It comes as little surprise that the ever prolific independent filmmaker and actor Joe Swanberg is in the middle of trying to set up yet another film when I call him to talk about an upcoming trip to Toronto. After having a hand in crafting six films in 2011 alone and also appearing as an actor in all of them (and on top of appearances in friend and collaborator Adam Wingard’s You’re Next and the upcoming V/H/S, which he also directed a part of), it doesn’t seem out of character for the young artist to be constantly hustling his way through the DIY filmmaking community.
Often associated with the “mumblecore” style of filmmaking (mostly just out of proximity and participation within the same SXSW programming year that birthed the term), many of Swanberg’s films focus on the deeply intimate personal relationships between everyday people. Often sexually explicit and purposefully banal at times, his filmmaking style suggests someone who truly does just let the camera run until he believes thr truth is found; even when he often has to direct himself on screen.
Swanberg comes to Innis Town Hall in Toronto this Sunday, May 13th, for a screening of three of his 2011 releases and to conduct 15 minute Q&As following the first two screenings (Art History at 4pm, The Zone at 6pm) and for an extended lecture moderated by The Grid’s Jason Anderson following the third film (Silver Bullets at 8:00pm). Joe talked to Dork Shelf about being so prolific that you become exposed to the world, his collaborative style, and what led to his move towards self distribution.
Dork Shelf: One of the things that’s really admirable about what you’re doing is that you’re so prolific and turning out a lot of work, but something that I’ve noticed about the people that are the most prolific is that they often tend to be the most personal kinds of filmmakers. Is it hard to keep putting yourself out there like that?
Joe Swanberg: Especially with this trilogy that I’m showing in Toronto, I think it has gotten to the point where I do need to step back for a little bit. I tried to go really deep and the films have always been really personal, but these three in particular are really autobiographical in a lot of ways. I spent a lot of time really analysing myself, you know? (laughs) I’m kind of ready to just take a back seat for a while and just explore some different kinds of characters, and I imagine that it’s a cycle that I’ll keep going through because I have a desire to tell those personal stories and it’s something I think that’s important for artists to do. I always connect really well to other autobiographical work from other people, whether it’s music or books or movies. I’m driven to make that kind of work, but there’s definitely limits on how much I can tolerate.
DS: You once had a distribution agreement with IFC for some of your earlier work. Was the more deeply personal nature of your recent output something that led to your decision to self distribute?
JS: Yeah, definitely. I just felt like these films in particular needed a very personal approach to the distribution because of that very nature. I kind of toyed around with traditional distribution for a little bit, and I talked to IFC about these films. IFC wanted to put them out and in the end I just decided that I wasn’t sure. I didn’t have a real set idea of how I wanted them to screen, but I know I wanted a little more control over that. At least more control than it’s realistic for IFC to let me have, anyway.
It’s been great and I am really happy about that decision. I think it’s great that every time these films screen that I’m there in person to talk about them. The whole experience and it’s really cool. And the films – Silver Bullets and Art History, especially, because The Zone is really new – have been having a longer life span than my work usually gets to have, because the IFC model is a day and date model, where there’s a big push for them for about a three month period along with a festival premiere or something shortly after that. They tend to come and go – which isn’t a bad thing because they are seen by a lot of people – but they tend to go by within a really short window and a lot of people miss that opportunity. With Silver Bullets and Art History, which premiered in Berlin last year, it’s been really nice to let the word of mouth build and to take them around city by city in a slower fashion that’s allowed a lot of people to catch up with them in the meantime.
DS: And when the films are so closely linked to one another, it gives off the feeling more like an artist that’s touring with an album that they want to support.
JS: Totally. It feels really nice. A few other filmmakers have been doing this recently and I think it’s been really successful. Like Crispin Glover and the way that’s he’s been touring with his movies. He’s a lot more famous than I am and he makes a very particular kind of film, but I really admire the model and I think it’s really cool what he’s been doing. He and a few other people have really been inspiring me as far as making a live sort of event out of the film screenings, especially in a case like this where it makes sense with the films.
DS: Of these three films which all ostensibly have the same release date, Silver Bullets was the one that took the longest to make, correct.
JS: Yes, and by a LOT.
DS: Was the personal nature of that where you are kind of looking at the dark side of the acting profession something that you might have over thought and stressed out about more than the other two films?
JS: With Silver Bullets I think it was such a long process because I almost made three films over the course of that time. The original shoot and the kind of initial incarnation of Silver Bullets was mostly stuff that I shot with Jane Adams, Larry Fessenden, and Kate Sheil that was a film that was just about a photographer that was really, really different, and I almost shot a feature length’s worth of footage that were nearly finished films in and of themselves. Something didn’t quite feel right, though, and the second time that we got together to shoot was when we pushed more into the werewolf and genre direction, and at that point I was trying to marry the original footage with the new footage and every few months when I could save up enough money, I would get back together with the actors and keep shooting. The film really did take a full two years to find its shape.
I’m really excited and happy with the finished film because I don’t think it was something I could just dive into. It’s something that required a few missteps and false starts to really find itself.
DS: Something like The Zone has a much grittier and darker feel to it, and it utilizes different methods of cinematography to produce a desired effect. Given that your films have to preserve a sort of “on the spot” intimacy, how do you decide what method you are going to use to film when you don’t always know where the scene is headed?
JS: I try and go in without too many preconceived notions. I really want to be surprised by the filmmaking process and I want to know the space I’m working within and the actors and all of that stuff before I settle on something. I have ideas, but with The Zone I knew early on from the initial idea that I wanted to shoot half the film on an iPhone. Until we got there and started shooting, though, I didn’t know how practical it was going to be or how any of it would even be integrated. That’s all just a discovery process.
Art History, though, was a little bit different because that was one where I worked really heavily with Adam Wingard as my D.P., so he really had a lot to do with the work of that film. I think he’s a really brilliant cinematographer. I’ve done a couple of movies with him where he’s been my D.P. and he just looks at light and composition in a totally different way than I do, so it’s really exciting for me to collaborate with him. He’s constantly coming up with shots and ideas in the moment that I never would have thought of. It’s a nice mixture of his stuff and my stuff, and it’s interesting because the movies that he directs are so different from mine, but the way we work is really similar. It’s been an easy collaboration, but it’s easy to see how from the outside that people wouldn’t expect us to have much to do with each other.
Silver Bullets, which I shot myself, was really just a long, long period of trying out a lot of different things before I hit upon the look and the feel that I wanted to go for, but I knew what I really liked.
DS: The way that you make these movies in almost a documentarian’s style really requires a huge level of trust with the actors in your films because they have to go pretty deep to give these performances. How do you approach the actors prior to shooting and during the shoot to make them comfortable with the material?
JS: That’s something that I’ve had to figure out and try to get better at as I’ve made more films. I think early on I was really cavalier about my approach and I just sort of expected that we were all on the same page and that everyone was down to do whatever, but then the more films I’ve made the better I’ve gotten at talking to people before we shoot. I really understand and appreciate a lot more now the sacrifice and the work that my actors are willing to make and for them to trust me and go along with a process like this. Especially since I’ve now acted in other people’s films and I know what a vulnerable position you’re in as an actor and what kind of feedback you need from a director. It’s easy to get really self-conscious about a performance without it. I have a lot of long conversations with people I’ll be working with now just to make sure that everybody knows what they’re getting into and what the outcome might be before we even start rolling.
For more information about Joe and his films, please visit his website.