How the DIY filmmaker explains himself
by Eric Kohn
Calling Joe Swanberg a historic filmmaker might be pushing it, but his professional emergence has unquestionably coincided with historic developments. More than ever before, artists have discovered new outlets for exposure and distribution on the internet, and Swanberg has utilized both aspects. The twenty-six year old Chicago-based director has been churning out low-budget films about the day-to-day romantic dalliances of twentysomethings since 2005, when his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth, established him as a mainstay of the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin — and, by extension, the contemporary landscape of American independent cinema. Since then, he has completed three more features, two of which (Hannah Takes the Stairs and Night and Weekends) were purchased for theatrical distribution by IFC Films. Hannah opened last year, while Nights is scheduled to premiere on November 14. However, the primary venue that showcases Swanberg's observant profiles of young adult behavior lies in cyberspace.
Since 2006, Swanberg has been developing the web series Young American Bodies for Nerve, and the show recently began its third season, this time appearing for a larger audience on IFC.com. Conceived as short segments detailing the lives of a few struggling Chicagoans (including their sex habits, which Swanberg refuses to censor), Young American Bodies has brought attention to Swanberg's work outside of the festival circuit as he continues to direct features. Meanwhile, he recently launched a quasi-detective series called Butterknife for the film discussion site Spout. With his extremely specialized subject matter and incessant DIY approach, Swanberg rides the wave of new media without compromising his creative interests. In a phone conversation from Chicago, he spoke with Stream about his unique professional trajectory, the philosophies behind his output, and upcoming projects, including a collaboration with Oscar-nominee Noah Baumbach.
The promo for season three of 'Young American Bodies.'
When Hannah Takes the Stairs opened in New York at the IFC Center, the film received a rather shallow review on Gawker. The other day, the site posted an approving reaction to Young American Bodies. How do you feel about the perception of your work outside your network of friends and professional connections?
JOE SWANBERG It's interesting, because it's sort of being put out by mainstream media. IFC.com is definitely more mainstream than Nerve. It's weird, because the show hasn't changed at all, but the presentation and perception of it are way more mainstream recently. In some ways, it's a pretty good thing, considering that I started out making Kissing on the Mouth a few years ago and living in Chicago outside all the mainstream media. It's interesting to see the work slowly get appraised that way, and not in a bad way.
Was there a point where you decided to ramp up the amount of self-promotion you put into your career, or did it just coalesce around you?
JS The only real promotion I've done is to keep making new movies. It's just always been the case that each new movie has been promoted through previous work. It's kind of cool, because I've never spent any time promoting any of the projects. I'll do interviews for one movie and that'll allow me to talk about the previous movies. I don't have to go out of my way to do it.
The fact that you are prolific seems key to your ability to have a career as a filmmaker. Is your incessant work ethic primarily a professional strategy or a result of creative ambition?
JS It's definitely creatively satisfying, but so far, it's been the only way to try to make a living. I mostly make a living from Young American Bodies and Butterknife, the web stuff. The features aren't really profitable. I'm only now starting to see money from Kissing on the Mouth and LOL, from DVDs, so the feature part of it is really on a two-year sliding scale. Maybe in a year or two, Hannah will start to make me some money, and after that, Nights and Weekends. But the web stuff is more like a job.
The inaugural episode of 'Butterknife.'
When did it start becoming a legitimate source of income?
JS Well, it's still not at that point. I'm still in credit card debt, but at the very least, the web stuff is bringing in enough money so that I'm paying my rent. None of it's a living. My wife and I have to occasionally pick up the slack for each other and figure it out that way. Part of the reason we live in Chicago is that it's so cheap here. I spend a lot of time traveling to festivals, where I can exist off free food. You make it work. I still think I'm a year or two away from being in a place where I could say that I'm making a living doing this.
How has the response to Butterknife compared to Young American Bodies?
JS It's hard to tell. Both of those shows live in a vacuum. Unlike festivals, where you get feedback from an audience, the web stuff — I don't know who's watching it. I don't if they're watching the whole episode or just the first five seconds. It's just kind of like, you finish it, put it out there and hope that somebody's checking it out. It took about a year, with Young American Bodies, before I had any awareness that people were actually watching it. Butterknife is at that same place now. The feedback hasn't started to filter in yet. I'm going to assume that Young American Bodies has a larger audience just because of what it is. When we started making it, we immediately tapped into Nerve's already big audience. Butterknife is a different kind of show and Spout's a different kind of website. I think they're doing everything they can to get the word out, but it'll all depend on whether there's a second season, and what happens with [Butterknife star and Frownland writer-director] Ronnie Bronstein and his career. People find this stuff through weird channels.
Are you looking at the web ratings?
JS No, I never do. I never ask the websites how many people are looking at it. I'm sure they're looking at those numbers. For me, the same way that I don't get upset about how many people show up to see the movies in theaters, it's beside the point to know that. It'll either make me sad or — if the numbers are really big — potentially freak me out. I try not to worry about it.
Considering the graphic sexual content in Young American Bodies, do you think some portion of the original Nerve audience only watched the show because they expected something titillating?
JS I assumed people would. It's online, there's sex and nudity in it. There's always this concept that a lot of people are watching it for that. I'm sure the same thing happens with Kissing on the Mouth. I'm sure a lot of people are renting it just to check that stuff out. It's out of my control, and the hope would be that, without even realizing it, they're getting sucked into the storyline. I don't know if there's any misuse of that stuff. Even if people are watching it just for the sex or the nudity, I think we're doing a better job of portraying that stuff than most people. At the very least, they're getting much more realistic sex and nudity.
I'm assuming nobody has approached you to make a porn film.
JS Nobody has approached me to make a porn, no. I would be very bad at it. I don't think that I could deliver what any sort of porn-maker would want. I'm too interested in the other stuff going on.
Do you think your web series provide an entry point for people to discover your feature-length films or vica versa?
JS Initially, I thought people who had seen the movies might go check out the web show. I was thinking about it backwards. The audiences for the web shows are bigger than all the features put together. I realized at some point that more people watched the first episode of Young American Bodies the first day it was online than the amount of people who have seen all my movies. It's crazy how big that audience is. I hope that people have realized that I've made movies and they can watch those, but I get a sense that a lot of people haven't even made that next step. They've just checked out the web show and didn't do much research beyond that. There's not too much pointing out that other direction. I mean, if you find Young American Bodies through my website, then you sort of see that there are other movies, but I think that if you watch it through Nerve or IFC, then unless you, on your own, make that next step, there's nothing pointing you in the direction of the features.
Does that bother you?
JS No, it's okay. It's interesting to think that there are people watching Young American Bodies and that's the extent of what they know about what I've made. That's still better than I'd ever hoped for. The way the internet works, I feel like eventually people find out about things. There's no hurry to hustle people over to rent the movies.
Have you had offers to do larger projects?
JS Not in the traditional sense. By my choice, I still don't have an agent. I'm not out there trying to hustle up bigger projects. There's been no real interest. It's been limited to a few e-mails from the smaller studio divisions, just seeing what I'm doing. There have been no offers or real meetings with people to talk about that stuff, which is all fine with me. I have enough projects to keep me busy for the next three years. If something comes along, I'm happy to consider it. I'm working on a bigger project right now that we're probably going to shoot here in Chicago in August. That's just something that come through natural channels. The guy who's producing it, who has been shepherding it since the beginning, he saw Hannah Takes the Stairs at South by Southwest and we started talking about it back then. That was something that just came along in a nice way and wasn't forced.
You work with a lot of people involved in a variety of different projects. Your producer, Anish Sanjani, recent developed Kelly Reichardt's latest film, Wendy and Lucy, which stars Michelle Williams. Hannah co-star Andrew Bujalski is now adapting Indecision for producer Scott Rudin. Do any of these people try to bring your work to a larger audience?
JS Whatever projects I do, whether they're bigger or smaller, Anish will be involved somehow and we'll continue to work together. Bujalski is doing that Rudin project, and the Duplass brothers are doing these bigger things. It's going to be one of those things where they probably need to get a little bit of a foothold in that part of the industry before it's realistic for them to start hiring their friends for things. For me, part of it is hanging back and waiting to see how things go for those guys. If they come out of those projects feeling like they were really unsatisfying, I get the advantage of getting to work through them, rather than having to do it myself. I'm not in a big hurry to jump into that world, especially right now. It's been a nice slow progression. I'm working on a project now with Jess Weixler, who was in that movie Teeth. I'm producing it with Noah Baumbach and Anish. I think Jennifer Jason Leigh is going to be in it. That's sticking completely with my style. We're doing it for no money and it's totally improvised. If I keep progressing that way, working with these really cool people without a huge budget...then I think it can be a much more organic progression.
Let's stick to just one mumblecore question. In general, that term seems like last year's story, and it comes up less and less. Overall, what impact do you think that association has had?
JS I think every filmmaker who was a part of that exposure last year had a different relationship to it. It's been pretty much all positive. Even when the reviews were bad, and people were snarky about the idea of mumblecore, I felt like I was in no position to complain about that stuff. For many people, it was the first time they were hearing about my work. The only bummer was that a lot of people were dismissing it without seeing anything. A lot of what people wrote about it made it seem lame or something. Overall, a lot of people have gone back and looked at those movies now. Even if they didn't like them, they had to explain why they didn't like them, rather than ignoring them. That was cool for me. I feel like I will have that name associated with me more than a lot of the other people, mostly because of Hannah -- having all those guys acting in it, and being at the center of a lot of those articles. It's just a name. It's a little annoying, but it's really not that bad. From traveling a lot, I'm meeting a lot of young filmmakers who are really into it. I've heard from festival programmers that they're getting submissions from people who are using that term to describe their own movies. So it doesn't have a strictly negative connotation.
'Hannah Takes the Stairs' opened in the fall of 2007.
If mumblecore conveys anything beyond the people in the movies, it has to do with the ramshackle nature of the filmmaking. How do you respond to people who think you should start using a tripod or better microphones?
JS If the microphones is going to be in a different place, it means there's going to be one extra person holding it. If there's a tripod, it means one extra thing to carry and possibly one extra person to carry it. It's always a trade-off there. You see it in the work. There's a direct relationship between the number of people in a room and the sort of intimacy you can get. For me, it's worth the trade-off if, occasionally, the handheld camera bothers someone or the sound isn't as good as it could be. Buddies of mine who have made bigger movies, that's always a complaint that they have: You can't move as fast. You're not flexible anymore, and if you change your mind, you're sort of stuck. I do change my mind a lot, and it's not a problem. As a filmmaker, it would be unbearable for me to feel like I had a better idea and couldn't do it. It's a nightmare scenario. I have my own internal standards about when camera work is too shaky. That's the only scale I have go by.
Outside of your web series, what are you working on right now?
JS The one [film] that I'm working on right now is called Alexander the Last. It's got Jess Weixler, Justin Rice and Barlow Jacobs, who was in Low and Behold. It's also got Amy Seimetz. She produced Medicine for Melancholy and just finished her first feature, called City on a Hill. I'm producing it with Anish and Noah Baumbach. It's completely improvised. We shot a little bit of it last month. I'm going back to New York in July to shoot a little bit more. It's about a married couple -- the wife is an actress and the husband is a musician -- and how they deal with their creative relationships with other people while keeping their marriage together.
The one coming up in August is called Save the Date. It was written by Jeffrey Brown, a Chicago guy who wrote a comic called Clumsy. He and this guy Egan Reich wrote this script. That's something I've been involved with for over a year now. We're going through the usual channels, trying to find money and name actors, things like that. We're not quite there, but it looks like we're on target to shoot in August. Kent Osbourne, from Hannah, is going to be in that one, and Jess Weixler again, and Kevin Barnes from the band Of Montreal is acting in it and doing the music.
You're lucky in the sense that you've premiered your films for such receptive audiences, particularly at South by Southwest.
JS Whatever happened to put Kissing on the Mouth in [former South by Southwest programmer] Matt Dentler's hands back in 2004, it couldn't have been a better place.
Now that Dentler's at Cinetic Media, do you think the festival will retain its stature under the guidance of his replacement, Janet Pierson?
JS I think so. I'm really excited that she's running the festival. She digs what Matt did, and she likes his sensibilities. I think the spirit of that festival will remain there. The kind of movies Matt was championing, she'll continue to champion. It'll be cool to see what she does outside of that.
Do you hope to premiere your next films there?
JS By next year's South by Southwest, I'll have two features finished. The one that I'm making right now, we'll definitely have it out there for the festivals early next year. The one that I do in August, I don't know when it'll be finished, but I'm assuming it's going to be a question of whether we send them to the same places or strategically space them out. I have a feeling I will run into that problem more and more. I'm working as quickly as I can. Nothing is slowing me down. At some point, the movies are going to have to compete with each other.