Young Americans: Joe Swanberg LOLs

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Interview By Andrew Grant

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.

 

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