that its director sees the movie as impenetrable.
“Dude, it's totally about personal relationships," Stewart said, using one of her go-to sentence-starters. "Full-on heartbreak. I think it started in my mind as opaque. But in the end, it's clear. This is straight-on..I mean, I put a picture of the [main character's] girlfriend on the wall."
Stewart's own breakups, she said, were difficult — deeply, existentially so, ultimately jolting her from the many hours of acting work she took on to forget about them.
“These traumatic occurrences, they actually force you to think instead of being caught up in distractions," said Stewart, who in speech uses elliptical enthusiasms and a rapid-fire delivery, as if Wordsworth was roused from the dead and came back as a skater-girl. "That’s what I wanted [with this film] — to all of a sudden say 'I realize I have a body and I’m alone and you’re alone and we’re all alone and we’re all together in our loneliness.”"
She said the process for the film began with a feeling.
“I started with an outline — no dialogue — about someone who knew what they needed but their system couldn’t absorb that. They tried every day and just couldn’t. Then the imagery just started appearing to me. And the film really began creating itself — it knew exactly what it wanted to be.”
Though she didn’t say that had anything to do with the fallout from her breakup with Robert Pattinson — “I don’t want to reduce it to one relationship” — she may not have to. Stewart admitted that she’d been “thinking about [this film] for four years,” a period that basically lines up with her high-profile split from her longtime “Twilight” costar.
That would give this film a certain riposte quality — a tacit statement to him, basically, that “no matter how hard I tried, I could never get what I needed.” (Though unlike such famous subtextual song-based battles between exes — Taylor Swift and John Meyer, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake — it’s hard to imagine Pattinson retorting with a short of his own.)
Still, just because it came from a place of heartbreak, this film was not, Stewart said, innately a heartbreaking film.
“It's ‘I need this bottle of water and every day I’m drying out.’ But it’s also what I finally recognized: ‘I’ve been so crazy and all I need to go outside and it will be better. Because if you stay in here, it’s always dark.’”
“I wanted,” she added, “for this reconstitution to be glorious.”
Was that slightly compromised by the fact that this movie saw a collaboration with St. Vincent — that the panacea for heartbreak was now tinged with the same? “I am,” she said, “very good at compartmentalizing."
Stewart doesn’t seem to be interested in giving up acting. But she does seem serious when she says getting behind the camera gives her a higher level of satisfaction.
“I’ve done movies as an actor that I go 'that's a piece of ...," using a synonym for garbage. "And I can get past it. ‘I had moments in it; no big deal.’ As an actor, I’m not results-oriented — it’s the experience. I can throw my hands up and say [to the director] ‘That’s your thing.' But as a director, it's different. I want this to be in my catalogue. And that's … exciting. It's 'There's nothing left to say.’ I look at every one of these 17 minutes and I love them. It's all there. Mic drop.''
Long-term she does want to develop “Come Swim” into a feature and has little concern about stretching its abstractions to feature length. “I could easily do 120 minutes,” Stewart said.
She also is returning to directing more imminently. Her next movie is another short. Refinery 29 has again agreed to fund it, Stewart said, and it will be “pretty and dark and about gun control,” done in the style of a music video, potentially built on an original song. Stewart will continue making trips to unorthodox wells. Whether other people drink is up to them.
The celebrated actor joins Scott Free executive vice-president of production and Come Swim executive producer Michael Pruss to discuss her directorial debut on the Sundance short and declares, “It’s a full-frontal heartbreak movie.”
Josh Kaye stars in the film, which shot mostly in Los Angeles and for two days in Arizona last summer and is described on the Sundance website as “a diptych of one man’s day, half impressionist and half realist portraits.”
Scott Free and Starlight Studios produced Come Swim and Refinery 29 financed the project, with Starlight’s Dave Shapiro serving as producer. It premiered on Thursday and screens again twice on Saturday with further shows on Wednesday and Saturday on the final weekend. Stewart is pictured at right next to Pruss.
How are you feeling after the premiere? Kristen Stewart: I feel so lucky that so many people got to actually see it on a big screen and more importantly hear it, because sound is such a big part of it and it moves, it moves through you and the vibration is palpable and it makes you feel a little sick and it enhances the anxiety and that is even more satisfying. I have five screenings. So cool. Just that alone makes me so happy. We throw voices all over the room and it reflects the interior of a scattered brain and it feels like you’re being attacked by memories. It feels like voices are coming from all around you. That opening wave sequence is powerful and looks almost hyper-real. Did you use effects? KS: It’s incredibly real. I wrote [the male character] drying out and I felt it would only work if you see these abundantly hydrated mirages to show that he’s trying to absorb but he can’t. My storyboards were so ridiculously ambitious and my producing team never allowed me to diminish the original idea. We reached out to an underwater photographer who lives in Sydney and he has this camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second. You slow down time to a point that feels like what it feels like to be super depressed: you are ‘sludging’ through time and this wave is building and building and it never fucking breaks. If it was digital it would have been cheesy. We sifted through hours and hours to find those few seconds. You can shot that camera for 30 seconds and that ends up being three hours of footage.
What gave you the idea of this story? KS: It started off pretty ambiguously. I was obsessed with the idea of a man sitting on the ocean floor and the contentment of that and the isolation and how dark that is because at a certain time that seemed really appealing to me. You can’t see light unless you open your eyes and it’s about allowing yourself to see because it’s always there.
It’s a full-frontal heartbreak movie. I’m definitely not shying away from what sparked this desire to capture these images. It’s just that first fall. You have that driving force that keeps you going and then all of a sudden it shatters and you think, ‘How am I going to live now?’ You attack yourself with memories and figure from every angle how it could have been different and what I could have said and what he could have said and there was this other person and you take two steps back and realise it wasn’t all bad. That’s why the second time round when you hear the same lines repurposed [in Come Swim], they’re pleasant, they’re not all bad. Depending on perspective you can murder yourself with evaluation and over-analysis. Was this a response to one relationship in particular? KS: I’ve had four incredibly public relationships. It’s about all of them. I’ve been thinking about it for five years or so and everything I’ve gone through with love. Those are catalyst situations that might start off about a relationship and there are certain traumatic experiences that lead you to certain existential experiences. I have to contend with the fact I’m living every day and trying to keep myself alive. I’m alone and we all are and I really wanted to convey that it’s normal.
You can aggrandise your own pain and think you’re alone in that and no-one really understands, but at the end of the day there’s something very comforting in thinking we’re all alone… Before you go to sleep in those last two seconds there are certain questions you cannot answer and you have to flow through them. It’s important to mediate on those subjects but at the same time but you can’t fall into it. It’s [about] relinquishing control and realising you have to be a part of life to enjoy it…. You can’t write the story of your life. It would be nice but it’s not the way to live.
MP: When you look back at a relationship it’s never linear, the remembrances of it, and it hits you in shards of memories. Often small things in the present can trigger very overwhelming memories and the film speaks to how you can make sense of overwhelming things that have happened and how do you move on from those and find solution. All of us [on the project] were looking at the journey from dissolution to contentment.
KS: Yes and allowing yourself to be not be weighted by something. And the whole thing is flow. If you fight water you are going to tire and drown.
MP: It’s that weird paradox of what you need the most can kill you and that was the motif we talked about a lot in the central process. There is that central paradox in love: you’re looking for belonging and it can destroy you. And it’s about embracing the unknowable aspects of life and realising you can’t draw a line under everything.
When did the idea of making the movie come to you? KS: A couple of years ago I really wanted to do it and I had that first image of the guy on the floor and have him very, very thirsty and not be able to absorb the hydrations. I’ve read through all of my poems of the last five years and I saw I’d written the same thing over and over. I needed to repurpose this so I could write about something else. [Mike and I] were in Singapore doing Equals and I wrote it all down in a notebook and sent it to this guy [points to Pruss]. I’ve wanted to make movies since I was ten years old. But you have to have something to say. It’s incredibly personal but it’s also really simple. This is a total first-world, white people issue; talking about how sad you can get and how overwhelming that is.
MP: There’s as universality to it. We’ve all been alone, we’ve all felt depressed and felt the chaos of relationships in life and we all go through it.
Writing is such an interior process so what was it like to direct? KS: It was trippy because when something’s worth it and really lives it makes itself and both as an actor and director I feel when something’s cohesive and comes together it’s miraculous. I’ve made a lot of bad movies but… the pride is not about having created something you can stamp your name on as an actor or director – it’s really more about the astonishment of an occurrence and being involved in an occurrence. Wow, this idea passed through all of us and ended up [as] this thing. I feel that way as an actor too.
You divvy up the responsibilities and it feels like you’re holding a bowl of water: a very shallow, heavy bowl of water and the finish line is a mile away and everyone needs to put one hand under it and make sure we don’t spill and by the end it’s really light because everyone’s got one hand under it and as an actor and a director I feel that. I started this thing but once it’s going everyone needs to put their hand under the bowl. You just cannot do this alone. This whole process is such a together thing.
Did you enjoy it? KS: I had such fun. Manically happy. When things work out and everything’s running I looked like a crazy person, crazy eyes. So satisfying. I was like one foot in front of the other. You cannot think of it as a whole because it will bog you down. I’m not very result-oriented; truly, it’s about the experience of it, that compulsive thing. You can’t think about the entire wall; you have to put this brick down then maybe that brick and you stand back and you’ve built a wall.
How did it come together? MP: At Scott Free we had a great relationship on Equals and Kristen worked with Ridley’s son Jake on Welcome To The Rileys a few years ago, so it was such a natural continuation and collaboration. It was helping a mate out at this point. Our partner on the film Starlight Studios and Dave Shapiro brought Refinery 29 in for the financing. We at Scott Free look at Kristen as family. One of the first things Ridley did when we showed him the film we he sent her a note saying it’s fantastic and that she was like family.
KS: He said this was confident filmmaking. I was literally skipping around my room.
MP: We had a great team. We had cinematographer John Guleserian and I introduced Kristen to a friend who’s an editor called Jacob Secher Schulsinger who’s shot for Lars von Trier and edited Take Me To The River. I had a feeling they would connect which is why I put them together.
KS: I bow down to [Jacob]. He is such an artist.
As collaborators you share a great energy MP: On our down time we’re both big readers and would talk about things we’d read that inspired us and the way we see the world. Our friendship evolved quite naturally. We have a good rhythm together and that’s a part of producing sometimes.
KS: There are the producers who are going to get the movie made and there are people like [Pruss], whom I feel I know why they’re doing this. Some producers are just about money and that’s fine. But you look at Mike’s story and he started at Focus Features bringing tea for people. I love people like that. He stepped it up and up and is doing amazing shit. He and [Clouds Of Sils Maria producer] Charles Gillibert are my fucking boys.
Will you direct more? KS: I want to expand this into a feature. We’re looking at stuff. I’ll make a movie. I want to make a couple more shorts. [Stewart has said she is planning to direct a short on gun control next.] I love acting and I really don’t see much of a difference. I can work for people on a million different subjects, but when it’s your thing it needs to come out of you naturally. This did. The first cut, this was 40 minutes long. I could expand this into 120 minutes in a second.
And who is Josh, the only actor in Come Swim?
KS: He’s just my friend Josh who literally has done nothing. I wanted to play this part so badly and identified with him. I feel like we could be related, so it was the perfect fit. If it wasn’t going to be me I’m happy it was him.
As an actress, she’s worked with a number of today’s auteurs such as Woody Allen, Jodie Foster, Olivier Assayas and Sean Penn, and now Kristen Stewart is stepping behind the camera with her directorial debut short Come Swim. Reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s cinematic poetry in its metaphorical, visceral images and whispering voiceovers by Stewart, Come Swim follows a young man’s emotional pan as he is oversaturated and then parched by water. He’s played by Josh Kaye, a non-pro whose natural talent Stewart was drawn to and harnessed throughout the 17-minute piece.
“The ways in which you grandiose your own pain is something that I was interested in because if you’re not inside of them, it’s seemingly normal and mundane, but when you’re inside of that, you’re inside a graphic novel,” says the Twilight actress.
Stewart dabbled with the idea of “one man sleeping on the bottom of the ocean” for about four years via poems and a painting. In an effort to sidestep CGI, she employed ‘neural style transfer’, a type of artificial intelligence which reconfigures images, to transfer her painting to the filmed images during the opening and closing sequences of the movie. Timed with Come Swim‘s premiere at Sundance, the research paper “Bringing Impressionism to Life with Neural Style Transfer in Come Swim” that Stewart co-authored with the film’s producer David Shapiro and Adobe research engineer Bhautik J Joshi detailing the A.I.’s methodology was dropped on Thursday on the Cornell University library website. “It’s not a small movie,” asserts Stewart, “It’s not like actors in a room talking to each other which you would definitely expect an actor to start off with (as a directorial project), myself too. Why did I make my first experience so difficult? I’m a little masochistic.”
And in regards to future directing projects, Stewart will be back.