I had a good half-hour talk with Joe Swanberg at SXSW, two days after the world premiere of his latest film “Alexander the Last” and a few days before my laptop hard drive failed, taking with it my audio files and transcripts. I’m slowly getting everything back, and while this interview isn’t so timely anymore, I didn’t want to let it go, either, since we covered a lot of interesting ground about how the way Joe shoots films is changing, and how he’d like to be, as impossible as it might seem, even more prolific. So here’s a selection, with those points in mind:
With “Alexander the Last,” as far as I can remember, it’s the first time you’re working with people who are already established foremost as professional actors — Jess Weixler, Jane Adams. Did that change how you went about making the film at all?
Definitely. A year ago, we first started to talk about whether the way that we worked changed because of the people, or because I was naturally in a mood to change anyway, or whether those two things happened simultaneously. I feel like the second half of “Nights and Weekends” was the beginning of some sort of shift towards a more deliberate type of filmmaking.
So much of this has to do with the fact that the early work that I was doing, I don’t think is necessary anymore. When I was making “Kissing on the Mouth” and “LOL,” YouTube didn’t exist. This sort of intimacy that I was after in my work — I was filling a hole that I felt like the mainstream media was not operating in. And then the whole world changed in a couple of years, and now I feel like we can find this kind of intimacy anywhere. It’s better on YouTube than anything that I could do — more immediate and more narcissistic, and it’s a more accurate gauge of the culture than something that takes six months to make. I have to change as a filmmaker because if I don’t, if I continue to make work like that, then all I’m doing is making a worse version of things that we have access to now.
But in terms of how you’re shooting these films, I’m assuming, at this point, you’re not having everyone still stay in the same apartment together and crash on the floor–
Yes. [Jess Weixler interjects: “Oh, yes we were. [laughs] Amy [Seimetz] and I shared a bed and that’s one of the ways we bonded as sisters.”]
Do you see your films growing in scale to the point where that’s not going to be feasible?
I can only make this prediction for about one year into the future at this point, but that one year into the future sees some projects getting smaller, if possible, and being even more focused and weird and experimental. I have no desire for the projects to become bigger and I have no ideas that would require them to become bigger, at least for the next year. I think that the ways that I’ll change as a filmmaker won’t be budgetary, necessarily. I think they’ll be within the framework of small projects on this scale.
I have a much tighter financial situation with my new project than I even have with the other ones. The last couple of movies have been super, super cheap, and if you can imagine this new one costing, like, one tenth of the cost of those other movies–
I can’t, really, from what I understand about your budgets.
[Laughs] It’s tiny. It’s tiny and it’s essentially all the money I have. I get checks from other work, and those immediately go right into this project. Being back in that place where I have no financial reserve, it’s putting me back in an exciting creative place where I have to think of another way to do things because there aren’t [other] options, like, “Alright, it’s gonna cost more than I thought, so I can’t do that. What do I do now?” I like it. It’s healthy for me as a filmmaker and as a person, to have those limitations.
You don’t have any drive to do a studio project? Do you get offers?
The offers that I get are, essentially, coming from people who like what I do and who would like me to do that, just for more money. “Let’s take what you do, but let’s put bigger name actors in it.” It’s just unappealing to me. I can already do what I do with the people I want to work with.
There’s no temptation to have those extra resources?
If I had them, I would invariably end up frustrating people, because I would be using them in completely the wrong ways. If I had a studio and a green screen, the ways in which I would use that would be so aggravating and time-wasting — it’d be fun for me to shoot an entire movie on a soundstage with green screen and then put in backgrounds that look totally naturalistic. That would be exciting to me, but then that’s a stupid waste of money.
When you have someone like Jane Adams, who’s worked as an actress in some fairly large scale projects, is there ever a sense of hesitation in saying, oh, “we’re like to shoot in your apartment”?
With Jane, specifically, it’s like “Aw, we’re done already?” But I’m just eye-to-eye with somebody like Jane, you know? We don’t even have to talk about it. It’s like, “Of course we’re shooting in your apartment, ’cause you’re playing the character and that’s where you live.” I have this suspicion that there are a lot of people like Jane, working in the industry and doing these really big projects, who’d rather be shooting in their own apartment on a tiny little movie. I’ll find those people, slowly, I’ll find them. I didn’t assume Jess would want to work that way. When we started talking, it was about a much bigger project, this thing with the script and the budget. I had to make that nervous call: “I don’t know if this movie’s gonna happen, Jess. Would you be interested in making a movie with not a budget and not a script, really small, where we might shoot in your apartment?”
Do you ever feel the urge to slow down the pace? It’s been a film a year since you started…
No, I’m going too slow. [Weixler: “He is ridiculous.”]
I will try and make a lot of movies this year.
How many is a lot?
Four, maybe. I feel like I could be working faster. Here’s what money could do for me, actually: there are a lot of jobs that don’t require my immediate attention, but that I have to do because there’re so few people working on the projects. If I had money, I would have one person in pre-production on this movie that I want to do in July and August, let’s say, scouting apartment locations in Chicago, looking at actors and starting to talk about wardrobes. Simultaneously, I could be paying another person to be working on the movie I want to do after that, so I could move into these things, shoot them during the period that I need to, then quickly move out and the next project would be ready to go for me to jump into. I’d be editing as we are shooting, the same way we did on “Alexander.”
Isn’t it good to have downtime, though? In the system you’re describing, you’d be shooting, then shooting another movie and editing that last one — there’s no break.
But most of the world has no break, you know what I mean? Most people wake up and go to work every day.
Right, but it’s also not necessarily a creative endeavor.
But, why do creative endeavors need extra space and rest? I want to have a workman-like attitude towards this stuff. The way that a person would wake up every day to build a building, I want to work. Even if it’s a creative endeavor. So, I don’t think there’s a benefit to rest in that way, except when you’d feel like you need it, and I’d recognize when I reached that point.
But you’re not there yet?
No, I think could do more.
Have any of your movies brought back much of a return?
Here’s what great: when you make a movie for $2,000, it’s very easy to make your money back. My first two movies, which were made for about that, are definitely profitable at this point. They’ve made, like, $6,000 back. As they get a bit more expensive, then it’s harder to make that money back. With “Alexander the Last,” our deal with IFC Films essentially breaks us even now; but when we sell the movie to international territories, that becomes profit, and when we get those checks, everybody gets checks. It’ll be a tiny, tiny amount of money — if we sell the movie to the UK, we’re all going to get checks for maybe $300, if we’re lucky. But if we sell it to enough countries, that becomes a few thousand dollars, and if we make enough movies, that starts to maybe look like a living, you know?