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Joe Swanberg Interview

by Pete Wassell


IAFT correspondent Pete Wassell recently had a chance to catch up with Writer/Director/Actor Joe Swanberg, who’s directed 16 films, a TV series and a short film in the last 8 years.

Joe and I talked about the benefits of film school, the direction of the Mumblecore cinema movement, and his own plans for the future. Mr. Swanberg is considered one of the pioneers of the Mumblecore Cinema movement, along with Mark and Jay Duplass, Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, and Aaron Katz. Based in Chicago, Mr. Swanberg makes small, dialogue heavy films that center around the post-college experience of 20-somethings in the city and their interweaving relationships, but he’s recently branched out into hard genre by directing a segment for 2012’s Sundance darling V/H/S. He most recently wrapped production on his new film Drinking Buddies, due out later this year.

PW: Where did you go to school? Did you find your experience to be fulfilling? Would you recommend film school to teenagers looking to become filmmakers?

JS: I went to school at Southern Illinois University. It was a very rewarding experience for me. I was exposed to films I wouldn’t have seen otherwise and encouraged to be an independent thinker and artist. The major benefit I see to film school is the ability to spend several years in the company of other filmmakers your own age and skill level. It’s nice to be surrounded by other people who are passionate about the same things you are and who can challenge you and inspire you to make things.

PW: You act in many of your own films, and often times open yourself up emotionally and physically. Do you ever regret putting yourself out there like that?

JS: I think it’s important for artists to put themselves out there and make themselves vulnerable. Risking humiliation and ridicule is one of the challenges that artists face, and it’s worth facing head on.

PW: Do you feel the films you make are becoming more commercial? I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just feel like the dialogue and improvisational heavy films that you make are becoming more fashionable with the emergence of films like Jeff Who Lives at Home and Safety Not Guaranteed.

JS: Yes, the style of the early Mumblecore films has certainly seeped into the mainstream, or become mainstream. This is a natural evolution. We did something that excited people and felt different. But now that it doesn’t feel as exciting or different, I’m inspired to do new things.

PW: Do you feel your films, and the Mumblecore movement, are growing up? Your early films, Kissing on the Mouth, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and the series Young American Bodies, all center around recent college grads, 20-somethings and their intersecting relationships. But your more recent work like Autoerotic, Caitlin Plays Herself, and V/H/S have taken on a more political, risqué tone (though I find all of your films to be refreshingly adult) as well as more hard genre with V/H/S. Do these shifts in content and tone mirror your own maturation as an artist, and the fact that you’re not in your 20’s anymore, or do you feel you’re just looking to branch out creatively?

JS: It’s a little of both. I’m certainly a different person than I was at 25, but I’m also actively trying to push myself to try new things and avoid repetition. Some things, like the subject matter of my films, might remain fairly consistent, but there are a lot of ways to explore that subject matter and I’m trying to poke and prod at it from different angles and vantage points.

PW: Your newest film, Drinking Buddies, has a pretty stellar cast with Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, and Ron Livingston. What was it like making a film with a cast of actors that have all had some pretty big roles come their way recently?

JS: I had a great time with the cast of Drinking Buddies. It was the first time that I didn’t know most of my cast personally, so we had to get to know each other quickly and develop a level of trust so that we could communicate well and make something we were proud of. I love all of these actors and I hope I get to make more films with them. They’re very smart and fun to work with.

PW: Do you like the idea of bigger budgets and more notoriety?

JS: I found the bigger budget to be freeing. I could dream bigger. It was fun. I’d like to do it again.

PW: You made 6 movies in 2011, and 3 in 2012. Do you ever find yourself getting bored, or worn out? What do you do in between projects?

JS: Yes, certainly I get worn out sometimes. I typically don’t have much time between projects. I’m usually working on more than one at a time. But there is plenty of “real life” that is happening while I’m working, and I try to step away from the films every once in a while to focus on other things. I read a lot of books and I brew beer. Those are ways that I relax and take my mind off of the films. I also spend a lot of time with my wife and my son.

PW: Lastly, where do you see yourself and the style in 20 years? Will you still be making small, personal films or would you take Die Hard 8 if they offered it? And I honestly don’t mean to rag on Die Hard or big genre films, I love them, I just wonder what your Avengers would look like.

JS: If Die Hard 8 allowed me to work with people I was excited to collaborate with, then I would certainly do it. I base my film decisions almost exclusively around who I will be collaborating with. There are a lot of great actors in Hollywood who I would love to work with. But I think it’s safe to say I will always be making small personal films, no matter what else I’m doing.