• Interviews

Samuel Tressler IV on The Silence of the Swans in “Leda”

As any filmmaker can attest, recording quality audio on a movie or TV set can be quite complicated. The slightest exterior noise can not only cause multiple retakes to ensue but usually requires actors to come back during postproduction to re-record their lines to get a clean track. So, imagine how gratifying it would be to make a movie that had no dialogue?

That is exactly the challenge Samuel Tressler IV gave himself with the new film Leda. Based on a classic Greek mythological tale of Leda and the Swan, it tells the story of the God Zeus, who takes the form of a swan to seduce the beautiful Leda.

Tressler uses that lore to craft his own interpretation of a young woman haunted by memories and divine visions and struggles with trauma, rape and pregnancy in this poetic reimagining of the Greek myth. But in a cinematic twist, he uses no dialogue during the feature; instead relying on other sounds to fill in the emotional core.

Tressler, who studied film at Villa Julie College, has worked professionally in both production camera work and post-production editing. After overseeing a few music videos and shorts, he turned his attention to writing & directing narrative, concept-driven motion picture pieces, with Leda being his first.


The HFPA Zoomed in with Tressler to talk about this debut artistic venture.

Historically, at the dawn of cinema, films were silent and didn’t have any spoken dialogue, because the technology wasn’t there.  Now we have the technology, but you have chosen to make a movie without dialogue. 

Well, that was, from the get-go, it was something that I knew was going to be a huge challenge and really to find the style but also kind of force us to use the techniques of silent cinema to try to find what Hitchcock would call pure cinema, like how to tell a story purely through cinematic elements.  Because I kind of come from a lot of inspiration and influence from the early silent masters and I feel like they were doing so much, kind of almost as far as scientists in the art form, to see and experiment how do we affect an audience through these cinematic elements.

How much of what you thought you knew was altered when you started making the film?

A lot of that I felt went out the window when sound came around, because now we could just tell a story the way we are used to seeing it on the street.  So, I wanted to tell a story without dialogue to force myself to figure out how to do that and because I have been raised with so much normal cinema that it’s just how is this going to work?  It really influenced the style, and it really made it extremely challenging, how do you have actors play a scene without it being too stuffy or pantomime or feeling like an old silent film, because we still wanted to be a modern story. And how do you have an audience come in that is used to modern cinema for the past 70 years or so since talkies came out, maybe 80, 90 at this point and still be engaged and captivated throughout the 76 minutes that the film runs without there being dialogue and how can they follow the story as well?  So, all these elements extremely challenged us throughout the process and the whole process was very evolutionary because we were learning along the way what works, and will an audience actually respond to this?

I must admit that because there was no dialogue, I became highly in tune with other sounds like water and wind.

It’s interesting yeah because there are obviously, the diegetic natural sounds of everything, so it’s not your typical silent movie technically and I guess you couldn’t call it a silent movie, it’s dialogue-less.  But that becomes almost the voice of it and I wanted, that was my real hope without this dialogue, instead of it separating the viewer from the experience it actually pulls you in more. I think that we were able to achieve that, it almost makes you have to pay more attention and draws you in and these elements, obviously they are tied to a lot of the visual thematic elements as well because there’s water throughout the film.  And so yeah, that becomes the new voice of the film so it’s interesting that it worked, at least on you.

How did you shape that mythological story into what you wanted to tell with your version of Leda?

Leda and the Swan, it also became a subject that we wanted to use because it’s such an iconic image in art history.  Thousands of the masters have done a Leda and the Swan, from Di Vinci to Dali.  But I had never seen anything adapted to screen, it’s always the image of the swan at the pond with Leda and then the story of Helen of Troy or several other children being born, giving rise to modern history.  But when we started doing research on it, because my co-writer, Wesley Pasterfield, had done a painting and he was like I think this would be a cool thing to explore.  When we started researching the myth, we couldn’t find too much about Leda, the actual woman that had this occurrence, this divine occurrence with the Swan, a lot of them say he was seducing her, but just that experience, which also reflects that of the Virgin Mary and stuff, I wanted to dive in on the stuff of how does that affect the human in the story? And without having a real backstory that we could find, it kind of gave us free rein to make this story about this woman going through this traumatic experience that was at one divine, but also very traumatic.

The myth had some detractors because people felt it condoned violence against women. How did you temper that aspect of the story?

I wanted to step away from how the myth has been traditionally shown in art, which is so focused on the experience at the pond.  I wanted it to be kind of everything that surrounded that with Leda, and so it kind of skirts around the actual experience and more focuses on the mental states that she is affected by it.  So there definitely is a certain violence in a lot of it, but there’s also, in the visual art, there’s so much beauty in it. And I kind of wanted to bring a midpoint, but completely not focus on the actual act, that almost becomes a side point to the real focus, which is on Leda’s mental reaction basically.

As a filmmaker do you want to keep challenging yourself with a non-traditional approach or is there a rom-com inside you just waiting to happen?

I was talking with co-producer and he was like I am interested to see what you do after this, because I feel like you are either going to go completely art or go completely narrative.  And this one, honestly, as atypical of a narrative as it is, I felt like I was constantly fighting myself to try to not lose interest because it is still a plot-based piece.  So, for me, I think I do really, I mean my ultimate goal as a filmmaker is to try and push and find my particular language in it.  I’m not so interested in making your typical cinematic pieces, but if that becomes a steppingstone, to be able to really take my career to the next level, then I am not against it as well.