An interview with Joe Swanberg

Why did you become a filmmaker? Specifically a writer/director? Did you go to film school?

I went to film school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL. After graduation I worked for the Chicago International Film Festival and I did web-design while making Kissing on the Mouth.

Who are your influences?

My influences are always changing. Right now my biggest influences are Eric Rohmer, Maurice Pialat, Lars von Trier, D.H. Lawrence, Tony Hoagland, Don DeLillo and Mark Twain.

When did you shoot “Kissing on the Mouth”? How long was the shoot? 

I filmed Kissing on the Mouth from February – August 2004.

“Kissing on the Mouth” and Kris Williams.

Kris is my wife and we worked together very closely on the project. It was a learning experience for both of us. We treated it like a second film school.

What films inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Raising Arizona, Stranger Than Paradise, Stop Making Sense, True Stories, She’s Gotta Have It, Breaking the Waves

When did you shoot “LOL”? How long was the shoot?

From July – January 2005/2006

What are your favorite places in Chicago?

The Hopleaf, Quimby’s, Swim Cafe, my roof.

“Mumblecore”, how do you feel about it? What is the future of “Mumblecore”?

I feel lucky that I’ve been affiliated with a talented group of filmmakers and that the idea of a movement has allowed our work to find an audience. “Mumblecore” has been a useful handle that has enabled the press and industry to grasp the films and contextualize them.

“Young American Bodies” and online distribution. 

I started making Young American Bodies in between LOL and HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS. More people have seen the show than have seen my films. I like that it’s free to watch and available anywhere in the World. The short running time and episodic nature make it much easier to watch than a feature film, but films are obviously moving in this direction. Netflix and Hulu are helping everyone get used to watching feature length work on their computers.

Do you have a method for writing? 

All of the films are improvised. The most I write is an outline.

Can you explain Swanberg’s method? 

I start with people. I find people who I want to work with and develop the project around them. Sometimes there is an outline and a structure and other times we just start shooting and figure the film out as we go. The dialogue is always improvised. I have worked with friends, non-professionals and professionals. It’s always a different challenge, especially mixing non-professionals and professionals. I edit the films while I’m shooting and I often watch the footage with the actors. These days I work on a laptop, editing with Final Cut Pro and small portable hard drives.

“Hannah takes the stairs” and Greta Gerwig.

I first worked with Greta on LOL and Young American Bodies and I thought she was very talented. Hannah Takes the Stairs was built around her and the relationships her character experiences over the course of a summer. I did my best to stay out of the way and point the camera at Greta. She’s fascinating to watch and I was enthralled. She is like a tornado in the film.

How long was the shoot? 

We shot the film in one month. We all lived together in a house and it was like camp.

What pratical problems did you encounter when filming?

This is the film where I stared to edit while I was shooting. I wanted to make sure that I was getting everything I needed because it would be difficult to get everyone back later for re-shoots.

“Night and Weekends”, a film on long-distance relationship.

Again I wanted to make a film with Greta, but I also wanted to act with her. I wanted to learn from her and also to direct her from within the scene. It was a difficult and confusing experience, requiring us to shoot the film in two separate parts, one year apart. The difficulty of the production benefited the film, but I did not like the experience.

How long was the shoot? 

We filmed for a total of 12 or 13 days, over two years.

What do you think about independent cinema?
I think this is the best possible time to be making independent films. The cost of production is almost zero and the Internet allows filmmakers to build an audience for their work. This of course means there is a lot more work being produced and it’s more difficult for an audience to sift through it, but the ability to make work and gain experience is the most important thing for a filmmaker. Finding an audience should and will come later for a filmmaker. Practice should come first and it’s easier than ever to practice.

“Alexander the Last” and Noah Baumbach.

I learned a lot from Noah and was lucky to work with him so closely on this project. I was sifting through some complicated experiences and feelings and trying to figure out how to discuss them and digest them through the work. Noah encouraged me to work with my actors to get what I wanted. It was always my habit to change things if they weren’t working. This was my first experience attempting to stick with the plan and figure out how to get what I wanted.

Do you consider yourself a voice for young filmmakers?

I have always been uncomfortable speaking for anyone other than myself. This is why I improvise my films. I’m uncomfortable putting words into other people’s mouths. I feel the same way about the idea of being a voice for young filmmakers. I am happy if my work is inspiring to other filmmakers, but I don’t intend it to represent anyone other than the people making it.

“Uncle Kent” and Kent Osborne.

Kent is a good friend of mine and I think he’s an incredible person and performer. I wanted to make something with him in a lead role and we played around with this idea for several years before we actually shot it. Kent is playing himself, but only a fraction of himself.

When did you shoot “Uncle Kent”? How long was the shoot?

We shot Uncle Kent in May of 2010. The shoot was 6 days in Los Angeles.

“Uncle Kent”, your first Sundance appearance.

It was exciting to premiere the film at Sundance and have sold-out screenings and a lot of attention. It was also nice because so many of my friends had films at Sundance as well this year. After a few days it becomes overwhelming, but the Festival treats filmmakers incredibly well.

“Silver Bullets”, “Art History”, and Berlin Film Festival. Can you explain this experience?

Berlin was also very exciting. Again, it was nice to have all of the screenings sold-out. There are so many programmers at the Festival. It was a very important moment for me. My work is not well known outside of America and Berlin exposed a large number of people to my films. I will always be grateful to Chistoph Terhechte, who runs the Forum section, for taking a chance on me. It has already had a noticeable impact.

As writer, director, producer, actor, and editor, how do you approach the film differently from each role? Do you prefer one role over the other?

They all feel like part of the same thing. I want to be good at all of these jobs, and they all require practice, so each film is a chance to improve. They flow into each other. It’s hard for me to draw a clear line between them in my work.

What is your next film project?

I have several films that I’m finishing up. Hopefully they will all premiere at different festivals this year. The titles are AUTOEROTIC, CAITLIN PLAYS HERSELF, PRIVACY SETTINGS and THE ZONE. I’ll try and make some more films this summer, but for now I’m focused on finishing the ones that I’ve started and figuring out where I will show them.

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