Joe Swanberg: "Mumblecore kind of became a dirty word"

The "Happy Christmas" director on working with Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham, and how his movies have changed

Published July 10, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Joe Swanberg    (AP/Victoria Will)
Joe Swanberg (AP/Victoria Will)

It may star a major Hollywood actress or two, but "Happy Christmas" is still mumblecore, sort of -- if mumblecore was ever really a thing. It's complicated. But director Joe Swanberg takes all this in stride.

Swanberg was among the forerunners of the ultra-low-budget, amateur and often self-consciously flat genre known as mumblecore, with films including "LOL," "Nights and Weekends" and "Hannah Takes the Stairs," the film that helped to launch a young Greta Gerwig. The label was never exactly a comfortable fit for Swanberg or for his contemporaries -- "There was a period of time where certainly, it felt like an albatross, and it kind of became a dirty word," he told Salon -- and it's even less so now that the budgets are a little bigger.

What Swanberg kept from the mumblecore movement, perhaps, is a sophisticated understanding of human interactions and a refusal to grant audiences the big cathartic moment. In "Happy Christmas," out Aug. 1, Anna Kendrick plays Jenny, a self-destructive and aimless young woman who crashes with her brother Jeff (played by Swanberg himself) for a period of time around the holidays. The idea is that she'll be baby sitting, but she spends more time alternately irritating and flattering Jeff's wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and bumming around with her old friend Carson (played by Lena Dunham, who more or less steals the movie).

The whole thing moves very incrementally -- Jenny pisses off her family a bit, then gradually makes amends, then messes up again. Jeff and Kelly discuss how she can possibly deal with her family obligations while also being fulfilled as a novelist, and there's no easy answer. Nor is there an easy answer to the question of what will, conclusively, make Jenny grow up, or whether she even wants to.

Swanberg spoke to Salon about casting Anna Kendrick -- her generation's most congenitally sweet actress -- as a hard-drinking and often rude 20-something, and about the challenges of getting a movie like "Happy Christmas" seen, especially with that title. "It’s sort of a Christmas movie," Swanberg said. "I feel like it’s a movie before it’s a Christmas movie."

What was the thinking behind casting people as well-known as Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham in this film? Were you trying to take advantage of past associations that the viewer might have?

In the case of those two actors -- I had just worked with Anna in "Drinking Buddies." I was just anxious to work with Anna again as quickly as possible. I really was blown away by her performance in the movie and just really liked working with her, so. So I wanted to do that again as quickly as possible.

And then Lena was somebody who I had known for a really long time, and then I had started watching "Girls" and was really just amazed by what a great actor she had grown into. I just was excited to try and work with her in that capacity. We had sort of, in varying degrees, worked together and been friends with the same people for a really long time, but I had never done anything that she had acted in, so I wrote that part for her and was really excited that she kind of made time in her schedule to come and do it.

With Anna Kendrick, in particular, before "Drinking Buddies," I felt like I had commonly associated her with younger parts, or parts where she doesn’t get to do as much fun and exciting stuff, and it’s sort of like, here, she gets to break through a little bit of what might have been a bubblegum image. Were you cognizant of trying to push past what she’d been able to do before in the movies she’d done like "Pitch Perfect"?

So the chronology of it is that I, for some reason, had missed "Up in the Air," right? So I went to see that movie "50-50" and was blown away by this woman who was playing this psychiatrist. And turned to my wife in the middle of the movie, and I was like, "Who is that? She’s amazing." And neither of us really knew her, and then I went home and was like, Oh, she’s already been nominated for an Oscar. I was pretty sure she’d made it already.

But for some reason, I wasn’t familiar with her work but was just totally blown away by that performance, and then I started watching more of her stuff, and I was like, Oh my God! This woman’s incredible! So, it was really exciting to get to work with her on "Drinking Buddies," when she had already shot "Pitch Perfect," but it hadn’t come out yet.

We worked together, I really liked her and thought she was as good as I’d hoped she would be, and then "Pitch Perfect" came out and was just this totally unexpected massive success, and so it was really fun then. So we shot "Drinking Buddies" in the summer of 2012. "Pitch Perfect" came out that fall. And then we shot "Happy Christmas" that winter, and so it was really cool to do. Her character in "Drinking Buddies" was very mature, sort of very together and kind of had her life plan in place and all that. So yeah, it was really fun to kind of push her in the direction of being a real mess: this immature, selfish character who doesn’t have her shit together at all.

I would bet that you’re asked quite often about what’s been called the mumblecore movement, and I’m kind of curious: At this stage in your career, is it an albatross at all? Are we post-mumblecore in 2014?

Yeah, well, we’ve changed. There was a period of time where certainly it felt like an albatross, and it kind of became a dirty word. It was shorthand for a kind of shitty, low-budget movie following selfish white people. I kind of watched it go from an inside joke to something that was really derogatory to, in a way, now, something that a lot of younger film-school students and younger people use.

It’s come full circle now, and its meaning and the way it’s been used has changed over the years. But I’ve more than made my peace with it. I feel really lucky, because it may be myself getting a little bit older and having a little bit longer career realized that when we were making $5,000 movies with our friends, the word "mumblecore" was a lot of the reason why people heard about those movies. There wasn’t Anna Kendrick who could go on David Letterman and tell people that your movie existed. It’s like very much they were playing festivals and getting, if we were lucky, a little bit of distribution. But the sense of a movement and the idea of this mumblecore thing was a hook, and it was a chance for people to write about the movies. It was a conversation topic at dinner.

And it really, I think, is a big reason why, for a particular set of viewers, there was a really new kind of low-budget movie that was able to exist. But most of those filmmakers who were originally associated with that mumblecore had almost already outgrown it before the word caught on. It was a little late to the game in terms of where we were all heading. So now, when I look back on it, it sort of was like a nice, warm nostalgia of feeling like a part of a vibrant, cool community of filmmakers.

If you look at the work, it’s the Duplass brothers, Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, Lena, Barry Jenkins, Aaron Katz. These are filmmakers that it’s a privilege to be associated with. I think they’re all incredibly talented. And so, it’s kind of cool that there was some sense of that community reaching beyond just our friend circle.

And the work is by now so diverse. I couldn’t find any real commonalities between this film and Andrew Bujalski's "Computer Chess," for instance.

Oh, for sure. Absolutely. I completely agree. It’s really … The word has lost its meaning now in terms of describing a kind of naturalistic storytelling. Almost all of us have made movies that fall far outside of what that originally was supposed to mean.

The budget isn't quite as low as $5,000 anymore, but I have to imagine it’s still, these days, a struggle to get anything made. What’s the state of making a movie at this scale?

It’s particularly challenging for me, because I don’t have scripts. Getting "Drinking Buddies" made was almost impossible. If Alicia Van Couvering, my producer, hadn’t worked so hard and sat down with every financier in America … We found the money at the last minute and only due to the bravery of these investors who kind of were willing to dive into something that they didn’t know, none of us knew quite what we were going to make.

But since "Drinking Buddies," it’s been easier for me. Like anything, a little bit of success can breed more success if you aren't going from "Drinking Buddies" into trying to make a $20 million action movie. I’m still kind of interested in the same things. And there seems to be a little bit of an audience awareness now, and after Anna is willing to come back and do another movie, and so, I feel optimistic that there is a way that I can keep making the stuff I want to make, but every day, I also have conversations with really talented filmmakers who’re definitely struggling.

It was the worst in 2008 and 2009. When the economy got really bad, independent filmmaking suffered, big-time. And I think there’s a little bit of a recovery, and I’m sensing that, in the independent film community, that there’s new money around and chances to make stuff.

But the real challenge really is getting anybody to see the movies. I think because of digital technology and a lot of other factors, it’s easier than it has been to make movies. It is really, really hard to get anybody to see those movies.

Talk about video-on-demand. It seems as though, at a time, that was seen as a really viable way to get people to see independent film. I’m curious if you’ve had any experience with that and how it’s kind of played out.

I am a true believer. I have seen it work.

I always say: When I think about VOD, I think about myself when I was in high school, and I lived in the suburbs of Chicago. So I was near enough to a major city that every once in a while, my friends and I could drive into the city and see an independent film in an art-house theater, but I wasn’t so near that I could walk down the street and see a movie, and so, a few times a year, there was something that we were all excited enough about to kind of make the trip into the city, but for the most part, I was reading Filmmaker magazine and connecting with stuff, and I worked in a video store, so I was sort of aware of what was coming through.

But if I had had VOD back then, I really could’ve, as a young cinephile, participated in a bigger conversation. If the IFC and Magnolias would’ve been able back then to get me those movies, I would’ve happily paid the money to watch them on iTunes. But you know, it wasn’t really an option back then.

But now the tradeoff is that theatrical releases are rarer and theatrical success is like a unicorn these days. There’s only a couple of indie movies a year that really manage to find that audience in the theaters.

Do you feel frustrated that it’s been difficult for your films to find an audience? What efforts do you put toward trying to, besides doing interviews like this one, what efforts can you put toward getting people to see them?

Well, I do what I can. I travel a lot with the movies, and I think it’s useful to go to festivals and talk to people and sort of see how movies are working.

But no, I’m not that frustrated. To be perfectly honest, I’m amazed that people do see my movies. When, for instance, when I look back at a movie like "Hannah Takes the Stairs," which IFC took a chance on and released in 2007, I can’t believe that we played theatrically in 15 cities and had a pretty wide DVD release. It’s a really small movie. So I’ve been really lucky with that. I’m pretty realistic about the fact that I don’t make movies for a very wide audience, and yet, the audience that does exist has a pretty good opportunity to find my stuff.

So it’s cool, but it’s not fair across the board. It’s not that every quality movie has an equal shot at finding its audience. It’s really been hit-or-miss, and every year, I feel like there’s four or five movies that I thought were really, really great that never, just didn’t, for some reason or another, work for distributors.

Decisions about release date are more with the studio than with you. But I’m a little bit curious about why a movie with "Christmas" in the title is coming out during the summer, and to what degree you think this is or is not a Christmas movie.

It’s sort of a Christmas movie. I feel like it’s a movie before it’s a Christmas movie. And the realities of the market -- we would be insane to try and put this movie out in December. It’s just not ... Nobody would see it. It’s truly a challenge. So this is fun, because it kind of gets to have its theatrical run and its primary VOD run in the summer. And then, the timing should work out nicely where it lands on DVD around the holidays, and people who want to discover it that way can kind of have that opportunity.

It was never important to me. It wasn’t a battle that I ever wanted to fight to make it a Christmas movie or to make it feel like it came out at the holidays. I don’t think anything’s lost watching it in the summer, and I don’t know that all that much would be gained watching this movie at the holidays.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anna Kendrick Happy Christmas Independent Films Joe Swanberg Lena Dunham Movies Mumblecore