You'd need to spend about 30 seconds swiping around on Tinder to understand just how profoundly apps have impacted the ways we build relationships (though we're guessing you've already done the required experimentation here). And while this seismic shift might be occurring most dramatically in online dating, it'd be hard to isolate any part of our social lives that wasn't at least a little dependent on what's happening within someone's phone — from the hurtful specter of trolling comments to that conspicuously dropped text, courtesy of your best friend or latest Bumble conquest.
Director Bridget Savage Cole is pushing the troubled consequences of our tangled emotions and screens to a not-so-distant crescendo in Swell — a dizzying short film that imagines a world where one couple can change each other's mood with just the casual adjustment of an app's settings. The result is a tumultuously tender portrait of what it really means to honestly connect with the person you love — even in an environment overwhelmed by possible, and occasionally devastating, distractions.
Press play above to catch this astonishing film, and don't miss our Q&A with Cole below to learn more about the anxieties shaping this alarmingly prescient story.
Refinery29: What inspired you to create Swell? Is there a personal story behind the film?
Bridget Savage Cole: "Swell is inspired by our recent obsession with "life-hacks" — this idea that we can somehow curate our emotions through everything from scented oils to guided meditations and sleep apps. All these 'hacks' give us the false illusion that we have some sort of control over our day or our moods. Unfortunately, that isn't really how it works, and we're all just grappling with our feelings, which are far more volatile than we'd like to think. Our desire to harness our happiness ultimately means we're not living in a truthful way.
"I was also interested in exploring the frustration of knowing you're on a different page from the person you're dating. I think, to me, the premise of the app became a window for exploring that fierce desire to connect and to jibe with our partner – and, of course, how heartbreaking it is when you just can't."
Do you think tech has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on our relationships?
"I promise I'm not anti-technology at all — I love how much freedom it's given me. But I do think we're in a weird intermediary phase. So many relationships struggle with that simple annoyance of trying to talk to someone when they're on their phone, and holding your partner's attention has become harder than ever.
"The sad irony is that really, genuinely connecting requires us to peel back those layers, to be emotionally present (screens down, preferably). At it's core, the film's premise is that we're all just big sacks of emotion, and in the right situation we can be our best selves. That's why the phone is like the third person in the on-screen couple's relationship, it's the barrier that's preventing them from connecting.
"As humans, we can juggle a lot, but true joy and satisfaction come from doing one thing at a time — and doing it really well. Technology gives us that itch in our pockets, the endorphin high of feeling needed and included, and, of course, it's addictive. But now technology is trying to answer some of our most intimate problems — apps that help us focus, help us mediate, help us sleep — and I think we're still struggling to find the space that's left just for people being genuine with each other.
"As a writer, it's become so clear to me that tech is an interference. When I'm on my phone, I can't think. I've also gotten comfortable with people not expecting me to answer them immediately. That's the only way I'm able to be productive, by drawing those boundaries around my creative time."
What's the one thing you hope audiences will walk away feeling or learning from the film, especially regarding our problematic reliance on our phones?
"Honestly, this film is me grappling with questions and not necessarily giving the answer. That's really the world we're in, asking the questions and not having all the solutions. And I know there's a discomfort in that, but I'd hope audiences take away the satisfaction of being able to break through the noise and overcome the impulse to check your feed, to feel how intimate is to watch this couple actually connect. Ultimately, the film's main preoccupation is how hungry we still are for that rawness."
Refinery29 is all about elevating female directors and celebrating their voices (check out our Shatterbox Anthology series to see how). What advice do you have for women who want to take the lead and tell their own stories in Hollywood?
"It's so much more comfortable to be a woman in this industry and have power as a director, because you're deciding the tone for your own set. The not-so-positive experiences I've had were when I wasn't in-charge. As a leader, I've called out bad bro-y comments, because I felt completely comfortable making those calls for the environment I'm controlling. In the past, it was more like I had to be tough and show that I could focus in a man's world. Directing allowed me to assemble a team of people who affirmed the same vision — and, from there, we built an incredibly collaborative workplace.
"Really, I want to encourage women to direct because that's how you set the tone, and that's how you do things differently. Trust me, it's way better than trying to just laugh off stupid or degrading jokes."