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Joe Swanberg Speaks! A Low-Budget Filmmaker Reveals His New Approach to Movies

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Depending on your point of view, Joe Swanberg is either the worst young filmmaker in America — someone who makes “self indulgent vomit,” to quote one critic — or the most promising young filmmaker in America — someone who, in the words of The New Yorker, makes “powerful and modern” small-budget dramas comparable to the work of iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. So which one is it? Which one is Joe Swanberg? You can decide for yourself starting Friday, when the Roxie begins a three-day Joe Swanberg film festival that spotlights twelve of his most noteworthy films, from 2006’s LOL (starring a young Greta Gerwig) to last year’s All the Light in the Sky.

At age 31, Swanberg has made almost 20 films, many of which have been labeled “mumblecore” — a tag applied to Swanberg and other early-stage directors who use young actors in scenes where the dialogue can be hard to understand. There’s lots of sex in Swanberg’s movies, and lots of characters in relationships that are on edge. The Roxie has titled its retrospective Sexual Politics: The Occasionally Autobiographical and Always Personal Films of Joe Swanberg. In a phone interview from his home in Chicago, Swanberg talked about the mumblecore genre, his reasons for depicting real sex scenes, why he no longer reads reviews of his work, how fatherhood has changed his filmmaking approach, and why big Hollywood budgets might — just might — be in the offing for him.

First things first, though: Swanberg says it’s easy to make films for a few thousand dollars. You cast yourself and your friends; make yourself the director, screenwriter, and producer; and film in your apartment or the apartment of a friend. Since the people in your films are playing characters who are basically themselves — people in their twenties and thirties searching for answers (and sex) — the scenes can be done quickly and efficiently. That was the Joe Swanberg way, and it worked for him. But Swanberg is changing. He’s a father now, and he’s getting bigger budgets. Joe Swanberg say he’s a new Joe Swanberg.

Jane Adams in All the Light in the Sky

Q: In All the Light in the Sky, the central character is a middle-aged actress played by 46-year-old Jane Adams, who co-wrote the screenplay. She’s in search of love and a big career break — and has trouble finding either one. She doesn’t have kids, but she mentors a niece who’s trying to make a Hollywood career. It seems you’re already making films about people who’ve moved beyond their twenties and thirties.


A: That movie feels really different to me from the movies I made right before it, like Silver Bullets and Art History. Jane Adams and I talked a lot about her feelings about whether she should have had kids or not, and how she always thought she’d have kids, and what that means. Me being a parent really changed the way she and I talked about the movie and what its subject matter would be.

Q: In fact, Variety, called All the Light in the Sky your most “accessible work to date” — that it would garner audiences beyond “the mumblecore ghetto.”

A: I agree that All the Light in the Sky is my most accessible film. I certainly made a conscious effort to tell a linear story in a cinematic fashion, in a way that wasn’t going to challenge an audience in a way that perhaps I purposefully antagonized or challenged with other movies. But what’s interesting about that review is that, by then, I had already made Drinking Buddies (about two coworkers at a brewery who, despite being in relationships with other people, consider cheating with each other). It has a much bigger budget. It has movie stars (like Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick). It’s certainly even more accessible than All the Light in the Sky. So it’s one reason I’ve stopped reading reviews. They’re not very helpful, and they’re inherently behind the times. Variety‘s reviewer is watching and responding to a movie that I had made a year earlier, and already so many new things have happened in my life that this reviewer would have no way of knowing. That reviewer is both right and wrong. It’s not All the Light in the Sky that’s opening doors. Those doors were already opening. And I had already walked through them before the reviewer saw All the Light in the Sky.

Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets

Q: Your son was born in 2010. How has being a parent influenced your filmmaking?

A: I certainly feel different now that I’m a parent. There’s no way that it’s not informing the work. Since the very beginning, I’ve been telling stories that are autobiographical in some form or another. Now that my wife and I have a child, it’s definitely going to be present over the next couple of years. It’s unavoidable. And as friends of mine start having kids, that theme will be more and more present.

Also, one of the things that really changed after I had a kid was getting a little more realistic about the fact that making movies was my job as well as something I was passionate about doing artistically. The industry has changed a lot, too. There was a period of time between Hannah Takes the Stairs, which came out in 2007, and my film Autoerotic, which I sold to IFC in 2011, where IFC was buying really small, challenging movies and releasing them to a pretty huge audience, especially through their buy-on-demand platforms. It looked like I was going to be able to make a living doing really small challenging movies. And that ended about a year ago. IFC restructured itself and started distributing bigger films and going back to a more theatrical model, with buy-on-demand supplementing that. The kinds of movies I was making — I could continue to make them but they weren’t going to have a home the way the earlier ones had. So making the transition to Drinking Buddies — it’s very much a 90-minute romantic comedy with some relationship drama, and is certainly accessible and ready to open up in movie theaters. I’d had the option to do movies like this since Hannah Takes the Stairs came out. That was the one that connected to a bigger audience and agents. The interest remained there until I was ready to do something like that. Even making Drinking Buddies and starting to entertain those ideas came from having a kid and buying a house and also from a personal desire to connect with people. It’s challenging to work for seven years making a lot of movies and just see that those movies are connecting with a super small cinephile audience. I was kind of burnt out on doing the very small stuff.

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Q: Some people know your work as an actor. You’re in many of your own films, and you’re also in such recent horror movies as You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die.

A: In fact, the biggest experience came for me as an actor in You’re Next. Adam Wingard, who directed that movie, is a friend of mine. Adam collaborated on a lot of the movies that are going to be shown at the Roxie retrospective. He co-directed Autoerotic with me. He was the cinematographer on Caitlin Plays Herself and Marriage Material. He acted in and was the cinematographer on Art History. He was someone who also came from the world of making movies for a few thousand dollars. During that big productive period when I made a lot of those movies, Adam was basically broke and sleeping on my couch for a month straight, and we were just making movies every day. Then he got the opportunity to do You’re Next. I think it was like a $750,000 movie. And it’s a big action movie with a ton of stunts and a full-sized crew. And I went down for a month acting on that movie and it was amazing to see someone who came from the same super low-budget world as I did directing this big movie with a ton of moving parts. It was really exciting. And it was cool for me to see him step up into that role and start to get comfortable being that kind of director. I just realized that I could stay comfortable and safe and keep doing movies that I knew how to do, or I could try and do something bigger and see if I could step up to that level.

Q: What were the budgets on your low-budget films?

A: They fluctuated between $5,000 and $100,000. At the no-budget level, the difference between $5,000 and $100,000 is really huge. Some of the movies everyone got paid and they were done in a straightforward fashion, and on a few of them — like Caitlin Plays Herself and Marriage Material, which are showing together at the Roxie — no one got paid or will ever get paid. Those movies probably cost about $1,000 each.

Greta Gerwig in LOL

Q: So, how do you get actors to do sex scenes for free? You’ve said you don’t understand why realistic sex scenes are “taboo” in mainstream films. In your new filmmaking stage, is sex still important to portray in films?

A: Realism is still a focus of my approach. But hooking up with people is so much less a part of anybody’s life now as people are getting into their thirties and having kids. So that stuff is going to be less in the movies for me. But I don’t like to see movies where the characters are having sex and the sheets are pulled over just above the lady’s breasts and the guy gets out of bed and the camera moves away specifically to avoid seeing his penis. It’s really silly. And it’s just a lot of jumping through hoops. So my attitude is to just plunk a camera down and show everything. I’m not making efforts to explicitly show things but it’s mostly avoiding making an effort to not show things. We’re not doing close-ups of penetration or anything like that. It’s shooting a sex scene the way you would shoot anything else and not treating it any differently. Because most filmmakers treat it so differently, when you see it filmed in a regular way it suddenly seems explicit.


Sexual Politics: The Occasionally Autobiographical and Always Personal Films of Joe Swanberg screens twelve of Swanberg’s films at the Roxie, February 22 – 24, 2013. For tickets and more information visit roxie.com.

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