Attention Mark Wahlberg and Samantha Morton! Joe Swanberg Wants YOU!
If director Joe Swanberg had his way, then Mark Wahlberg and Samantha Morton would be doing dishevelled, semi-articulate, twentysomething romantic malaise in a sun-washed studio apartment, DIY style. Swanberg, himself a (somewhat) dishevelled twentysomething, named the two stars as his dream Tinsletown collaborators when I spoke to him recently from SXSW. The workaholic director was in Austin premiering his latest work Alexander The Last, an engaging, fly-on-the-wall romance, currently playing on IFC On-Demand.
Swanberg’s oeuvre has divided film critics who don’t quite know what to make of a filmmaker who reliably churns out buzzy improvisational, no-budget movies with non-professional casts. His films don’t break bank, but they’re notable enough to deserve their own genre. We know them as mumblecore. I spoke to Swanberg about his love-hate relationship with that word, why Sundance won’t accept him, and why Morton and Wahlberg are his favorite actors.
You premiered Alexander The Last at SXSW, and I know the festival has been good to you in the past. How does it compare to other festivals? I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the world premiere of all the movies here. The films are very fragile and are at the beginning of their lifespan, so it’s nice to have an environment that feels really supportive, and have an audience who I feel is excited about films, and support small American films. This is always the festival that I stage the reaction to the film by. Everything else has always been compared to SXSW in my head because I’m always here first.
You’ve been rejected by Sundance on a number of occasions. What do you make of that? Is it hurtful? Well, I’ve submitted a couple of films and they haven’t programmed them, so there’s something about the work that’s not speaking to them. I think the films they’re championing must be doing something else, that when they see my work, it’s not getting them excited in the same way as the folks at SXSW. This year for the first time Trevor Groth, who’s one of the programmers at Sundance, e-mailed me and told me that he really liked the film, and was sorry it didn’t get into the festival. So they’re definitely looking at them there, but they just doesn’t seem to ever make the final cut.
What is your relationship towards the term mumblecore? Have you accepted it? It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s impossible for me to be really upset about it because as dumb as the word itself might be, it gives people something to hold on to and a way to write about the work. I think that anybody who has fallen under that umbrella term has received more attention because of it than they probably would have otherwise. I’m very realistic about how beneficial that’s been, and even though sometimes it’s clearly reductive to group the words together and it’s occasionally frustrating, the benefit of that is I feel that the work I’ve been doing is being talked about, which I think is one of the most important and exciting things that you can feel as a filmmaker.
Has there been an interview that you’ve done where that word has not come up? I don’t think so. My work especially, is extremely closely associated with it. What’s actually pretty funny, is when people talk to me in person and I can sense that it’s about to come up, and I can see that they get all nervous thinking like, “Oh should I not say the word? Is he going to get mad?”
I know, when I said it just now I cringed. Well, it’s a cringe-worthy word.
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly reviewed the film, and said this: “Another mumblecoremovie. But Alexander the Last is better than that — fresher, deeper, and more mysterious.” How do you react when you hear something like that? I guess it could be taken as a backhanded compliment, but his review was really nice and really thoughtful, and more than anything else, I feel he understood what we were going after and that worked for him, on an emotional level. If the other work hasn’t done that for him, then I think it’s valid to say what he said. That comment implicates a lot of filmmakers and a lot of work that I particularly like.
Either way, it was a great review. Yeah, I think so too. I’ve never met him, but his review is the kind where you get the sense that somebody’s a warm person, and wants to like movies. The movie contains a very realistic sex scene. I read somewhere that the sex in your films is not simulated. Is that true? No, that’s not true. It never has been. I’ve never shot real sex.
Have you ever heard that being said about your films? Yeah, I have. I don’t know where that started, but I think I’ll take that as a compliment.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable when your camera is that up close and personal with two naked people pretending to have sex? With Alexander the vibe was really funny while we were shooting that stuff. While we’re rolling, the actors have to be concentrating and engaged in what’s going on, but we also had a good laugh every time I would call cut. But I work with a very small set and crew, so there’s not a lot of lights or extra people standing around gawking at what’s going on, so we’re able to be more comfortable and do what we need to do without a bunch of fuss.
A lot of your scenes are improvised, so what does your typical script look like compared to a more traditional film script? There’s no script to speak of. What I end up with is a one page document with just a list of scenes, and it just develops as we go.
How much of the film is made in the editing room afterwards? So much of it. I’m editing as we’re shooting, so that becomes the writing process. We’ll shoot for a couple hours and then I’ll cut that scene together, and we’ll all watch it. If it’s not working, then we’ll go back and reshoot it.
When was the first time you considered yourself a filmmaker? I don’t know. In high school I started making stuff. I took a summer class at Columbia College in Chicago. We shot on 16mm and cut the film ourselves. There’s something very strange about it. When people ask me what I do, or when I have to fill out my tax form, it feels really silly writing ‘filmmaker’ in the occupation line. But I have to because I don’t know what else to call it. I almost feel like it’s a joke or something–like they’re going to call me and laugh at me.
Who are your dream Hollywood stars to work with? I think right now there are a couple guys and girls in Hollywood that I would love to work with. But the woman I would be most excited to work with is Samantha Morton. I think she’s really incredible and exciting, and that’s somebody who could make me drop pretty much everything to go and work with. Maybe my guy answer would surprise you, but I think Mark Wahlberg is probably the most exciting Hollywood actor. I love that guy.
He’s done some great work. Yeah, The Departed is incredible, I <3 Huckabees is incredible. There’s something so sincere about him, but he’s also a movie stare. I really am fascinated by him.
What will a Joe Swanberg film look like in 20 years? I’ll probably end up doing the opposite, just as a reactionary thing. My best guess is that my future films will look the opposite of what is mainstream at that time. Whatever is going on traditionally, I will probably be pushing hard the other way.