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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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