’Core val­ues

Mum­blecore­mae­stro JoeSwan­ber­gis work­ing­with big­ger­nameson­more­gen­er­ous bud­gets, but his lo-fi au­teur sen­si­bil­ity re­mains firmly in place, he tells TaraBrady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

It’s almost im­pos­si­ble to stum­ble upon the words “Joe Swan­berg” with­out the in­evitable sub­head­ing “god­fa­ther of mum­blecore”. It’s true, of course. As the au­teur be­hind LOL, Nights and Week­ends and Han­nah Takes the Stairs, Swan­berg has helped de­fine the con­ven­tions of ’core: mi­cro-bud­gets, in­cre­men­tal drama, con­ver­sa­tion-driven re­al­ism, an aver­sion to swoony cathar­tic mo­ments and (the clue is in the ti­tle) real-world sound.

“I watched ev­ery movie I could dur­ing high school and then went to film school,” says the Chicagob­ased film-maker. “It never even oc­curred to me not to make movies. I had too many role mod­els like Spike Lee, Jim Jar­musch, Hal Hart­ley, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith. What all of their sto­ries had in common was that they got to­gether with their friends and made a movie. That was just as im­por­tant a step as go­ing to film school. The sec­ond you can, you just go do it. As soon as you own a cam­era and com­puter.”

For much of the past decade, film jour­nal­ists have toyed with ri­val terms in­clud­ing “bed­head cin­ema” and “Slack­avetes movies”. But mum­blecore, which was coinedby sound ed­i­torEric Ma­sunaga in 2005, is the han­dle that stuck fastest and long­est. Among pre-em­i­nent prac­ti­tion­ers, Mark Du­plass (di­rec­tor of Jeff Who Lives at Home) thinks it’s a curse, while Lynn Shel­ton (of Say When) re­gards it as a bless­ing. What sayeth Joe Swan­berg?

“I used to hate the word”, he ad­mits. “But th­ese days I feel it’s very lucky. I’ve been around long enough to re­alise how help­ful it was when the movies were re­ally small with no recog­nis­able ac­tors. Mum­blecore be­came the most fa­mous thing about those movies. At the time it was an­noy­ing. But it al­lowed peo­ple to talk about and write about it”.


Un­like the folk be­hind most cin­e­matic waves or schools, the pi­o­neers of mum­blecore were un­aware of each other for quite some time. They came to­gether at the 2005 South by South­west Film Fes­ti­val, where key mum­blecore ti­tles – An­drew Bu­jal­ski’s Mu­tual Ap­pre­ci­a­tion, Jay and Mark Du­plass’s The Puffy Chair, Swan­berg’s own Kiss­ing on the Mouth all made their bow.

“We all lived in dif­fer­ent ci­ties and we were mak­ing work, obliv­i­ous to each other,” re­calls Swan­berg. “But that first year at South by South­west I met the Du­plass brothers, I met An­drew Bu­jal­ski, I met Ry Russo. The fol­low­ing year I met Aaron Katz there.

“Then, in 2007, the IFC cen­tre did a se­ries of films that re­ally ce­mented the word and the idea of a com­mu­nity. And from there it gen­uinely be­came a com­mu­nity. Real col­lab­o­ra­tions came about.”

There were spin-off move­ments, no­tably mum­ble­gore. The mum­blecorps would soon be seen drift­ing in and out of each other’s films and fi­nal cred­its, as ac­tors, pro­duc­ers, writ­ers.

Th­ese days, how­ever, Swan­berg’s mi­cro-movies aren’t quite so mi­cro or non-pro­fes­sional. In 2010, just be­fore Swan­berg and his wife Kris had their first child, the writer-di­rec­tor made six fea­ture films. By last year his still pro­lific out­put had slowed to one fea­ture per an­num, a pace, he says more com­fort­able with.

His pro­file, too, is on the up. His bit­ter­sweet dram­edy Drink­ing Bud­dies starred Olivia Wilde and fea­tured on Quentin Taranti- Lyn­nShel­tonLast­seendi­rect­ing KeiraKnight­ley.ChloëGraceMoretz andSamRock­wellinSay When. MarkDu­plassActing­in­films­both big( ZeroDark Thirty) and­de­light­fullysmall( Safety NotGuar­an­teed). Reg­u­laron TheMindyPro­jectand The­League. JayDu­plassCur­rently ap­pear­ing with­J­ef­frey Tam­borintheA­ma­zon trans-com­e­dyTrans­par­ent. An­drewBu­jal­skiDirect­ed­last year’scrim­i­nal­ly­over­looked Com­put­erChess. AaronKatzEarne­draveno­tices for­mostre­cent of­fer­ingsCold Weather( 2011)andLandHo!(2014) no’s top films of 2013 list. His new fea­ture, Happy Christ­mas, is pop­u­lated by Anna Ken­drick, Lena Dun­ham and Melanie Lynskey.


“The big­gest ad­vo­cate I have is Olivia Wilde,” says Swan­berg. “I feel like she ought to get a cast­ing di­rec­tor credit on all my movies. She spoke so highly of the process in print and with other ac­tors. The re­sult of that was felt im­me­di­ately. I’d go on meet­ings with peo­ple she would have them primedal­ready. So it’s been a re­ally fun cou­ple of years. I get to play with peo­ple who I ad­mire the same way I would have done with friends on a $10,000 movie.”

For Joe Swan­berg, play means im­pro­vised di­a­logue and low-key drama, a method he says he “stum­bled into”.

“I saw way too many movies that were try­ing to do the Taranti- no trunk shot, or try­ing to be Kubrick. Or Spiel­berg. I knew I couldn’t in­vent orig­i­nal­ity. What I do bor­rows a lot from doc­u­men­tary film-mak­ing. I just thought that if I go in with broad ideas and work with­out a script and al­low the ac­tors to do what they wanted and follow them around with­out putting words in their mouth, I might get some­thing in­ter­est­ing.”

Happy Christ­mas casts Ken­drick as Jenny, a hard-drink­ing party girl who comes to stay with her brother (Swan­berg) for the hol­i­days, much to the an­noy­ance of his wife, Kelly (Lynskey), a nov­el­ist turned house­frau. Slowly, how­ever, Jenny and her old pal Car­son (Dun­ham) grow on Kelly. The shifts in their re­la­tion­ship form the spine of the film.

This is not new ter­ri­tory for Swan­berg, who has ex­plored fe­male friend­ships many times across the 17 fea­ture films he has writ­ten and di­rected since 2005.

“It’s cu­rios­ity on my part,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, so that’s the stuff that I’m most in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing. Right now, sadly, there aren’t too many sto­ries about women. So I feel like I’m play­ing in a cor­ner that no­body’s pay­ing at­ten­tion to. It gives me a lot of space to stretch out and learn some­thing.”

Happy Christ­mas opens to­day at Triskel Christchurch, Cork and is re­viewed on page 10

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