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“V/H/S” co-director Joe Swanberg talks horror, beer and independent filmmaking

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IFC: One of the things I noticed about the anthology and I’m sure was sort of a goal was that it took familiar horror conceits and subverts them. I’m curious what your inspiration was as someone who hasn’t done much other horror work beyond, say, “Silver Bullets.”

JS: And even “Silver Bullets” was very sort of abstractly related to horror, but definitely the closest thing I’ve done up until this point. Inspiration-wise, definitely YouTube videos, and imagery-wise, we just kind of tried to make it as realistic-feeling and looking as possible. And, honestly, the biggest influences for me right now in terms of that stuff are like Ti West and Adam and Simon, sort of like interesting filmmakers who I consider them to be filmmakers first and horror filmmakers second, you know? You could talk to Ti and Adam as much about boring art films as you could about horror films, and they know about all of it.

What these guys have been doing within horror is super interesting and, because they’re friends of mine and collaborators of mine, I’ve sort of gotten a window into their thought process and sort of why they work in the horror genre and what they feel like they can accomplish through that. And additionally, just in my own career, I’ve been making a lot of movies lately and I was fearing that they were all sort of starting to hit the same audience over and over and over, and that there wasn’t a lot of new ground being covered. That’s like my biggest fear as a filmmaker is to just sort of get comfortable within a certain zone and then kind of keep doing the same thing.

So this movie came along right at a time where I was really excited to kind of challenge myself and try something new, so I really went in rather than, for instance, subverting the genre by doing a mumblecore version of horror, “V/H/S” seemed like a really good opportunity to do horror horror, and to really surprise people. And so I took it really seriously, the opportunity to like really make something scary and not make something that was like more realistic than less scary.

IFC: You still stuck a little bit of the relationship stuff you love in there, so that was fun.

JS: Yeah, I can’t help it. [laughs]

IFC: Are there any other genres that you are interested in trying soon?

JS: Definitely. It’s all interesting to me at this point. I had a real sort of revelation experience working on this movie called “You’re Next” that I acted in that Adam Wingard directed. It was really cool to be on the set of my friend’s movie and to see him sort of like taking on a really big task of making an action thriller and sort of having to visualize and shoot these really elaborate action setups with multiple cameras and stunts and all these kinds of things and I realized as a director I really want to have that skill set.

Even if I never make an action movie, I would still love to know how to shoot an action sequence. How to effectively cover a chase scene, or something like that. So I’m kind of open to all of it right now. I would be happy to dive into more genre stuff and just keep learning as a filmmaker and as a director how to get better at certain things. And I feel like all of that carries over even to relationship movies. Knowing how to shoot an action sequence certainly would help me also know how to shoot a dinner table conversation in a more interesting way.

IFC: You’ve been a big part of the independent filmmaking and mumblecore community, and that’s a community that’s changed a lot in the past decade. What elements of the process do you think are the most important to preserve?

JS: For me, the independent films that inspired me and that I fell in love with were tackling stories that were too small or bizarre or whatever for Hollywood to tell. That was kind of like, in the ’70s and ’80s, that was where American independent filmmaking fit into the picture was like everybody wanted to make studio movies but certain stories weren’t going to be told by studios, so if you wanted to tell that story you had to figure out a way to do it yourself.

That’s changed a lot. So now I feel like a lot of independent films are just Hollywood movies told on a smaller budget, and oftentimes with the same actors that are in the Hollywood movies. So I’ve been really still interested in attempting to use independent films to tell stories that just don’t make sense on a bigger scale. Like I only need $20,000 to tell this story, for instance. I don’t need to try to go out and raise $2 million and get big-name actors. It’s been a really fertile sort of practice stage for me to be active as a filmmaker, and I believe the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it and practicing as much as possible.

On the bigger scale where it takes several years between projects, those directors are busy all the time but they’re not necessarily busy on set directing actors, and that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to be good at. The last three or four years for me have just been about making as much work as possible and really just trying to be active in that community as a director, as an actor, as an editor or whatever else it is. As I’m getting old — I have a son now, I have a family and a house — there are practical concerns that are starting to come in that will probably necessitate a change from doing just $20,000 movies.

IFC: I was going to say, it’s interesting you’re saying that about the big stars because “Drinking Buddies” has Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake M. Johnson and Ron Livingston. Those are really big names right now.

JS: Yeah, absolutely. “Drinking Buddies,” I would almost call it my first film. It’s like a reset for me of taking all the things that I’ve learned and all the work that I’ve made over the past seven or eight years and now trying to apply that skill set to a movie that is a conventional movie. It’s still low budget and it’s still improvised and sort of taking the process that I’ve developed and applying it to a bigger movie. But it’s not “Silver Bullets” or it’s not “Art History,” these very sort of intensely rigorous art films that are very obviously going to appeal to a very small art house audience. Like, “Drinking Buddies” is a movie that’s meant to appeal to everybody, and it’s been fun to see if I can take the same way of working and apply that to a movie that’s aimed at everybody, including the art house audience.

IFC: Can you talk a bit about what “Drinking Buddies” is about?

JS: Sure. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play friends who work at a brewery in Chicago and Anna Kendrick plays Jake’s girlfriend and Ron Livingston plays Olivia’s boyfriend. I won’t say much: it’s a relationship movie about couples. It’s about craft beer and love. [laughs]

IFC: What more does a movie need?

JS: That’s what I’m talking about! It was a blast for me to be able to shoot a movie in a brewery. I’m a home brewer and a real beer geek, so it was really just a dream come true for me to make that movie.

What do you think of Swanberg’s thoughts on independent filmmaking? Do you plan to see “V/H/S”? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Tony Montana is all about money, power and respect. And while we can’t promise you’ll get money or power by taking our Scarface quiz below, you will get respect if you get a perfect score. One out of three ain’t bad. Click below to take the quiz, and catch Scarface this month on IFC.

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We’ve made it! Memorial Day weekend! But before we can complain that it’s over too quickly, take a moment to bask in the pre-break lack of productivity and enjoy some lighthearted videos.

From Hank Azaria channeling Chief Wiggum and other Simpsons characters while talking to college grads to “Shark-spert” Jason Alexander sharing questionable shark facts, here are five funny things from this week you need to watch.

1. Kermit Informs Fozzie Bear That They’ve Been Canceled

It’s never easy to see someone receive bad news, much less a Muppet. But if anything, Kermit’s poise and acceptance during a time of crisis is impressive, admirable even. Fozzie Bear, on the other hand, reacts with greater similarity to how we would: with baseless anger and utter despair.


2. Jason Alexander Offers Shark “Fin Facts”

Memorial Day weekend means the start of beach season, aka Shark Feeding Season. As part of IFC’s Shark Half-A-Day Memorial Day marathon, “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander offers up some interesting “fin facts” about our sharp-toothed friends from the deep. You can also check out Jason’s beach tips, and catch the Jaws movies with more “fin facts” from Jason this Memorial Day on IFC.


3. Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke Confirms Dothraki Is a Real Language

With eyes still dewy from the climax of this past Sunday’s Game of Thrones (Hold the door!), the Mother of Dragons herself Emilia Clarke dropped by Late Night with Seth Meyers to throw the diehard fans a reason to smile: Yes, Dothraki is a real language. Watch Clarke discuss the phonetics and grammar involved with vying for Westeros rule.


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5. X-Men: The Animated Series Gets Honest

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With a career spanning five decades, “Weird Al” Yankovic has defined the song parody genre and become a beloved pop culture icon. Starting June 3rd, you’ll be able to catch him as the brand new Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader Fridays at 11P on IFC.

We recently chatted with Al about joining Scott Aukerman on the new season, his upcoming tour, favorite CB!B! characters and his future dream projects. (Hint: it might involve actors spontaneously breaking into song.)

The Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader gig seems like a natural fit for you. Did it take any time to get acclimated?

Weird Al: Yeah. It’s a slightly different skill set. The accordion is my main act, but I don’t use it on the show at all. It’s a keyboard setup. The actual setup is a little bit of a combination of what Reggie [Watts] had and [Kid] Cudi had. And a few extra things thrown in. So I’m trying to do my own version of what they brought to the show.

You’ve been on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and the show many times. Do you have a favorite CB!B! character?

Weird Al: I’d probably have to say Doctor Time. Every time Scott wants me to do an evil character, he’s always got a bad English accent. [Laughs] Any time my character goes evil, he becomes sort of British.

Any favorite guests you’ve worked with?

Weird Al: Gosh, I love them all. Paul F. Tompkins is always fun. His Andrew Lloyd Webber character, Cake Boss, everything he does. And Andy Daly as well. They’re so versatile and so amazing at improv. That’s the one thing I was a little nervous about because I’ve never been super confident with my improv skills. But Comedy Bang! Bang!, particularly the TV version, is good for that because it’s all heavily edited. So it kind of gives me permission to try out whatever comes to my mind, so if it really sucks, they’re not gonna use it. [Laughs]

Scott Aukerman Weird Al

Your upcoming tour is a continuation of your Mandatory Fun tour from last year. Any new elements to the show?

Weird Al: Well, it is the same tour, so it’s not that much different. I might freshen some video a little bit. I’m hoping to use a bit or two from the current season of Comedy Bang! Bang! and slip that into the show somewhere.

The tour starts June 3rd in St. Petersburg, Florida and ends September 24th at Radio City Music Hall. How do you keep up the pace? 

Weird Al: It’s just a mindset. I’m really only working for two hours a day, so I basically just save up my energy for the show. I relax, surf online, watch satellite TV, read a book, rest my voice, and then give it all I got when I’m onstage.

Looking back at your vast song catalog, was there ever a parody that came to you immediately upon hearing the song?

Weird Al: Yeah, that’s happened a few times. More often than not, I have to think about it and analytically work out all the variations on a theme that I can and pick out the one with the most potential. But there’s been a few times where the idea came to me spontaneously. I think the first time I saw Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, before it was even over, I thought, “Oh! I gotta do ‘Fat’! Super-plus-sized actors trying to get through a turnstile on a subway! I gotta do that!”

Do you have a favorite of your many hilarious videos?

Weird Al: Oh boy, it’s hard to say. “White and Nerdy” has been my biggest hit and that was a really fun video to do. But in terms of making a video, “Tacky” was really fun to do because it was so easy and I got to work with amazing people like Jack Black, Margaret Cho, Kristen Schaal, Eric Stonestreet, and Aisha Tyler. And we knocked it out in a couple of hours. We were having so much fun while making it, I kinda wish we weren’t so efficient and professional. [Laughs] I could’ve done that all night.

Was it filmed all in one take or was it stitched together?

Weird Al: That was all one take. Some people say, “Oh, I see where the edit is,” but it was all one shot. We did a total of six takes, and I think four of those takes were usable, but the last one was the best.

And you were directing while performing?

Weird Al: I directed that one, yeah. We location scouted and found a building in downtown LA that I thought was good for the shoot. I’ve since seen that building in a lot of other movies and TV shows — I think it was used in The Big Lebowski and a few others. It was difficult because I start the video in one set of clothes and I also end the video in a completely different set of clothes. So while the cameras were off me, because there’s only one elevator in the building, I had to run down five flights of stairs, quickly change my clothes, and hit my mark for the end. And after the take, we’d all just watch what we did, and say, “OK, let’s do it again.”

Is there a director you’d love to work with in the future?

Weird Al: Oh gosh, yeah, but I mean, music videos are notoriously low-budget so that’s why I end up directing them myself. [Laughs] But I’d love to be in a movie codirected by Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.

Do you have a particular genre of music that you love parodying the most? Or is it more of the moment and different for each song?

Weird Al: It doesn’t necessarily revolve around personal taste so much. It really depends more on the song than the genre. But I found rap songs tend to lend themselves to parody, mostly because there’s a lot of words to play with. A lot of pop songs are repetitive, and that’s sometimes been an issue. With rap, there’s no shortage of syllables to mess around with.

Given that you’ve been so prolific and done so much, is there any type of art left that you’d like to dip your toe in? Dramatic acting, perhaps?

Weird Al: Well, if Spielberg and Tarantino want me for their film, I wouldn’t want to turn them down. But there’s no burning desire to do drama. I love doing comedy and feel comfortable doing that. Writing a musical might be something I do down the line. I don’t know when but I might take a shot at something in that area. Other than that, I’ve done pretty much all I wanted to do in my life so far. A lot of it not successfully. [Laughs] But I took a stab at it and feel gratified by that.

You’ve had such a eclectic career in music and comedy. What do you attribute your longevity to?

Weird Al: [Laughs] I don’t know what I’d attribute the longevity to. There’s a modicum of talent, but it’s mostly because I surround myself with very talented people. I’ve got a great support group, I’ve got the same band since the early ’80s, and I’ve worked with the same people for decades. And I got a very loyal fan base and I love what I do. And somehow I’ve been very lucky and it’s worked out so far.

Watch “Weird Al” in an episode from the new season of Comedy Bang! Bang! right now, before the season premiere on Friday June 3rd at 11P.

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