Joe Swanberg is familiar to many as a genial Mumblecore director who has grown his popularity via SXSW and other film festivals around the country. He writes, directs, shoots, often acts and improvises his way through his low-budget naturalistic movies. While his last film “Drinking Buddies” required more writing and organization, current release “Happy Christmas” marks a return to his old ways, which means you need to like this kind of movie to enjoy it. He does character exploration really well, and his actors–in this case Melanie Lynskey, Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber and Lena Dunham–not to mention Swanberg himself–are so sharp and quick on their feet that they make the film feel vital and true.
Kendrick plays the at-loose-end sister of an indie director (Swanberg), who visits her brother and his wife (Lynskey) and baby, staying in their basement. She has a fling with their babysitter and pot dealer (Mark Webber) and also tends to drink too much, which worries her sister-in-law. In some of the film’s best scenes, they get together with a girlfriend (Dunham) and hatch some hilarious writing plans.
“Happy Christmas” premiered at Sundance (TOH! reviewhere) and as is so often the case these days, hit VOD/digital platforms on June 26 before it opened in Los Angeles on July 25– New York is August 1. I interviewed Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men,” “Up in the Air”) and Webber (“Laggies”) after a UCLA Sneak Previews screening.
Anne Thompson: How do you make a movie like this? Joe Swanberg is playing your indie film director husband. Is that his baby? W.C. Fields was right, though: he steals the movie.
Melanie Lynskey: That’s his real-life baby. Oh, yeah, he totally does. He’s so cute.
Was Joe priming him and wrangling him, or was he just that adorable all the time?
No, he’s pretty adorable all the time. I think he also loved when the camera was on him, and he kind of played to the camera a bit. Like, the scene with Mark and Anna at the park, he’s laughing like a maniac, and then he stops for the dialogue. It’s so many little things like that!
Mark Webber: Yeah, he did start to develop an awareness of, like, timing and it was really cool to watch.
This is a very low-budget, on the fly kind of movie. That was probably the real production office, right?
ML: I don’t think it had a production office.
It looks like Joe, a camera, and a sound guy…
ML: It was a five-person crew. It was a DP, a camera assistant, two sound guys, and Joe.
This is the kind of movie relies on smart, on-the-fly acting and reacting. Tell me what that’s like. Is it scary? Exhilarating? Nerve-wracking? Explain. And how much have you both done this before. [To Webber] You’ve done it, I’m sure, because you shot a movie [“The End of Love”] like this.
MW: Yeah. The movie was entirely improvised, and the first scene with me and Anna in my apartment was just one take, and the whole scene kind of plays out. That’s fun. It gets into this… almost like a bit of a theater element. And we were shooting on film. A lot of movies that are improv-based are shot digitally, so you can really shoot a lot until you find it — whereas, with this, we couldn’t.
MW: 16. So the stakes were even higher, in a way. We didn’t have a lot of time, we didn’t have a lot of film, and so everyone, I felt, brought their A-game in terms of improv and knowing these characters. It was a lot of fun. I mean, I loved working this way.
ML: Yeah, I loved it, too. A very important part of it, also, was Ben Richardson, our director of photography, who’s a genius. He did “The Fault in Our Stars”; he did “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He’s really amazing. He was able to sense when people were going to talk, and he really captured everything that needed to be captured.
Did this liberate you a bit with your acting? Because you’re being called upon to hold your own around everyone else.
ML: Yeah, I certainly was intimidated because Anna is so smart and so great. Mark, I know, is an amazing filmmaker so I know that he knows about story; I know that he knows about improvising. Joe is an amazing filmmaker. Lena’s, like, my hero. So, I was kind of like, “am I going to be okay?” Am I going to be able to go along with these people? But everyone was so welcoming that I couldn’t have been more comfortable.
So Joe, it turns out, is a pretty good actor.
ML: Yeah, he’s great. I talked him into doing it. Yeah. Just, “Why don’t you just do it? I think you’re great.”
So he was going to cast someone else instead?
ML: Yeah. I don’t know who he was thinking about, but…
So what kind of written materials did you have, and what kind of direction did he give you?
MW: Did we have them?
ML: There was an outline. It was, like, twelve pages? Sometimes the outline for a scene would be, “They talk in the kitchen. Jenny says her sister is coming to town tomorrow; Kelly expresses concern,” or something like that. But sometimes the scene would be, “Something in the basement.” I was terrified, because I’d never worked in this way before.
What was it like, the first day, for you?
ML: It was very scary, because I didn’t know what he was expecting from us, and whether he was expecting genius on every line, and if I was supposed to have written something. As soon as I saw how easygoing he was and how much he loves the spontaneity and the little awkward moments, it really relaxed me and I was just able to have a conversation.
Is everything you shot in this film, or did he shoot a lot more?
MW: No, pretty much everything that we shot was in the film. For me, my character.
ML: Yeah. We talked a bit more about the book and the storyline; certain scenes were longer, but it’s all “there.”
So this movie definitely passes the Bechdel test. I love the scenes with the three women, it’s fun to watch you guys with Lena. And she doesn’t care if you see her underpants or something. She just doesn’t give a shit.
ML: I know, I love that. She’s so like that in life. I remember, one day, we were having a very intense conversation at the end of work, and our sound guy was, like, “Lena, I need to take your microphone.” She just lifted her dress up and kept talking. We were like, “Well, okay.” She’s just so… I love that. I would like more of that freedom with myself, and Lena’s pretty beautiful.
So Mark, the movie that you directed, “The End of Love” — that prepared you for this? Did you shoot that film in very much the same way?
MW: Yeah, in some ways. Digitally. I also made a movie with my son, who was two at the time. It also played at Sundance — I think two years before this. So, yeah, it was fun. It was cool to see similar ways in which me and Joe would’ve approached things, which is really just about the setting and the vibe and the energy, with how it feels on set. It’s not like a traditional movie set; I mean, we shot in Joe’s house.
And his wife is the woman who shows you the apartment, right?
MW: Yeah, totally. So it’s very much… a lot of these things add a certain level of comfort and ease that helps for a movie that thrives on naturalism and realistic interactions with people, and about real life. When I made my film, I shot in my own home, and I used a lot of friends and family members; you start to blur the lines a bit between reality and fiction. It’s fun.
So what do you think of the name “mumblecore”? A lot of people who are a part of this so-called movement don’t like being called this thing. What do you feel about that?
MW: Oh, I don’t know. Mumblecore seems… slightly derogatory? But that term got used and a lot of those movies that fall under that label I really like. So it was enough of a movement and these movies were being made “to their time” that it merited a labeling, to be called something. Maybe the name’s not so great, but it’s cool that there was a movement.
You guys are doing a lot of work, both in movies and television. Talk about some of the work that’s coming up in television.
ML: I just wrapped the first season of a new show for HBO, which is called “Togetherness,” and it was created and directed by the Duplass brothers, who I’m giant fans of. Mark Duplass and I play a married couple who are not having a great time, and it’s very sad and very funny, and I’m extremely terrified for people to see it.
Mark’s an actor who improvises a lot, who knows how to do that. You’ve done the show, so…
ML: Yeah, we shot this first season. They move in a different way, in that they have a script which is written and rewritten obsessively, so you have these perfect scripts to work from, but then they write you to sort of go off. So, typically, you’ll do a couple of takes that are just on-the-book, and then one where you’re kind of going off a bit, and then one that’s just nothing that’s on the page — nothing to do with anything. It’s really interesting, the stuff that can come out, and it’s a really nice way to work, because you have this safety net. You don’t feel like it’s all on your shoulders.
And, Mark, do you have anything else coming up?
MW: Yeah, I just directed my third film, called “The Ever After.” It just premiered at the L.A. Film Festival. [Melanie] came and saw it, which was really cool. I made it with my wife, and it’s a film about a couple made in a similar way to “The End of Love,” just using real-life relationships and going “there,” in that way. I also have a movie called “Laggies” coming out —
Which I saw and liked. It’s Lynn Shelton, who’s a radical filmmaker I’m a big fan of.
MW: Yeah, she’s great.
You guys are a part of this time where a lot of independent films are being made, and there’s no guarantees of how they’re going to be seen, where they’re going to be seen. What does that feel like, where you sort of have to take your shots?
ML: Yeah, sometimes it can be heartbreaking. It’s also confusing. I mean, I did a movie that was at Tribeca called “Goodbye to All That,” which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done; I’ve never quite had that experience of watching something and thinking, “Oh, I’m part of something that’s perfect.” It was written by Angus MacLachlan — who wrote “Junebug,” which is one of my favorite movies — and he directed it. Paul Schneider won best actor at Tribeca for it, so I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a smash.” There’s a couple of things going on with it, but it didn’t have the response from distributors I thought it would. I don’t know; a lot of the time, it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s the ones like that — that are so special to you and you know are so great — that are heartbreaking. It’s just, “Put it out there and people will love it!”
You’ve had an interesting career. There was “Heavenly Creatures,” a Peter Jackson movie starring you and Kate Winslet. You were sixteen or seventeen when you made that?
ML: I had my sixteenth birthday when we wrapped, yeah.
Then you came to Hollywood after you went to college.
ML: Well, I went to college for a year. You don’t need to know this story. Yeah, I gathered my strength and came over here and started auditioning.
And people were welcoming, or people came over and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?”
ML: It took me a while. I was so terrified and very shy, in case you can’t tell. This is me at my most confident. New Zealand is very unassuming — just, “Oh, thank you for having me. I’m sorry I’m here.” I wasn’t exactly selling myself. So it took me a while, but I got really lucky that a lot of casting directors were patient with me. A lot of people would bring me in and sort of give me a pep talk beforehand. “You can do it! You deserve to be here.” People let you build your confidence, and I had an amazing manager who I was with for almost 20 years. She passed away in October of last year.
Oh, I’m very sorry.
ML: Thank you. Her name was Susan Smith. She was a beautiful person and I had a lot of good luck.
How did you get to know Joss Whedon?
ML: Oh, I auditioned for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I was supposed to test for it, but Susan said, “I don’t want you doing television.” I called to apologize, and he said, “It’s fine; let’s have dinner.” And then we became great friends, him and his wife. Yeah, that’s the story.