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Developing Characters and Tone with 'Ida Red' Writer-Director John Swab

Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews 'Ida Red' writer-director John Swab about writing the titular character Ida for actress Melissa Leo, capturing her essence, what films and filmmakers inspired him to take the reigns as a writer-director and what's next in the creative pipeline.
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Crime boss Ida "Red" Walker (Oscar® winner Melissa Leo*) turns to her son, Wyatt (Josh Hartnett), to pull off one last heist to get out of prison. But with the FBI closing in, Wyatt must choose between family and freedom in this high-octane thriller.

Ida Red delivers on all fronts from foolproof casting, an action packed gritty storyline and clear vision, all masterfully crafted by filmmaker John Swab. I had the opportunity to speak with John about writing the titular character Ida for actress Melissa Leo, capturing her essence, what films and filmmakers inspired him to take the reigns as a writer-director and what's next in the creative pipeline.

Melissa Leo as Ida 'Red' Walker in the action/thriller/crime film, “IDA RED,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Melissa Leo as Ida 'Red' Walker in the action/thriller/crime film, “IDA RED,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: First off, what a fun ride this movie is from start to finish. The pacing, characters, and this kind of story felt like it was a modern-day Western. Overall, highly enjoyable, and Frank Grillo is very eerily charming in this role as Dallas.

John Swab: Well, I appreciate it. And I agree with all things you said, especially Frank.

Sadie: What was the initial seed for this story?

John: Really the relationship between Wyatt and Ida kind of is where everything came from. I kind of had the idea for a mother in prison who is the matriarch of a criminal family and her son being her kind of interface to doing her bidding and it just all came out of that.

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Sadie: There’s this running theme of a mother’s tight embrace around their children, and we've seen it in films like Psycho, Th Manchurian Candidate to movies like Animal Kingdom. I'm curious about what was it about her character that just initially drew you to her and developing that family around her?

John: That's a good question. I wrote it for Melissa because I know Melissa pretty well. And Melissa is a really, really powerful actor when you watch her on-screen, she just commands the whole scene and everybody's attention and she's that way in real life too. She has this presence to her that is unlike many people I've ever been around. And she is nothing like Ida Red, she's a really sweet lady and has done a lot of good things for me and helped me out. It was fun to take those kinds of elements that she has and turn them around and use them for this character. I just tried to use kind of the magnetism that Melissa has as a human and kind of incorporated it into the script and into the character. I think it comes across pretty well. Everybody has this loyalty to this woman and when she's on-screen you don't really know why, but you can feel why because there's something very terrifying about her but also very likable and alluring about her as well.

John Swab

John Swab

Sadie: You feel for her too, especially with that reveal about her daughter and until the very end for her, too.

John: Yeah, that's the hard task of that character is making people feel for her as well.

Sadie: Knowing that you wrote this role specifically for Melissa, what was the casting process like for the rest of the roles, and did you have an opportunity to do a table read with the whole cast?

John: No, I didn't have the opportunity to do a table read. I also wrote Dallas for Frank. With those two pieces as your starting point, it makes the rest of the casting process a little bit easier, because people like to work with actors like that. But because it was shot during COVID and a lot of the casting was done during the early stages of COVID, there was no opportunity to do a table read. But, nonetheless, I got to prep individually with everybody a lot because nobody was working, so it was kind of a weird little blessing to have that time.

[L-R] Frank Grillo as Dallas Walker and Josh Harnett as Wyatt Walker in the action/thriller/crime film, “IDA RED,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

[L-R] Frank Grillo as Dallas Walker and Josh Harnett as Wyatt Walker in the action/thriller/crime film, “IDA RED,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Sadie: Do you typically write to direct?

John: Yeah, that's what I've done up to this point is written everything and then ended up directing as well.

Sadie: Do you have a set writing routine for yourself?

John: I do. I've kind of refined it as I've gotten further into this. I treat it like a job. I wake up at six in the morning and I start writing and then either go for a drive or to the gym or something and then I come back and get back to it. And I do the same thing every day until the script is done.

Sadie: What kind of stories are you excited to tell and want to shoot yourself?

John: Right now, I really like these films, like Ida, action crime genre. That's the kind of movies I grew up loving to watch. And so, after doing one, I kind of had the bug and we're in prep to do another right now. And in between that, we shot another film called Candy Land, which is like a throwback slasher movie, and I've never done anything in horror. I really wasn't a big horror fan, but I am now and I had a lot of fun doing it. So, I don't really have any career paths that I set out for myself where I only want to do certain kinds of movies. I think a good movie has elements of all genres in it, you know, romance, comedy, action, a little bit of horror, thriller, all that kind of stuff. I try not to limit myself to whatever the overall genre is. I like to kind of play with as many different things as possible in one film.

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Sadie: Going back to the movie, the look and tone, and pacing of this film is great and you’ve taken a lot of creative liberties, especially with the transitions you’ve incorporated into the editing. What was your collaboration process like with both your cinematographer Matt Clegg and your editor, John David Allen?

John: Matt and I had done three movies together. And it was a lot of run and gun on all three - it was a very indie operation on all of them. And we figured out a rhythm and a language to kind of just get it done. In terms of the transitions, a lot of those I'd written into the script and had kind of conceived before writing the movie. They seem like maybe cheap tricks to kind of date the movie, but I feel like that reminds people that they're watching a movie and it's not something that needs to be taken seriously – it’s not tackling some social issue or something. And that was kind of the idea behind it. I just want to make a movie that people can enjoy and turn on and kind of just get lost in. So, those transitions I feel like kind of lent themselves to a playfulness that allows you to do that.

Sadie: What filmmakers inspired you to become a filmmaker yourself?

John: A lot. I grew up in middle America in Oklahoma. So, the kinds of films I got to see weren't crazy arthouse films and when I did see them, I never forgot them. I was a kid in the 90s, and a lot of the early memories of movies were Tony Scott movies or Tarantino movies, Paul Thomas Anderson, people like that. Those were kind of my entry point into higher level, indie or arthouse films. But as I've gotten older, I've really had the opportunity to go back and look at films of the past and educate myself on who inspires those people. And a lot of the movie brats and the filmmakers of the 60s and 70s are really now where I look to when I'm trying to find inspiration or see how they did things.

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Sadie: That’s a great list of names that you rattled off there, and can see that ensemble of characters carry through in your pieces as well. Here’s a wild question for you, can we get a movie about Lawrence Twilley next?

John: [laughs] I'm sure Forsythe would love that. [laughs] You know, maybe you might have to negotiate that deal with him for it. [laughs]

William Forsythe as Lawrence Twilley in the action/thriller/crime film, “IDA RED,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

William Forsythe as Lawrence Twilley in the action/thriller/crime film, “IDA RED,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Sadie: I'll start working on that. [laughs] What is something you wish you would have known before writing and directing your first movie? Or maybe something that you wish you would have had embraced more through that process?

IdaRed_keyart

John: I'm not one of those people that has any regrets about all that stuff. I've had the opportunity to make five films now and I'm in prep on a sixth and I don't really look back and say, ‘Oh, I wish I would have done that differently.’ I just kind of look at and say, ‘OK, well next time I'm going to do or I could have done that this way. And I'm going to do it that way in this next film.’ And a lot of the time when I see a mistake in a film that I've made or something I perceive as a mistake, I try and write that correction into the thing I'm writing next, so that I can tackle it and kind of face it and hopefully figure it out and do it better. I don't really think there's anything I would have done differently on any of them. But the through-line for me, it's just learning to keep your circle small and the people that you trust close because once you get into the process of making a film, there are hundreds of people that can become involved with it from start to finish. And if you let it, there'll be 100 opinions on how things should be, and then by the end of it, it's not your movie anymore. It's an amalgamation of all these other opinions. So, I think, learning where to take criticism and input is kind of the biggest thing for me. That's kind of been the biggest thing for me is learning that and I'm doing a better job of it. And I can see the result because each time the film feels a little bit more like something that's ours, with the people that I keep close.

Saban Films will release the action/crime/thriller Ida Red in Theaters, On Digital and On Demand on November 5, 2021.


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