An interview with Joe Swanberg, down under at the Melbourne International Film Festival for his latest film, Happy Christmas.
“Joe Swanberg is in the midst of an extraordinary surge of artistic creation and invention; the work that he’s putting out is powerful and modern, but it’s modern in classic ways, ways that should register even with those who have (unfairly) little patience for the look and feel of ultra-low-budget filmmaking,” New Yorker film critic Richard Brody wrote in February 2011. I met the amiable, garrulous Chicago filmmaker at Melbourne’s Sofitel hotel, during the city’s excellent film festival where he is presenting Happy Christmas. Swanberg and I talked about Chicago influences like Jeff Garlin, working with actresses like Melanie Lynskey and Olivia Wilde, and the problem with current rom-coms. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Steve James told me, speaking about your city, Chicago: “I love this city, I love it with all its flaws. It has many. But it is a vibrant place with a lot of incredible people and a lot of people trying to do great things, and a lot of people trying to do bad things, and I can’t think of a better city to live in.”
JOE SWANBERG: Yeah, I really relate to that. There’s a history of systematic racism. Rahm Emanuel’s a total piece of shit, we have a terrible mayor. There is a lot to gripe about. For a lot of people Chicago has been a terrible place, but yeah I agree with Steve that—for all of its flaws—for me it is a really perfect place to be.
One of the things I associate most with this city is this working class spirit that doesn’t give a shit about your success… frustrating, where I feel like it’s easier for me to get my movie shown in New York and Austin than it is in Chicago. But then I think about how it constantly pushes me to forget about that other stuff and just focus on the work, because no one in Chicago is blowing smoke up your ass. It’s not a city that really celebrates its local talent. And so I feel like I’ve been left alone to just do my work and nobody there gets to feel like a big shot at all. It constantly just pushes you back down into the muck and I found that really useful.
AB: Tell me about the influence of a Chicago fellow like Jeff Garlin?
JS: I’m friends with him. He still has a place there and he’s in town quite a bit. In a way it’s like you have to leave in order for people in Chicago to really love you, and I feel like he’s managed a perfect balance of that where he’s still, in a lot of ways, a Chicagoan and he’s around but he also went off to L.A. and did a lot of great work out there, so when he comes home he’s beloved. It was cool to meet him and get to know him because he’s so independent minded, he really is a filmmaker himself and a photographer and he’s really looking to do work outside of the mainstream which is cool. You kind of suspect that as people get well-known they loose their desire to push people’s buttons, but I think he’s still interested in digging in and challenging people.
AB: In Curb Your Enthusiasm he comes across as if he’d be likeable in person?
JS: For sure, he’s a lot of fun to hang out with. He’s dark and funny and complicated, and a really cool guy. I hope he keeps directing movies. I want to see him make really dark movies.
AB: Collaborations like I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With alongside Sara Silverman! He’s got that likeably messy, dark, similarly comic sensibility to you?
JS: Yeah, definitely. Curb Your Enthusiasm was a huge influence for me. That started running in my freshman year at film school. Larry David’s sense of humour has really been influential on me my whole life. Seinfeld growing up totally informed my sense of humour and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the improvisation and the loose structure of the scripts and things like that, really resemble the way that I work.
AB: Enjoying Happy Christmas last night, I saw you had a shout out to the Gene Siskel Foundation in the credits.
JS: When Anna Kendrick’s sitting in the movie theatre that’s at the Gene Siskel Foundation.
AB: I enjoyed Steve James’s comment on Siskel through Life Itself.
JS: I know Steve, he and I went to the same film school, so we had a lot of the same professors. I see him around Chicago and I’ve seen most of his movies. For some reason I keep missing Life Itself. We have the same distributor too. Magnolia’s putting out Happy Christmas and that one, so it’s on my list. I met Roger Ebert several times. When I was in film school—I went to school in Carbondale which is a few hours from Champaigne-Urbana—I would go up every year for his [Overlooked Film] Festival and he was always around, so I talked to him several times.
AB: My industry acquaintances say he had that contagious passion for cinema and people.
JS: Yeah, you definitely felt that. He was such an advocate for cool movies for so long. I went to high school in the suburbs of Chicago, and just living in Illinois and feeling like that was Roger Ebert’s territory was really cool; I felt connected to that. Growing up, Siskel and Ebert were really the only two critics I was aware of for a lot of my life, and they had such a big factor on whether a movie was considered good or not.
AB: You weren’t one of these film people who grew up steeped in New York arthouse?
JS: No, I mostly grew up in Georgia and Alabama and was definitely not a cinephile. My tastes were very mainstream for most of my life. It was in high school when I really fell in love with movies and Ebert was one of those voices that meant something to me. I also really like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which he wrote; I think it’s a really cool movie. I was always a fan of his and eager to hear what he had to say about things.
AB: Richard Brody, New Yorker film critic, is quite the enthusiast of yours.
JS: He was really instrumental in America in terms of supporting my work and convincing other critics, I think, to take it seriously. There was a period of time where I really felt like the critical community was dismissive of my stuff. I made a movie called Hannah Takes The Stairs, and Amy Taubin wrote a piece in Film Comment that was really dismissive, and I think it gave a lot of people permission to write my work off. Richard Brody was an advocate and has, to my mind at least, turned that conversation around, and was one of the main voices to push people towards my stuff, so I really appreciate it.
I met Richard Brody several times and got to talk to him about filmmaking, and he’s so smart and has turned me on to a lot of cool stuff. He seems to me like a writer who’s open to smaller personal work in a way that I think a lot of people aren’t.
AB: I’m not sufficiently familiar with Ingmar Bergman’s work, I think, to comment on it authoritatively. Brody compared you favourably to Bergman. There’s an absorbing documentary on Bergman in this festival— Trespassing Bergman—Claire Denis, Takeshi Kitano, Lars von Trier, Alexander Payne, a lively international cast of directors enthusing about him. How about you?
JS: My background is Swedish so I have a natural affinity to him and his work. I feel culturally connected to that. He’s definitely an influence. He’s not one of those people that I think of when I think of my inspirations in a personal way, but he’s such a massive voice in the overall world cinema conversation that even if his movies aren’t a direct influence on me, they were such an influence on everybody [else]. You can’t escape a guy like Bergman.
AB: He’s been a big influence on Woody Allen so he’s come to me via that.
JS: Absolutely. On one of the Criterion releases of one of his films there was a documentary about him. His thoughts on his own work and cinema have definitely been inspirational.
AB: There’s also a New Zealand connection on Happy Christmas, looking at the challenge of helping family in need, and creativity with a young kid (winningly acted by your own son). You’ve got this absorbing collaboration with Melanie Lynskey playing your wife, speaking with her nice Kiwi accent.
JS: Definitely. I’m glad she used her real voice. She doesn’t always like to so it was nice to get it in there. She’s great, she’s in my new movie (Digging for Fire), the one I’m editing right now, and I hope to keep working with her.
AB: What’s exciting about working with her?
JS: She’s remained underutilized. She’s always been great and hasn’t gotten as much work as she should be getting. So that’s always exciting as a filmmaker to be working with such a massive talent who’s not overexposed. On a personal level she gets my work and we share a sense of humour and sense of what’s important, and so it’s been a fun, easy collaboration.
AB: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Shattered Glass, she’s done a bunch of stuff that I rate.
JS: Yeah, she’s amazing. Did you see a move called Hello I Must Be Going? She’s always really good. I’ve never seen her be bad in something.
AB: Drinking Buddies captured something—and entertainingly—that frisson between friends who would like to take their relationship to the next level from purely platonic; but there are complications, like extant relationship problems. What’s special about working with the dynamic Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies’ Kate?
JS: She’s so smart, she’s so political and just engaged with the world, and it’s always, it’s so useful for me to work with people like that who have such a rich life outside of the movies. Because I ask the actors to improvise the dialogue, I really need to be working with people who have a lot going on other that their work, who kind of have a life to draw upon that isn’t just single mindedly focused on acting. She was such a rich source of material and so open and willing to share things with me and put that stuff in the movies, so it’s a dream scenario. And honestly, since we made Drinking Buddies, she’s been such a big champion of my work and such a vocal supporter that she’s really turned a lot of other actors onto my movies, so I feel really grateful to her for just helping me out so much. She didn’t stand to benefit, she was just this huge advocate and I’ve really noticed a difference in terms of trying to put my movies together. It can be directly linked back to her, so she’s really a hero of mine.
AB: She was a vivid, charismatic presence when I saw her at the New York Film Festival for Spike Jonze’s Her.
JS: I really like that movie. She’s great. She’s really going to have a cool career, I’m so excited to see what she gets up to over the next couple of years, and I’m really hoping we can make a lot more movies together. I think about her constantly and am really trying to figure out what I can do next with her.
AB: Anna Kendrick, your errant sister in Happy Christmas, is another exciting, ongoing collaboration?
JS: She’s insanely talented. It’s been a total pleasure working with her and I’m just constantly in awe of what she can do. Again I feel lucky that she wants to keep coming back and making movies with me. The last couple of years have been really exciting. I feel like I am trying to not over think it. I’m lucky to be working with these people, so I’ll keep writing roles for them and asking them to come and be collaborators. As long as they keep saying yes we’ll try and keep the party going. But they’re all getting so busy, they’re so in demand. I know the day is coming where they just can’t make time to come and do one of my weird little movies.
AB: Lena Dunham’s another celebrity who’s bent over backwards to slum it with you. Filmmaking is often a snake pit; your sets seem unusually relaxed, with people getting on?
JS: I try to make it that way. I’m asking these actors to bring a lot, and in a lot of ways be co-writers with me. So it seems like the least I can do to create a safe, happy working environment. It’s really terrifying to me, the idea of ending up on a set where there’s a lot of animosity and people won’t speak to each other. I don’t want to make movies that are products, that are like these packaged, easily sellable goods. I’m hoping to make movies that feel like a bunch of people trying to create something meaningful, and so I feel like the atmosphere on set is really important to that kind of collaboration.
AB: I won’t ask you about the exigent financial realities of filmmaking, as you covered that elsewhere. What’s another MIFF 2014 film you recommend?
JS: Alex Ross Perry’s film Listen Up Philip. I think it’s a really amazing movie and it definitely was the best thing I saw at Sundance. He somehow crashed this big literary feeling movie with not much money. It manages to feel like it came from another time and that also it’s totally of this time. I’m such a big fan of it and I’m hoping it connects with audiences when it comes out.
AB: Why do you think Hollywood rom-coms are so bad these days?
JS: There’s an obsession with likeability that I’m noticing that gets in the way of what, to me, makes the best romantic comedies work—is that these characters can be flawed and they can get up to bad behaviour and are often unlikeable, and I think everybody’s trying so hard to have these characters be so likeable all the time. They need to be a little messier. I think they’re just too cute and safe, and there’s no danger in these romantic comedies. I really am a fan of the genre and I’m trying to return a little recklessness to it, a little wildness to it.