The new anthology series “Easy,” which launched this week on Netflix, technically doesn’t represent too big a change of pace for indie director Joe Swanberg — the eight episodes are all very reminiscent of his established brand of character and relationship-focused storytelling, largely driven by improv.
Yet, at the same time, the show provided him a whole new set of challenges, as Swanberg took the opportunity to depict a range of narratives set in Chicago. Don’t call it a “portrait” of the city just yet, though — Swanberg wants at least 15 more seasons before he’s comfortable with saying that.
With the first season, he was excited to bring in new actors, work with some familiar favorites and even direct an entire episode largely in Spanish. Below, Swanberg walks IndieWire through the process behind creating “Easy” (including why the show was kept a secret until after filming was completed) and how he can’t stop thinking about ideas for Season 2 and beyond.
How did this project originally came together?
I’ve been making movies for 12 years now, something like that. I really developed this style and method of working. There’s a friend of mine, Billy Rosenberg, who works at “Party Over Here,” which is the Lonely Island guys’ company. I’ve worked with Billy on the film side. He called me and was like, “Did you ever think about doing TV?” I was like, “Nah, I don’t think so. There’s just so much I don’t like about TV as a format. I’ve always really been into the movies.” He said, “Why don’t you come over, and let’s talk about it.”
I had this meeting with him, and I spent the whole time talking about things I didn’t like about different TV shows and the trappings of television. We had that conversation, really pinpointed the things that I do like about TV, which are the ability to tell stories over a long period of time and the breadth of it, versus the straight 90 minute feature format. The more I started to think about it, the more I felt like I could just keep making my movies, but I could make them 30 minutes instead of 90 minutes.
I went to Netflix and pitched them the idea of letting me continue to make things in the way I had been making them on the feature format, but that I could create this range of characters, some of whom knew each other in these little bits of overlap. This could take on the form of an anthology television show, but I could attack each one as its own individual short film, basically.
What was your relationship with Netflix like prior to then?
Well, I had directed an episode of “Love” and had watched a lot of Netflix at home at my house. [laughs] I have seen “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas” really find huge audiences on Netflix. I knew that it was a format where my work was connecting with audiences, but always in a movie-licensing kind of way. It only took one conversation with them before it became crystal clear what they could do with an original television show would automatically find a much bigger audience than the movie set.
My view of TV was really pretty good because HBO [for whom Swanberg directed an episode of “Looking”] and Netflix are really amazing to work for and give a ton of creative freedom to the shows to be their own thing. My actual working experience made me feel pretty certain that I could get away with doing my own kind of thing in the TV format.
Timeline-wise, the deal for the show was announced in March. When did you actually start shooting?
We were done with it by the time we announced it. I really wanted the freedom, at least for the first season, to make the show without any kind of scrutiny, locally here in Chicago but also nationally. We very quietly put it together, and we very quietly shot the eight episodes here in Chicago between November and February. Once it was fully in the can and we felt good about it, then we went ahead and announced it. That more came out of my own desire to just have the freedom to work and just figure it out by actually doing it, as opposed to having to make an announcement that proclaimed what it was before we even felt like we knew what it was.
Talk about that process a little bit. With the writing, did you just sit down and have every episode mapped out?
Well, we had the storyline for the eight mapped out, but only in paragraph form. We started with an eight paragraph document, each one a couple lines about some idea or some character. I used that to cast the show. I spent two weeks Skype-ing with a lot of actors. I met a ton of actors. I started locking people into certain roles. Once episodes were cast, working the same way that I had on the movies. Asking the actors to share as much of themselves as they were comfortable with, to help me build this thing and own those characters. The actual outlines which we ended up shooting from were maybe two or three pages long, and were just very quick run-throughs of maybe a location and a one sentence description of a scene or something like that. Even that was changing constantly as we were shooting.
I learned from it by actually doing a take. I may think I know what a scene’s about before we start, but then something may present itself or a problem may lead to some kind of interesting idea. Almost as likely just that the van ride with the cast between locations could have a conversation and suddenly it’s exciting to us, and I’m trying to work that in. It was a really fun constantly evolving process where each week a group of actors would come in, and we’d treat each episode like its own film, from the costuming to the production design to the way we shot each of them. We didn’t say, “Okay, this is an episode of the show.” We said, “This is its own story. These are all new characters. How would we approach this if we were in a feature?” It’s a really fun process of the show being a summation of all these different creative decisions, as opposed to having one overarching theme.
From the outside, it seems like there are a few episodes and story lines that are very much influenced by who end up getting cast. Was there any reverse engineering in that?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t really get to work until I’ve cast the movie — or in this case the episodes. For me, that’s a fundamental thing I have to know first, before I can really write anymore. That casting process was happening very early on. Only when I felt like I had locked people in did I feel comfortable moving on closer to production. I’d say that every single actor in the show had a major impact onto that character.
You work with a lot of actors more than once. What’s been key for you in terms of building an ensemble of people that you want to collaborate with?
I would say a deep level of empathy with their characters, even if their characters are exposing unlikable aspects of their personality or challenging characters to play in one way or another. Real openness to not know everything. Different actors have different styles. I think a lot of actors like to have the source material before they get to work. They build the performance out of what’s on the page. I’m asking people to do the opposite. In many respects to play themselves within a fictional construct. Take a fake name and take a fake life circumstance, but insert yourself into that. That’s not interesting to every actor.
I’m looking for people where I feel it’s a good fit. The people I tend to work with over and over again not only like the working method, but we’re gaining something and feeling like there’s some new level of richness, that we get each time out to know each other better and be able to dive a little deeper. I want people who are writers. I like to work with actors who have a really strong sense of story, who stand up to me and defend their character and really push and challenge me. I feel that not only is the work better, but we all have a better time.
Ultimately, if we can do more seasons of the show, there would always be new characters introduced, and the ability to keep it at characters who we’ve already seen before. I think that that’s always going to be the key to keeping the show interesting and fresh if we can do it for a lot of years, that the show is open to always incorporating new voices, but also the more we can check back in on these characters and get to know them as the years pass, the more interesting those story lines become.
Were you working with a casting director to come up with a list of people?
No. I was casting myself. I just reached out to the agencies and to other people whose recommendations I trust. I cast a really wide net. I let people know what I was doing. I essentially said I was open to meeting anybody, and so I just packed those two weeks with as many meetings as I could fit in and just was really honest about the working method and making sure that people were interested in that. And then also talking through some of the story lines and waiting to see whether there was a deep personal connection or something that really made one actor jump out over another. It came together that way.
For several of these stories, I didn’t know how old the characters were until I cast one person. Then that would create a cornerstone for casting the rest of the episode. It was like fitting a big puzzle together, in terms of looking not only at each individual episode, but at the whole season and trying to make sure that each episode was covering a different topic and felt unique from the other ones.
One of the things that I really responded to was the fact that there is such a range of ages being explored.
Yeah, that felt important to me, to have characters in their early 20s and characters in their 50s. I would hope that given the chance to do multiple seasons of this show, that age range would expand to include teenagers and people in their 80s. It’s a very open format. My real desire going forward is that with each season or show opens up even more, that we’re never closing in but that we’re always expanding to include different neighborhoods in Chicago, different ages, different cultures. The bigger the story gets the more accurate a view of the whole city it becomes.
Do you see it as a portrait of Chicago?
Not yet. I would call it a snapshot of a few characters right now. I would say that the goal of the series is that it would become a portrait of Chicago, but I’m under no illusion that this season of the show represents even close to the diversity or cultural hodgepodge that makes up any major city. This would be a 25 year goal of mine, that we could get to a point where I could call it a portrait of Chicago. Right now, no, I would say it’s eight different stories thus far.
When it came down to drawing the connections between everything, how complicated was that process?
That was a lot based on casting and just the desire to do that. I suppose with the eight different episodes it was important to me that some of them were completely standalone, but I also was really intrigued by the idea that if these characters knew each other, we might be able to do some fun overlap between the episodes. Even though they are eight different short films, having connecting points that weave through them would make it feel more like a season of TV in a way that I was drawn to. I don’t have any grand design or some feeling like I know where this is headed or if you just wait three seasons it’s all going to be revealed or anything like that. I the that the way the show overlaps with itself will always be pretty relaxed and incidental. After completing these eight episodes, I did start to see some really interesting ways that these characters may come into each other’s lives over the next couple seasons.
What was most exciting about doing an episode largely in Spanish?
That was the most fun and most unique experience I’ve had as a filmmaker. The level of trust that had to exist. I always need the actors to trust me, but the level to which I trust them is really dependent. In the case of literally not knowing what was being said exactly, I had to trust them more completely than I’ve ever had to trust collaborators. It was a really fun process. We would shoot a take. They would translate for me and give me a rough summary of what was said. We would make adjustments and do another take. What I discovered is good performance is good performance and everybody feels it. Even though I’m not fluent in Spanish and I didn’t know exactly what was being said each day, I definitely could tell when there was stronger connections, when the emotions felt more resonant.
Also the actors would ask me for another take. They would say to me, “Well, this is what I said, but I actually think I can do it better. Can we try it one more time? Maybe I’ll make this change.” It was really as collaborative as it gets. I’m especially proud of that episode and excited to represent one particular neighborhood in Chicago in a different way than it’s maybe typically seen in American television.
The fact that there were a couple story lines that really did track through the whole season was really interesting. How much, plot-wise, are you thinking about a Season 2 or a Season 3?
I think about it all the time. With each episode that I did for this season, so many opportunities presented themselves for when we could take these characters in subsequent seasons. Not only was I talking to the actors about it while we were working, but in the meantime, since I finished the show I would say I spent all this summer dreaming up different ways to meet these characters again and what might be going on with them. My fingers are really crossed that we have the opportunity not just to do another season, but to do 15 seasons and really take this thing to a really interesting new place.
Being able to do “Easy” now is really a chance to apply the things that I figured out years ago. Then also in the meantime, thankfully, I’ve had a lot more feature experience. Knock on wood, I’m getting better as a filmmaker, not worse. It’s all culminated in a nice place with “Easy.”
“Easy” Season 1 is now available on Netflix.