During a recent three-night stand at AFI FEST in Los Angeles, micro-budget indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg suggested that he’s ready to move on from mumblecore-style dramas toward films on adult topics– perhaps to explore the type of free-form transmedia content spawned by the Internet. Selected as the festival’s Spotlight section director, Swanberg screened a trio of new films from his “Full Moon” trilogy — “Silver Bullets and Art History,” which debuted at Berlin earlier this year, as well as the world premiere of “The Zone.”
Adopting a loose creative process, Swanberg frequently works with just an outline rather than a finished script, with the actors improvising much of their dialogue. Performers often play themselves or close facsimiles, frequently opposite Swanberg, appearing as an indie filmmaker shooting a low-budget feature. Despite the typically slim narratives and narrow thematic scope of his movies, Swanberg has said that he considers himself a director of “meaningful art films.”His digitally shot features often incorporate handheld camerawork or alternatively a “press record” aesthetic, with a fixed camera that’s switched on when takes begin so that he can appear in the frame shooting his actors for a film-within-a-film scenario. Other production values are equally basic and sometimes downright murky, with slight attention to formal considerations. Swanberg frequently produces, shoots and edits on his own or with minimal collaboration. Emotional and relationship dynamics dominate the three new films, along with issues of artistic creativity and the cinematic process.
During Q&As following each of the three screenings, he responded to a wide range of questions in what amounted to a summation of where he stands now regarding the themes and no-budget format of his substantial mumblecore catalog.
Making art films: While studying film production at Southern Illinois University, Swanberg was inspired by the types of writer-director-driven productions championed by the Sundance Film Festival. Disillusionment gradually crept in as the budgets and star casting of independent films accelerated during the 90s. “Once celebrities started acting in art films they were no longer art films,” Swanberg complained. “Now I feel most of the independent films I see are Hollywood films on a low budget.”
A documentary aesthetic: Swanberg explained that Southern Illinois University has a strong documentary program and that he expected to make docs following graduation. After deciding to take the feature-directing route, he adapted his university training for short, intense shoots, shaping a personal visual style that mixes loose, handheld camera techniques with fixed, static shots. “The films I’m directing now incorporate that process,” he observed. Art History for instance was filmed in just four days: “We started with shooting a very loose idea of what the film would be – it was very intuitive.”
Let’s talk about sex: “It’s really confusing to me that sex is still a taboo subject in filmmaking,” Swanberg commented. “Early in my career I was focused on depicting sex realistically,” he recalls. “I was attempting to find a more middle ground to portray sex the way I was experiencing it,” he said, rather than adopting the allusive approach of mainstream movies or the explicitness of porn. “But I found out it was complicated,” he acknowledged. The three films are in part about “finding out where we draw those lines and why we draw those lines [about sex],” he asserted.
Moving on from mumblecore: Now that he’s married and the father of a young son, Swanberg is talking about refocusing on films about parenthood, as well as further exploring the online space, as he sees the proliferation of unscripted and documentary-like content created on iPhones or streamed online. (He’s already made several web series and some of the scenes in “The Zone” were shot on Apple’s versatile phone.) “I often still wonder why I’m making these small movies,” he mused. “In general I don’t know how the films are making the world a better place,” he said of his digital features.
“I hope I’m part of a tradition of art filmmaking that started in France in the 50s,” Swanberg continued, and although he likes the idea of “carrying the torch forward for art films,” he noted that “filmmaking is almost becoming a connoisseur experience.” He went on to say that “The really interesting stuff is happening online and on Facebook,” noting that he’s looking more at non-narrative forms and structures of storytelling, although he conceded that “as long as there are performers there will be a need for directors.”
See also: Swanberg Wises Up.