As a youngster growing up in the blue-collar lakefront city of Sandusky, Ohio, Todd Stephens became fascinated with a flamboyant stranger who always seemed to hang around downtown, wearing matching pantsuits and a cocktail ring on every finger.
“He looked very different from everybody else,” Stephens recalled. “It was a pretty normal place, pretty conservative, and he was the opposite of that. He really stuck out. I always felt a bit different myself.”
Decades later, Pat’s influence became the basis for Swan Song, a bittersweet character study of aging and queer identity, directed by Stephens, that made its theatrical debut in June at the Oak Cliff Film Festival.
When he was 17, Stephens worked up the courage to visit the local gay bar for the first time. That’s when he met Pat, and learned he was a hairdresser for the area’s upscale clientele. The filmmaker moved to New York the following year, and never maintained close contact afterward.
In the film, Pat (Udo Kier) is a former hairdresser now confined to a nursing home. But when a former client (Linda Evans) drops dead, her will specifies that Pat style her final hairdo for the funeral. The assignment enables him to recapture his carefree spirit and meet some eccentrics along the way — including an ex-protégé (Jennifer Coolidge) who became a rival.
“It’s about somebody who was very alive, and then had sort of given up. That happens to some of us. We feel like we’re not relevant anymore and nobody remembers us,” Stephens said. “Pat lost his purpose, and by losing his purpose, he lost his identity. He needs to let go of his baggage in order to be reborn. It’s never too late.”
The film, which opens in Fort Worth this weekend and in Dallas on Aug. 13, has earned particular acclaim for Kier (Bacurau), the legendary 76-year-old German character actor in a rare starring role.
It was Kier’s idea to shoot the film’s scenes as chronologically as possible to replicate his character’s journey, both physically and emotionally. Since the locations in Sandusky were so physically close to one another, Stephens agreed.
“There’s an explanation why people are writing that this is the best performance of my life — because I have the lead,” Kier joked. “Putting it all together, I had a great time making the movie. I met everybody because there was only one street. It was a great collaboration. If it would have been a big production, it wouldn’t have worked.”
The real-life Pat died in 2012, but Stephens was able to visit with his family when writing the screenplay. He recalls becoming emotional while rifling through an old box of jewelry and hats.
“I wanted him to be remembered for more than just that,” Stephens said. “There are so many people like that, who had this fabulous life and then disappeared. It’s my way of paying homage to all the Mr. Pats of the world, who had the courage to be themselves.”