Interview: Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg



Thirty-two-year-old Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg churned out feature films, shorts and web series by the gross through the late '00s and early '10s, the high-water mark being seven features in 2010. He filmed most of them himself, sometimes with a sound guy, sometimes not, using whatever digital equipment was available at the time on a very limited budget. A film school grad (Southern Illinois), he spurned classical film technique in order to more realistically express himself and depict his world, from uncensored sex scenes to long, improvised conversations about art, life and relationships.

But he now finds himself on a different path: "I feel really excited to re-embrace filmmaking, film language and this whole system of moviemaking that people spent over 100 years trying to perfect," he told us recently. And he's making that first step with Drinking Buddies, a romantic comedy (of the smart, early '70s variety, he says) that will open Indy Film Fest on July 18.

It's the first movie he's made with a full-scale film crew and with a bunch of well-known actors: Olivia Wilde (Thirteen on House M.D.), Jake Johnson (Nick on New Girl), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Ron Livingston (Office Space) and, in an uncredited role, SNL vet (and Wilde's husband) Jason Sudeikis. But like his previous films, it was still improvised on the spot, and it still aims for a realistic take on relationships and a slice of his world - namely, the craft beer scene, just about the "most exciting thing going on right now in America," he says.

NUVO: Both Elaine May and Mike Nichols pop up in the credits to Drinking Buddies. Do either of those mentions refer to the filmmakers who go by those names?

Joe Swanberg: Elaine May does. Mike Nichols may, too, but that was somebody else's special thanks. Elaine May is one of my heroes, absolutely, and going into Drinking Buddies, The Heartbreak Kid was one of the movies that I was watching - that and Ishtar, actually.

NUVO: Did you interact with her at all, or was that just kind of a "thanks for your work"?

Swanberg: That is just a spiritual thanks. Hopefully someday.

NUVO: And Elaine May's at least sort of a classical Hollywood filmmaker. Were you watching people like her throughout your career?

Swanberg: I would say that I have throughout, but specifically with Drinking Buddies, it was some Elaine May stuff and some Paul Mazursky stuff that was the big inspiration. I was inspired by what Hollywood at one point was, or what Hollywood productions were. It's easy to forget that there was a time when a Hollywood studio movie was a $2 million comedy aimed at adults.

I grew up and fell in love with movies throughout the '90s, where by then studio stuff was pretty much all big budget and quote-unquote independent films had started to fill in the gaps of what used to be lower-budget studio movies. That was the stuff, the '90s Sundance movies, that inspired me to want to be a filmmaker - or even earlier stuff than that, like Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch were the first inspiration. As I was going to film school, there was a big commercialization of indie film. It used to be that independent movies didn't have any famous actors in them, and the stories existed very far outside of the Hollywood mainstream. So when I first started making movies that was the stuff that I was still influenced by and the stuff that I was trying to make.

If you look at my early movies, the first couple of movies are really experimental and really aren't playing by any of these classic Hollywood rules; they're not like low-budget Hollywood movies, they're very much my idea of what an independent film was and should be. And going into Drinking Buddies it didn't feel like an independent film to me; it felt like a studio movie, but a '70s studio movie or a '60s studio movie. So I was really looking to those movies to see how those filmmakers managed to make films that connected with audiences but that still felt complicated and interesting.

NUVO: Drinking Buddies has a kind of complicated, mature view of how relationships that you see in a certain kind of movie made in the late '60s and early '70s. And you have four characters who switch up their affections like in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Swanberg: Yeah, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was certainly the big inspiration on the movie, and I would also say at this point that it's my favorite film and a high water mark in terms of Hollywood comedies. There was also some French stuff in there; some of Eric Rohmer's films were a big inspiration and, I think, were visible in Drinking Buddies. It all, for me, was about trying to make something personal, but also something that registered with people. Coming into Drinking Buddies I was coming out of a period of really self-reflexive movies that existed very squarely in the art house world, and were not meant to be for a wide audience - and I realistically knew that they would never cross over. It's just sort of where my head was at the time, but with Drinking Buddies I really wanted to make something that connected with people.

I'm at a place in my life and with the work that I want to make where I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to the audience to give them entertainment in exchange for their ticket purchase. And that's new and exciting for me. It think it's a really healthy place to be as an artist, to enter into more of a conversation rather than - at least what felt to me in other movies - a monologue. I'm looking to have a little more back and forth, to be a better participant in the conversation.

NUVO: So you were aware of a monologue aspect when you were making some of those earlier movies.

Swanberg: Absolutely. The movies that were inspiring and exciting to me at the time often felt like monologues. I had a young person's antagonistic relationship with success and commerciality. I didn't suspect it was possible to make something that was accessible and really good. And then movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and The Heartbreak Kid were inspirational to Drinking Buddies - on trying to do something like Drinking Buddies - in the sense that I saw those movies and very much felt like it was possible to do something that was accessible and successful and really good, because both of those movies were big hits, and I also consider them really sharp, observational comedies. That sort of got me interested in trying again. I had given up hope on making something that was smart and good and that also might reach an audience. I at least want to try now, and whether Drinking Buddies manages to do that or not, I'm interested in making the effort.

NUVO: So how does the fact that you're still sole director, writer and editor on Drinking Buddies balance against that desire to go beyond a monologue approach?

Swanberg: You bring on collaborators early in the process. I'm going from making movies where often the crew was me and a sound person working specifically with the actors, or sometimes not even a sound person. With Drinking Buddies it was a crew of 40 people most days, and we had multiple producers on set every day, and I was working with a cinematographer and wardrobe person and art department.

NUVO: And that was totally the first time that all these elements came together for you, that you were working with that big a crew?

Swanberg: Certainly. I had done it as an actor on friends' movies, but I'd never directed a crew this big. Rather than be intimidated by it or rather than attempt to exert my will over all these people, it was an opportunity to let some of these other voices into the conversation, to collaborate with other artists and try to make something where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and to try to put our heads together. It was really refreshing; it was a tremendous weight lifted off of my shoulders from all of the jobs that I used to do, when I was doing these smaller movies where I had so much responsibility in every aspect of the thing.

What seemed to me initially to be this monstrosity of infrastructure that I would have to navigate to make my movie, I discovered that it just meant that there were 40 people on set that were there to help me try and make the best movie I could make. It was the hardest movie I've ever done - I worked really hard, for long hours, every single day - but it's also the most fun I've ever had making a movie, and the most proud that I've been of something when I finished it. I really feel we've accomplished goals that we set for ourselves, and when I watch the movie I love it and still feel connected to it, it still feels personal. It's a turning point for me. I feel that it's possible now to make movies this way and still come out of the process feeling that they're my work.

NUVO: And you've talked a little about this, but how did you get comfortable with these commercial aspects, with dealing with an indie world that was long ago co-opted?

Swanberg: I can better answer that question in a year, probably, but with Drinking Buddies the money came through independent investors and I didn't have to write a script or do anything that I didn't do before. I feel really lucky; it was an incredible chance to take a step up in terms of production without having any part of the process forced away from me. But going forward as I look ahead and figure out what movie I'm going to make next, I'm positive I'm going to encounter those challenges. I'm reading scripts that other people have written, and I kind of want to try and do a movie that way. I just want to challenge myself to be open to these things. As a young filmmaker I was was so closed off to these things, and it was really important for me to do everything my way, to sort of reinvent the wheel as far as movies were made and to sort of unlearn everything that I'd learned in film school. After almost 10 years of doing that I feel really excited to re-embrace filmmaking, film language and this whole system of moviemaking that people spent over 100 years trying to perfect. I may hate it - I may talk to you in five years and say it was the worst couple years of my life.

NUVO: Those future couple years, right? And you're not expecting them to be awful...

Swanberg: No, we shot Drinking Buddies a year ago, in July, and the past year and a half have been the best year and a half of my life. I've been totally comfortable and excited. So, I'm not predicting the worst years of my life, but it used to be that if I suspected it could be bad, I would avoid trying it. And now I'm open to having that bad experience, or at least putting myself at risk of having that bad experience for the possibility that it could be a great experience.

NUVO: How did you balance the professional look that comes with working with a crew with the kind of rough-and-ready, digital camerawork that's associated with your past work, with all those tight shots of conversations in apartments.

Swanberg: I was sort of curious to just see what would happen anyways. When the cinematographer Ben Richardson and I talked for the first time, I hadn't seen Beasts of the Southern Wild yet [on which Richardson was Director of Photography]. Through the conversation, I could tell that he and I thought about filmmaking in the same way, that we had similar attitudes about light and the way we want things to look, which aspects of the image are important and which we're happy to leave up to chance. The end result - any kind of additional slickness or feel of a more professional-looking movie - just comes out of a natural collaboration between Ben and I, not any kind of concerted effort on my part to make this one look better. But I think it looks beautiful; he's really good at what he does, and certainly a better cinematographer than myself.

The tradeoff is when I shoot a movie by myself, with just a few people and the actors, which is a very different experience than spending 45 minutes lighting a scene and having a big camera crew around. These differences are probably very subtle, and would be accentuated more with different types of movies. I'm positive that I'll still do $20,000 with just my friends, and I'll probably continue to shoot those myself. And then I'll do bigger films, and hopefully keep working with Ben as a cinematographer. For me it's the difference between playing in a band and then picking up an instrument by yourself to stay in practice, and my attitude toward filmmaking has always fallen along those lines.

These kinds of bigger, slicker movies take long to put together, take longer to be seen by an audience - and often what I'm looking for is to put something together really quickly and just get it out into the world. So now I'm excited about the prospect of working in both ways. But like I said earlier the experience was absolutely incredible to have a production designer every day making sure that the location looks great, to have a wardrobe person making sure all the continuity was great and that their outfits make sense to a scene, to give clothes to give ideas about who the characters were; these really fundamental things that we take for granted in filmmaking, but that working outside the system for so long, seemed to me a really fun and fresh way to approach storytelling.


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