Interview: Joe Swanberg on His Roxie Retrospective, “All the Light in the Sky” and Career Benchmarks

On the eve of his highest profile film to date, the moviemaker is enjoying a weekend-long retrospective of his work in San Francisco and shares his thoughts on the...

While people have argued over the merits of Joe Swanberg’s work ever since he first began making the rounds of the festival circuit “Kissing on the Mouth” in 2005, it’s inarguable that his contributions to indie film have been invaluable.

Charges of superficiality have been a frequent point of criticism, given his penchant for graphic depictions of sex and the type of heavily-improvised, loosely-threaded narratives about twentysomethings that are rife with potential for navel gazing. Yet even those who have done a superficial reading of Swanberg’s work over the past eight years must admit there’s an unusually rich ethnography of the era of filmmaking he grew up in and eventually helped push further.

An inadvertent chronicler of the technological shifts that made it possible for a kid from the Midwest to establish himself as an internationally renowned director without leaving home, Swanberg didn’t just embrace the advent of professional grade digital cameras as a means of conveying his personal stories, but actively recruited other moviemakers who did the same to star in his films, creating something of a documentary of his own life and the American new wave of the 2000s with the likes of the Duplass Brothers (“Cyrus”), Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister”), Ry Russo Young (“Nobody Walks”), Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha Ha”), and Ti West (“The Innkeepers”), among others, all putting in appearances.

The irony of Swanberg serving as a historian is that it’s an occupation in stark contrast to the work he’s created as a writer/director, all predicated on immediacy – of the technology he’s captured his films on, of the raw emotions of being young, of the relationships that are so often transient. In his storytelling, this has meant finding truth within the moment and moving on while in practical terms, the speed at which he works has led to no less than 13 features and numerous Web series and shorts in the brief time he’s been making movies.

For both reasons, it’s not too early for a consideration of his work normally reserved for auteurs at the end of their careers rather than at the start, which is why this weekend’s retrospective of his work at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco promises to be a fascinating survey any way you cut it, whether it’s as a study of “sexual politics,” as the series has been billed, a maturation of a filmmaker from telling stories about his own circle of friends such as “LOL” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs” to venturing beyond it into character profiles like “Uncle Kent” and the Jane Adams-starring “All the Light in the Sky,” or as a time capsule that many who haven’t caught his work on the festival circuit will be seeing for the first time.

Swanberg will be onhand for the entire run of the series, which will include all his features except for his very first film “Kissing on the Mouth” and his more recent turn towards horror with an entry in the “V/H/S” omnibus, but before he heads to the Bay Area, the director took the time to reflect on the last decade, his evolution as a director, his impact on other filmmakers and the start of a new chapter with his next film “Drinking Buddies,” an Anna Kendrick-Olivia Wilde comedy set to debut at SXSW in a couple weeks.

MarkDuplassGretaGerwigHannahTakestheStairsHow did this retrospective come about?

It started [with] Matt Grady and Factory 25 because we’re nearing the end of the year-long subscription service we did, so a lot of the films are going to start showing up on digital platforms. Matt was talking to Mike over at the Roxie and Mike felt like a lot of the films, some of the IFC films [specifically], hadn’t really played theatrically in San Francisco either and that it would be a good chance to just kind of show a lot of that work that hadn’t really gotten much play on the West Coast.

Is this the first real retrospective of your work?

There was a retrospective in Poland in the fall of 2011 and that was a lot of the same reasoning that Mike at the Roxie had for doing this series, which is that a few of my movies had played in Poland over the years, but a lot of them hadn’t. Also simultaneously, the Sundance Channel internationally was doing a monthlong series of a bunch of my films, so it was also a chance to give people a chance to see some of those movies in the theaters. I have so much work at this point and so much of it’s come out in such a short period of time that in a way it’s a retrospective, but in another way, it’s like a first run for us. [laughs] It’s a bizarre retrospective in a sense that most of the audience isn’t coming to see these older movies again. This would be their first chance at seeing a lot of them.

Do you actually ever go back and watch the old ones?

I don’t, really. [laughs] I was in Poland for that retrospective and I had the idea that I might watch some of them and usually, I would sort of poke my head in throughout. They’re all so personal that it’s weird to go back. They’re like a really specific version of me or things I was going through at certain points in my life and I don’t necessarily relate to them anymore. Hopefully, the movies are still relatable to an audience that’s watching them for the first time, but for me, it’s kind of a weird experience. I also still remember them all very well. There’s not really an entertainment factor in it for me because I still know every shot and every line of dialogue, so it’ll probably be a little while before I forget what’s in those movies, and then maybe I’ll go back and watch them to see if they still work for me.


KateLynSheilJoeSwanbergSilverBulletsAre they of interest on a historical level? You’ve cast so many other filmmakers who went on to lay the groundwork for a big section of what American independent film is right now.

I’m certainly proud of that fact. It’s fun to see all of these different filmmakers show up as actors in the movies. In a sense, they’re like a diary of who I was working with at a certain time and I can see the influence of those people in the movies too. I can kind of see the fingerprints of the people I was collaborating with during the work and [how my films] bear a resemblance to those people’s work. That part of it is really fun for me. The last two years I’ve been doing a lot of horror stuff and working with a lot of horror filmmakers and I think, you know, five or ten years from now, it’ll be fun to really look back on a lot of that stuff and see how that sort of made its way into the movies. But they’re still very close to me in a way that I don’t have much distance from them to be able to kind of just watch them as movies.

You may be the worst person to ask about this, but do you think audiences get something different out of these movies if they watch them back-to-back?

I would hope so. Especially with the more recent ones. I don’t know if anything’s gained from watching “Kissing on the Mouth,” “LOL” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs” back-to-back, but definitely I could say that watching “Uncle Kent,” “Art History” and “All the Light in the Sky” together would be a really different experience than seeing those movies alone because it’s a lot of the same cast, the movies were made in quick succession and I was in that same headspace for all three of them. They’re very directly informing each other and influencing each other, so I’m hoping people will come see multiple of them and have that experience.

There aren’t really people making this much work all at once, so it’s hard to really have a precedent for it or to figure out a way to talk about it. The best kind of analogy that I’ve come up with is to look at the movies from 2011 like short stories in a short story collection where the author is definitely choosing to put all those stories together into one book, but you’re not necessarily sure one story has to do with the other. Some of them may have thematic overlap, but also you are supposed to read each of them as their own story and then you’re free to infer connections and try and figure out why the author grouped these six or seven short stories into one book. That’s how I feel about all those movies. Hopefully, they’re fine as standalone films and you wouldn’t need to watch the other ones, but if you were to watch all of them together, then hopefully something cool happens.

If watched collectively, one of the things I suspect is most striking about them is how the films react to the digital technology that was available at the time they were made. Some of the films have embraced it – your most recent, “All the Light in the Sky,” for instance, captures the crispness of the beach with as pristine photography as possible, but something like 2009’s “Alexander the Last” seems to have a certain intended distortion and you were fighting to get texture into the film.

I’ve been very conscious of that. Film stock has that quality to it [where] you could look at a movie, even massive Hollywood productions, and instantly tell whether they’re from the ’60s or the ’70s or the ’80s. A lot of that has to do with fashion and other things, but the technology of the film stocks and the cameras was changing as well along that time and I think that process is happening a lot quicker now. The look is almost changing year to year, every two years or so. The film I did this summer, “Drinking Buddies” was shot on the RED, which is also a new piece of equipment that is again redefining the look of modern independent films.

Pretty much since I made “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” it’s been possible for me to shoot these movies on whatever camera I want and there wasn’t the sort of budgetary limitations that there was early on. But I’ve made a really conscious effort to shoot on whatever cameras were the common popular camera at the time because of exactly what you’re saying, like there is a historical aspect to it and there’s a specific look that I feel like every two or three years changes. Recently, that look has been the [Canon Mark] 5D or 7D look, which is what I used to shoot “All the Light in the Sky” and “Marriage Material,” and “The Zone.”

Your films are known for their improvisation and I’ve heard you say that’s partially because you want to allow the people that you cast to express things you can’t. Over the years, has that evolved into wanting more or less control as a director?

It certainly evolved into wanting more control. Really what it’s been is just I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of being the director, period. Early on, it was really important for me to let go of control and open these movies up and hope to capture something and hope that my collaborators and the actors, specifically, would be able to speak with their own voices and give their own ideas. The more work that I’ve done and the more comfortable I’ve grown with the role of being a director and making creative decisions, the more I’ve shaped the story lines. I still don’t write dialogue. I still let my actors speak for themselves, but I’ve definitely gotten more interested in shaping the structure of the films and turning them into the stories that I’m interested in telling at that time.

Since my first experience with one of your films was “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” I pegged you as a comedy guy, but I’ve been really surprised to see where your interests have taken you. Has that been surprising to you as well?

Well, definitely. Certainly when I look at the movies that I’ve made,it doesn’t make a ton of sense to me and it’s definitely not the path that I would’ve expected, especially stuff like “Silver Bullets” and “Art History” and “The Zone,” which came out of very weird places for me. If you asked me early on if I would ever make films like that, I definitely wouldn’t have thought that I would. But one of the fun aspects of just making a lot of work is being open to going wherever my head was at at the time and letting the circumstances of the people that I’m working with also dictate that. “All the Light in the Sky” is certainly a movie about what Jane [Adams] was going through at the time and “Uncle Kent” was about what Kent [Osborne] was going through at the time, so it’s been really nice also to sit back occasionally and kind of serve as a documentarian rather than letting my own headspace influence the stories. I feel a little in control of it and a little out of control of it, but both of those things are exciting to me. The times when I feel out of control of it, that’s purposeful.

“All the Light in the Sky” has an interesting backstory. You had actually worked with Jane Adams for a number of years on a feature that eventually became the prologue for “Silver Bullets.” Did that actually have any influence on “All the Light in the Sky”?

“All the Light in the Sky” is definitely the movie that we started out thinking “Silver Bullets” would be. That’s a perfect example of willfully being out of control. “Silver Bullets,” which didn’t have a title at the time, was just this concept that came directly out of “Alexander the Last” because I worked with Jane. At the end of shooting with her, we were just sitting around and she was saying she kept running into all of her ex-boyfriends and never wanted to get married and have kids and now they’re all married and have kids. We were just kind of joking about that and thinking that that would be an interesting starting point for a movie, so when I finished “Alexander the Last,” I started working with Jane again and shooting some stuff with that loose guidepost for a storyline. Because of where I was at at the time and things that I was going through and starting to work with Ti [West] and Kate [Lyn Sheil] and Larry Fessenden coming in, that movie just very naturally shifted into this more horrific, autobiographical, weird thing that it became and that led to “Art History.”

“Art History” led to “The Zone” and I just followed that thread as long as it took me. Then I doubled back and started talking to Jane again, realizing that we never really made the movie we initially talked about and then we started shooting “All the Light in the Sky.” So that three-year tangent ended up being really great and not only did we get to make “All the Light in the Sky,” but then I also have these other three movies that I’m really proud of in the attempt to make the first movie.

As opposed to your earlier films where you were casting already established filmmakers, has it been interesting for you to see the wave of actors who have gone on to direct after being in your films?

Definitely. A lot of times even the actors who aren’t directors that I cast go on to become directors or already have that mentality. I think there’s something on a subconscious level is drawing me towards creative people that want to make their own work and then that’s a nice place for us to collaborate from because I’m asking them to do so much of their own character generation and writing on my films. Also, when people make movies with me and see how small these movies are, I think it becomes really easy to see how they could make their own work because I’m not working with a lot of infrastructure. There’s nothing intimidating about the process. It’s me, a camera and a sound guy, so I think coming off of my movies, it’s really easy to just grab some friends and jump into your own project.

You mentioned “Drinking Buddies” earlier, and while it may be a coincidence this retrospective is happening right before the premiere in SXSW, given the higher profile of “Drinking Buddies,” do you actually see this as closing the book on one part of your career and starting another?

I have my own kind of chapter marks in the films. From my perspective, the first five are one chapter up through and including “Alexander the Last.” Then I feel like that big output of films in 2011 where I made “Uncle Kent,” “Silver Bullets,” “Art History,” “The Zone,” “Caitlin Plays Herself” and “Marriage Material” are all very connected, then “All the Light in the Sky” is a bookend on those. It certainly ties in pretty closely with “Uncle Kent.”

“Drinking Buddies,” definitely career-wise and commercial-wise has different expectations, but weirdly, I worked in a pretty identical way to how I’ve always made movies. There was a 40-person crew and a lot more money and infrastructure, but it was still improvised and I wrote it in the same way that I’ve written the other ones. I worked with the actors in the same way. So it’s the start of a new chapter, but then in a way, it is just a continuation. Going forward, it’s the area I plan to be exploring for a while, making bigger movies. “Drinking Buddies” is more of a model for what the next several movies will look like than something like “Silver Bullets.”  I can’t wait to show it. I’m really proud of it and I’ve been more anxious than ever to get that movie out into the world.

“Sexual Politics: The Occasionally Autobiographical and Always Personal Films of Joe Swanberg” runs from February 22nd through 24th at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Full details can be found here.

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