Thursday, October 8, 2009

Indie Memphis Outtakes: Joe Swanberg

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 2:30 PM

Joe Swanberg
  • Joe Swanberg
Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg is a central figure at this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival. His latest feature, the excellent Alexander the Last, is an emotionally complex and formally ambitious film that breaks through the boundaries of the so-called "mumblecore" scene with which Swanberg is identified. It will screen tomorrow night at 7:45 p.m.. Additionally, Swanberg will preside over a workshop on working with non-professional actors (Sunday, 1 p.m., Brooks Museum) and factors in four other films screening at the festival: A co-star in The Mountain, The River, and The Road (Friday, 5:45 p.m.), a producer on his wife, Kris Swanberg's debut feature It Was Fun But I Was Ready to Come Home (Saturday, noon), a crew member on David Lowery's St. Nick (Sunday, 2:45 p.m.), and the camera operator for local filmmaker Kentucker Audley's Open Five, which debuts its trailer (Friday, 3:45 p.m.).

When I talked with Swanberg last week, he had a lot of interesting things to say, more than I had room for in the paper this week. So here's a pretty long excerpt from our conversation, for those interested in going more in-depth on this emerging filmmaker:

Flyer: Before we get into Alexander the Last, let's go over a few other topics. You're involved in several films screening at the festival, but you're also doing a workshop. What's your plan for that?

Joe Swanberg: The workshop is about working with non-professional actors, which I think is becoming more and more common — people making movies with their friends or other people they're casting not through traditional avenues. I just really wanted to do a workshop that would hopefully be helpful and relevant to what I'm seeing going on right now. The idea is that I'll talk a little bit about my experiences and maybe I'll show some of my work. But I also really want to demonstrate some of the techniques I've picked up and actually work with some people so that everybody can come away with a little bit of an idea of the good and bad things about working with non-professionals.

How did you think the Open Five shoot went?

I thought it was great. I had a blast being down there. It was a good small crew of people I really liked working with. I would do that in a second.

Have you seen any of the finished product?

No, I got a chance to see [actors] Jake [Rabinbach] and Shannon [Esper] again because we shot one more scene in New York. And I've talked to [director] Andrew [Nenninger, aka "Kentucker Audley"] since the shoot. But I'm excited to check it out.

How did you end up forming a collaboration with Andrew?

Andrew sent me an e-mail, back in 2006 or something like that. He sent me a copy of his short film, Bright Sunny South. Then he ended up being in Chicago and we hung out for a couple of days. I really liked him as an actor in Team Picture, so he acted in a web series I did when we were in New York [Butterknife] and I shot the short [Ginger Sand] that was on the Team Picture DVD.

He called and told me the idea for the [Open Five]. I think he was looking for a cameraperson who was also comfortable with other technical things because he wanted to keep the crew small. David [Lowery] and I had done [Alexander the Last] together, where I shot it and David assisted me with everything, from lighting to sound to just carrying equipment. Between the two of us we pretty much did everything.

So I told Andrew that. Basically, if you can get David there, that can be your crew. It worked out really well that way.

David's from Dallas, right?

Yeah, he is.

There seems to be, in the film world that you're involved in, an unusual amount of collaboration among filmmakers that are spread all over the country. Andrew Bujalski from Boston. You in Chicago. David in Dallas. Aaron Katz and Lynn Shelton in the Pacific Northwest. Kentucker here. Has this all developed from meeting each other at festivals?

I would say festivals are the key ingredients there. But it's also one of the things we're seeing as a result of the Internet. Which is that your friend group can be constructed on the basis of the people you really like, not just the people who live close to you. We're finally seeing that coming through in the movies. The social group is constructed from people all over the country based on similar interests or filmmaking styles. I think it's pretty amazing. It's regional cinema in a way, but it's national regional cinema or something.

It makes sense that the technology helps create these interconnections among likeminded filmmakers. Does it also make it easier for you to operate on this level given the new distribution channels? Web, video on demand, etc.

Amy Seimetz and Jess Weixler in Alexander the Last
  • Jess Weixler and Amy Seimetz in Alexander the Last
I would say so. The other thing is that the movies are so cheap now, none of us are having to wait on a distribution deal to get started on the next one.

I think that the web has a lot to do with the amount of work that's being put out. I think there's something about that sort of short attention span and the fact that it's this never-ending thing, that's kind of culturally shifted everybody into being fast workers.

But is widespread theatrical distribution still something you want?

It would depend on the movie. I think with something like Alexander the Last, widespread theatrical would just be a recipe for losing a bunch of money. I don't think it would hit with a bigger audience. What I'm hoping to do with the next movie is a small-scale theatrical that slowly goes wide. I think that's closer to model that's going to work. But I want to include live musical performances and make [screenings] more like a special event.

Other than Alexander the Last, the only films of yours I've had a chance to see are Hannah Takes the Stairs, which screened an a museum here, and parts of Young American Bodies. So it's hard for me to fully situate Alexander the Last within the context of your other work. But do you feel like there's something different with this film in terms of the formal elements?

I do think so. It's a more deliberate film, and certainly my attitude toward camera work has changed a lot, or progressed over the course of making these movies. And I'm also working with more professional actors this time, and that certainly lends it a different kind of feeling. It's also not hung up on naturalism or realism. The movie takes several flights of fancy I think, but in a realistic construct. It gets poetic sometimes, and that hasn't happened in most of my movies.

I particularly think of the crosscutting between the two sex scenes.

Right. Things like that are really interesting to me now. I'm playing around a lot more with elements like that these days instead of trying to accurately capture something.

That's interesting, because it seems like some people might have a more philosophical commitment to making movies a certain way. But it seems like you're more open to letting your style evolve?

Joe Swanberg, on the set
  • Joe Swanberg, on the set
I think it has to. A lot of that has to do with the fact that when I started making movies there wasn't a lot of stuff out there that was realistic and that I thought was a good, accurate portrayal of young people. And now I feel like that's what everybody is making. It's my natural tendency to then move in another direction and situate myself in an area where other people aren't working. I feel like right now I'm still moving from that small-scale naturalism place, but trying to get to some new place now where I can have a little bit more breathing room.

It also seems — and I don't think about this in terms of just Hannah Takes the Stairs, but also in terms of some of the other films from that scene that I've watched, like Quiet City and the first two Bujalski films — that maybe Alexander the Last is less generational?

I would say that that's right. Nights and Weekends was the first one where we opened up to the idea of family and this outside context. The first three movies are completely insular, where you only see the characters within a certain age group and only see them dealing with each other. You don't deal with parents or family or anything outside of that. Alexander definitely opens up to be more about the idea of family with the two sisters, and about marriage, which is a little bit of a different thing to be dealing with.

Is it the first feature you've made sense you've been married?

Yeah, it is.

And your wife is also a filmmaker. I assume the issues you're dealing with in Alexander the Last in terms of the potential tension between a relationship with a spouse and the relationship with a creative collaborator is something you've experienced or seen in other people?

It's definitely coming from a personal place. I wouldn't say it's strictly autobiographical, but if you combined the cast, and me then it is autobiographical across that group of people. We're pulling these things from our real lives even more than things we're observing in other people.

And these issues aren't restricted to young people.

Yeah, hopefully. And even if you aren't a creative person and work in an office job or something like that, there's probably still somebody at work you have a crush on. These are things that I hope are relatable, even if people have to take an extra step of imagining their own situation.

A scene from Alexander the Last
  • A scene from Alexander the Last
One of the things that seems notable about your films and the others I've seen from these interconnected filmmakers is that they aren't very referential, particularly in terms of other movies, or even cultural stuff in general, which seems rare. It seems like most filmmaking scenes that have emerged out of people in their 20s have been very rooted in pop culture.

I'm glad that you're picking that up. I think that's absolutely true from my end. And on purpose from my end.

But the fact that this was true of all these filmmakers from different cities even before you started collaborating. What do you make of that?

I think it's just a natural extension of really getting into movies in the ’90s when that was the way people did it — to make a movie that was more like a student paper about what your favorite movies were. I think we all came up on those movies and they seemed cool at the time. But it just got really old to watch like the 50th movie that references the Tarantino trunk shot or something. I think everybody got really sick of that stuff, so I think all of us independently had a reaction to completely in the opposite direction, with no pop culture in the movies at all.

I assume in your real life, off-screen, you'd be more likely to talk about movies and stuff?

Sure, sure. I definitely would. But as soon as you bring that stuff up in a movie you plant a flag. It's just asking to alienate an audience. Unless everyone else agrees that that band's amazing or they love that movie, all you’re doing is pushing people a little further away if they have different tastes in things like that. And it's like, nobody's trying to prove that they're cool, which I think a lot of those other movies with all those pop culture references were doing. They were trying to prove something, and it feels a little gross to watch a filmmaker trying to prove that they're cool on screen.

How did Noah Baumbach [The Squid & the Whale, Margot at the Wedding] get involved with Alexander the Last? I noticed his name in the credits.

We started e-mailing. He'd seen Hannah Takes the Stairs and right around the time Margot at the Wedding came out, I just dropped him a line because we had a mutual friend. We just started talking very loosely about working together. There was another project at the time that I was trying to do that ended up not happening. And I called Noah and said, I think I'm just going to grab a couple of friends again and go try to make something small. And he said that he'd like to help out. Being a producer was a natural way for him to be involved.

He helped a lot with casting and watched the footage while I was shooting and gave me a lot of editing notes. I would say he was pretty heavily involved.

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