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Joe Swanberg On Why He Felt a Social Responsibility To Make 'Drinking Buddies,' Starring Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick

By Mark Lukenbill | Indiewire August 20, 2013 at 11:40AM

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."
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Joe Swanberg and Olivia Wilde at a Nitehawk, Brooklyn screening of Magnolia Pictures' "Drinking Buddies."
Amanda Schwab/Starpix Joe Swanberg and Olivia Wilde at a Nitehawk, Brooklyn screening of Magnolia Pictures' "Drinking Buddies."

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.

Drinking Buddies

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.

This article is related to: Joe Swanberg, Joe Swanberg, Joe Swanberg, Joe Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies, Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia Pictures, Interviews







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