For all the media’s emphasis on the improvisational mumbling and generational grumbling of the mumblecore cineastes (They are cineastes.), (1) Joe Swanberg, who has become something of a figurehead for this loose grouping, is exceptionally articulate. I must admit that he was somewhat off my radar until this year’s Berlinale, where he screened two new films, Silver Bullets (2011) and Art History (2011), in the Forum for Young Film. Indeed, he might be off the radar of anyone who does not live around the corner from the IFC Center in New York, regularly monitor IFC cable programming, attend Austin’s SXSW Festival, or sift through YouTube for traces of American Gen-Y/Z humour and angst.
It was easier with Andrew Bujalski, who was still living in Cambridge, MA, when I was in graduate school there or with Benny and Josh Safdie, who assailed me with a homemade poster (much like early cinema’s theater barkers) during the limited run of the exquisite Daddy Longlegs at the IFC Center last summer. Much is made of these filmmakers’ youth (with many a first feature made by age 24), modest or nonexistent budgets, low-fi digital video (now HD) aesthetics, and penchant for collaboration, ad-libbed, hyper-realist dialogue, and the tales of indecision and awkward transition that accompany post-collegiate adulthood.
In critics’ attempts to describe and evaluate this twig of post-millenial American independent cinema (associated with Swanberg, Bujalski, Aaron Katz, the Duplass brothers, Greta Gerwig, and Alex Karpovsky), its affiliates (Matt Porterfield), and younger youngsters (the Safdies, and Lena Dunham, perhaps), one often detects a vascillation between admiration and dismissal. Arising from the digital revolution and self-marketing possibilities of the internet, the ‘do-it-yourselfers,’ of whom Swanberg has been the most prolific, have shown up the more plodding production process of the budgeted and backed indie feature of the 1990s. This is where admiration steps in. These filmmakers make films without excuses. They make films about people their age, their perception of the world, and their technological moment with the means available to them. Dismissal then casts Swanberg & Co. as whiny, educated brats with no greater ambition than self-absorbed soul-meandering and shoddy technique.
2011 might be the year in which the deceivingly preppy Swanberg, whose films probe, often graphically, the difficulties of 21st-century relationships (Kissing on the Mouth, 2005; LOL, 2006; Hannah Takes the Stairs, 2007; and Alexander the Last, 2009), gains cinematic legitimacy beyond his small circle of initiated fans. With the premiere of Uncle Kent (2011) at Sundance and a double feature in Berlin, Swanberg has just released his intellectual and creative ferment to the larger venues of A-list internationality.
In Berlin, we met for a conversation on his working method in Silver Bullets and Art History, two films about performance, filmmaking, love, and the porous boundaries of art and life. In the first, the actress Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil) accepts a role in a horror film about werewolves and finds herself caught between her brooding boyfriend Ethan, a filmmaker (played by Swanberg) who has lost his passion for cinema, and the horror director Ben (Ti West), who claims the ability to “compartmentalize” professional and romantic pursuits. Textured with HD and super-8 footage as well as Polaroid and digital photographs and punctured by Orange Mighty Trio’s aggressive score, Silver Bullets accentuates the break from mumblecore-ish realism.
Art History takes up some of the themes of Silver Bullets in a low-key backstage drama about the micro-intrigues among the cast and crew of an explicit film shoot. While Juliette (filmmaker Josephine Decker) and Eric (Kent Osborne), played by the stars of Uncle Kent, explore levels of intimacy in front of and beyond the camera, the filmmaker Sam (Swanberg) grows jealous. Confined to a house with a swimming pool, Art History evokes the European dacha drama in which tension cleaves to setting, conflict emerges from the intimacy of too close quarters, and romantic alliances give way to illicit temptations.
Joe Swanberg may not be a Jean Renoir just yet, but he is a young person brimming with ideas. Typical of the polemics Swanberg and his contemporaries provoke in the blogosphere is a debate on the MUBI website entitled “Is Mumblecore Worthy of Criterion?” As anonymous contributors wrangle over the films and filmmakers that make up the core of Mumblecore, Swanberg emerges as the undisputed bullseye of a more general critique that this cinema is un-cinematic or cinematically uninteresting. (2) This conclusion, until now shared by numerous programmers, betrays a shortsighted understanding of digital cinema and the creative exploitation of new media’s limitations. (3) There is a complexity to Swanberg’s new films—one that asks questions of a world in which life so quickly, and so easily, becomes a representation. Swanberg is a cineaste of a new image culture that we are all producing with cell phones and digital cameras and performing on Facebook and YouTube. His films navigate the new morality of image-making with a formal rigor that belongs to their medium. In other words, there are rules to this game.
You’ve been very busy this year. Your film Uncle Kent just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival followed by Silver Bullets and Art History here in Berlin. What was the genesis of all this productivity?
Silver Bullets took 2.5 years to make, which was really a weird experience for me because all of my previous films took at the most 6 months, maybe 8. I was finishing a film a year, and then a year went by when I didn’t have a finished film. Then another year went by. In the meantime, I had all these other ideas that were getting clogged behind Silver Bullets. At some point I flew out to L.A. and made Uncle Kent really quickly. It was as if the floodgates had opened. I hadn’t finished Silver Bullets, but Uncle Kent was such a satisfying experience that I was like, “Oh yeah, I like making movies.” I forgot that it could be fun, that it didn’t have to be painful or take a long time. I went back and made Art History really quickly and then made three films in Chicago back-to-back. I could breathe again. In the meantime I also finally managed to finish Silver Bullets. I probably should have made Uncle Kent a long time ago, as soon as I started getting jammed on Silver Bullets. Now I’ll know that I can always switch gears and come back to the other project later.
It’s very interesting that the Berlinale’s Forum for Young Films chose to screen Silver Bullets and Art History together. Did you influence this in any way?
When Uncle Kent was done and we were making Art History, I already knew that there would be a crossover between the three films. We were talking about it amongst ourselves saying, “How cool would it be to show some of these together!” But I would never be presumptuous enough to insist that programmers do this, especially with a festival like the Berlinale, which rejected all my previous submissions.
In Silver Bullets, the figure of the werewolf is important both as the subject of a film shoot within the film and as a figurative embodiment of the duality of your characters. Why werewolves?
A couple of years ago I started reading a ton of books about wolves. When I was working with Greta Gerwig a lot, we always talked about a project in which we’d play Romulus and Remus. In Silver Bullets, I think that werewolves are the perfect analogy for actors. With werewolves, you have people who turn into these creatures when the full moon comes. They go off and wreak havoc, but the next morning they wake up and have no recollection of their actions. I first started to explore the idea of permission, the idea that the camera gives you permission to do things outside of your normal life, in the second half of Nights and Weekends (2008), in the photo shoot with Greta. These people are no longer in a relationship, but the photographer mistakes them for a couple and asks them to kiss. They go along with it because the camera is there. As for werewolves and actors, people get cast in specific roles, and then suddenly they have all this permission to exist outside of themselves as other characters. When they return to their normal lives, they ask themselves, “Did you cross any lines? Were you uncomfortable with some of the things you did? Were you even aware of some of the things you did? How deep into character were you?”
In Silver Bullets, you play a director, Ethan, who is dejected about the creative process and talks about his desire for a “new form” of filmmaking. You then go on to revisit these ideas in Art History. Is this search for a new form something that concerns you beyond the story world of these films? Do you consider yourself successful in this endeavor?
No, absolutely not. I also don’t know what a new form would be. That’s what’s so frustrating about it. David Foster Wallace killed himself around the time that I was starting to think about Silver Bullets. I read The Seagull for the first time a few months later and was really struck by Chekov’s ability to talk about art within art. Movies about movies are already such a bad idea and such a danger zone for most filmmakers. It’s really foolish to dive right into that. But as I was reading The Seagull, I was like, “Okay, here’s a play about theater. Maybe I can take some of that inspiration.” I also just recognize some of the artistic frustration. At the centre of the play, there’s a suicidal character who is unable to create work and who is jealous of other people’s abilities. I went back and watched Charlie Rose’s interview with David Foster Wallace, in which Wallace talks about how the attention he got early on fucked with him. Very importantly he says, “It wasn’t a lot of attention, but it seemed like a lot of attention.” This totally connected to my own experience right after Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) came out. I was completely unprepared for the fact that a lot of people would just hate these movies and that their anger would be directed towards me, not the work. All of this was running through my head, and there was this talented guy, Wallace, one of the best nonfiction and also fiction writers, sitting there with his frustration, his inability to crack The Pale King. He aspired to do things that were so much greater than what he was actually producing. That’s the problem with any creative work. If you could think of it, you would do it. The only way to ‘do it’ is to keep working at it and, hopefully, to accidentally find a way.
Could you give me an example of one of these accidents in your filmmaking experience?
Well my whole process of working is a little bit like an accident. For example, I shot almost a whole feature that I scrapped. It was a film with Jane Adams, Larry Fessenden, and Kate Lyn Sheil that ends up being the prologue of Silver Bullets. That’s not an idea that I could just sit down and have. I couldn’t say to myself, “Okay, I’m going to open this film with two actors who are in their forties who have had a similar experience and come out the other end. I’m going to put that in the beginning in order to foreshadow where the younger protagonists are headed.” I don’t think through my stories that way. What I have to do is spend almost an entire year trying to make one film, realize that it’s not going to work, start to make another film, and then go back to the first film and say, “Oh, actually these two stories do have a lot to do with each other. Why don’t I start the film about the younger couple with the older couple?”
I like that opening scene. It invites our curiosity as we look at this older man and woman and wonder who they are, what their relationship is, when they last saw each other, and what happened in the past. There’s a clear warmth and familiarity between the characters. Later on, your character apologizes to Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil) in a way that is evocative of this earlier scene as if these are two bookends balancing the same content.
At the end of Silver Bullets you realize that the younger ones are not going to shake their relationship. It’s going to be that bad relationship that fucks with them for the rest of their lives. If they were not to see each other for 10 years and then met again in the subway, all those emotions would just come spilling back in. It would be instantly complicated again.
Coming back to the question of a ‘new form,’ your narrative style in Silver Bullets favours a gradual piecing together of relationships and story information, rather than major plot points. This approach to storytelling is not new, per se. At the same time, the film does much more than simply portray life behind-the-scenes of a film production. As I was watching Silver Bullets, I found myself repeatedly asking, “What is this film doing? How does it feel?” There is a certain aesthetic pleasure, as a spectator, in taking up the film’s question.
Silver Bullets is only very loosely based on The Seagull. In my own reading of The Seagull, I feel like Chekov comes to the conclusion that art is not about creating new forms. It’s sort of a dead-end to create newness just for the sake of newness. Ultimately the artist’s objective should be to portray life as he or she sees it and to tell stories that are meaningful to him– or herself and to other people. You have this young writer in The Seagull who is trying to create a new form and is frustrated with how similar everything is. Then he kills himself at the end. In the beginning, before you get to know the characters, this writer gives a rallying cry, “New forms! We need to shake off the old! Theater’s dead, and it’s boring!” This is how I feel about film most of the time. Chekov pulls a trick here because you get behind the writer at first and then realize that he might be a little full of himself. And then this other, hacky, popular writer is a much happier, more fulfilled person in his own life even if his own work might suck. Those are the questions I am always wondering about—just like my character at the end of Silver Bullets.
What other questions do you ask yourself as a filmmaker?
Is it worth it? Is it worth leading a miserable life to create good art? Do films matter that much? Will I care when I’m 80 and on my deathbed that I made some movies, or am I going to wish I had spent more time being a good person and doing something else like helping people? One of the films I’m finishing now is about the oil spill on one level, but it’s really about an artist who wants to make work about the spill but doesn’t know what she wants to say about it. Ultimately the oil spill is an engineering problem, a logistical problem; it’s not a problem for art to solve. If you want to do something about it, you should fly to New Orleans and help clean up the beaches. That’s what you should do. You shouldn’t make art about it. These are the kinds of things that artists sometimes forget—that they also have muscles and hands and that they can actually fix things rather than commenting on fixing things.
This is something I can understand—endemic to our generation. On the flipside films can change things.
Films have the potential to reach a really wide audience.
When you cast yourself in your own films, on one hand, you save money. As a director and writer, you know what you want and can deliver this. At the same time, your preoccupation with yourself and your own creative predicaments has a certain masturbatory quality, something your critics have cited.
Totally. I made this explicit in my first feature, Kissing on the Mouth, by actually having a scene in which I masturbate. I wanted to address all that from the outset, so that it is not even worth criticizing later. In Silver Bullets and Art History I feel like I’ve gone out of my way to promote the negative views of my work by playing really bad characters. In Art History I play a bad director, who’s making what looks like a really shitty film. If you see the footage that he is shooting within the film, you think, “How could that movie ever be any good?” It’s very gratuitous, but so much of that is me wanting to embody the negative criticism that I’ve received. By engaging with those views, I want my critics to realize that I am aware of all that stuff and have been from the beginning. A lot of the criticism, not just of my work, but of the other work that has been called “mumblecore,” comes from some assumption that we are unaware of what we are doing. That we’re just a bunch of kids who just picked up a camera and are trying to amuse ourselves. All of us deserve a little more credit than that.
Speaking of mumblecore, Alex Karpovsky pops up as a cameraman in Silver Bullets; Antonio Campos appears as well. Karpovsky played in Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax (2009) and then recently in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010). There is a lot of collaboration within and between projects. Two years ago I interviewed Andrew Bujalski at the Berlinale, and he said:
There are a lot of loud voices in the world that say, “You’ve got to go to the next level. You’ve got to make it bigger.” I’m getting older, and with every passing year, I’m more and more dug into society and have greater responsibilities. Whatever my mixed feelings are about that, at some point you feel like, “I guess I better get some income.” There’s a temptation to do that. There’s also a temptation to say, “Fuck that. Maybe I can do something really cheap and be even more free.” (4)
It was as if he were on the brink of a big change, as if it wouldn’t be possible to continue working as he had been—friends, pizza, sleeping on the floor. This is also the way that you depict film production in Silver Bullets and Art History. Is this really how you work, and do you also feel a pressure to move beyond your current praxis?
Absolutely, but it’s not how I direct. I’m definitely playing a spoof of myself. But on the technical side, all the equipment that you see us using in the film shoot in Art History is exactly what we used to make both films. A microphone and some clamp lights, if even that. In Silver Bullets, very often there’s not even a camera operator. I’m setting up the shot on the tripod, pressing ‘record,’ then going in front of the camera, doing a scene, and then coming back and turning it off. There’s no sound person, just me and the actor. Or, in scenes I’m not in, I do the shooting. The mics are hidden in the room. In that sense, these films are completely accurate representations of our productions. I think I can keep working like that forever. I disagree with Andrew there. He’s just a few years older than I am, but I think those few years make a huge difference. He went to film school at a time when it was completely a 16mm-and-flatbed world. I went to film school 3 or 4 years later, which meant that I also learned Final Cut Pro and shot on video. It’s the same for Aaron Katz and some of the other people who don’t have the video stigma. Not having this stigma allows you to work a lot more than people for whom video just feels completely wrong. I got the best of both worlds because I also got to shoot with 16mm, edit on a flatbed, and cut my own negative. I learned that very old school production method, but then on my own time, outside of school, taught myself Final Cut Pro and bought a video camera. It was a perfect moment of crossover because my education was very traditional while my self-education was very new.
This is something I could appreciate in Silver Bullets. In our generation we have so much access to moving image technology in some form—still cameras with a video function, cell phones, computers with cameras, and various generations of ‘real’ video cameras. The aesthetic potential of all of these devices for a truly independent American cinema struck me at a recent series in Berlin called Unknown Pleasures, showcasing young talent from the U.S. (5) There were several Red Bucket Shorts there as well as two films from Matt Porterfield. Last year they showed your own feature, Alexander the Last. Looking at all of this work together, the phrase that comes to mind is “No-Excuses-Cinema.” Whether or not you’re allied under labels like “mumblecore,” you are going out there and making films with the technology you have. You’re not saying, “I couldn’t make the film because I didn’t have a budget.” Cinema always needs space for a stripped-down approach like this, whether it’s Dogme in the 1990s or young people now who are demonstrating that there is an active filmmaking culture and formal rigor that involves all of these new devices. Why were the competing visual textures of the different recording devices important to you in Silver Bullets?
One of the titles I thought about initially for Silver Bullets was “Dead Formats”. I went out of my way to make sure that the film used Super-8, Polaroid, VHS, HD, 16mm—all of these different formats that are either dead or dying. I’m not a nostalgic person at all, and I feel like each of those formats has its place. If it doesn’t have it’s place, then I’m fine with it disappearing. I don’t feel the need to preserve everything because then there’s less space for new things. That said, my own viewing habits are that I would prefer to go to a movie theater and sit in a room and watch a film projected on 35mm onto a big screen. I like that personally, but as a filmmaker I don’t care how people see my work. I’m not precious about preserving a certain viewing experience. So I’ve been working to get the right kind of feel from the video camera I’m using. It’s the same camera that I used for Hannah Takes the Stairs and that I’ve shot all my films with since then. The Panasonic HVX. The longer I work with that camera, the more I’m able to get out of it, the more I know what I like and what it does well and doesn’t do so well. Silver Bullets looks 180º different from Hannah Takes the Stairs though it is literally the same camera that shot both films. As with anything, practice is the only way to get better. A lot of filmmakers have this kind of workman’s attitude towards their films. Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee seem to have a film or two every single year. They approach it like a 9 to 5 job. It’s life. I really want to be like that.
How do you see your own work developing?
I still feel like I’m so young and in a phase in which people should be encouraging of experimentation, practice, and trying things out and potentially failing. I expect to be making films for a really long time, so I shouldn’t feel the pressure to make masterpieces right now. It should be like film school still. The objective is, hopefully, to be making really good films when I’m 50, not now. Right now, I want to stretch myself, so that I can know myself better and figure out what I’m into. Silver Bullets was definitely a response to what started to feel like a trap for me—realism or mumblecore or whatever. I had this feeling that I was only walking down a straight line, along one path of something like documentary realism. I was like, “Shit. I’m going to really fuck myself if I start doing this over and over again.” I started noticing myself getting into ruts. When I was shooting scenes, I’d be using the same tricks and camera angles. My own work was really boring me, and I was only half paying attention. I wanted to play around with genre just as a personal challenge to myself to break out of that mould. For a long time I thought that a lot of Asian filmmakers were full of shit with these long, static master-shots. I thought that was a dead-end and that they were pulling the wool over a lot of people’s eyes with these boring movies.
But then come your long, static takes of the swimming pool in Art History…
Exactly! I thought, instead of just deciding that this stuff is bullshit, why don’t I actually try to do it myself? Maybe I wouldn’t do it as well, but at least I could start down that path of setting up a mater-shot and holding it for four or five minutes to see what this does. Now I’m feeling encouraged to be on that road.
You work with actors who are friends. Even your own wife, Kris, appeared in Art History and some of your other work. You often ask your cast members to do things that are very difficult emotionally and physically. How did you work with your two lead actresses, Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets and Josephine Decker in Art History, and did they have any difficulties with the material?
Thankfully, in these two movies, lessons I’ve learned in the past have made my working relations with the actors less difficult. That hasn’t always been the case. Early on, I was really cavalier about filming sex scenes. I just assumed that everything was okay because we were friends and because these weren’t high-pressure business situations. If people weren’t comfortable, I thought it would be easy for them to tell me that. I would then realize that they had been uncomfortable but hadn’t said anything. The situation was unbalanced, and I felt like all the power was in my hands. I realized that I was expecting too much of people. Now I’m a lot more cautious and more open to checking in with everybody all the time. Making these two movies was great in that regard. Both Kate in Silver Bullets and Josephine in Art History were there from the very beginning. They helped me write and conceive of the films, so we weren’t even venturing into areas that were uncomfortable for them. They were generating ideas that they were interested in. I really rely on my actors to guide me through these experiences, and I base the characters so much on who they really are. One of the things I’ve been afraid of from the very beginning was forcing my will on other people or putting words in other people’s mouths. When I was in high school and getting into independent film in the 1990s, the filmmakers that everybody was excited about were writer-director types whose characters talked just like they did. This was Hal Hartley, Noah Baumbach, Kevin Smith…
Exactly! The more I watched these films, the more boring they became. I thought, “A bunch of actors who are just mouthpieces for the director’s ideas.” When I started making my own work, I’d ask myself, “What do I know about being a 22-year-old woman who is just out of college and doesn’t have a boyfriend? Why would I sit down and write that dialogue? Why not just cast somebody who’s going through all that and let her say those things?” That experience in the earlier films is still important to me now. If I’m going to be making a film about an actress who is cast in a film and dealing with her boyfriend’s jealousy, I should work with an actress, like Kate, who has a boyfriend and is out auditioning and going through this stuff. Josephine is a little more typical of who I work with because she’s a director and hadn’t really acted before.
What are the advantages of casting directors as actors?
Directors are incredibly comfortable on film sets while actors have the tendency to get antsy. Directors are also technically proficient and can help out on set with lighting or sound. If I’m going to work with small groups, then everybody ought to be able to do everything. Directors are also natural storytellers, so when we do improvised dialogue, they can be concise and clear. They’re used to communicating their point easily and quickly. All of this is great for improv, so that things don’t end up too hammy or mishmashy and drawn-out. There’s no way to edit that. I need sound bites or at least ideas that come across. My early films are very dialogue-heavy and tend to meander, but I also think that a director’s natural instinct is also to be an editor. So directors as actors are in their own heads a little bit, analyzing what they are saying, and trying to get to the point.
The scene that comes to mind as you are saying this is the one in Art History in which Josephine and Kent, playing “Juliette” and “Eric,” begin talking in bed about the sex scene they have just filmed. To what extent is a scene like that already scripted or planned?
That scene is 100% the camera rolling, me walking out of the room, and totally trusting them to be as real as possible. I did not watch or hear what they were talking about. The microphones were hidden off camera, and no one else was there. I only heard what they said when I pulled the footage and watched it. If I had watched it and felt that it was wrong, we would have reshot the scene. By that point, we were already so deep into the production that everybody was on the same page. The most that I would say to actors before a scene like that is, “I’m going to leave the room, and I want you to get into a conversation about this topic.” I certainly wouldn’t feed them any specific dialogue.
If you don’t work with a traditional screenplay, are there other details that you map out before you start shooting?
With Silver Bullets there was never a single written word or any kind of map, but that was also the most gruelling production of my career so far. I went in with nothing, and it took a long, long time to find the way. For Art History I had a one-page outline that just said, “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, etc.” and had a few scene ideas. These would be broad descriptions like, “They shoot second sex scene. Director leaves to look at footage. Actor and actress talk, start kissing, have sex. Director sees them having sex. Director gets jealous.” These were just little notes for myself to keep me on task a little bit. What generally happens is that the beginnings of my films tend to look a lot like those notes, but by the end, this changes. I try to shoot chronologically and then make adjustments as we go. I can’t always do this. For example, this would have been impossible with Silver Bullets. On the other hand, Art History was shot 100% chronologically. This way the actors can trust everything that they’re saying because they’re not worried that it will end up in another context.
I was also thinking about Chekov by way of Angela Schanelec’s Afternoon while watching Art History. It’s Schanelec’s riff on The Seagull that premiered at the Forum in 2007. It’s set on a lake outside of Berlin in a setting full of inertia and frustration. Unlike Silver Bullets, which takes place in several environments, you set Art History at a suburban L.A. house and seem less interested in the surrounding city or urban context. Enclosed space has a different intensity and potential for conflict or even micro-conflict.
Kent Osbourne actually found that house on Craigslist. So here’s another “accident.” We made Uncle Kent first and all lived in Kent’s place in Los Angeles. Art History emerged from the experience of shooting sex scenes for Uncle Kent and then wanting to make a film about shooting sex scenes and how this process can mess with actors. Two months later, I called Kent and asked if we could come back to make this new film, and he said he didn’t want all those people staying in his apartment again. He was like, “I’ll just rent us a place.” While he was renting a place for us to live, I was still planning to shoot at his apartment. The idea was that Art History would look just like Uncle Kent. He sent me a couple of postings and said, “Hey, this one place has a pool. Maybe we should take it.” Once you see the finished film, it’s clear that this decision is super-critical to the movie. I arrived in Los Angeles never having seen the house, with no idea how important the setting would turn out to be. That’s exactly the kind of situation I’m trying to put myself in now. I’m forced to think on my feet. I’m forced to make use of things that present themselves. These are the kinds of challenges I want to have.
Earlier you mentioned that you are trying to move away from the realism, with which you are typically associated, but this “praxis-of-accidents” seems to require an almost documentary-like vigilance to your environment and its unstaged reality. Do you always find your sets this way?
In this way location becomes extremely important. I don’t want my process to sound sloppy. I still have opinions on this stuff. Sometimes I arrive at a place I haven’t seen, and I’m really disappointed by how it looks. Then it becomes even more important to figure out how to shoot a space, so, yes, I’m used to arriving at a location and using it as is. I’m still doing that with all of the other films that I’m currently finishing.
“All the other films”? James Franco, watch out!
Yes, all the other films [laughter]. At this point, these are good challenges for me. I really don’t want to be precious about anything. It’s just work—making work and going to work. Some of the films will be better than others. Some will connect with people. Others probably won’t. If I have a whole body of work, it invites people to come in and explore and find the ones that are interesting to them. Robert Altman is such a huge influence for me in that regard. I love the guy to death and think some of the movies are so good. I also think some of them are so bad. I love the fact that he vacillates in his quality as opposed to somebody like Kubrick, who was so particular and had these huge gaps in output. Altman motivates me to get up and work every day, just to get out there with a camera in my hand and work with actors. Even though I like Kubrick’s films a lot, his control-freakiness shuts me down.
Do you have the same attitude towards lighting that you have to location—just to accept what’s in front of the camera and to work with available sources? In Silver Bullets, you use so many different formats, for instance when Kate’s character is running through the woods with a spotlight on her face. There’s a lot of playful artifice there.
Initially, in the early movies, I was so single-mindedly focused on performance that lighting was simply there to expose the image. In Hannah Takes the Stairs, I was really concerned with production design and having candy-coloured objects and clothing in the frame all the time. Brightly coloured shirts, a bright red couch that they all sit on. As for lighting, I was just taking a Chinaball soft light and sticking it in the middle of the room for a really bland, even exposure. All I was thinking about was the actors’ performance. Framing was always very important to me, which is why I was shooting handheld. From an outside view, Hannah Takes the Stairs looks sloppy, but I shot it in a very deliberate way. There’s actually nothing sloppy about the way I shot it. I was very meticulous. I was trying to shoot in a different way. Coming back to the question of new forms, I am more inspired by the aesthetics of YouTube and reality TV than I am by the history of cinema.
What kinds of things inspire you on YouTube?
I’ve been making work for the web almost as long as I’ve been making features. I wasn’t getting excited about movies anymore. I wasn’t going to the cinema and having my mind blown. The stuff that was really affecting me and felt like it was coming from an interesting place was the weird shit going up on YouTube that wasn’t meant to be seen by an audience. This work felt intimate. Sometimes the camerawork was crazy. It could be something totally accidental like some kid who’s shooting his friend doing something stupid. He’s shooting, then talking to his friend for a while. Suddenly he drops the camera, which films the cement for a while, and then picks it up again. That’s exciting to me! Something like that would be unacceptable in narrative filmmaking. You know, to just shoot the actors for a while and then just suddenly start shooting their knees.
Yes, it means that we have to acknowledge the camera, “The frame just dropped to the ground!”
In Uncle Kent, I gave Kent’s character a Flip camera that he uses throughout the movie as a very specific way to allow some of that new kind of accidental beauty into the film. My favourite shots from Uncle Kent are from this Flip camera where Kent leans in to give someone a hug, and the camera veers off and shoots the wall for a little while. This is great stuff, and that motivation is all coming from the internet and not from film.
You’ve been turned down by Sundance and Berlin in the past. If we go back to the Safdie Brothers’ little film Buttons or Lena Dunham’s referencing of internet humour in Tiny Furniture, it seems to me that a number of directors in their twenties and thirties are validating these new impulses along with you. At the same time, more established festival programmers are very resistant to the kind of cinema that you are making. The term “mumblecore” is very divisive at festivals. It is as though you and your contemporaries really do have to make a case for a different kind of beauty or aesthetic legitimacy. On one hand, you’re the champions of the aesthetic accident; on the other, you’re the ones mobilizing everyday technology, the devices that we all use, for art. Is there a different beauty there, or is beauty perhaps not even the point?
For me beauty always comes from the same place: to be surprised by something. This is rarely the case today. It’s more comfortable for an audience not to be surprised by something. It’s more comfortable for a lot of film critics not to be surprised by something. Also, the work that seems to get the most attention at the end of the year seems to be the work that’s easiest to write about or have an opinion about. A film critic could see a film that provokes some simple ideas. It’s easy to craft a review that hits on these ideas and maybe brings up a few new points. It’s digestible work. I go to the cinema to be excited and surprised and to leave not able to digest what I’ve seen. The Social Network [David Fincher, 2010] was great. I had a great time watching it. The fact that a film like that ends up as all the critics’ favourite film is really strange to me. They all seem to share the exact same opinion that that was the best movie. It’s crazy that so many different people with so many different lives and points of view can all come together around a film like that. I want to see something that’s wacko that’s coming from a very personal and unusual perspective.
Who surprises you?
In the past five years, there are probably only five movies that I saw that knocked me on my ass. One was Two Lovers , James Gray’s movie. It’s a very conventional story in some ways, but the performances, the script, and the photography are amazing. I like his other movies, but that one is really special. There’s something perfect about its duality of doing the sensible thing versus doing the thing that’s more exciting. This related a lot to some choices I was making in my life then. The other title I can think of is Dillinger Is Dead , Marco Ferreri’s movie. That’s what I’m talking about! Ferreri makes totally crazy choices as a filmmaker. It’s just a weird, weird movie, but at the same time it’s totally personal and political with really surprising images. There are these old super-8 movies, and Michel Piccoli, who stars in the film, has a little projector in his house and walks up and starts interacting with the screen. The images are being projected on him, and then he does a little dance with his hands on a black table top. It’s such an art film! Ferreri’s not interested in a three-act structure. It’s an art film in the old tradition. It’s so rare that I get excited about anything that much.
BW: You are so involved in your own films—conceiving, writing, directing, acting, editing—but can you say that you have surprised yourself?
Only occasionally. And that’s the source of my frustration. I obviously want to be making work that’s a lot more audacious than what I’m doing. That’s what I aspire to, but I certainly don’t think I’m achieving it very often. I’m trapped in the same grooves that everybody’s trapped in. A lot of those grooves have become traps because of the current market. It’s very hard to sell art films, and I want to make art films. No compromises, no need to adhere to a narrative structure—none of these things that make a film conventionally marketable. Arthouse movies used to find an audience because the directors were superstars, like Godard, Truffaut, and the French New Wave directors. They were famous enough themselves to sell the movie, so they didn’t have to sell films based on the cast or the trailers. Nobody’s heard of me. You can’t get a film into wide release based on my name. Either you need movie stars, or you’re forced to accept a very limited release. I don’t mind the limited release at all. It’s a blessing that IFC has distributed my last few films and made them available to a much wider audience than I ever assumed would see my work.
There are two scenes, one from Silver Bullets and one from Art History, that provide the films’ most striking cinematic images. In Silver Bullets, I’m thinking of Claire’s dance of animalistic rage in the wolf mask. In Art History, it’s that last shot in the swimming pool when Juliette releases all the tension that has been building throughout the film. These are provocative scenes in which both women lash out against your respective characters, Ethan and Sam.
We wanted the end of Art History to feel like a nature film where an alligator strikes. There’s all this stillness, and then suddenly boom! In both films, a lot of those ideas were generated by the actresses. The scene in which Kate’s character puts on the record and dances in the mask in Silver Bullets was initially inspired by Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon . I had been thinking about different seduction scenes that I had seen. In Silver Bullets, my character Ethan has his head in this big book, The Plays of Anton Chekov. This comes from a place of self-critique—all those nights when I’m sitting in my apartment, reading until 4 a.m., when I should be with my wife, working on our relationship. Tony Hoagland, whose work I cite at the beginning of Art History, has a poem in which the narrator is reading a book about Shackleton’s Arctic expedition and thinking about how he should be upstairs making love to his wife. Instead, he’s involved in the lives of these men who are long since dead and dreaming of manliness and exploration. In Silver Bullets, after all the intellectual mumbo-jumbo and this character bitching about new forms, I wanted to have a scene in which a beautiful actress, who has just gotten all this sexual attention from another man, is watching her dufus boyfriend read a book. Finally, she just reaches this moment of rage, where she’s like, “Fuck you, man. Pay attention to me. I’m right here.”
In both Silver Bullets and Art History you play a director who uses filmmaking as a way to get close to people, particularly young actresses. To what extent does this fictional critique mirror your role as a filmmaker in real life, and to what extent do your casting choices and conceptualizations of character reflect this desire?
I think the things I say as Ethan in Silver Bullets are pretty accurate. I don’t care about awards or making tons of money. The reason I’m still making movies is because they allow me to get close to people whom I find interesting. I was much more depressed and miserable and whiny about that at the time, but it’s still true that I make films, rather than other kinds of art, because they allow me the most access to people. I’m curious about people. I like people. Filmmaking is just a quick way to skip a lot of the formalities of friendships and relationships and go right to being real and talking about real things. This is a large part of why I still make so much work and why I’m excited about filmmaking. It gets more complicated with the sexual stuff. I’ve been in a relationship for 12 years now. I got married the summer after Hannah Takes the Stairs. One of the main criticisms of my work is that I just make these movies in order to kiss other women. That’s definitely an area where criticism stops being criticism of the film and starts being criticism of me. This always comes from people who have never met me and who feel comfortable making assumptions based on the movies. I think this betrays more about my critics and their own motivations than it does about me.
At the same time, in these two projects, you are a director making films in which you play a director making films in which these situations arise…
In Silver Bullets, it was fun to take this criticism and embody it as in, “If this is the shit you’re going to talk about me, now I’m really going to stoke the flame.” So there I play a character who is absolutely using a film to get close to his girlfriend’s best friend. “Joe Swanberg,” my personal character, has come under attack for making my work. Meanwhile, there are all these other filmmakers, who are potentially doing very sleazy things in their lives, but film critics know nothing about their personal lives and never attack them. I’m actually the one talking about this phenomenon, so why am I taking all the heat? I mean, you don’t know anything about Steven Spielberg’s personal life. Or Wes Anderson’s personal life. So you only talk about their movies. I’m not even in Hannah Takes the Stairs, but then I read a review that says something like, “This movie’s stupid and not about anything. It’s just a chance to look at this girl naked a lot.” It’s this kind of comment that led me to make Silver Bullets. I figured that if this is going to be part of the discussion anyway, let’s just go ahead and have my filmmaking be the subject of the conversation. Let’s actually talk about my working methods rather than have people make coy comments, you know?
How have people been responding to your films at the Berlinale so far?
It feels really good, as a filmmaker, to walk into a full house. I’ve gotten accustomed to making work that appeals to a small, specific audience. That aspect of being here is amazing. Sundance was like that, too. Every screening was sold out. I’ve been getting e-mails and text messages from friends of mine who have seen the films in Berlin and liked them. That’s always the most rewarding feedback. I stopped reading reviews when Alexander the Last came out because things were getting so personal. Also, the reviews weren’t informing my work at all. They were only hurting me personally or giving me bad ideas. I’ve been pretty disengaged so far and haven’t read any reviews from last night’s screening, but it’s been nice to hear from people I haven’t seen in a while. Especially since this is my first new work in two years.
- See notably J. Hoberman, “It’s Mumblecore!” The Village Voice 14 August 2007; Dennis Lim, “A Generation Finds Its Mumble.” The New York Times 19 August 2007; David Denby, “Youthquake.” The New Yorker 16 March 2009; and “How to Speak ‘Mumblecore.’” The Hollywood Reporter 26 January 2011. As traditional print news grapples with this phenomenon, it should be noted that most of the debates surrounding mumblecore are waged by bloggers or via video spoofs. For all videos mumblecore and anti-mumblecore, take a look at the World News Network site: http://wn.com/mumblecore.
- “Is Mumblecore Worthy of Criterion?” MUBI. N.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2011. It is interesting to note that Joe Swanberg is one of the directors selected to provide one of The Criterion Collection website’s “Top 10” lists, a listing of a given filmmaker’s ten favorite Criterion DVD titles. See Joe Swanberg, “Joe Swanberg’s Top 10.” The Criterion Collection. N.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.
- Indeed, this work becomes even more refreshing when one recalls art historian and film theorist Rudolf Arnheim’s basic thesis, in Film As Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), that it is precisely the limitations of the medium that give rise to film as an art form.
- Andrew Bujalski, personal interview, digital recording, Berlin, Germany 11 Feb. 2009.
- In its third year in 2011, Unknown Pleasures: American Independent Film Fest is curated by Hannes Brühwiler and takes place at the Babylon Mitte Kino in Berlin.