Indie Filmmaker in Focus: Meg Swertlow
Updated: Apr 18
When I met Meg Swertlow at a film festival a few years ago, I knew she was someone I would remember. Small in stature, her big personality, gregarious nature, and undeniable energy stood out as she chatted with everyone who crossed her path. I quickly learned that she was funny, with a background in improv performance, and could easily talk to anyone, a trait that inevitably helped in her former career as an entertainment reporter. Moreover, she wore a shirt that read “The future of horror is female” and I immediately wanted to hug her for that.
In fact, the future of horror may well be Swertlow, given she’s written and directed eight short films in the past three years, has optioned a feature script that’s in development, and shows no signs of slowing her trajectory to success. In the past six months alone, she’s shadowed a television production as part of Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative, been mentored by Kevin Williamson as a part of the inaugural K Period Media/Blumhouse “Screamwriting” Lab, and given birth to her first child. All this while her short film No Overnight Parking is about to premier and another of her shorts, The Voiceless, is making a stir as part of the feature anthology Give Me an A. If that seems like a lot, it is. “I’m of the belief you say yes and just figure it out later,” she told me. And she’s been saying “yes” a lot lately.
Swertlow went on to explain that’s how she became a part of the Give Me an A anthology, a female-directed project spearheaded by EP/Director Natasha Halevi in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. “She sent me a message on Instagram,” Swertlow recalled. “She said ‘I saw your post about being angry about Roe v Wade, do you want to do something about it? Come to this Zoom tomorrow.’ So I went to what I thought was a protest group and it was actually her pitching this idea to a group of women to do the anthology.” Halevi asked those interested to bring her a short concept in the next three days as the plan was to shoot it just three weeks later. “I was like five months pregnant and I didn’t want to do anything,” she said. “And I just said yes.” From start to finish, the production was completed in merely ten weeks.
Saying yes paid off, as the film has been eliciting emotional responses at festivals, most recently at the Overlook Festival held in New Orleans. It was Swertlow’s first experience “playing in a place where what we’re fighting for is illegal,” she said. “Some people were crying in the audience. [The Voiceless] is the first short in the anthology and it really sets the tone for what everyone is about to see.” The film’s success has been bittersweet, however. “I’m very proud of it. I think it’s amazing what it’s done, but I wish we didn’t have to make it.”
Swertlow (center), directing The Voiceless
Swertlow’s newest short No Overnight Parking also deals with a difficult topic, that of domestic violence. Again casting a strong female lead (Alyssa Milano), Swertlow spins the everyday terror of being a woman walking alone in a dark parking deck into a tale of abuse survival, and as a proof-of-concept, it’s one she’s hoping to craft into a feature length film. Milano was always Swertlow’s first choice for the film and 3rd Rock From the Sun’s French Stewart came on board later in the role of her abusive husband. While getting name talent on a short film isn’t always an easy feat, Swertlow credits her can-do attitude. “I think a lot of it is that I asked. People don’t think to ask. They don’t think they can do it. But I was like, I’m getting her.” She suggested Milano to her casting director, who had cast Milano in another project, and Swertlow also reached out to Milano directly. “I wrote her a letter about my experience getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship, how I mentor women, how much I value her talent as well as her activism and that this is a tale about a woman getting out. And it kind of was an instant yes from her.” Swertlow calls Milano a “true women’s activist” who doesn’t just put on a show for social media. “She came and did this project with stunts and being covered in blood in February, it was cold. We’re not a big budget set and her dressing room was, like, a tent and she was totally chill about it.” For French Stewart’s role, Swertlow directed him cross-country over Zoom. “I think he wanted to do it because it’s so out of character for him. I’m really happy with his performance and people don’t recognize him because they haven’t seen that side of his work.”
Poster Artwork by Matthew Therrien
Swertlow also said “yes” when she had an opportunity to become a part of the Ryan Murphy Half Initiative late last year, a program that aims to create equal opportunities behind the camera. “I had my interview when I was 7 months pregnant on a Zoom,” she said. She knew that timing would be difficult, and agreed when she was told they could place her on a show in just a few weeks. That was how she found herself shadowing a director on the series 9-1-1: Lonestar, produced by Murphy. “It was so much,” Swertlow recalled. “I was on my feet and physically it was quite challenging. I had a little person in me kicking and hiccupping all the time and luckily everyone was wonderful on set. The final day of filming was November 15 and I was scheduled for a C-section November 17. So I was on set until about 36 hours before I had her.” But Swertlow never doubted her decision to forge ahead with the opportunity and said her supportive husband encouraged her as well. “I’m so glad I did it, I feel it did open doors for me.” As a part of her shadowing experience, Swertlow was able to observe private meetings where shots were being called and got to be a part of filming “explosions and shooting and fire and FBI raids.” It was a very different experience from the world of horror shorts. “I hope that I get to do more shadowing because I have a lot to learn and I want to learn a lot more.”
Working on set as part of the Half Initiative
Swertlow is continuing to learn as she is currently part of the inaugural group invited to participate in the K Period Media/Blumhouse “Screamwriting” Fellowship, created to help identify and mentor underrepresented emerging horror film and television writers.
Through the fellowship she’s been coached by some of the biggest names in horror; she had one-on-one mentoring with Kevin Williamson and Couper Samuelson (President of Blumhouse Feature Films), a mock writer’s room experience with Damon Lindelof and Crystal Liu, and a character class with Ryan Murphy. Other mentors involved in the lab include Mike Flanagan, Chris Landon, Rob Savage and so many others, “the who’s who list of horror names,” as described by Swertlow. “When they told me I got it I was crying in my car because this is the stuff of dreams. I’ve just been feeling really lucky and all the other writers are wonderful people. We talk all the time and it’s been fun to experience this with them.” Swertlow and the other selected writers will receive ongoing support and mentoring throughout the year as they push their projects forward.
Directing a scene of No Overnight Parking
Swertlow plans to take her show on the road this year, crediting film festivals as a big part of her rapid success over the past few years. The early encouragement and validation the festival scene provided kept giving her more momentum. “I love going to film festivals. A lot of writers don’t go to a festival they have a script in because they’re not showing anything. But I went because once again I think you say yes. And it was there that I decided I wanted to direct. I saw all the male directors and I left thinking why not me, why can’t I do it?” Swertlow describes the genre festival circuit as a community, one where she has made lasting friends and connections, but also a place where she finds inspiration. “I think the genre community is the best and I feel very inspired by the work of others.”
You can catch one of Meg Swertlow’s current projects at an upcoming film festival. No Overnight Parking premiers at Fantaspoa this month; Give Me an A also plays at Fantaspoa as well as PanicFest later this month.
Photos courtesy of the subject.