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Tulsan of the year: John Swab keeps making bigger and better films in Tulsa

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John Swab

Director John Swab prepares to film a scene of “Run With the Hunted” at the Federal Building in downtown Tulsa in 2018. 

When considering just how much of a long shot John Swab was when it comes to becoming one of Tulsa’s favorite sons, well, allow him to sum it up bluntly.

“Wow. Four years ago I was a crackhead, and now I’m a Tulsan of the Year,” Swab said in a recent phone call from his home in Woodstock, New York.

“That’s really pretty cool.”

A native Tulsan and a 2007 Edison High School graduate, Swab lives in New York, but his hometown has become essential to his continuing career as a writer, director and producer of movies.

This young artist already has filmed three movies in Tulsa since 2015, and each time he returns, the story is better, the budget is bigger and the cast has more names you know.

It’s a remarkable story worthy of a film itself, and that’s exactly the way Swab has been creating his scripts, like any good writer: For his ultra-dark crime films, he’s been writing what he knows.

That first film, “Let Me Make You a Martyr,” starring Marilyn Manson, featured characters who include a crime lord, a hired killer, drug dealers, addicts and victims of abuse — and it was unfortunately a very personal story for Swab.

When he began filming it in the Tulsa area in 2015, he was just weeks into a sobriety that has reached four years.

“That was my last stand, and I was in the throes of it all, and I’m blessed to have had people around me who cared,” he said of people like his family and his parents, Brett Swab and M.C. Swab, and friends who supported him through that first film, which can be seen on several streaming services.

That backing is a large part of why Swab keeps coming home to make movies: He’s found local investors who believe in his talent, and he has made connections that help him gain filming locations and facilitate his indie-film production needs on the fly.

“No one is safe when I come to town, and I’m not afraid to ask uncles, cousins, friends, parents of friends, for help” from “getting cop cars to filming at the courthouse,” he said with a laugh.

That’s vital when he’s turning downtown Tulsa into what will become a pickpocket scene montage, or perhaps when staging a shootout.

When he returned in 2018 to film “Run With the Hunted” (a movie that has won awards on the film festival circuit, with a release date in 2020), he was joined in Tulsa by a cast including Ron Perlman (“Hellboy”), Mark Boone Junior (“Sons of Anarchy”), Michael Pitt (“Hannibal”) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (“The Wire”).

Swab writes all of his original screenplays, and “Body Brokers” — a drama about drug addicts, treatment centers and get-rich schemes — attracted his most impressive cast yet to Tulsa this summer.

It included Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”), who lives near Swab and has become “something of a mentor to me,” he said.

Also starring: Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire”); Frank Grillo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”); Jessica Rothe (star of the “Happy Death Day” movies); and Jack Kilmer (“Palo Alto”) and Alice Englert (“Beautiful Creatures”), who play a couple of young addicts who are the focus of the movie.

He keeps bringing these people to Tulsa — as well as hiring local crew members when he arrives — because he keeps finding a collaborative spirit in the city.

“There’s a fascination with the creative process that people in Tulsa have that I’ve found is unique, with filmmaking in its infancy here,” he said.

“I know, ‘The Outsiders’ and other movies, but with (productions) like ours, what’s really nice is how open people are, how helpful they are and how interested they are in what we’re doing.

“It’s not that way in larger cities, but here it feels like filmmaking is having a local renaissance. There’s an openness to new things.”

With each new film comes a fresh start, much like Swab’s life has become in recent years, and Tulsa remains a home base for it all.

“I’ve got a movie in film festivals right now. I’ve got another that I’m editing at this time. And I’m already working on something new — something that will hopefully bring me back to Tulsa. That’s the goal.”

15 Tulsans who did incredible things in 2019. Read each Tulsan of the Year story. 

Michael Smith

918-581-8479

michael.smith@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @michaelsmithTW

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