Joe Swanberg is a polarizing independent filmmaker whose prolific body of work explores the intimate relationships of twenty-somethings with a bold, emotionally and sexually explicit honesty that feels at times like voyeurism.
Those who admire his work unabashedly love it, and those who don’t, well, do so with equal gusto.
His films, because of their raw emotional honesty, have the cathartic experience of therapy for me, which, in the end, is the most I ask for from art.
They’re challenging to analyze because they lack the typical filmic language — three act structures, polished performances, and likable characters — we’ve been trained to recognize in mainstream cinema. Their blunt depiction of sex, as well, is uncomfortable for some.
It’s almost as if Swanberg — who directs, acts, shoots, edits, and (because of the improvisational nature of the films) shares story credit with his fellow actors — is documenting his own life and the lives of his friends.
To say his work is solely that of an amateur documentarian posting videos on YouTube, as some of his harsher critics suggest, would be to blissfully ignore and diminish his astonishing achievement. His films feel like reality TV, if reality TV was art.
Swanberg’s story of success is inspiring to all would-be filmmakers or anyone who respects introspective art. In the eight years since graduating from film school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he’s released five feature films, starting with 2005’s Kissing On The Mouth. This year sees the ambitious release of three new films, Uncle Kent, which premiered at Sundance in January, as well as Silver Bullets and Art History, both of which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last month.
I first encountered his work with 2008’s emotionally and physically naked Nights & Weekends, about a long-distance relationship that unravels. Several weeks ago, my friend and the president of Emerson’s own film aficionado group, Films From The Margins, Dave Tafoya, asked me to help interview Mr. Swanberg during one of our weekly meetings. The following is a sample of our hour-long conversation about film school, improvisation, and finding the courage to make personal films.
Berkeley Beacon: What were your early films like?
Joe Swanberg: In film school, they were pretentious. I was trying really hard to say things and be artistic. I think film school is about getting all your bad ideas out of your system, and in a comfortable environment where everyone else is making bad movies too. So you can all be embarrassed together. But none of it was like Kissing On The Mouth. Making that movie was like redoing film school, but on my own and with my own money. I tried to unlearn the things I’d been taught in film school. So I didn’t write a script and kind of improvised it and freely mixed documentary. When we were making KOTM, it wasn’t important to me that anybody even saw the movie. I just wanted to make something. I had already been out of school for a year and was starting to feel bad about not having made something.
BB: Has your approach to improvisation changed?
JS: A little bit. I’m definitely trying to keep the spirit of it. Early on, it felt like cheating to me if I had anything written down or ideas ahead of time. I really wanted the experience to be natural and just sort of happen. But now I have to be more practical because of money and time. Now I go in with a one-page outline so that I at least have some structure to the film, but all the dialogue is still improvised.
BB: How have your filming techniques evolved?
JS: Now I’m pretty much the only crew. I used to have a few other people around, but now I try to do it all myself if I can. I usually have one other person helping with sound or lighting. Most of Silver Bullets I shot myself. Also, I’m acting in these movies and even with that I’m putting the camera on a tripod, hitting record, and walking into the scene. It’s a super amateur style, but it’s really nice for me not to have any kind of pressure. If people are standing around waiting for me I start to feel guilty and make decisions out of convenience.
BB: How important is casting for your films?
JS: Most of my job is in casting. My movies usually start with me being interested in somebody, for one reason or another, and then wanting to steal that thing from them, or capture it in some way. If there’s somebody that I like, then I’ll make a whole movie around them.
BB: How did you find the courage to go against mainstream expectations in order to make these highly personal films?
JS: I had some early encouragement from South By Southwest. I also met other filmmakers and had a network, so that even when I was making these personal films by myself, I never really felt alone in a grander sense. I also had jobs while I was making my first two films and definitely didn’t jump straight into making movies full time. Then, Hannah Takes The Stairs was acquired by IFC, and I just got so busy that I didn’t have the time to find another job. But all that time, there wasn’t money coming in. So I just decided that I can either take this momentum and run with it, or, if I decided to worry about money, potentially blow the only chance I’d ever have to make movies full-time. So I just decided I would rather be poor and working on movies all the time, but it helped to have outside validation.
Films From The Margin will screen Silver Bullets and Art History Thursday, March 24th at 8:00 p.m. in the Walker Building, room 223, free and open to Emerson students.