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by Eric Kohn
November 4, 2011 6:20 PM
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With “The Zone,” 2011 AFI Fest Honoree Joe Swanberg Wises Up: “I Want People to Like Me.”

Filmmaker Joe Swanberg. Brendan McFadden via Creative Commons license on Flickr.
A lot of people are skeptical about Joe Swanberg, especially Joe Swanberg. Thirty years old and Chicago based, he’s the only filmmaker to gain serious mileage from the vaguely defined “mumblecore” movement. And he’s the first to realize that making extremely similar microbudget movies about sex, filmmaking and uncertain twentysomethings has turned him into a walking cliché.

“I’m still trying to have that broader conversation with an audience that doesn’t know about my other work,” he said in a phone conversation earlier this week. “But without getting my head too far up my own ass. I’m interested in topics other than myself.”

That doesn’t mean he wants to step out of the spotlight. At the 2011 AFI Fest, Swanberg will receives special recognition with retrospective screenings of his recent meta movies “Art History” and “Silver Bullets,” as well as the world premiere of the just-completed “The Zone.”

Of course, that’s just a fraction of the Swanberg equation. His debut, “Kissing on the Mouth,” premiered at SXSW in 2005 and by the time he started receiving mainstream press, Swanberg already had a few new features in the bag.

In 2007, his playful romantic comedy, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” found a home at IFC Films and led to a “mumblecore” retrospective of his films along with other young DIY auteurs at New York’s IFC Center that year. “Hannah” introduced the world to Greta Gerwig, now an indie megastar featured in upcoming works from Woody Allen and Whit Stillman.

After Swanberg co-directed the long-distance love story “Nights and Weekends” the following year, he caught the admiration of Noah Baumbach, producer of Swanberg’s 2009 “Alexander the Last.”

And then Swanberg went quiet for a year as he pulled together a swarm of features that he unleashed on the festival circuit over 11 months: “Uncle Kent” at Sundance; “Art History” and “Silver Bullets” at Berlin, the latter of which also played SXSW; and “Autoerotic,” an anthology film co-directed by Adam Wingard, which skipped the festival route and landed on IFC’s midnight VOD channel. “The Zone” premieres at AFI Fest Tuesday, wrapping a self-reflexive trilogy started by “Art History” and “Silver Bullets.”

And there’s more to come. Swanberg shot a movie about non-professional pornographers called “Amateurs” over the summer and promises he has a few more projects in the pipeline.

So: The guy stays busy. “I’ve become a manager of details,” he says, explaining how he keeps track of different movies screening in various places at the same time. “My brain functions that way. I think that, because of the internet, everybody thinks like that. We’re all having 10 conversations at once.”

Having grown used to the rhythm of his output, Swanberg has found a home for it with the DVD distributor Factory 25, which recently announced a subscription service to deliver multiple Swanberg movies on DVD to his growing list of fans each year. (The company also distributed “Art History” and “Silver Bullets” theatrically.)

As Swanberg’s recognition increases, there’s an ever-widening gulf between his advocates (who think his movies tap into realistic young adult struggles with unparalleled naturalism) and detractors (who think his movies are amateurish at best, obnoxious and demoralizing at worst). Both camps, however, may need to reconsider their arguments now that Swanberg insists he has found a new direction.

“The Zone” sounds like an easy fit in the Swanberg oeuvre: It features filmmaker-couple Laurence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal (“Gabi on the Roof in July,” “Green”) as well as fellow director Kentucker Audley and Swanberg. The characters play modified versions of themselves acting in a typical Swanberg movie about two couples in a confusing love triangle that ultimately causes relationship problems.

However, “The Zone” unravels one narrative thread after another, leaving the movie-within-a-movie and then leaving that movie for a final scene ostensibly taking place in real life. This is Swanberg’s “Inception,” a head-spinning journey through the filmmaker’s various overlapping universes. Even viewers frustrated with Swanberg’s routine will appreciate the knowing epilogue of “The Zone,” where he receives a terse critique from his wife—fellow filmmaker Kris Swanberg—who issues perhaps the most sober appraisal of Swanberg’s flaws yet. The final minutes tell us that the gig is up; the time has arrived to try something different.

Because they’re personal works, Swanberg’s movies are uneven by design. Despite flashes of radical artistry, they contain few solid convictions. He’s restricted to a cinema of searching, with each individual work connected to the next by a process of stylistic evolution. Any statement of intent comes with disclaimers and prevarication. Referring to “The Zone,” he says it’s “a new chapter, I think,” and laughs. But he’s not kidding.

The movie’s principal drama involves the director’s unwillingness to cause legitimate problems for the relationships of his cast members as a result of their sex scenes.

“I can’t feel responsible for this stuff,” Swanberg says, but the last few years taught him better than that.

In 2007, when “Hannah Takes the Stars.” Swanberg shot the movie over the course of a month in Chicago while living in an apartment with the cast who included Gerwig, Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski. For him at least, it was a bonding experience.

“When ‘Hannah’ had a sort of success, I felt like I had to do that every time,” he said. “Fostering that sort of identification between me and the actors and everybody on set was the thing that made the movie good.”

That lasted through the production of “Nights and Weekends,” when on-set complications between him and Gerwig caused a breach in their relationship and, he says, opened his eyes. With “Alexander the Last,” he stepped up the professionalism, a decision obvious in the tighter sense of control in both performances and carefully-arranged mise-en-scene. “That was the movie where I really started to detach from attempting to have those kinds of intimate friendships as a means of producing good movies,” he said.

Of course, those are big words for the guy anyone can watch writhing in bed with Gerwig in the supremely uncomfortable climax (so to speak) of “Nights and Weekends.” You don’t have to dig deep to uncover rumors of their spat, Gerwig’s extreme dissatisfaction with the production and the subsequent dissolution of their working relationship. “The Zone” directly addresses this situation and other problems with Swanberg’s tendency to ignore professional boundaries and grow too comfortable with his cast.

“The area where I got confused was where I felt like people really liked me,” he said. “It took me a while to realize that as soon as the movie was over, they didn’t need my approval anymore and my feelings got hurt.” He added, “This is obviously because I’m selfish and narcissistic.”

Swanberg calls that realization “traumatic.” Speaking specifically about his experience with Gerwig, he admits he misinterpreted their connection. “As soon as we weren’t working on movies together anymore, I realized it wasn’t really a friendship that was grounded in anything other than circumstantially working together a lot,” he said.

Despite those challenges, Swanberg also discovered some validation in choosing to work on a small scale. He’s never been the sort to take on a studio gig, but his dicey experiences made him understand why. “In Hollywood, everything’s so regimented and segmented,” he said. “There are all these people involved who created schedules and call sheets. When the crew is only four people and everybody’s living together, people need space.”

Still, he’s not trying to turn back time. “I don’t regret any of the movies,” he said. “I just regret some of the decisions I’ve made.”

Nothing, however, tamps his enthusiasm for his lo-fi process. “Early on, the promise of the digital revolution was that kids in their backyards were going to make movies that rival Hollywood,” he said. “That hasn’t really come to pass. I think the real promise is that people can make movies that don’t look like Hollywood movies and don’t have to look like them. We can make movies that are justifiable, even if they’re only seen by two or three thousand people.”

And yet some of Swanberg’s movies are now being seen by a few more than that, thanks to his elevated profile. The new scrutiny provides an ideal moment for change. After “The Zone,” he wants to make movies about a number of previously unexplored topics. “One one thread of that fork in the road is stories about parenthood and marriage,” he said. “Movies about people I know in my life, but everybody’s entering their thirties now.”

The other direction he wants to take involves “our short attention spans, our inability to communicate,” with a requisite Swanbergian twist. In other words, more sex. He describes “Amateurs” as “the first one that’s starting to look like what I hope is the future.”

Of course, more attention means more backlash. That’s not a development Swanberg welcomes with open arms. “I’m not a provocateur in the sense that I’m trying to push people’s buttons, to incite anger because I get off on that,” he said. “I’ve said it a lot lately and it’s the truth: I want people to like me.”

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