All of the reasons you might dislike Joe Swanberg as a filmmaker are the reasons I dig him. And if you're already a fan, you're ahead of the game. And if you haven't been a fan up to now (or possibly up until you saw last year's surprise breakthrough DRINKING BUDDIES), and you're still reading this, congratulations. You might be open-minded enough to listen to other people's opinions not just on this particular filmmaker but also on what film is and what it's becoming.
I have a very clear memory of seeing Swanberg's debut, 2005's KISSING ON THE MOUTH, and being somewhat baffled by it. It appeared to be a film with actors, shot like a documentary, featuring people having improvised conversations in between bouts of matter-of-fact sex. It took my watching a few of Swanberg's movies (LOL and HANNAH TAKES THE STARIS, in particular) to understand that the director was celebrating the beauty and simplicity of the everyday, and he did so with a team of performers (including himself, quite often) that were able and unashamed to open themselves up to something that simply wasn't being done by more than a handful of filmmakers at the time, many of whom were friends (as well as fellow directors) and appearing in each other's movies.
After gaining a degree of notoriety for directing one of the most effective segments in the horror anthology V/H/S (as well as starring in another), Swanberg did something remarkable last year. He was featured quite prominently as an actor in director and friend Adam Wingard's YOU'RE NEXT and he released what many would consider his first mainstream feature, DRINKING BUDDIES, starring Olivia Wilde, Ann Kendrick and Jake Johnson. What's almost more incredible is that in the six or so months since DRINKING BUDDIES' release, Swanberg has released or screened three more films; the man is prolific, sometimes to a fault, but often in fascinating ways.
Late last year, ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY, featuring a fantastic performance by Jane Adams, had a limited release; hitting theaters now is his ode to '80s horror films, 24 EXPOSURES, starring YOU'RE NEXT director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett; and if you were lucky enough to catch it at the Sundance Film Festival, his most recent work (likely to find release in the late summer) is HAPPY CHRISTMAS, also with Kendrick, as well as Melanie Lynskey, Lena Denham, Mark Webber and Swanberg himself, as well as his then-two-year-old son Jude.
Other than an episode of HBO's "Looking" that has yet to air, Swanberg's plate is clear for now. He's got a couple of acting gigs that we have yet to see (most notably in Ty West's next film THE SACREMENT, which features many other YOU'RE NEXT cast members), but no directing work on his docket. But considering he's a filmmaker capable of making 3-5 movies per year and a still-new father, maybe he's due a slowdown period.
The reason for our chat recently was 24 EXPOSURES, but we cover a few other recent works, and I suspect I'll get a chance to interview him again soon and more extensively in the next couple of months. I have no reason if Swanberg's outline script/improv acting-style of acting is the next big thing in indie filmmaking, or if he and the Duplass brothers and a few others will simply remain their own sub-genre of dramatic movies. Either way, the idea that improvisation can lead to painful truths in drama the same way it can spark the best jokes in comedies is intriguing and something that actors are clearly responding to. Please enjoy my talk with Joe Swanberg…
Capone: Hey, Joe. How are you?
Joe Swanberg: Good, how’s it going?
Capone: Excellent. Are you in Chicago right now, or are you somewhere else?
JS: I am, I’m in Chicago.
Capone: We probably should have done this in person. I’m going to go to HAPPY CHRISTMAS at the Music Box later in the month, which means that I will have seen four of your films in about a 10-month period, and that's only because I saw DRINKING BUDDIES at SXSW.
JS: [laughs] The reckoning has come. All the work that I’ve been doing over the last few years is all coming out right now.
Capone: And I’m not even including the films in which you're just acting, like YOU'RE NEXT and WHITE REINDEER. What's the toughest part about being the hardest working man in show business?
JS: It’s been all mostly fun and games thus far, I have to say. There’s barely any of it that’s felt like work or hard. Really, the hard part is trying to be a husband and father when I’m working so much. So, that’s been the struggle since my son was born: how to really balance my time between being home in Chicago without things to work on, and either working here or elsewhere.
Capone: Tthe film we’re primarily talking about today is 24 EXPOSURES, since that’s opening up certainly here in Chicago and other cities. You’ve dabbled in genre things before, and this certainly grazes the horror genre to a degree. What is your history with horror growing up? Were you a fan of it as a kid, or is this a new thing for you?
JS: I was definitely. I think, like a lot of film makers, I looked at horror as a way into the idea of actually making a movie. It was things like EVIL DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE--movies like that where the pieces that make the movie are sort of on screen in a way where you can wrap your head around the fact that somebody made these things. The the quick, dirty horror film was always the model of how if you didn't have a lot of money or resources, you and your friends could still make something that was really fun and entertaining. So I got really into them around the same time I feel like most boys do, in junior high. But, the stuff that I was seeking out was always indie horror, to whatever extent it existed back then--stuff like Troma movies. As an aspiring filmmaker, the stuff that just looked like I could make it.
I never stopped liking horror movies, or really being involved in that community, but there was a period of time that I was just almost all year round on the film festival circuit, which is not really horror circuit. But I was friends with Ti West that whole time and got to know Adam Wingard and a lot of those guys, so it’s really just been in the last few years that finally my love of horror, and my connections to people that work in the horror genre are visible again. It’s really cool.
There’s a lot more overlap between the horror world and the regular indie film world than people probably realize, and what’s been fun about the last few years, because of movies like V/H/S and YOU'RE NEXT, that overlap is a lot more obvious now that we all know each other. Whether we work together or not, there’s like a behind-the-scenes filmmaker collective thing.
Capone: That’s been one of the most enjoyable things of late is just watching the faces trade places and be in each others movies.
JS: Yeah, totally.
Capone: That overlap almost seems necessary. One of the keys to what you and Adam Wingard and Ti West are doing is taking very familiar horror scenarios, and coming at them from a much more character-driven approach. You’re not necessarily focusing only on the horror aspect as much as you are the characters. Is that something you did deliberately?
JS: Ti West in particular has a lot more expansive knowledge of the genre than I do, and I think that anybody who’s a sophisticated filmmaker wants to be playing in territory that’s not super familiar to an audience. You run out of room to invent when you’re aiming for something that’s right down the middle. I think with like Ty, and Adam, and Simon, and Larry Fessenden and some of the other people I work with, the reason why they're films don’t function the way normal horror films do is that those are intelligent filmmakers who are as bored with that kind of stuff as the audience. They're just naturally going to try and surprise people.
Capone: In 24 EXPOSURES, you’ve got this built-in murder mystery, which is maybe one of the most plot-driven things I’ve ever seen in one of your movies; I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it is funny that you cornered yourself by having to reveal a killer. It might have been the ultimate bold to never find out who the killer was.
JS: Well, in a way, without spoiling anything for people, that moment is one of the hopefully least satisfying things. It plays by the rules up until a certain point, and then it re-bends the rules back on themselves. But yeah, it was interesting. While we were making the movie, there was this interesting new element to it just because there was a motor driving the plot, which I really have steered clear of with almost everything that I’ve made.
Capone: Do you feel trapped when you do that? Or is it almost a reverse freedom, that by having a little bit more of a structure, it helps guide you in a certain way?
JS: It’s a little of both. I think that, for me, 24 EXPOSURES was always a character movie that was going to wear genre clothing. With the actors and producers involved, there was never this mandate that we had to function at the highest level of a genre murder mystery. Everybody was interested in the characters and on board to do something a little different, but at the same time, I never wanted to like completely ignore that. But, for me it’s a genre film the way Godard made genre films, the way like Robert Altman made genre films, where there are hat tips to the genre element, but you’re watching an Altman film or you’re watching a Godard film, and they’re using the genre as much as the genre is using the movie.
Capone: It’s always an excuse just to get to know these people. That’s really what it comes down to. In your films, the people are typically more interesting than the story.
JS: One of the things I’ve always liked about genre films is that’s the area where you have the biggest ability to make social commentary and ask interesting questions, because you do have this motor driving the plot along. ’ve made quite a few films that are about filmmaking, or about art making, and typically those movies are very direct, very art-house films about art making. What was exciting to me about 24 EXPOSURES is that it’s just as much about art making and the artist behind the art and what people are inspired by--the tricky lines that people walk with their collaborators-- but it’s presented in a way that moves differently and has these other things to latch on to if you’re not interested in that. So, it feels a little bit like the best of both worlds for a certain audience because if the bigger questions that I’m asking about art aren’t exciting to you, then you still have these thriller genre elements that can coast you along through the movie.
Capone: The biggest questions being posed in this film--and I think people ask Adam’s character this in different ways at a couple of different points--are about crossing that line between artful photography and simply kink photos. These seem to be questions you've had lobbed at you before. It’s a great vehicle to ask those questions.
JS: Absolutely. It’s very much coming from questions that I often ask myself, and questions that I’m asked by other people, and it’s a debate that has no answer, but each filmmaker and each photographer and each musician has to come up with their own line, and that line is going to change based on the people you’re collaborating with. In general, one of the things that I wanted to do was incriminate myself along with Adam’s character in the debate. And the thing that I hate is watching a film that’s asking a question like that, and the filmmaker is standing the safe distance, wagging their finger at the audience, or something. Like, “It’s wrong to exploit women, and here’s an hour and a half where I’m going to lecture you about all of that.”
Feeling that it is wrong to exploit women, I want to raise that debate and have that conversation in a way where, as a filmmaker, I’m guilty of it and implicated in it, and for me those blurry lines are what are interesting. So, you can’t just sit there and say, “Okay, is Adam’s character in the movie crossing these lines?” By default have to ask, “Is Joe crossing these lines by making the movie?” And that’s where it gets fun. At the festival screenings we’ve had, the Q&As are really exciting because the audience is asking those questions, and it’s not just me answering them, it’s the actresses in the film standing up there answering those questions as well. I feel like that is a conversation for all of us to have, not just the director.
Capone: All of the films, including HAPPY CHRISTMAS, that I’ve seen in the last year were ones that you shot before DRINKING BUDDIES was released last summer. With the success of DRINKING BUDDIES and a new wave of people discovering it with its DVD release not long ago, what has changed? What’s different about the phone calls you’re getting now, either as an actor or as a director?
JS: It’s interesting. We shot HAPPY CHRISTMAS after DRINKING BUDDIES, but yeah, it’s coming out in the wake of the DRINKING BUDDIES release. But, I haven’t made anything since DRINKING BUDDIES came out, so I don’t fully know yet. Based on the phone calls and the emails I'm getting, first and foremost, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to find money for the next movie than it previously had been. There’s no guarantee that certain actors want to work with me, but I can at least have those conversations now. For me, the big internal change is that there’s going to be a lot more people that see HAPPY CHRISTMAS just because they saw and liked DRINKING BUDDIES. So there’s a different sort of expectation
But it’s all been a very natural progression. For me, DRINKING BUDDIES didn’t feel like going from 0 to 60 all of a sudden. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and it’s been sort of a slow, organic movement towards bigger projects and a little more money and more recognizable actors. So it just feels like everything has been the next logical step. I’ve thrown a wrench in there by choosing to live in Chicago rather than move to L.A., so it’s been interesting to navigate what it means to be a Chicagoan but also to be making movies now that are a little more in the spotlight than they used to be.
Capone: I saw that list you did for Esquire, the 10 best films of 2013 that you picked. I love that you picked SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY, because that one I saw in advance of it playing at the Music Box, and once I finally realized what it was, I just flipped out. It’s cool that you threw a spotlight on it, because I don’t know anybody else that saw it.
JS: Oh, I love that movie. I think it’s great. I agree. To me, that’s like where the horror genre ought to be, at least a big section of what people get excited about. With almost no money and just a group of good actors and a cool location, I feel like they made one of the most fun, entertaining movies of the year. It’s really exciting that movies like that are out there. It premiered at the LA Film Festival and made it into RedBox, and I think you can buy it at Best Buy--it’s out there. But it totally flew under the radar of the typical release pattern. But, that’s what’s great about 2013 and the world that we live in is: there are 15 different ways for audiences to find movies now. Probably more people saw that movie than saw HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS. It’s a totally different audience.
Capone: Joe, thank you so much. And I love that you took your friends like Adam and Joe and turned them into these sleazy characters.