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The Filmmaker As Athlete: A Conversation With Joe Swanberg

The most prolific practitioner of American independent cinema discusses his craft.

I've always been fascinated by the prodigious rate at which Joe Swanberg produces new work. He has 27 directing credits (almost all of them feature films) to his name over the course of the past twelve years, and additionally he's put forth a number of efforts as an actor in the works of his contemporaries. (He was most recently seen in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, which premiered at Berlin this February.) Swanberg's portraits of the minutiae of lives in motion took a leap into a higher level of visibility with last year's Drinking Buddies, a touching depiction of friendship that had Swanberg, for the first time, working with bona fide "name" actors - Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston. 

Swanberg is back with Happy Christmas, out today, which again features Kendrick (in addition to Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber and Swanberg himself) giving an exceptionally strong performance. Kendrick stars as Jenny, the younger sister of Jeff (Swanberg) who comes to stay with her brother, his wife Kelly (Lynskey) and their baby (Swanberg's own son Jude) in Chicago. While Jeff and Kelly are in the process of getting acclimated to the rhythms of life as caretakers of a toddler, Jenny brings in a whirlwind of energy that tosses their lives around in an unexpected - though not entirely detrimental - manner. I had the chance to speak recently with Swanberg about the film and his unique working methods. 

Tribeca Film: I was really touched by Jenny's arc, which is really nuanced but absolutely present and distinct. How did you begin to conceive of her as a character?

Joe Swanberg: The film started on parallel tracks, with Kelly and Jenny. My younger brother had come to live with my wife and I for a couple months, and so some of that stuff is borrowed from autobiographical experiences of having a sibling in the house, the complications of my wife and I starting our own family while also having a roommate for a really long time. My brother wasn't as bad as Jenny is in the movie, but he is younger than us and there were reminders of our mid-20s at a time when we were past that. So I borrowed and I worked with Anna, as I do with all of the actors, and I told her the storyline and we went from there. I want the actors to always bring a lot of personal experiences into the movie, and it was a nice collaboration with Anna to create that character. 

I worked with four actors whom I didn't know, and I'm really proud of the work we did on that movie, and I feel like the better I get to know actors like that, the more interesting work I can do. 

Tribeca Film: She's done such fantastic work with you, in this and in Drinking Buddies. What is it about your creative energy with her that works so well?

Joe Swanberg: She's definitely one of the most talented actors I've worked with. It's amazing to be on set with her and watch her work. She's very prepared, very detailed. I think my working method is one where I want to utilize the intelligence and sensitivity of my actors. With someone like Anna, who is so smart and so good, hopefully it's fun for her to come to my sets and be an active participant not just as an actor but as a storyteller. I want to keep working with her, because she's so good. I hope I keep challenging her in different ways. I've mostly spent my career working with friends whom I already knew, who I could get to play into who I already knew, but in Drinking Buddies I worked with four actors whom I didn't know, and I'm really proud of the work we did on that movie, and I feel like the better I get to know actors like that, the more interesting work I can do. 

Tribeca Film: What would you say the biggest difference is between the newer work you're doing, with bigger actors, and the earlier work you were doing before Drinking Buddies

Joe Swanberg: Well, I had to trust the actors a lot sooner, and connect a lot quicker, with Drinking Buddies. Friendship gets to build naturally over a period of time, but working on Drinking Buddies, we didn't have that. It was a very sped-up process of trying to get to a place where we were connected so we could get to do the work we needed to do. It's funny, because in a way it's more intimate than when I'm working with friends. With friends, often everyone feels like we need to get to some place, and we have time to get to know each other, but on a movie shoot you've got maybe twenty days, and you've got to get there. It leads to fast friendships and also a lot of new ideas. I think one of the reasons I've worked so fast in my career is that in the environment where everyone is sharing and collaborating, new ideas are coming up, and a lot doesn't make it into the movie, but it often triggers ideas for other movies. So I often come off of one project with ideas for other movies. 

I really buy into the idea that practice is the most important thing for getting better at something, and I want to be a better filmmaker. The more I can do it, the more I can develop the skills I want to have.

Tribeca Film: You're obviously quite prolific. How does the business considerations of being an independent filmmaker enter there? Obviously when one considers the economics of independent film, it seems like working as much as possibly is perhaps one of the most sensible ways to do this and make a living. 

Joe Swanberg: There was definitely a period of time where I didn't have another job, I was surviving as a filmmaker, but the movies were small, so each movie was making just a little bit of money. So that did have a lot to do with why 2010 and 2011 were so productive - I was just working. Like how a working actor has to take jobs - as a working director, I had to create jobs. It's slowed down a little from there, but I like to work. I really buy into the idea that practice is the most important thing for getting better at something, and I want to be a better filmmaker. The more I can do it, the more I can develop the skills I want to have. A lot of filmmakers have a writing process, and that naturally creates a buffer between productions, but because I don't have an elongated writing process, it's really just an outlining process, once one projects ends there's nothing stopping us from diving right into the next one. 

Tribeca Film: What you say about practice is really interesting. You know, an athlete practices every day. With so many filmmakers, the opportunity to keep practicing your skill doesn't present itself. 

Joe Swanberg: It's very strange. You know, Clint Eastwood talked about the same thing. He said, a musician has to play their instrument every single day, and that really registered with me and how I thought about filmmaking. You have to stay in practice. You're going to get rusty if you don't keep at it. I see that with a lot of filmmakers. You're also going to get nervous. There's a lot of pressure on set to execute. You have crowded schedules and short days, and if it's your first time on a set in a year, you have to get past a lot of that. I always felt like if I just kept working there wouldn't be a lot of hurdles to jump, mentally, emotionally. It's a big part of why I've wanted to stay so active. I would hope that the movies are getting better and are reflective of that. I'm hoping to be making my best work when I'm an old man, not a young man. If I can stay active and keep my brain limber, I hope the work keeps getting more nuanced, the storytelling gets stronger. 

Tribeca Film: Do you feel your comfort level rising with those sort of things as you progress?

Joe Swanberg: I don't know about the finished work, but I can definitely say that I feel it in the working experience with collaborators. These are definitely environments where, the more you've seen it, the more you're prepared for anything. There are specific demands with each movie that are going to be new, and there are general things that you encounter again and again. Like a police officer or a firefighter, anyone who is in high-stress situations, you can only get comfortable in those situations by putting yourself in them a lot, and that's how you become a good firefighter - you run into burning buildings a lot. The more comfortable you are doing it, the more likely you are to make the right choice under pressure. I feel that working with actors, working with the DP on set, where, say, the sun is going down and we have one hour to get the scene finished. It's good to be able to say, we've been here before, we've done this before, let's go ahead and attack it this way. 

 The more comfortable you are doing it, the more likely you are to make the right choice under pressure.

Tribeca Film: Walk me through your process developing a character with an actor. What does that process look like?

Joe Swanberg: It's sort of all jumbled up. It confuses the workflow most people have. The actors get involved pretty early - I know who I'm going to work with and those people start entering the conversation as I'm writing, rather than after I've written it. There are a lot of emails and phone calls, working details out. So I could give Anna the basic idea of the story and then we start kicking ideas around, I tell Anna stories about when my brother was here, she tells me stories about things she's heard, and then simultaneously I'm talking to Melanie about the other stuff. I'm sort of the central hub of the idea exchange, I become almost the secretary of these conversations, I jot down the things that register the most with me, the things that feel most appropriate for the movie. But then when I get to set it's not like I've forgotten those conversations - I may take an idea and we may run with it, but maybe we do a few takes, and Melanie may say, remember when we talked about that thing, that may make sense here, and that may get pulled back in even though it didn't make it into the outline. So it's a nice communal writing and problem-solving process. I'm also editing while we shoot, so I'm making decisions on set based upon whether or not I have the coverage we need to cut the scene later. 

Tribeca Film: How challenging does that get, cutting improvised scenes?

Joe Swanberg: It can be very challenging, but it's the kind of challenge that's very fun for me. I love editing. I feel that it's the only way to innovate, is to find yourself facing a challenge that you did not expect. Ideally you write your movie, get all the coverage you need, and put a perfect movie together. But when you're sitting there in the editing room and you realize, oh shit, this great idea I had on paper isn't quite translating into the reality of this movie, now maybe you do something new. It's very hard for people to just decide to do something new. I tried to create this process where I let in as many mistakes and accidents as possible, we have a free-flowing atmosphere on set, and then when I get into the editing room I'm able to try new things because I have an idea that I want to make work, but I don't have the typical coverage, so maybe I go back to a different scene and then come back to the first scene - in other words, I have to solve that problem in a creative way. 


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