Two years ago, duing an interview for indieWIRE, acclaimed indie director Andrew Bujalski spoke of a mumblecore movement made up of a group of filmmakers whose films debuted at SXSW that year. In the Spring of ’05, SXSW producer Matt Dentler programmed the Duplass Brothers‘ “The Puffy Chair,” Susan Buice and Arin Crumley‘s “Four Eyed Monsters,” Bujalski’s own “Mutual Appreciation,” and Joe Swanberg‘s “Kissing On The Mouth,” spawning early talk of some sort of movement. Each film starred its director(s) and they were, to use Bujalski’s words, “a bunch of performance-based films by young quasi-idealists.” This group of emerging American independent filmmakers, each working in different parts of the country but loosely connected online and supported in their efforts by a host of bloggers, get together in person when possible and, as is evidenced from a recent spate of new movies, often act in each other’s projects.
Whether or not there is an actual movement to speak of, and even as some may reject any label placed upon them, a new SXSW film is being hailed as a sigificant moment for this group of American filmmakers. The loose collective has what SXSW programmer and producer Matt Dentler calls a “dream team film,” namely Joe Swanberg’s latest, “Hannah Takes The Stairs” which had its world premiere this week in Austin. It stars alleged mumblecore moviemakers Andrew Bujalski and Mark Duplass, along with actors Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, director Todd Rohal (“The Guatemalan Handshake“) and the film’s sound recordist and composer Kevin Bewersdorf. In an interview with indieWIRE on Wednesday, Dentler branded it, “the blockbuster of this movement.”
iW Video Link: Joe Swanberg talks with indieWIRE about “Hannah Takes The Stairs” and the so-called “mumblecore” community of filmmakers.
“‘Hannah Takes The Stairs’ is the first definitive production to come out of that movement, that whole scene,” Dentler told indieWIRE on Thursday, “It’s a cause for celebration.” The festival even hired the “Hannah” group to make the short trailers that precede films screening during this year’s festival, creating tremendous awareneness for the movie and resulting in more than a thousand festival-goers attending the film’s world premiere earlier this week at Austin’s Paramount theater.
The film is clearly bringing greater attention to Swanberg, but it’s also casting a brighter spotlight on a number of emerging American directors who are working entirely independently today. Highlighting the “ultra-indie movement,” indieWIRE columnist Anthony Kaufman noted on his blog this week, “SXSW has found its narrative niche: as a launchpad for the new lo-fi truly American indie.” He continued, “When Greta Gerwig, the star of Swanberg’s latest no-budget slacker romp ‘Hannah Takes the Stairs’ was seen walking up Congress Ave. on Monday with big orange sunglasses, me and my friends gawked as if we had just caught a glimpse of Julia Roberts. She is the next indie princess, star of the Duplass’ upcoming ‘Baghead,’ and the cute, adorably awkward, emotionally confused core of the likeable ‘Hannah’.”
“I am happy to be part of it,” Swanberg said of the dynamic group of filmmakers, “It feels really nice to be in this community. Everybody’s being so productive.” Citing a steady motivation from his fellow filmmakers, he noted, “It makes you want to keep working and seeing everyone else’s films gives you new ideas and it inspires you to stay productive.”
With an emphasis on relationships, the mumblecore movies often explore sexuality. Dentler described them as, “American dramatic features that rely more on the nuances of inner turmoil than they do on plot or a storyline or a three act structure.” He continued, calling them, “Films that are the antithesis of what became of the traditional American indies of the late ’90s.”
And the so-called mumblecore group continues to grow. Along with “Hannah,” this year’s SXSW included “Dance Party USA” director Aaron Katz‘ “Quiet City,” which co-stars Swanberg as well as “Orphans,” directed by Ry Russo-Young who also acts in “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” and Ronald Bronstein‘s “Frownland.”
“More than anything,” Dentler concluded, during the conversation with indieWIRE, “They are small movies with no distinctive story driving them.” He sees them influenced by Maysles, Cassavetes and Rohmer. “(They are) slices of life in a way, almost inspired by cinema verite in a sense.”
In “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” Greta Gerwig stars as a post-college woman who dates three very different colleagues that work together. Duplass plays a cool former musician, Bujalski is an intellectual workaholic and Kent Osborne is somewhere in between.
“I wanted to see, how does this character Hannah change based on the guys that she’s dating, and how do they influence her,” Swanberg noted, adding that when making the film he noticed a shift into exploring, “How do these different relationships fill different aspects of what she’s looking for?”
“I think that the more specific you get the more universal you get,” Swanberg continued, explaining that he didn’t want Hannah to be a “generic post-college girl.” He added, “The biggest fight is the battle betwen making a character very specific (vs.) one that is more ‘relate-able’ to a larger audience.” He concluded, “The way I protect myself is by casting actors who are very specific people.”
Still just 25 years old (and still without an agent), Swanberg is probably the most prolific of the so-called mumblecore group. “Hannah” is his third feature (each has premiered at SXSW in consecutive years) and he’s already shot a fourth movie that will be ready later this year. “Making so much work allows me, each time out, to take that step forward,” Swanberg told indieWIRE. In this case, that step is a big one for the director because “Hannah” is the first film produced by someone other than himself. Swanberg met Anish Savjani, a producer of “Old Joy” and “Gretchen” at SXSW last year, and they talked about working together. Just months later, they were shooting “Hannah” in Chicago.
The day that they finished shooting “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” Swanberg and actress Greta Gerwig met in a coffee shop and realized there was more to explore and they began to develop the idea for “Nights and Weekends,” in which the two will star, working with cinematographer Matthias Grunsky who shot Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation” and “Funny Ha Ha.” It’s the story of a couple, in a long distance New York – Chicago relationship, in which the woman might be pregnant. Shot over twelve days, the movie was made partially in both cities as well as partially by phone with two separate crews and each actor on the phone with the other.
After SXSW, Swanberg will edit “Nights and Weekends” while continuing to pay the bills with various jobs, from web design and video work to filming behind-the-scenes footage for movies.
“Part of being a self-suffienct low-budget filmmaker,” Swanberg told inideWIRE, “is knowing how to live within your means.”
Calling his films “fragile,” Joe Swanberg noted that he has found SXSW to be the ideal festival to debut his work because it is in an environment that will embrace and protect the project.
“SXSW isn’t the only festival in the world, but its the right festival for these kinds of movies,” Swanberg told indieWIRE during an interview earlier this week, “It’s going to put them in the context that they need to be watched in.” Concluding the thought, he added that his film generated more attention and coverage than it might have at another festival. “I just don’t thing that a bigger festival like Sundance can give it that kind of attention.”
Get the latest from SXSW in indieWIRE’s special section, updated regularly throughout the festival.