Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg has been something of an icon and champion of no-budget filmmaking ever since having a hand in the creation of the so-called mumblecore movement, along with filmmakers such as Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers, with films like 2005’s “Kissing on the Mouth” and 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs.”
Since then his prolific filmography has remained remarkably committed to the DIY aesthetic with which he made his name, so it was certainly understandable when heads turned at the announcement that his latest film would star an Oscar nominated actress (Anna Kendrick), a principal cast member of a hit FOX comedy (Jake Johnson of “New Girl”) and a venerable movie star (Olivia Wilde). Equally surprising was the fact that it would be shot by up and coming “Beasts of the Southern Wild” DP Ben Richardson, a film with a lush and colorful style that would seem to be at odds with the comparative stark realism of Swanberg’s oeuvre; usually chronicles of relationship dysfunction among young Chicagoans, starring Swanberg and his friends.
When it premiered at SXSW to a warm reception (go HERE for Indiewire’s glowing review), “Drinking Buddies” proved to be a natural extension of Swanberg’s work instead of a “sell out,” but it’s still managed to burn up the VOD and iTunes charts, and will have a sizable release by Magnolia starting August 23rd.
We sat down with the filmmaker in New York to talk about the film, upcoming projects such as his new horror film “24 Exposures” and the comedy “Happy Christmas” (starring Kendrick, Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey), the ethical importance of making comedies, and beer.
I just overheard you saying that this will be playing at the Nitehawk [culinary theater In Brooklyn], which is awesome. It can be an interactive drinking experience.
Yeah, there and Landmark Sunshine. I’m really excited. I’ve never been there; I’m going tonight.
I saw this back to back with “The World’s End,” and I couldn’t help looking around like, why don’t we all have pints?
I can’t wait to see “The World’s End.” Edgar Wright tweeted at me like, “my movie could also be called ‘Drinking Buddies.'” I’m looking forward to it.
A lot of Chicagoans that I know were curious as to why, among the legion of Chicago craft beers featured in the movie, Goose Island wasn’t featured. Not being from Chicago I have a pretty limited idea of what that actually means, but I was told I needed to ask.
It’s because Goose Island is from the Anheuser-Busch family of beers, which is owned by InBev, which is like a European megaconglomerate beverage owner. So that was political on my part not to include them. They don’t need to be supported or advertised with my money.
Really tempting to just do an interview about beer, but we should probably talk about the movie. Was the decision to cast big name actors more of a practical one, to get the movie financed and seen, or a creative one? You’ve been talking a lot about Paul Mazursky, and I feel like that genre of movie, that kind of relationship comedy, almost kind of requires familiar faces.
It helps. “Drinking Buddies” is a tough sell anyway because it’s about complicated relationship issues and doesn’t cut a super easy trailer, it’s a not a super easy one line pitch kind of movie, so that stuff does help… First of all it’s kind of hard to remember how that happened, how we decided to start looking for bigger actors, and whether it was my idea or someone else’s. Beyond that, I’m just a fan of these people. I didn’t want to spend my entire career working with unknown actors and friends. So this seemed like the right project to branch out and incorporate other actors that I had seen in other stuff and really liked. I was only meeting with actors whose work I already admired; it wasn’t a broad, open casting call of “let’s see how famous we can get.” It was, “these are thirty actors whose work I really like. Let’s see if any of them are interested.”
Was the decision to have this project be your first slightly bigger budget, Steadicam-enabled movie yours?
That sort of grew naturally. I think we knew by default that it was going to be bigger than my biggest movie, which was “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” which was only $60,000. We knew it was going to be bigger than that. I was working with Alicia [Van Couvering, the producer] to budget it out and she did the math so that it sort of naturally grew to the size that it is now, which is still basically the smallest that we could’ve possibly done the movie. It’s still as low budget as it could be. Mostly because it’s hard to find investors when you don’t have a script.
How did the actors react to not having any semblance of a script?
They were all doing the movie because of that, almost. The experience of doing that. So that wasn’t really a roadblock, that was more the way in, if anything. That came along with the invitation. And then on set, on a day to day basis, they did great. They really owned the process. It felt the same way it’s always felt. Working with them didn’t feel different than working with anybody else.
The process in this movie is kind of fascinating to me because Jake Johnson and Jason Sudeikis obviously have a background in improv comedy, but I would consider that a completely different and removed type of improv than what you usually do. Were you worried if those sensibilities would gel?
I thought about it, certainly. That conversation with Jake happened around the idea that we were only going to shoot with one camera. I think he understood that it wasn’t going to be that kind of jokey improv where you have two or three cameras so that you’re covered from every angle so that you can take a live take and cut it. He understood that it was more dramatic than that and that the placement of the camera was important and that we would do multiple takes. With Sudeikis we were working so quickly, he was only there for two days, and he just had to dive into it. He was doing us a favor, basically. But he’s so smart and observant that he could just sort of see what was happening and go along with it.
But it’s interesting when I talk to people about the movie as an improvised movie because I would say even my connotations about what improv means– if somebody says, “Hey! we’re going to go to Second City and see some improv,” I’m like “aghh!” I think of big, jokey improv which is not necessarily my cup of tea. Though there are, like, TJ and Dave, who are two Chicago guys who do improv, and they’re doing improv that’s much closer to the improv that I’m doing, which is long form and more dramatic. They’re essentially using improvisation as a tool to tell a story and it’s not about jokes and it’s not about quick, witty comebacks. It’s about listening to the other person and sort of telling a story. They’re sort of generating there’s live for an audience so there are different demands on them.
For me it’s really– I sense that anybody could do improv in one of my movies as long as they’re the kind of person who could have a conversation with someone else. That’s really all I’m asking. And that’s not to take any credit away from the actors I’ve worked with, it’s just to say that I’m asking them to do a different thing. I’m asking them to be storytellers and just conversationalists. I’m not asking them to be entertainers with a capital “E.” And then the smallness of the scene by scene thing hopefully accumulates into a movie rather than a series of jokes.
At the same time though, not that this movie isn’t still grounded in realism, but I do think it’s a little more laid back and funny than some of your other movies. Not to dwell on the mumblecore thing too much, but “Computer Chess” was also a lot more irreverent compared to Andrew Bujalski’s earlier work. Do you think it’s something that, as you guys and your characters get older, you approach your material less reverentially?
That’s really interesting. And it’s interesting too because I think I took “Drinking Buddies” more seriously than anything I’ve ever made. I think maybe it’s laid backness is just the result of increased confidence of having done it a bunch of times. Probably same for Bujalski. You do enough movies and you start to feel like you know what you want a little more.
I would say on my end the sort of big conversation that I had was with a filmmaker named Madeleine Olnek, who did a movie called “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.” It was at Sundance in 2011 and “Uncle Kent” was there that year. I had known Madeleine for several years, but we hung out at Sundance that year and got to talk a little bit. She said to me, when we were talking about why we make movies, she said that she had recently been feeling like as a filmmaker if you had the ability to make a comedy that it was immoral not to, which was like the wildest piece of film theory I’d heard in forever. I was like, “A, you’re crazy… but, B, you’re kind of blowing my mind.” I had never thought about the social responsibility to make people laugh and how therapeutic that can be. And obviously the history of Hollywood is full of these great comedies that also were socially engaging and, I would argue, useful for people. Time passed and I couldn’t shake it. I kept thinking about if, A, I had the ability to make a comedy, which is a big part of it. She wasn’t like, “Every filmmaker has to make comedies or you’re an immoral person.” I found that it was a huge factor in deciding to do something like “Drinking Buddies” whether than, let’s say, a really dramatic movie that also had bigger actors in it.
It’s also been an influence on “Happy Christmas,” the movie I made after “Drinking Buddies,” and the scripts that I’m reading and the projects that I’m generating for myself. They’re all comedies now, and I really think that that was the most profound piece of film theory that I’ve heard in several years.
That makes sense, especially in light of the trend of the roles that you’ve been playing in other people’s movies. In both [Adam Wingard’s] “You’re Next” and [Zach Clark’s] “White Reindeer” you’re hilarious.
It’s hard, which to me is the thing that’s appealing about it. It’s hard to make people laugh. Comedy is a difficult thing to pull off. And it helps to have Jake Johnson and those actors there to do that. But I like the challenge of it. It’s easier to be lazy with drama because the situations are inherently complicated and dramatic. Comedy doesn’t let you rest the same way.
What about horror filmmaking, now that you made your next film, “24 Exposures?” Was horror something that you were always interested in, or did it come from being involved in your friends’ projects, like Ti West and Adam Wingard?
I’ve always been pretty into horror movies. As a young filmmaker horror movies, because so many of them were low budget, were really useful in terms of studying how they did certain things. Horror movies like “Evil Dead” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” would let you into the process a little bit.
Something like “24 Exposures” and “VHS” were really chances to step outside of mumblecore and really flex my muscles in other areas so that they don’t become atrophied. I’m not sure I want to do improvised relationship comedy-dramas the rest of my life so I want to push myself into other realms so that I can have a more fully informed sense of what I like doing. The experience of showing “VHS” to people was extremely addicting because sitting in a room with five hundred people, all of whom gasp at a specific moment is really an adrenaline rush that’s really only similar to comedy, basically. The timing and the difficulty of successfully doing horror and comedy are similar.
Is your directorial process the same on those type of movies? Do you approach a horror movie in the same way?
I have thus far, though I sense that if I do it again I really need to get technical in a way that I haven’t, because a lot of what makes horror work is editing and sound design. Sound design is not something I’ve ever put a great deal of effort and energy into, and on both “VHS” and “24 Exposures” other people were sort of focusing on that. But it’s something that I’d like to get good at and pre-visualize, and build scenes and setups around sound design and around other elements.
Is there anything else about “Happy Christmas” that you can share? I heard Ben Richardson shot it on 16mm, which is pretty cool.
Yeah, we shot on super 16. I’m editing it now. It’s not finished enough for me to say too much, but I’ll hint that it’s another comedy, and light and loose in a similar way to “Drinking Buddies.” I’m really excited to get it out there. It won’t be until next year.