Derek Swannson is a New York-based filmmaker who has recently collaborated with University of Portsmouth visiting lecturer and S&C regular Matthew Alford on an apocalyptic comedy, Oddfinger: Eagle Kill. Here, Matthew talks to Derek about corporate propaganda, upsetting Amazon and his latest film, Kings of Oblivion.
Matthew: You’re an unusual figure in the Internet era, a novelist and filmmaker who totally shuns self-publicity. I had to drag you into this because you wouldn’t even show up with me on a podcast. Why is that?
Derek: As a lifelong student of Zen, Gnosticism, and the secret histories of U.S. intelligence agencies, self-promotion strikes me as unseemly—and maybe even a little dangerous.
Isn’t that terribly ironic, even twisted, given your day-job?
Ironies abound. I’ve had a career as an image-maker at top New York City advertising agencies for over 20 years. It’s a sure bet that anyone reading this has seen at least a few of the ad campaigns I’ve worked on, which have appeared on billboards all over the world. Advertising, of course, is simply corporate propaganda. It’s used to get people to buy stuff—often junk products that no one really needs (think cigarettes, booze, fast food, and candy, just to start).
Most people don’t seem to mind this… they know how the game is played. But seeing how corporate propaganda worked, from such an insider’s perspective, made me realize that just about everything being promoted by the mainstream media was a lie. And my particular set of skills was being used to make those lies more attractive. I felt culpable. I know that to live in the world is to be implicated in its evils. There seems to be no escaping that—especially if you have to earn a living in New York City. But right after 9/11, I felt a strong need to balance out my corporate-sponsored sins by becoming the covert author of a series of anti-authoritarian Deep State satires, published as The Snowden Avalanche and the Crash Gordon trilogy of novels, beginning in 2007.
How did you end up becoming a filmmaker?
The prospect of having any sort of a meaningful impact with my books was abruptly closed off to me in 2016. Up until that point, my covert literary career had been developing nicely: I’d been getting good reviews and each new book had sold more copies than the previous one. My last book, however, was a 550-page satire of Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) called Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground.
If you’re an independent author, Amazon is far and away your most important platform for selling books. So I was, in a sense, gnawing on the hand that fed me. But that hand had been only feeding me table scraps, and well before 2016 I had begun to see that Amazon was poised to become, as I put it in the book, ‘the most oppressive corporate Leviathan the world has ever seen’. Someone at Amazon—or one of Amazon’s outside defenders—didn’t take too kindly to that. Sales for Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground plummeted like a pack mule falling off a cliff. The five-star reviews for my other books started disappearing, to be replaced by one-star reviews from obvious trolls who often admitted that they hadn’t even read the books. The Fidelity account where my royalties were being sent by direct deposit suddenly disappeared (fortunately, I had paper documents proving its existence, so I managed to get the money back). Then the personal website that I used for promoting the books was hacked into and thoroughly destroyed.
Those are just a few of the things that happened. I’m not being paranoid about any of it. And I don’t think that Jeff Bezos himself had anything to do with it. It all could have been accomplished by one overzealous Bezos acolyte at Amazon Web Services, or a couple of Mormon programming geeks having a laugh at the NSA… I’ll never know who was responsible. But I knew my literary career was over. I started making my détournement documentaries at that point, in a large part because of the example set by Adam Curtis. It occurred to me that someone should be making movies like that outside the subtle (and often not-so-subtle) restraints of mainstream media juggernauts like the BBC—and I was just the guy to do it.
Do you think your audience can expand without publicity?
I have a semi-mystic notion that the right people will always be able to find my work. So far, very few people have found it.
Well, you’ve had about 30,000 views of your films, which isn’t bad for the documentary genre under the circumstances you describe – especially working the acid-trip subgenre you seem to favour – on top of the books sales. You’ve also just finished a three-and half hour monster film, Kings of Oblivion, set in your own futuristic vision of Hell. It seems to mark an end to a huge backlog of work you had running since 2018. How was it to complete that project?
Kings of Oblivion took a year-and-a-half out of my life. I did some other things during that time (a few shorter films, a few music videos…) and I managed to earn a decent living in what I now think of as my side career in corporate advertising. But eighteen months of steady work—research, writing, recording sound and narration, shooting, editing, etc.—that’s what it takes for me to do a feature-length détournement documentary like Kings Of Oblivion. So I probably won’t get to do many more movies like it before my time is up; I’ve only managed to make four of them so far.
Knowing that, I drew on some of my life experiences for this one: my time as a journalist out in California during the late-1980s, when I was interviewing local celebrities in the Big Sur region; my observations in New York City—as someone with a degree in economics and a very healthy skepticism of Wall Street’s endless labyrinth of Ponzi schemes—during the 2008 financial coup d’état; and so on. At its core, Kings of Oblivion is a movie about how we got here—locked down during a pandemic while the Fed, python-like, devours the U.S. Treasury in what looks to be the biggest theft in history—and a grim prediction about where we might be headed, as the globalists roll out their worldwide control grid (let’s hope we don’t end up there…). I’m not dwelling on Kings of Oblivion, though. I’m already at work on the next movie.
We collaborated on a short funny film together, Oddfinger: Eagle Kill, which was described on the day we put it out as ‘the feel good film of the apocalypse’. Something of a departure for you? How did you feel about making that jump?
As you know, I treated that whole thing as a lark—and I’m pleased with the results. It didn’t take long and I’m glad we did it. A mutual friend of ours in Okinawa recently described Oddfinger: Eagle Kill as, ‘an acidic critique of the perpetual mainstream bullshit machine’—which I loved, but I think that might be going a bit too far. It was just good fun, and it was my first time working with someone else’s script and a ferociously talented actor (that’d be you, Matt…), so I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. I’ll be ready to do an Oddfinger sequel whenever you are, even if Tom Secker’s review at Spy Culture was right on the money when he wrote: ‘Eagle Kill is sure to win no Academy Awards and will dramatically fail to launch Alford and Swannson to glamorous careers’.
Derek Swannson’s films are archived here. Matthew Alford is producer on the documentary Theatres of Command, due to be distributed by the Media Education Foundation in Autumn 2020. An expanded edition of the 2017 book on which it is based is being published simultaneously by Investig’Action.