If you want to find one of the hardest working men in show business, look no further than indie darling turned mainstream-ish indie aficionado Joe Swanberg. For a man that makes more movies in one year than some directors will make in a lifetime, Swanberg has established a sense of community amongst his “tribe” that sees numerous performers returning time and time again to participate in his homely, more “simplistic” projects.
His latest movie, Happy Christmas, sees the return of Anna Kendrick after knocking her role in Drinking Buddies out of the park, and Swanberg himself plays a husband character to Melanie Lynskey’s female protagonist. Once again the filmmaker strikes a hypnotizing balance between grounded storytelling and deeply emotional real-world implications, all while staying uplifting and good-natured. C’mon, who doesn’t love feeling all warm and fuzzy after a movie?
I had the opportunity to chat with Joe in New York City last week while the director was doing press rounds for Happy Christmas, talking at length about his distinct style of filmmaking. I was mostly curious to hear how everything works behind the scenes with limited time and money, but I also tried to understand what makes performers like Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson constantly support any story Swanberg throws their way. Then I mentioned beer, and we both revealed our love for IPAs, trading hipster craft beer recommendations. After that tangent ended, we got back to the movie at hand.
Check out the interview below, as you’ll get some filmmaking advice, beer recommendations and drunken stories – what more could you ask for?
WGTC: I first want to ask about your filmmaking process, because your output is unmatched right now in terms of quantity – while still caring about quality. Are these stories from personal experiences? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Joe Swanberg: They can start small, but often times come from the desire to work with a particular actor. A lot of times they are spawned out of whatever I’m working on at the time – some idea that can’t fit in that movie but seems exciting enough to pursue. We’ll branch off. Often times though, they’ll come from my own life and relationship, or friends, and sometimes that’s enough. If we’re at dinner and there’s a conversation about some relationship thing that I don’t feel like I’ve seen in the movies before, that’s enough to call Anna Kendrick or Jake Johnson and say, “Hey, I just heard this, start thinking about it, and we’ll see if there’s something worth exploring there.”
WGTC: With such a grounded style of filmmaking, what’s a shooting schedule like? Can you just fly someone out for a few days and bang their parts out? Is it more laborious than that?
Joe Swanberg: Yeah, but it’s more about the bigger experience. That happens sometimes, where someone pops in and out, but for the most part, I want people around because a lot of the writing is generated from the actors hanging out together. There’s always good stuff to be mined from their relationships and actual circumstances, so my ideal situation isn’t a super long shoot, but everyone is always there even if they’re not working that day.
WGTC: So it’s almost like everyone is in character, even off set?
Joe Swanberg: A little. It’s almost like we’re not trying to make characters so much. That’s shifting as I’m working with more professional actors, there’s definitely more of a sense of character that didn’t used to be in my earlier movies, but it still has to be grounded and must be something I believe on set. I’m pretty particular about that. I’m not looking for performance in a big performative kind of way. Even if I’m working with someone playing a character. Like Jenny in Happy Christmas is nothing like Anna Kendrick, but I need to be feeling Anna in every take. Whatever she’s bringing to it. The actions aren’t her’s, but do the speaking rhythms and things like that sound right to me?
WGTC: How much of that is improv? The way you’re explaining things sounds like you have a general story idea, and then the details are filled in on set.
Joe Swanberg: All the dialogue is improvised, but the story isn’t. The story is figured out, but it can go in a lot of different directions. I try not to overwrite so if something good happens on set, there’s still some freedom to work that into the ongoing project. I don’t usually get to shoot consecutively, so the story has to be mapped out ahead of time because we’re forced to shoot like a Hollywood movie shoots.
WGTC: So as you bring in these higher profile talents, and of course that’s not a diss to collaborators like Adam Wingard and Ti West, but when you bring in people like Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick, does that hinder your style?
Joe Swanberg: It hasn’t, no. It’s essentially the exact same relationship. It makes setting up the movies a little different, but a lot of that is just coming along with getting older anyway. I’m also Director’s Guild now and I’m Writer’s Guild, so it’s not the “call people and three days later we’re shooting a movie” type of deal anymore, but once we’re on set it’s almost the same dynamic. Crews are getting a little bigger, but that’s by choice. I’m just feeling a little more ambitious technically. Drinking Buddies was a big leap forward for a lot of that stuff, and Happy Christmas then stripped a lot of that away. Post Drinking Buddies, I wanted to see what it was like to go back to doing things in a really small way.
I just did [Digging For Fire] which I’m editing now, and that’s basically splitting the difference. But, technically it’s much more ambitious than Drinking Buddies while being smaller – if that makes sense. Just in terms of crew size. It’s a bigger movie than Drinking Buddies, but with a lot less people on set.