Swanberg's Way

An interview with the prolific filmmaker Joe Swanberg for his Moving Image retrospective
by Miriam Bale  posted February 27, 2014
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I met up with Joe Swanberg during a complete retrospective of his films in San Francisco last year. The 32-year-old had made thirteen films at that time, not including shorts and television, and has released three more films since. We drank at a bar next to the Roxie theater, where it was being held, and he'd run back and forth for Q&As and intros.

His manner is both calmly authoritative and also curious, non-judgmental. He seems to value equanimity above all. At one point he jumped up in a panic, the only time I saw him ruffled. I assumed he was late for a Q&A, but no. "The ice-cream store is about to close! We have to go to Bi-Rite right now." So we went over to Bi-Rite where he bought everyone post-beer ice-cream.

There's an innocence and wholesomeness about Swanberg's approach. And he's one of the rare directors I've met who values life equally to his films. Or perhaps, he simply does not differentiate them.

A year later, for the occasion of a mini-retrospective of his work at the Museum of the Moving Image, we talked by phone about his career so far, discussing his themes and some of his surprising inspirations.


Hannah Takes the Stairs

Miriam Bale: One thing I think is interesting is that you improvise all your films, but they're definitely different than, say, improv comedy. And you don't use multiple cameras. When you film, do you always use one camera?

Joe Swanberg: I have thus far, yeah. The only thing I've done with two cameras is this episode of Looking that I directed. But with all my own features it's always been one camera.

MB: And was that because of budget or intention?

JS: It's intention, yeah, it's never been about the budget. Cameras are pretty cheap to get a hold of. You know, you're just always making compromises with the second camera. Neither shot is usually the best shot, because you're usually worried about getting the other camera in there. And also I really like the disconnect that happens. When you're cross cutting dialogue from two different takes, there's naturally a sort of weirdness that happens that creeps into it. And I think it's part of the thing that gives filmmaking its mysterious power. When you have two cameras and you just cut back and forth, it feels like live theater in a different kind of way. And you miss out on potential ideas. A lot of the things that I'm most excited about came from having to solve a problem, when two takes don't cut together. And then suddenly, I can't do what I had wanted and I have to come up with this third thing that's going to make the scene work. And if you have two cameras you just don't run into that problem. Some people might just say, well that's why you have two cameras. But for me, I want to have to solve those kind of problems.

MB: Let's go back to the beginning of this series, Hannah Takes the Stairs. You were working with a cast of almost all directors, so they probably all had that sort of problem-solving mentality.

JS: Definitely.

MB: So did you go in knowing exactly what you wanted? Or did that all come out as you were shooting?

JS: That was the beginning of casting directors as actors in my movies. And I think it did come from the usefulness of having all of these creative people on set. And additionally, on Hannah Take the Stairs the crew was just me-I was operating camera and directing-and then Kevin Bewersdorf was doing sound. And having those directors on set was great, because they didn't need me in the way that actors might have needed me. They were in on it.

It almost all came from when we were shooting. Early in in my career I wasn't even working from outlines the way I am now. I was working from a hunch, or a theme, or some sort of notion. With Hannah Takes the Stairs I probably wrote two pages that Anish, my co-producer and I could use to talk about what we wanted. And it never got looked at again. It was never on set. It wasn't emailed to any of the actors. It was just a way to think about the movie.

And that was typical back then. On Nights and Weekends, Greta [Gerwig] and I exchanged emails, but there was never anything written down, or anything on set, that resembled any kind of structure. We were just attacking it scene by scene.

MB: In that movie, and before, you've made a point of putting everyday technology, Skype and cell phones, into your movies. How did that come to be so much part of your style?

JS: I think I was just noticing that the inevitable creep of this stuff into everyone's lives. So early on, with LOL, which is kind of hyper-focused on technology, I mean there really wasn't that much stuff, just cell phones and laptops. Things like Facebook and Youtube wasn't even around, if you can imagine that. So after I made that movie and spent a year of my life really focused on those themes, it felt really natural to integrate that stuff into the rest of the movies, to sort of keep that as a running thread.

MB: Does that ephemeralness of the technology, how soon it's obsolete, was that a consideration? Or was it exciting that it would be a document? Because some directors aim for a sort of timelessness, by eliminating anything that might become too dated.

JS: Yes, that was a big conversation before the movie. Kevin Bewersdorf and Chris Wells were my two big collaborators on that. And that was a lot of what we talked about, how we wanted to approach the fact that that technology would be obsolete. So there were a lot of ideas floating around, but Kevin said the thing that informed my feeling about this for everything going forward, which was that there is no way to avoid it. It's not even about the way the technology looks or the size of it, but it's about our whole relationship to it, that's going to change and be dated. You're not going to walk up to a computer like it's a piece of furniture, it's going to be integrated in our lives. So there's no reason to try to make it timeless in any sort of way. We should go the opposite direction and make it as timely as possible so it just becomes some sort of ethnographic document of how we were using it in that specific year.

MB: What was your response to Her then, which is a futuristic imagining of exactly that, our relationship with technology.

JS: I like that movie. My feeling about it is that its not about the future, it's about right now. It's predictions of the future is just manifestations of how people feel right now. It's going to age in the same ways that Uncle Kent or LOL does.

Scarlet Johansson's voice on the other end of the phone is no different to me than some profile on OK Cupid. Those people aren't anymore real to you. They're just digital creations until you go meet them in real life. It didn't feel futuristic, it felt very of this time.


Nights and Weekends

MB: It seems like the great drama in your films is about temptations, the digital profiles as example. From the beginning they seem like they're all about the traditional values of monogamy. It's rarely in the films, but it's the center, and everything else is a pull away from that. And even in the last two in this series [Uncle Kent and All the Light in the Sky], about single people in their 40s, about the punishing choice not to take that path.

JS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I've been in my relationship with Kris [Swanberg] since before I started making movies. So I think the challenges of monogamy and commitment--between Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, Kris and I got married--so all of these questions and concerns have been squirreling around the movies since the very beginning, and that continues to change. We have a child now which is just starting to show up in the work, in Happy Christmas and also in the movies that I'm just thinking about now.

So I'm hoping as I'm continuing to make movies that they're an ongoing reflection of the things important to me and the people that are close to me. And that are also little snapshots and documents of a generation growing up.

MB: But those also very traditional American values. I mean, that's not such a focus of French movies, for instance. There, of course you're going to have another girlfriend... So do you think it's personal, these themes, or also reflects people generally your age?

JS: It does reflect my life in terms of my values, or the values I was raised with, let's put it that way. You know, concerns of guilt and responsibility. So if those things change in my relationship, they'll probably also change in the work, too. If Kris and I reach a place in our relationship where she has a boyfriend and I have a girlfriend, I'll probably start making movies about that.

The films are staying close to where I'm at at the time. They're probably a few years behind, now that I think about it. There's a little bit of a digestion before I make work about it. In Drinking Buddies, Jake and Anna's characters are very much modeled on Kris and I at the point in our relationship before we got married. So I had a five year window between the actual window and making a movie about it. So I'm not in the midst of the confusion.

MB: Going back to the beginning, I read that it was a goal to make more naturalistic depictions of bodies and sex that first inspired you to make movies.

JS: That was a big one. My first movie, Kissing on the Mouth, really came from that. I had a couple of questions I was asking. What aren't we seeing realistic sex in movies? What is it that's scaring people? And additionally, there was a more political attitude of the importance of putting real bodies on camera, not just these made-up, perfectly groomed, beautifully lit sex scenes and bodies. So that we can see stuff in the media that reflects our actual lives. It can drive you crazy if you're not seeing yourself in the stuff you're watching.


Art History

MB: Hmm, and that's interesting because those are some feminist concerns. I think I heard that you were directly inspired by some feminist filmmakers, by the way they used their own bodies.

JS: Yeah, definitely. There was this moment, I think in a bookstore in Brooklyn, where I discovered this book of feminist artists like Marina Abramovic and Carolee Schneemann, it was a catalog from a feminist art show. And I picked up this book, just browsing, and ended up looking at it for two hours. It was so much work that I didn't even know existed, especially in the feminist art space. It really was exciting, and I felt connected to them. I had already been films for a while at that point, and dealing with some of the same issues that I felt like these artists were dealing with. And especially with Marina Abramovic's early work, it was so thrilling to me that she really was putting her body on the line in situations that seemed rally dangerous.

And so that was going into that block of movies of Silver Bullets and especially Art History, since Josephine Decker was also a big Marina Abramovic fan.

MB: That's interesting, but do you think that as a director making narrative features, instead of a woman doing performance art, that there's a different relationship with filming the body? First of all, as a man, do you think there's any difference in showing your body than a woman's?

JS: Yeah definitely, there's a whole history of differences. But I think, one of the things that was important to me was the fact that the pressures that are placed on women are starting to be placed on men, too. I think a lot of the fears and insecurities that advertising has placed on women is starting to be placed on men, too. There is an ideal male body on TV that certainly doesn't look like my body.

MB: But then in Silver Bullets and Art History you're filming women's bodies. Which is a whole different bag of issues and problems.

JS: Absolutely. And hopefully the movies do get into those complicated relationships of being sexually attracted to the bodies you're filming, so feeling conflicted and guilty, but also the fact that those are your collaborators. The Zone gets the most into this issue, but Art History starts this conversation about responsibility. About who's responsible for these images. Am I because I'm the director and I'm pointing a camera at it? Is it Josephine? Who has the power in that situation?



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Courtesy IFC Films
Nights and Weekends
Photo Gallery: Swanberg's Way


March 1—2, 2014 A Swanberg Sampler


Miriam Bale, a critic and film programmer, is the editor of Joan's Digest: A Film Quarterly. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times.

More articles by Miriam Bale
Author's Website: Joan's Digest: A Film Quarterly