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SXSW 2016: Joe Swanberg Gets Honest About Making a Living in Indie Film

SXSW 2016: Joe Swanberg Gets Honest About Making a Living in Indie Film

Joe Swanberg’s keynote today at SXSW was not unlike one of his movies: Unscripted, personally revealing and brutally honest. As Swanberg worked his way chronologically through his career, he kept pointing out how he wasn’t some trailblazer, but rather that his career had just intersected with tremendous advances in technology that changed how films were made and distributed. The reality, however, is that Swanberg has consistently been at the forefront of experimenting with how to be an uncompromised filmmaker, while still carving out a career and living for himself.  

Using examples from his career, the director provided plenty of filmmaking principles and advice with the many aspiring DYI filmmakers in the audience.

“We Need To Share Information”

“If we just talked to each other we’d fuck shit up,” explained Swanberg. Using an example from when he was making a the web series “Young Hard Bodies” for IFC and Nerve, Swanberg said that he was happy to just get paid anything to make the series. That was until his good friend Ti West (who is at SXWS this year with “In a Valley of Violence”) told him he was getting paid $5,000 a episode. Swanberg had started making his series for $500 to $1,000 an episode.

“If I didn’t know Ti, I would have been happy with [getting a raise] to $3,000,” but instead IFC, didn’t blink when he asked for $5,000.   

“Marriage is Also a Business Partnership”

Swanberg credits his marriage to fellow filmmaker Kris Swanberg (“Unexpected”) as being vital to allowing them both filmmakers ability to experiment and create. Although he was honest about how the couple spent a decade barely making ends meet, that having two potential income earners — and as long as one of them was working and able to pay the bills — has allowed them to both continue to make art and start a family.

“No One Reads Anything”

“No press is bad press,” Swanberg joked. His larger point here was that simply being written about in major publications, especially The New York Times, gave Swanberg’s early ventures into micro budget filmmaking and VOD the credibility he needed. He said that biggest lesson came when a number of people would congratulate him on reviews he knew said “god awful” things about his films. It was at this point he realized that being important enough to be written about was what would be vital to him being able to make films for $10,000 to $15,000.     

“You Can Shoot A Good Movie in Four Days”

Swanberg spent a great deal of time during his keynote highlighting the key role that his friend and collaborator Adam Wingard (also at SXSW with the TV show “Outcast”) has played in his career. When the two directors first met each other in Birmingham, where Wingard lived, Swanberg thought he was “the weirdest and most memorable dude ever,” but he didn’t take him seriously. When Wingard asked Swanberg to come to Alabama to act in two segments of his four-segment feature about date rape, Swanberg joked, “that was literally the last thing I ever wanted to do.”

After watching the first two segments, however, Swanberg was impressed, but when he learned that Wingard had shot each segment in a day, his mind was blown. He went to Alabama to see how Wingard could possibly shoot a quarter of a movie in a day and for it to still be good. He was so impressed by Wingard, he hired him to be his cinematographer and mirrored his process in shooting “Autoerotic.” The film went on to be Swanberg’s first project to make a major profit (it sold for $70,000 and cost only $15,000) and set into motion Swanberg making seven films in one year.   

Swanberg encouraged the young filmmakers in the audience to attempt to making a four-day feature themselves, highlighting that it’s great for performances and it really sharpens and focuses you as a director.   

Movie Stars Are Important

In discussing “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg insists he did nothing different in the way he made the film, except that he worked with stars like Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson, and that results were career- and life-changing.

“It’s this weird thing that when we see famous people do things it feels real [to us],” explained Swanberg. He admitted that while he dreams of going back to the days of living with his cast and crew for a month while improvising a movie like “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” the reality is he’s fallen in love with working with Hollywood stars. This has meant that he now needs to write a script, so that he can have a real plan to accommodate busy actors’ schedules.

“Invest in Your Own Movies”

Swanberg revealed today that since “Drinking Buddies,” he has rolled his income from one movie right into his next one, owning an increasing larger percentage of his work with each new project. He realizes this is counter to every piece of advice filmmakers are told, but he insists that gambling on yourself is the only way you will ever make any real money in this business.

“Three Truths About Money”

1.  According Swanberg, when making a movie, “it is better to have no money, than some money.” He insists having some money causes major headaches because everybody is going to want a piece of it and there’s not enough to go around. He stated that he’s had much better success paying people more money after the film has been sold. 
2.  The less you need money, the more they want to give you money, but when you are struggling, the smell of desperation means no one will give you a dime. Swanberg discussed how this truth is infuriating, but that advices filmmakers to take meetings like you don’t need funds.
3.  Time and happiness are money. If you don’t factor your happiness into what it is you do for money as filmmaker you will not succeed. He added, “People don’t like bad movies and never have I seen a filmmaker hate something they made, that makes money.”

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