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Articles

"More excited than I have ever been": Joe Swanberg
By Andrew Grant
August 29, 2006 - 2:21 AM PDT


"This is exactly what's going on with the people around me."

File Thirteen has called Kissing on the Mouth "probably the most important film about a young generation since Slacker." As for LOL, Nathan Lee has written in the New York Times, "The impact of technology on social relations has received subtler analysis elsewhere (see the films of David Cronenberg), but this small-scale, microbudget indie speaks the theme with a fresh voice." And an appreciation of Young American Bodies went up at GreenCine Daily earlier this summer. Here, Andrew Grant talks with Joe Swanberg about what drives all this creativity.


In just two years, you've released two features (Kissing on the Mouth, LOL), a 12-part Internet series on Nerve (Young American Bodies), and completed a third feature. Why the prolific rate, and do you plan to keep it up?

I have a pretty short attention span, and it's always easier for me to get excited about the next project than promoting the current one. The films I make are hopefully strong, but somewhat limited in scope. I hope that as I create a larger body of work, each film begins to make more sense, and that it becomes something of a little world.

Your method of working can truly be called independent. One camera, self-financed, virtually no crew, etc. Was it your plan all along to work in this fashion?

I treated Kissing on the Mouth like a second film school. It wasn't meant to be my calling card, and I had no idea what was going to happen with it. Had it turned out bad, or had I not been proud of it, it would have just sat on my shelf, no harm done.

Do you harbor fantasies of directing a large film production?

I think it would be fun to try. There's something appealing about working with a crew of professionals. That's one of the best and worst things about making movies the way I do. We're all nonprofessionals - I even consider myself nonprofessional - and though it's fun this way, it would be great to work with skilled technicians. But it's less a fantasy than an experiment to see what would happen.

But as you become more successful, do you imagine you'll be able to continue making films this way?

It hasn't been an issue yet. I'm not at the stage where I want to work with somebody else's material. However, there's something to be said about doing a job for money, and then being able to go back and make the films I want to make. I never thought that would be interesting to me, but now that I'm so poor, it doesn't sound that bad.

Though it may sound a bit pretentious, do you consider yourself a voice of your generation, or is your work simply a reflection of your immediate surroundings - geographically, socio-economically, etc.?

[Laughs] No, I don't consider myself a voice of my generation. It's my philosophy that the films are going appeal to a wider audience if I make them specifically about us, the people in them, than if I try to make any grand statements about my generation. I think that's where directors get into trouble, by having characters that are supposed to be bigger than who they are. I'm interested in having my characters play close to themselves. I see no reason to generalize, or to try to speak for a bigger demographic.

In a similar vein, I'm uncomfortable writing roles for women or minorities - I don't feel it's my place - and all the actresses in my films write their own material. I refuse to include a token minority simply because my characters are all white. It's not about seclusion, it's just a reflection of the white, hipster neighborhood I live in.

What impressed me about LOL was how you managed to create a critical distance from your subject and characters. Similar films I've come across by other young directors tend to be too insular. Was this a conscious decision, or did it happen organically?

With LOL, we took the time to analyze the material, to reflect on it, and see what themes emerged. On the one hand, I want to be unconscious of what's going on to some extent because I want to be caught up in the moment, and feel like each scene is true to itself. At the same time, it's crucial that I don't fall in love with the material, and become attached to certain moments simply because they remind me of my friends. I must never forget that the film is made for an audience who don't know us. I think that's the hardest thing, and it's the last step I go through. I always err on the side of over-cutting - a nightmare for me - but I wouldn't want an audience to think it's just a big inside joke, or that it looks like a bunch of kids fucking around with a camera making a home movie.

In some ways, your characters are almost abstracts. We often don't know what they do, and in some instances don't even know their names, yet at the same time, they never feel underdeveloped. Given that you don't work with screenplays, how do you achieve that balance?

The thing that's most important to me in any project I work on is the casting. Once I feel I have the right person I'm confident that anything I do is going to be okay. I encourage people to take from their own lives and use that. Friends rarely use each other's names when talking to each other, and I strive to capture that kind of dialogue. It's the same with their lives - it wouldn't make sense to follow these characters to work. I feel a lot of films waste time getting us to care for a character through something we relate to, like a crappy office job. It's fun to be vague because you're forced to explore and wonder about the characters. I also like to include references to conversations we shot, but didn't include in the final cut. It gives you a sense that things are happening outside of what you seeing.

This abstraction extends to the way you shoot your characters - particularly in smaller, intimate scenes. You rarely employ the traditional shot/countershot, and instead will focus on body parts.

You probably noticed that I almost never use establishing shots. I don't want you to know where people are because it's not important. It's unnecessary to have a wide shot of Chicago to show you where they live, or even of their bedroom for that matter. I like working extremely close because it's all about that moment. When I photograph a body part - a hand or foot - this is what I care about. The little things - tiny details separated from their circumstances.

Let's talk about the sex in your films. There's a lot of it, yet it all looks incredibly natural. There's never a sense that your actors are overly aware of themselves, or striking poses during sex scenes. Though fairly graphic, it doesn't appear as if you are trying to be controversial, or playing the look-how-far-I'm-willing-to-go game.

When people come on board, I'm very open with them as to what I expect. There's no choreography to the sex scenes, I just expect them to be honest. Working with friends helps, because you quickly get over the initial awkwardness. I don't want the sex scenes to look any different from the way I shoot the rest of the film. I create standards for the film - a sex scene should feel no different from a scene of dialogue about mundane matters.

Given that Young American Bodies was made for Nerve, a literary porn site, what are your thoughts about the line between sex in cinema and porn?

I feel that porn is more popular now than it ever has been - it's practically entered the mainstream. I know what it is, and I know that the films I'm making are not that. I'm not interested in crossing that line, or pushing those boundaries. It wouldn't be fun for me to make something right on the edge, and then challenge people to decide whether it is or isn't porn. You're not meant to get off on the sex in my films. These are the characters, and sex is just a part of their life.

In both Kissing on the Mouth and LOL, you have characters working on documentary-like projects, somewhat removed from the central narrative. LOL includes the Noisehead videos, while Kissing on the Mouth uses audio interviews on attitudes towards marriage, relationships and family. Can you talk about the function of these projects in both films?

Though my work is primarily narrative, I'm heavily influenced by documentary film. I like the idea of characters that actively create things, rather than sitting around on couches complaining about life. It adds a level of energy to the film. With Kissing on the Mouth, we had this documentary material when we started, but I had no idea how we would incorporate it. With LOL, given that I was making a film about technology and communication, I wanted to incorporate some of this technology in the creative process. I didn't know how to do that, and I'm too much of a control freak to let people go off and shoot their own material. But then I had the idea of people all over the world recording their faces while making silly noises. I gave Kevin [Bewersdorf, composer/cast member] all this footage, but didn't tell him what to do with it, and he came up with idea of turning it into something musical.

In some regards, Kissing on the Mouth and LOL are quite diametrical to each other. Whereas both films are about communication to some extent, Kissing on the Mouth is full of people sharing thoughts, ideas and secrets. Technology is non-existent, which is the exact opposite of LOL, which finds technology hindering actual face-to-face communication. Which do you believe to be the more accurate portrait?

LOL, for sure. With Kissing on the Mouth, I was a bit hesitant to incorporate technology into it. But by the time I made LOL, I felt it was my duty to include it because this is exactly what's going on with the people around me. Initially, I was worried that the technology would quickly date the film. I toyed with the idea of having the cell phones and the computers change throughout - a mixture of old and new models. But then Kevin wrote me from Berlin and explained that what will date the film is not the outward appearance of the items, but rather the way people interact with them. That hadn't occurred to me.

The characters you play in both Kissing on the Mouth and Young American Bodies are critical, or at least suspect, of individuals who want to be artists. There's the photographer in Kissing on the Mouth who you actively hate and the musician in Young American Bodies whose motivation you question. Do you feel some people are entering the arts for the wrong reason?

Yes, absolutely. Film school exposed me to people who really don't care - who aren't willing to put in the time to create good art. I'm not claiming I've made good art, but at least I care about it. The reason I comment on it in the films, and why I'm so willing to make these people look like idiots is that there's such a glut of it now. It's so easy to record a CD, or make a film, and the result is that there's a lot of crap out there. In Young American Bodies, I wanted to emphasize how the marketing is more important than the art itself - having a MySpace page and a T-shirt is enough to proclaim, "I'm in a band."

The ease in which a person can make a feature film these days is both a blessing and a curse. At the very least, it's certainly helped redefine what we consider to be "independent" cinema. What are your thoughts on the current state of independent cinema, and where do you think it's going?

I'm more excited than I have ever been. The position of where the gatekeeper stands is different now than it was some years ago. They used to stand in front of the production office - you'd have to get through them before you could even make your film. Now, the production part is simple. It's film festival selection committees and distributors who are the new gatekeepers. At the same time, there are other avenues of distribution - the Internet, for example. For me personally, it's important to pass through those gates - I want my films to play at festivals and in theaters. I think that's how my work will best find its audience. I don't feel we're at the point where people are willing to shell out $20 to download a film they've not heard of.

You've cast other young directors in your films. Is there a sense of camaraderie between you all, or is it rather more competitive?

If it's competitive, it's the healthy sort. There's certainly camaraderie, and the Internet has made it easy to maintain ongoing discussions with each other about our work. In fact, it's reached the point where we've begun to critique each other's work within our own films. Kris [Williams, collaborator and fiancée] and I saw Funny Ha Ha before we made Kissing on the Mouth, and there's an aspect of it that's a direct critique of the film, and of the things that didn't appeal to us. I didn't know Andrew [Bujalski] at the time, but I do now, and we have a wonderful relationship.

You just completed your third feature, Hannah Takes the Stairs, which is your first experience with a producer. What was that like?

I met Anish Savjani (Old Joy) at SXSW when I was there with LOL. We discussed the possibility of working together on a project, and now it's happened. Making the film was a great experience - I rented an apartment in Chicago for a month, and the whole cast moved in. We'd get up in the morning, shoot the film, and at night I'd edit, and we'd all review the footage. It was a great bonding experience, and I'm hoping that half of the energy we felt on the set finds its way into the film.

The question that some filmmakers hate: Who are your influences?

Kissing on the Mouth was heavily influenced by Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 movement, but also Herzog, who I think is a very brave filmmaker. I'm not embarrassed to say that Lloyd Kaufman [Troma Films] was something of a role model - not so much for the films he makes, but his books were incredibly inspirational. With LOL, I shifted a bit, and found myself looking to comedians like Ricky Gervais and Larry David, who are masters at capturing awkward moments. Caveh Zahedi is another filmmaker who is unafraid to share himself, which is a scary thing to do, especially if you create an unflattering self-portrait. Because of filmmakers like him, I'm not afraid to pick out my weaknesses and spotlight them.

A fantasy question: If you could have unfettered access to any actor or actress, who would you most like to work with?

Samantha Morton. That is, if she was willing to come to Chicago and sleep on the floor.

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"This is exactly what's going on with the people around me."

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Andrew Grant
As Filmbrain, Andrew Grant, a screenwriter living in New York City, writes one of the most popular and respected film blogs out there, Like Anna Karina's Sweater.

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