With his new film Drinking Buddies, mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg returns for the sixth time to the London Film Festival. The film is Swanberg’s fifteenth feature, and finds him working on his biggest scale to date, with named actors and rising cinematographer Ben Richardson along for the ride. The film tells the story of two co-workers at a Chicago brewing plant who seem to be drifting closer and closer together – despite both being in relationships. During the festival, I sat down with Swanberg to find out more about the film and the working methods behind it.
Since you started making films in 2005, you’ve been incredibly prolific. I remember you once saying – I think you were quoting Michel Gondry – that quantity is more important than quality because quality is subjective whereas quantity is objective. I was wondering if you still agreed with that?
I do still agree with that, and I am proven right almost all the time. Not just with my stuff, but with films that I act in for other people. You know, it’s been really interesting to have been doing it long enough now to see the difference between which films of mine are commercially successful upon their release, and which films are the ones people are still talking about and interested in later on. It makes me very glad that I made all of them. For instance, ‘Hannah Takes the Stairs” was a big – for me – it was a very big film that had a lot of attention, and it received distribution not just in America but outside of America. But five years later, ‘Nights and Weekends‘ [which MarBelle interviewed Joe for at LFF2009] is the one that people are still talking to me about – a lot more than something like Hannah Takes the Stairs – and Nights and Weekends barely got distribution and hardly anybody saw it upon its initial release. And ‘Uncle Kent‘, which is another one that wasn’t seen by that many people, is something that I often hear is people’s favourite film that I’ve made. So, it’s really super subjective. It’s very time based. It’s money based. And that stuff all ultimately changes when it all settles onto Netflicks, and there’s no separation between marketing budgets and things like that, you know? The work itself gets discovered and valued very differently later.
I remember you saying at one point that your plan was to make all these films so that each one would make a little bit of money and also draw people back to your previous work. Five years on – or however long it’s been since we had that conversation – has that worked out for you?
It has. And it continues to work because they all do bring in a little bit of money every once in a while. The accumulation of that back catalogue [means] that there are periods of a few months at a time where my family is basically living off of money that’s finally coming in from a movie that I made four or five years ago, you know? I don’t know if that will continue to be the case, but so far I feel really lucky that I made as much work as I did back then. But it’s interesting to move into an area of the industry where you get paid upfront, rather than on the back end. On those smaller movies, none of us made any money upfront, so the little bit of money that we’re receiving years later on the back end is really all we’re ever getting paid. You know, that’s the payment and it’s just coming a few years later. The movies where you get paid upfront, you get paid a lot better, so I’m glad that those other movies will be there to support me through the lean times, but I’m also discovering that as a business and career model, it makes a lot more sense to get paid a lot of money upfront than to get no money upfront and hope that you get, like, a $5,000 cheque three years later.
There’s definitely characters that I get fascinated by that then sort of branch out into films.
With you being so prolific, I’m interested in what gets you excited about a project and how your films come into being. For instance, are you starting with a story, a theme, an image, a character…?
I almost never start with images. I do start with characters, there’s definitely characters that I get fascinated by that then sort of branch out into films. I’ll often start themes, like there’ll be some broad subject that I’m interested in and that’ll eventually root itself in a character or in a few characters. Like with ‘LOL‘, that was one that I started with a theme. I just knew I wanted to do something about relationships and technology and then the characters sort of grew out of that. ‘Drinking Buddies’ was the first thing I made where I didn’t have specific actors in mind while I was thinking about it. Typically, I’m working with friends of mine, so I know exactly who they are and I’m sort of basing things off of what I know about them. ‘Drinking Buddies’ was really just conceived of as an idea and then I went through a casting process, so that was kind of a new experience.
Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about process. When I saw Drinking Buddies, you know, you have that opening montage and it just immediately feels bigger – not to say that that’s better or worse. But I was wondering about how the process that you went through with the other films has changed? I mean, in terms of using improv and working with friends – did you have to change that for Drinking Buddies?
I didn’t really. I had to be a little more patient because everything took a little longer on set. Not in a bad way, just that’s how long it takes to light something and to send people through hair and makeup and wardrobe and things like that. But, you know, that adjustment happens very quickly over the course of a few days. It’s not something that I was still struggling with at the end of the shoot. I just had to get used to it. And for the most part, when I think about it, working with the actors on this one was the same as it ever has been. You know, there’s just a little more of a sense of people being around. But once we were up and going, we still moved really quickly. We were able to light and move in a way where when we started a scene we could go all the way through it and finish it. We lit for 360 degrees. So we moved fast and worked very much in the way that I wanted to work.
So still doing a lot of improv?
I don’t think I would ever say ‘I don’t think that they would say that’, but I do have specific instructions about what they would do. The story was pretty heavily written ahead of time – the scenario of the film. So there was a lot more to hold onto this time than before, where we’re sort of working from almost no structure. That changed the process a little bit, where it really was more about improvising the dialogue rather than improvising the story of the movie. I’m pretty quiet on set, I think – I mean, you would really have to ask the actors. Occasionally I’ll direct in the midst of a scene. You know, if something’s going really well and then somebody sort of veers it, I’ll just jump in and be like ‘no, no, take it back to here and then send it in this direction instead’. But I trust these actors and I’m casting them because I want to see what they bring to it. So typically I’m pretty open to however they want to go with it.
I discovered pretty early on that not everybody could read my mind and know exactly what I was thinking.
And in terms of Drinking Buddies having a bigger budget, a bigger infrastructure, and actors you didn’t know: was there any kind of pressure to write more beforehand, or was everyone happy with working the way that you like to work?
There was some pressure to write more beforehand because there were a lot more people to communicate with. I discovered pretty early on that not everybody could read my mind and know exactly what I was thinking, and that I was going to have to communicate some of this stuff. And so I wrote a more detailed outline than usually I would write, so that we could schedule the movie, and so that the art department and wardrobe department could have a sense of how many scenes there were, how many locations we were going to shoot at, how many different outfits the actors would need to wear – things like that. Just technical things. But then the actors never saw that outline. That was really just for the production side and then working with the actors was about the same. I mean, they got a two page outline which is typically what people get.
I remember after Hannah Takes the Stairs you said that it had had a bigger budget than your previous work and you were now trying to get back to making even smaller films again. Do you think Drinking Buddies will be a step towards the direction you head in the future or will you return to smaller films too?
Yeah, part of the direction. I mean, since doing ‘Drinking Buddies’ I’ve gone and made another film that was smaller than ‘Drinking Buddies’, so I don’t think it’s… I don’t view it as a one-way climb up a hill or something like that. It’s a lot more like a rollercoaster, where it’s all the jumping between things bigger than ‘Drinking Buddies’ and things smaller than ‘Drinking Buddies’. Different stories just seem to need different resources and I’m still interested in stories that don’t need a lot of resources. And in that case, I’d rather not pile on a bunch of unnecessary resources onto a story that’s not able to support it. I think you end up seeing a lot of movies like that, that should have been much cheaper than they cost, and it’s because people don’t want to move backwards. But I don’t view it as a forwards and backwards thing. It’s all going to be specific to that movie and what I feel like it needs to be successful.
I remember when I first met you, you didn’t drink.
I’m interested in that shift, from someone who doesn’t drink at all, to someone who’s effectively making a film about drinking. And also whether you think that becoming a drinker has changed the way that you approach your work?
I don’t think that it has. I started drinking very slowly over the course of two years. It was really the craft beer scene that changed the drinking thing for me, because a big part of why I didn’t drink was because I didn’t want to support these massive corporations. I didn’t know that craft beer existed back then, and as I started seeing Chicago craft beers it was a lot more exciting to me to drink beer because I was meeting the people that made the beer. It was such a gradual progression, and I made so much work in the meantime, that I didn’t notice any specific changes on account of that, other than Drinking Buddies, obviously, which is heavily based in that world. There aren’t any other films I can think of that encompass that, or were affected one way or the other by it.
Drinking Buddies isn’t your only film in the festival, there’s also The Sacrament [in which you star], and it seems like since you’ve been making films you’ve actually been even more prolific as an actor…
Yeah, I think I have acted in more than I’ve made.
But I still think of you, and I think a lot of people still think of you, as a director first and an actor second. But in a way, the volume of work implies the opposite – so I was interested in how you saw yourself.
Definitely still as a director. It’s a little baffling to me and kind of funny that I act as much as I do and I never think of myself as an actor. Like, it wouldn’t even occur to me to think of myself that way. It’s such a different, specific skillset, that I think of myself as a serviceable actor but not a good actor, not a real actor. And I’m happy to be a director. If I had to choose one, it would be very easy for me to choose directing over acting.
I feel like my entire filmmaking career has been an effort to understand what things are in my control and what things are out of my control, and to not worry about the things that are out of my control.
I think people that just act become possessive – if that’s the right word – of stuff they’re in, in the same way as directors are of the stuff they make. Do you distinguish between the films you only act in and the films you direct? Are the films you only act in part of you in the same way?
No, they’re not part of me in the same way. I mean, it’s all fun for me. I hope ‘The Sacrament’ does really well, but I don’t… I’m not invested in its success the way I am in the stuff that I’m directing. But I’m not even that invested in the success of the films I’m directing, because like I said to you earlier – the films that do well the year they come out aren’t necessarily the ones people are still interested in ten years later. So, I’m invested in the quality of the ones I’m directing, and I’m invested in the quality of my performance in the ones I’m acting in, but I’m not nervous about those movies in the same way. I’m not losing sleep over the ones I’m acting in. I just want them to be good, and if they’re not good it’s fine with me. [Laughs]. I mean, it’s out of my control, is how I feel about it. I’m trying… I feel like my entire filmmaking career has been an effort to understand what things are in my control and what things are out of my control, and to not worry about the things that are out of my control. And acting in a movie where I’m just an actor, the quality of that movie is out of my control and therefore I’m not so worried about. I can only do my best, and then someone else is going to edit it, someone else is going to distribute it, someone else is going to market it. I don’t get to have any say in how the rest of it goes. So, the second my final scene is done and the director calls cut I can very easily walk away from it.
Presumably by acting in all these films and making all these films, you’ve learnt a huge amount. Has the way you approach the industry changed? Do you see filmmaking and the film industry differently now from how you did ten years ago?
A little bit. I learn a lot more every year, so I think that I’m just a lot more knowledgeable than I used to be. And my relationship to the industry is different. I mean, that just starts to happen when your friends start to become famous well-known actors and directors and things like that. You get a glance into different aspects of the industry and concerns start to change. But, I mean, I live in Chicago, I don’t live in L.A., so I’m not exposed to the industry in the way most people are. It’s one of the reasons I’m very happy to live in Chicago, because I can just focus on the work and remain fairly oblivious to the rest of it.
We probably need to wrap this up, but I wanted to just ask you quickly: in the past, you’ve experimented a lot with different forms of distribution. Could you maybe tell me about what you see as some of the successes and some of the failures on the different platforms that you’ve tried, and whether you have one method that you prefer over the others?
Well, VOD has proven to be a hugely successful platform. I mean, none of my films have done poorly on VOD. It just seems like the obvious way for people to find independent films these days, and also the revenue stream is very efficient. I mean, you get a bigger percentage of VOD revenue than you do of theatrical revenue. So, that’ll continue to be a way that I want to distribute my movies, in some form or another. And, you know, I see theatrical really coming back these days. Four or five years ago I probably would have predicted that it was just on its way out and that each year it would get worse and worse until it just didn’t exist anymore, but I feel like with digital projection and the massive cost of striking prints and things like that going away, it’s going to preserve the theatrical experience. And then alternative venues are opening up for seeing movies. You know, things like Alamo Drafthouses, were you can eat dinner and drink beer while you see a movie, and there are similar type theatres popping up around the country. And a lot of them are showing independent film. So I’m actually more optimistic now than I have been in a long time about making movies and actually getting them out to people on the big screen – although financially it still doesn’t make as much sense as VOD.
That’s probably a good note to end on. Thank you.