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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

DV vs. Goliath: Q&Aing Joe Swanberg's SxSW preem Hannah Takes The Stairs

165128231_d644507c52_b.jpgOUT IN THE REAL WORLD, BY THE GLOW OF WEBCAMS and computer screens, the potential for the average Joe and Jane to chronicle the most intimate moments of their lives is in motion every night and day. Feature films are another matter; studio pictures can’t move quickly enough to encompass what happened five yesterdays ago, let along six months to a year from now at the pace of an iPod-YouTube-MySpace-BitTorrent world. While the culture of surveillance and self-surveillance has begun to prompt and provoke interesting art, one Chicago filmmaker has made the lives (virtual and otherwise) of his friends and himself the center of his work.
JOE SWANBERG TURNS 26 LATER THIS YEAR, he’s shot his fourth feature, a look at long distance relationships, and his third, and most playful, the sunny, Chicago-set Hannah Takes the Stairs, has its world premiere Sunday night at Austin’s South by Southwest festival. Swanberg, whose 2006 LOL and 2005 Kissing on the Mouth also debuted at SxSW, is cautious to a fault about his working method, with his new movie’s “A film by” credit going to eight people, including himself, lead Greta Gerwig, the filmmakers Kent Osborne (Dropping Out), Ry Russo-Young (Orphans), Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation), Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair), Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake), and musician Kevin Bewersdorf. While it sounds like a clever-clever conceit, casting actor-directors whom he’s befriended on the festival circuit in a kind of cinematic twentysomething supergroup, it’s central to the film’s success. Swanberg likes to collaborate, and he likes to work with people he likes, which shows in Hannah, which like his earlier movies, captures a tentative intimacy rare on screen but common in life, how two people alone in a room do dances of gesture, with clothes and without, searching for self-definition and happiness, baring scars and kissing for minutes at a time. (While sometimes discomfiting within the context of the characters’ lives, the nudity in his work is handled with offhanded aplomb.) His second feature, LOL dealt with how life spent on the internet can ruin relationships. And: Swanberg’s second season of a web series for just debuted, and several days I spent on the set—that is, in cast members’ apartments—of the first series of Young American Bodies further demonstrated his affably casual, offhanded approach to getting through the day’s notes. [In the extended Q&A below, we talk about his work being a calling card to kindred spirits; how he sold Hannah to its producer in the form of a drawing of a martini glass; the impact of the 1980s American indepemdent movement on his ambitions; why his work is “selfish”; and why Stop Making Sense may be almost as perfect as Kieslowski’s Blue and Double Life of Veronique.]

The writer who’s most capably put his finger on what Swanberg’s doing with his tentative, tender impulses, is David Hudson, who collates the daily GreenCine indie film blog from Berlin, but who discovered Swanberg’s work in Austin. Hudson suggests that the 6’3” director-writer-actor-cameraman-improviser is “one of the first filmmakers who’s already proven himself in what you might call the traditional theatrical format, that is, feature length, big screen, who actually seems more comfortable, or rather, seems to enjoy working more within the parameters of the current online viewing experience. Joe SwanbergIt’s not just a matter of length, either, whether it’s his shorts or his episodic series. The intimacy of the stories he tells, too, seems intensified by the intimacy of what the experience requires at the moment: one viewer, nose-to-the-screen. Personally, my favorite of his works remains the Young American Bodies series, probably for these reasons.”
Which leads into an uncanny insight that Swanberg offers about his perspective in one of several long conversations about why his process could only work in today’s world.
PRIDE: With such bold, bright frames in his work, both for the Nerve series and in Hannah, what format, what screen are you composing for?
SWANBERG: I actually am not aware of it and try and consciously unaware of it. I would say, realistically, I’m always shooting for an LCD screen. The on-camera LCD [screen], roughly 2.5 inches. That’s what I frame for, that’s what I look through, that’s what I’ve become used to photographing for. So even with the knowledge that Hannah would be showing at festivals in a theatrical setting, I’m still making it look good there and hoping that translates. I’m aware of [future platforms], everything’s getting smaller, and certainly part of me feels that I might as well make it look good here because in five years, that’s how everybody’s going to be watching it.
PRIDE: The first two features were 4:3 but Hannah is 16:9 widescreen.
SWANBERG: Kissing on the Mouth and LOL were both consciously full-frame. The camera has the capability to do widescreen, but I chose not to. And then Young American Bodies was hannahtakesthestairs-2med.jpgsort of my first stab at 16:9, because I felt like it was an environment, where it was this webshow and not having any experience with it and not knowing exactly what would come out of it, that that was a good time to play around.
PRIDE: It’s also below the radar for most people, rather than festival play, which at least exposes you to programmers and distributors, if not a truly wide audience. That’s good in a way, experimenting without undue pressure.
SWANBERG: Yeah. Exactly. Which has been the greatest thing about that show. More people have seen it than all of my features combined, and yet nobody’s really judging me on the same criteria, which is perfect. The most invisibility also them most freedom to play, from my point of view. The reason the next two features are in 16:9 is because it’s native to the camera. I think had the camera been native 4:3, then I might have chosen to go that way.
PRIDE: Are you shooting differently, using negative space and so on in the wider format? One of the things I always like is your use of bold color and simple, clean geometry.
SWANBERG: That hasn’t changed. I let [DoP] Matthias [Grusky] go on Nights and Weekends, I said, “Do what you want, I trust your instincts, and I’m going to be acting, so I don’t want to be looking over your shoulder.”
PRIDE: But he’d seen your stuff, you do have a style—
SWANBERG: Exactly. Hannah, I shot every frame and it very much has bold colors, simple color palettes. It feels very much like my photography, I think.
PRIDE: Your movies seem like of a calling card more to kindred spirits than to potential financiers.
SWANBERG: Yeah, absolutely. Especially with Kissing on the Mouth, I got asked that [on the festival circuit]. I always joked that Kissing on the Mouth was the anti-calling card. It was basically proof that I would never make any money for anybody and proof that you shouldn’t hire me! But at the same time, yes, I think it’s a calling card to interesting people who want to make interesting projects, that you can come and be safe with us,and you can give us all of that and I will do everything in my power to make sure that you’re not exploited and that your story is told accurately.
PRIDE: But you found an investor anyway, your producer on Hannah and Nights and Weekends, Anish Savjani.
SWANBERG: He’s from Austin. He saw LOL [at SxSW] and he came to the LOL party that night, said, “I like it, let’s talk.” I think three weeks later we were in business. We started shooting a few months after that. It was like a short pitch to him over the telephone and he agreed to do it. And then when I presented him—[Swanberg laughs] Really, I said to him what I said to everybody, which is like, “If you want to help me and you have some money and you want to enable me to make this film on HD and work with the people that I want to work with, then I love you and I think you’re great. But I’m not going to write a script and I’m not going to change the way I make movies.” "young american bodies" focusBecause I can do it by myself if I want to. So he said, “What’s your idea?” so I told him my idea. What I gave him was a drawing on a piece of paper that sort of looked like a martini glass that outlined the characters and the way the story would progress and potentially split into two different [stories]. That’s what he approved, based on the drawing. It never became anything more than a drawing until the film was finished. There’s one sheet of paper with all the scenes in the movie written out halfway through the production. That sheet of paper had what we had already shot and what we felt like we needed to shoot. That’s all that exists on paper other than that drawing.
PRIDE: These movies could only be made today. This career, your career, could only occur in this precise historical moment.
SWANBERG: Oh, I’m positive of it. I don’t think… [He sighs, considers.] Part of what makes me feel like that is I just don’t think that I would have the stamina or energy to have taken the time to convince anybody to make Kissing on the Mouth had it cost [anything]. Kissing on the Mouth still could have been made… No, it couldn’t have been made at any other time. Because I would have had no idea what to say to everybody, as to how much film stock I would have needed, how much time it would take, what the editing process would be like and it’s not a film that I could have shot all up front and then [go] into an editing room for two weeks and then come out with a finished movie. It had to be a project that was shot a little bit, cut a little bit, shot a little bit, hannahtakesthestairs-7med.jpgcut a little bit. Unlimited potential for tape stock and unlimited time on my hands to finish it at the pace I need to finish. LOL couldn’t have been made without the ability to send large files over the Internet to people in different cities to collaborate with me on the project. Hannah couldn’t have been made if I didn’t have the email and cell phone technology to be in constant communication with people like Andrew and Mark over the course of two years, as my films developed and as their work developed. I couldn’t’ve had met the two of them at South by Southwest in 2005 and then called them in the summer of 2006, and say, remember me from a year-and-a-half ago, well I have this project… It was something that was totally enabled by an ongoing conversation from the moment we met until they actually came to Chicago to make the film. And Nights and Weekends, the whole function of this couple is based on a world in which long distance couples have contact in a way it hasn’t been done before. We never see them in long distance mode. What we did do, which I don’t know if it’s ever been done before, is that there’s the middle section is a phone call that takes place over the phone and I had one crew here in Chicago with me recording my side of it and I had one crew in New York recording her side of it and we acted over the phone for two continuous 40 minute takes.
PRIDE: Lars von Trier made a pact with his actors on The Idiots that he’d strip off his pants if they’d just get on with their nude scenes, and you’ve got a similar thing in your work, exposing yourself, or playing amusing doofuses, like in Young American Bodies.
SWANBERG: Certainly from the beginning I was conscious of the fact that if I was going to ask anybody to do something I needed to be right there with them. I’ve kept that mentality through all of the projects. I’m not interested in pushing people past their limits or coercing someone to do something. I get no kind of thrill from, from, from manipulating a situation to get what I want. If the person doesn’t want to give it to me, I’m not going to be happy with it in the end anyway.
PRIDE: Watching you work, particularly as you all improvise off an outline, I’m reminded in a distant way of Mike Leigh’s devising of scenes—
SWANBERG: I don’t work with actors, though. That’s the other thing. I don’t put myself in an environment where people want to be pushed. I put myself in an environment where I’m surrounded by artists, people I respect who want to help me tell a story. I love working with the people that I work with. I have a feeling that actors with a capital A are my type of people to begin with. Greta gave me everything in Hannah Takes the Stairs. She completely opened up her entire self for that movie. I never had to ask it of her once, but she’d seen my films and worked with me on LOL long distance and over the phone, and on Young American Bodies, so when she came to Chicago and it was time to make Hannah, she knew what I did and she knew what I wanted to do and there was no discussion about it. It was like, if we’re going to do this, I’m going to need everybody to give me everything. But I never had to ask. I didn’t have to ask with Mark, I didn’t have to ask with Andrew, or Kent or Rob.
PRIDE: Some of your colleagues have an interest in the studio system, like you’ve described Bujalski’s interest in being a screenwriter.
SWANBERG: Bujalski actually does have a desire to work inside the system. Maybe not to direct within the system, but he would love to be a screenwriter for hire, which is something I have zero interest in. I feel like the John Sayles career path is something that appeals to him a great deal, where he can make money from Hollywood than use it to make his movies. But it’s not for me. If anything, the thing I would like to do within the Hollywood system is act. Because I’m not precious about my image. I am precious about my ideas and where I choose to put them and how I choose to do so, but I’d act in any old piece-of-shit movie and not have second thoughts about it. But as far as writing something or directing something, that means something to me that’s too much to give away if I don’t like what I’m doing.
PRIDE: So it’s a matter of do the work, keep your head above water, don’t analyze it? But you do read what people write.
SWANBERG: Oh yeah, sure. I’m curious what people think. One of the things that has always been the goal is to make work that resonates with people. If I felt like at any point I was just making some shit simply to amuse myself, and the people in it, I would stop doing it. I personally, when I say that I’m selfish about it, that I feel selfish, I feel like I’m growing as a person and I feel like I’m growing as a filmmaker by "young american bodies" scriptmaking these projects, but the desire at the end of the day is always to make a piece of work that affects people. So in that sense, I’m very curious to know what people write about it, I’m curious what people are thinking about it. I want people to like it. Kissing on the Mouth is probably the most challenging of all the work I’ve done, but even that, I made it to be entertaining in a certain sense, for a certain audience. And I would hate to feel like an audience wouldn’t come out of the film excited.
PRIDE: You called your prolific output “selfish.” I’m not sure I know what you mean.
SWANBERG: I guess I don’t feel bad about being selfish, but I would call it selfish because I’m getting as much out of it as anybody is. I’m insisting on that. If somebody came to me with a project and here’s this amount of money to do this project that’s gonna pay you but you’re not going to enjoy, and somebody else came to me with half as much money, I would do the one that I was going to enjoy. Until there’s a reason to change, like, for instance, a family, I feel like I’ll keep that [mindset].” [Swanberg mentions a friend who’s making a sequel.] It sounds like he’s in hell every single day. And it’s like, why deal with it if I don’t have to?
PRIDE: What impact has the history of the 1980s American independent film movement had on your aspirations?
SWANBERG: Reading Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” journal, here’s a guy who’s roughly the same age I am now, who had to hustle for months and months and months and call up his family members and beg money from them and set up these meetings with investors and beg for money from them and apply for all of these grants, just to do a film with four characters in apartments? It’s just like Kissing on the Mouth. It’s like Kissing on the Mouth 20 years earlier. But the amount of work he had to go through just to make the movie doesn’t exist now. Reading his journal, I sort of know that I didn’t have in myself to do that. It’s not my style to hustle like that. It’s my style to say, “What tools do I have? What can I make tomorrow?”
PRIDE: And tomorrow and tomorrow and the next day?
SWANBERG: I think the way to make [a career happen] is to be productive. I don’t think you can exist that way with one movie every two hours. In order to do it, you have to have a steady income from multiple small movies a year, which is great, because it’s the way I prefer to work anyway. That’s not unlike my vision of how that’s possible. Kissing is available on DVD now, LOL is going to be available at the end of July, and Hannah maybe a year after that, Nights and Weekends a year after that. So eventually, if I’m seeing a little bit of money from all of these films, then that becomes viable.
PRIDE: You spend your nights and weekends making movies about how difficult it is to maintain relationships in the modern age. How do you do it with your girlfriend, who’s also a filmmaker?
SWANBERG: Kris and I have been together for over seven years, and she has always been the first person to hear my ideas and the one who has to live with me while those ideas occupy most of my time and brain function. She has made tremendous sacrifices to make sure that I have both the space and time that I need to do my work, Kris Williamswhether we are working together on something or separately. Most relationships don’t have to make these concessions, and I’m so grateful that we have found a way to be together while also being the filmmakers we want to be. Living with me and dealing with me is not an easy thing to do, I’m sure of that, but she has always been supportive and encouraging, even when I’m driving her crazy.
PRIDE: What movies have inspired you or drive you crazy?
SWANBERG: When I think about movies that I really, really love, that I would defend, the few that come to mind are Stop Making Sense, which I’ve probably seen more than any other film. I think David Byrne gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a movie. I think it does, I think the reason that I like it maybe most of it all is that it does exactly what it sets out to do. I feel like it’s a film that’s completely realized. There’s very little in it that feels left up to chance. It feels like a bunch of artists who had a vision and they told it as well as they could. Breaking the Waves marked a turning point for me. I’d never quite seen anything before that, I saw it in high school, it was my first sense of being put through an experience by cinema. You felt proud when it ended if you’d made it out the other end. You Can Count on Me, Mark Ruffalo blows my mind. I think the whole film, but his performance is what I respond to. That’s one I can go back to again and again. That performance "young american bodies"  tulipscontinues to inspire me, that’s something I strive for, something as good as that. Medium Cool is a huge influence on me, as far as taking the camera into the riots and putting your actors in a real situation and capturing how they respond. When I heard that for the first time, it totally opened up a new channel in my brain or what was possible and where the lines of fiction and nonfiction could be blended.
PRIDE: You just dipped into the complete Kieslowski retrospective at the Siskel, didn’t you?
SWANBERG: Kieslowski, I can’t remember something I liked as much as I liked Blue. I was sitting there with my hand on my mouth, staring in disbelief at the screen that I could actually be seeing what I’m seeing. Blue and Double Life of Veronique are way at the top of my list of favorite films now. They had the same DP, Slawomir Idziak… but I just don’t know how he does it. Don’t know how he does it. [Two stills from Hannah Takes The Stairs, courtesy Joe Swanberg; all other photographs © ray pride 2007; a different, shorter version appeared in Newcity (Chicago).]

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon