Featured film at Women & Film explores death with dignity

Posted 4/19/23

She lived it before she filmed it.

Sarah T. Schwab is bringing “A Stage of Twilight,” her second feature film, to Port Townsend’s Women & Film festival this week.

An …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Featured film at Women & Film explores death with dignity


She lived it before she filmed it.

Sarah T. Schwab is bringing “A Stage of Twilight,” her second feature film, to Port Townsend’s Women & Film festival this week.

An intensely personal film, the drama stars Karen Allen (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) as Cora and William Sadler (“The Shawshank Redemption”) as Ben. The story centers on the emotional struggle faced by the 70-something couple as Ben wants to end his life alone after a diagnosis of terminal heart disease, a decision his wife cannot support.

The independent film has earned raves on the festival circuit, with Allen and Sadler both winning “Best Performance in a Feature Film” — and Schwab honored as “Best Emerging Director” — during its premiere at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

Schwab, the writer/director/producer of the film, recalled how the movie was adapted from a stage play she started writing nine years ago.

In a phone interview with The Leader — she had just purchased her plane ticket to travel west for Women & Film — Schwab recalled talking with Allen early on about her idea for the play.

She met the actor in the off-Broadway theatre world, and Allen agreed it was an interesting idea and offered feedback. After the play was fully written, they had multiple workshops and readings of the script.

“We were just going around and getting people’s feelings about how they felt about it,” the director said.

As it started to come to completion, Schwab said they hit a pivot point and turned to film instead of the stage.

The story’s development for the screen, however, meant a broader canvas, and expanding from a play with three main characters and a single set, a kitchen.

The collaboration continued, with Allen and others.

“I did have to cut a lot of dialogue that we would normally do on the stage. She had her opinion on it; I had my own about it,” Schwab said.

“We came to the middle of what needed to stay and what needed to go,” she said.

But what exactly to ultimately keep, and what to leave behind, was guided by Schwab’s personal history. Not her head, not her heart.

“I went with my gut. I put it on the table; I got positive feedback on it. But then I ultimately decided to go with my gut,” she said.

Schwab noted some of the exact words and circumstances faced by the couple in the film echoed those of her teenage years.

She recalled “going through all the glory of teenager-hood,” the only child in a middle class family in Upstate New York. “I grew up in very blue-collar town. My dad was a steel worker; he was a truck driver, a pillar of our community and our family.”

As a 15-year-old standing in the bathroom door of their Buffalo home, she watched as her mother, a nurse, made a frightening discovery.

“When I was 15, my mother, who was an RN, she found a lump in his neck and it turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

“So my very strong, very blue collar, just manly man of a dad had to have chemo and radiation. I watched him wither from that and turn into this unrecognizable person,” she said.

He was embarrassed, she added, to be the one who needed help from others.

“He had always been the caretaker,” she said.

Her father faced a five-year battle with cancer, five years of father-daughter talks most people would want to avoid. But instead of fear came courage.

“It gave me the opportunity to have very honest conversations about the end of life. And death,” she said. “He wasn’t scared to have that with me.

“End-of-life decisions have become a huge, huge important topic for me since losing him.”

Schwab said many people avoid such discussions; afraid to be sad, afraid of the unknown.

“I put so many of our conversations into the play and into the movie.

“One question I asked him: Are you afraid to die? And he said, ‘No. I’ve had everything I’ve ever wanted in my life. I have your mother. I have you. I have our home. What do I have to be afraid of?’

“What a beautiful sentiment to take away after someone is gone,” Schwab said.

“A Stage of Twilight” can hopefully inspire such discussions, she said.

“It is about end of life, but it is also about love, about community, and about connections,” she said. “I don’t want to make people cry. I want them to laugh and feel all the emotions of life.”

Schwab is well into work on her next film, “Crybaby Bridge,” based on the folktales of distant sounds carried with the wind in the years following rural tragedies.

“It’s a psychological thriller,” she said, and nearly the total opposite of “A Stage of Twilight.”

“I needed to do something different,” Schwab explained.

Schwab co-wrote the screenplay, and the movie is being produced by her independent film company, Cardinal Flix. It stars two-time Emmy nominated actress Sydney Mikayla (“General Hospital”) and Erik King (“Dexter”), and the film is in post-production, with work continuing on effects and color correction, with a final sound mix to follow.

As part of Women & Film, “A Stage of Twilight” will be shown at 1 p.m. Friday, April 21 in the The Starlight Room of the Rose Theatre.

Schwab admitted that her film is sometimes too much for her to see.

“I honestly can’t watch the movie every time we screen it. It can be too much for me. I have to be in the right headspace.”

Even so, she said it’s rewarding when those who have seen the movie during festival screenings reach out to her with their own end-of-life stories.

“To have so many people talk about personal experience of loss of a loved one, good and bad,” she said. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do with the movie, and my own personal view about end of life. Get people talking. There’s no right decisions, there’s no wrong. This is a personal choice.

“Just to talk about it; that’s the first step,” she said.