Joe Swanberg (director/writer and often producer of films such as Drinking Buddies, Silver Bullets, Kissing on the Mouth and about 15 or so others in the past 10 years) is one of modern cinema’s hardest working filmmakers. With his recent film Happy Christmas making waves across the global festival circuit, I caught up with the “Mumblecore”-pioneer ahead of his appearance at the Melbourne International Film Festival and the film’s subsequent wide Australian release.
Unlike the title suggests Happy Christmas is by no means a Christmas movie – what led to the creation of Happy Christmas and how did Christmas factor into the equation?
You know I think that there’s so much pressure around that time of year and what it means for families; there’s this heightened expectation of specialness and togetherness. I think that I was drawn to making this story, which is not a Christmas movie, take place during that time of year just because it amplifies things to me – any little bits of drama or conflict kind of become magnified.
I notice that unlike your prior films that were all shot on digital, Happy Christmas was shot on 16mm, giving it a sort of nostalgic, home-video feel. A big part of the film are your hilarious interactions with your son. Was the use of 16mm a conscious attempt to capture the innocence and nostalgia of childhood and the Christmas period in general, or was it more the result of a desire to experiment with a different filmic medium?
It was definitely aimed at trying to capture a particular feeling that is partially rooted in nostalgia and partially rooted in the location. We shot the movie in my house, which is just a really old place in Chicago – the basement where Anna Kendrick’s character lives was all decorated in the 1960s – and 16mm just felt so appropriate. But also, as you say, it invokes memories of home movies – not necessarily our home movies but our grandparent’s home movies. It brings this instant quality of family and the past, and that plays into what I was saying about the season and the holidays and what we think that means or what it’s supposed to mean.
I think what’s so great is that this is kind of juxtaposed against a lead that’s actively rebelling against the notion of growing up and who is seeking to return to that nostalgic period. Anna Kendrick is fantastic in this – was the film conceived with her in mind after working with her on Drinking Buddies?
Yeah, definitely. You know I had such a good time working with her on Drinking Buddies; I thought she was so good in it. Right away I asked her if she was interested in trying to do another movie together – it was really exciting that she was willing to come back and work this way again, and also that we could play with a character who was so different from the one she played in Drinking Buddies and that we could (kind of) push in the other direction.
It seems with Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies you’ve been repurposing a lot of what you learned making your earlier, ultra-low budget stuff into a package that’s more easily digestible for mainstream audiences. Has this been a conscious decision or is it more of a by-product of the sort of films you wanted these to be?
It’s been a bit a little of both probably. The cast are mostly actors whose work I admired; Olivia Wilde, for instance, is somebody who I had seen in some movies years ago and I always thought she was really great. I kept up with her career and her potential seemed to be a lot greater than the roles she was being offered. It’s exciting to take the movies which I had been making and have a shot at making them with actors who didn’t come from that world. Following Drinking Buddies with Happy Christmas, and then this new one called Digging for Fire, which I’m editing right now, has been great. It’s been really exciting to branch out and to just see if these people want to work this way – to challenge them and have them challenge me.
I think I was at a safe place; I had been so busy in prior years and I had made so many films so quickly that I got really comfortable with a certain style and working with a certain set of people. I think I was just looking to push myself outside of my comfort zone, so doing something like Drinking Buddies was really a way to force myself into a situation where I had to question the decisions I was making and think about the creative process differently. It’s been fun to keep pushing in that direction and I suspect that I will spend the rest of my career bouncing back and forth between movies of different sizes and visibility.
That’s a relief because I really love your earlier work as well. I guess that mainstream recognition is kind of irrelevant when you’re pumping out 3 or 4 high-quality films a year with a very specific audience in mind, but I have noticed that Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies have garnered a bit more positive recognition from mainstream critical outlets than some of your earlier films. Is it a relief to finally receive wider recognition for your contribution to the modern cinematic landscape and to have your work discussed in a way that doesn’t refer to it as part of some kind of outsider, niche genre?
I don’t know, it’s complicated. I feel like everybody probably has a complicated relationship with “success”, whatever that means. There’s a part of me that really wants people to connect with the movies and I really want people to see them, so that aspect of the positive reception for the more recent movies has been really exciting. But there’s another part of me that’s like “fuck you, where were you five years ago when I could have used a lot of your help?” I’m a little torn and I probably have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about it but it is totally understandable – a lot of my earlier movies were really hard to see anyway. I don’t blame people for not being there, and in a way I was challenging the audiences that were – they were confrontational in a different kind of way.
I think it’s a bit disparaging to call these your successful films because your other works, as films, are highly successful (at least in my mind), and were really effective at articulating and conveying the experiences upon which they focus…
You know it’s funny because I always felt that way about all of them – they all felt accessible to me. But I understand; there are conventions that audiences are used to and so while I didn’t feel like I was working that far outside of those conventions I guess I’ve gotten realistic about how little audiences feel like being challenged. I think that there is an audience, which I consider myself a part of, that goes to the movies looking to be challenged; I want the movies to push me outside of my comfort zone – I was excited to make movies that were challenging me and I hoped they challenged the audience too. The thing about it is that as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas – which, to me, feel like very (almost) mainstream movies – get out to the world I realise they are still very challenging to people and are not mainstream at all by a lot of people’s standards.
It’s been interesting to have the sort of career I’ve had and to come from this perspective where I feel a movie like Drinking Buddies is really playing by the rules. Coming to understand that it’s still considered an art film and something that’s really tough for a lot of people to swallow is fascinating. I don’t know man, I feel like I don’t have a very good perspective on it, but my main desire is to communicate with people via the movies – however that happens, I’m excited to try that. I still have ideas that I think are really not accessible at all; it’s important for me to push on different fronts because I need to challenge myself. It’s important for my own development to keep mixing it up I think.
I love that you can go from making something like Drinking Buddies to a film like 24 Exposures, are we going to see any smaller experimental stuff like Silver Bullets in the near future? Maybe another anthology along the lines of Autoerotic?
Yeah, totally – I want to. The industry right now is really risk-averse; it’s a pretty stifling atmosphere. When you go to the multiplex it’s really disappointing to just see sequels and franchises and reboots, all this rehashing of old material. I feel something like an obligation to keep making new work and to keep fighting the fight for originality.
I feel like if I had to categorize your output beyond a sort of approximation of low-budget realism, you’re always questioning what cinema can be in a digital age, where films don’t necessarily have to be high-concept crowd-pleasers to find their audience and make back their budget. I remember reading a while back that you ran a film subscription service through which people could sponsor you to make four films a year for $100 in exchange for digital and physical copies of the final result. Are you interested in experimenting with any of these sorts of distribution models in the future? I mean in Australia, for instance, we only have legal access to four or five of the films you’ve made. Or do you feel like you’ve find your niche with VOD now that on-demand services are more technically sound and freely accessible?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s interesting for me because I don’t know when we will technologically reach the point at which I can just sell the movies myself from my own website. That seems to me like the place we would want to get to as artists – where there’s no middle man, where the work can just kind of go directly to the people that want to see it. But advertising is a big challenge; it’s really hard to get people to know that the movies exist, so I don’t know when or if we’ll ever overcome that problem. Right now the solution to that problem is still whoever has the most money can be seen by the most people – it’s just never changed, that’s just always been the case. It’s exciting to me, and I’m definitely optimistic about how widely independent films can be seen these days but I’m also realistic about the fact that certain things like promotion are still, and probably always will be, a big part of the equation. Word of mouth can only get you so far, and you need another means to spread the word somehow.
Definitely. One thing I love about your mentality is you’re constantly working; you always seem to have new projects in the pipeline. I know you mentioned Digging for Fire, do you have anything else coming up in the future?
I’m writing a screenplay for Fox Searchlight right now, which maybe, ideally, I’ll make next year, or at least as soon as possible – I’m just kind of in the early stages of that. I always have three or four ideas I’m kind of excited about – I don’t know which one will be the next one but I’m hoping to do something in spring. My wife is making a movie soon;1 she starts shooting in September so I’m going to take work off for a little while and stay home with our son while she works – I’m kind of excited to make sure that her career is where it wants to be as well. It’s an exciting time; I don’t feel anxious the way I used to. I really want to just be a dad and a husband, and live in Chicago, and have as much of a normal life as possible. While I’m motivated to make a lot of movies, I’m realising how important it is to have time where I’m not doing that also.
Thanks so much for the interview, and thanks for knocking Devin Faraci about all those years ago.2
(Laughs) Yeah man, no problem!