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Dec 11, 2008

Emerging from the mumblecore movement with a burst of new projects, independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg continues to draw outside the lines.

By Rachel Fernandes

On the Rise
With his constant work on web, TV and theatrical productions, filmmaker Joe Swanberg is probably busier than you.
These days, Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg is all over the map.
His latest film, Nights and Weekends (co-directed with actress Greta Gerwig), recently enjoyed a brief theatrical run and a stint on cable access. Meanwhile, his Web series, “Young American Bodies,” is about to enter its fourth season, and the first season of a new Web series, “The Stagg Party” (which follows the habits of erotic photographer Ellen Stagg), wraps shooting this month.
All this is in addition to finishing a new feature film, Alexander the Last and working on an untitled project involving indie star Jane Adams (Happiness, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Swanberg is also in the process of collaborating with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding) on several digital shorts for “Saturday Night Live.”
At only 27 years old, Swanberg certainly knows how to multitask.
When asked about balancing such an ambitious workload, he knows when to let go of his ego a bit and give credit where credit is due.
“My co-producer, Anish Savjani, is the brains and the muscle behind the operation,” claims the filmmaker. “He’s smarter than me, more focused than me…So while I’m off trying to make another movie, he’s diligently submitting screeners to festivals, putting paperwork together for the next project and making sure everyone has plane tickets. He’s largely responsible for why the movies have gotten out there, and why people are talking about them.”
Humility aside, it was Swanberg’s diligence that positioned him to meet Savjani (who also produced the critically praised indies Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy) at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
A friend had passed along a version of Swanberg’s first full-length feature, Kissing on the Mouth, to a SXSW festival programmer, who must have been impressed.
The fledgling director was able to screen not only that first film, but his following three features as well—including the one that received the most hype, Hannah Takes the Stairs.
Along the way, Swanberg met a slew of emerging young filmmakers. “Most of the people who I’ve met that are my friends now in the film industry, I met at SXSW,” he notes, citing a group including filmmakers Andrew Bujalski, Mark and Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz and Greta Gerwig. The group’s commonalities earned them the moniker of mumblecore and a 2007 group screening at the Independent Film Center in New York City.
Like other members of the mumblecore tribe, Swanberg’s work can be characterized by a low-fi, improvisational style combined with a focus on the awkwardness of middle-class 20-somethings.
But what seems to set Swanberg apart is an overt emphasis on sexuality. He says that one of his earliest childhood memories—seeing Revenge of the Nerds at the tender age of 3—had a huge impact on him and his films.
“Any time there was nudity or bad language, I remember my dad’s hands coming over my ears and eyes…It just made movies seem really cool and dangerous,” Swanberg recalls.
The hyper-realistic depiction of sex, coupled with the mundane details of interpersonal relationships featured in Swanberg’s films, has elicited a wide variety of responses.
Some have criticized his work as bordering on pornography, while others complain about the seemingly homogeneous casting. Still others have responded enthusiastically to his honest perspective.
If the filmmaker has learned anything in the whirlwind of the last few years, it’s to take everything in stride and just keep on working. As he puts it, “I’m always one or two movies ahead of the movie people are talking about.”

“I’m on a mission to make as much stuff as I can while I’m still young and selfish and fairly autonomous.” – Joe Swanberg
Watch FLYP’s interview with director Joe Swanberg, and see the trailer for his latest film, Nights and Weekends.

A Little Bit Louder Now
Mumblecore draws upon its low-budget roots to constantly redefine the look of cinema.
The mumblecore movement arose in the early 2000s, but by the middle of the decade, festivals were heralding its entry in the mainstream.
The attention peaked in the summer of 2007, when the Independent Film Channel’s movie theater in New York City (the IFC Center) put together a week-long festival of movies made by a handful of angst-ridden, 20-something filmmakers.
Despite their micro-budgets, low-fi production values and unknown casts, the films had a tangible aesthetic that focused on dialogue, post-collegiate malaise and indecisiveness.
IFC called the films the “New Talkies,” while others dubbed them “Slackavettes” and “Bedhead Cinema.” But the label that seemed to stick—and, to the chagrin of many, continues to resonate—was mumblecore, which refers to the tendency of many of the characters in these films to under-enunciate.
As cringe inducing as the label may be, the mumblecore buzz became a vehicle for the films and their participants to gain national attention, however fleeting.
In previous interviews, the group’s most prolific and iconic member, Joe Swanberg, acknowledged the positive effects of that time in the limelight.
These days, the 27-year-old is a bit more cynical.
“Within that world [of the press], they got excited, then bored and then pissed off,” he remarks. “And then they started getting mean, feeling like, ‘why are these movies getting all the attention?’”
Along with countless blog posts, the attention consisted of an article in The New York Times, a feature in The Village Voice and a scathing write-up in Film Comment by noted critic Amy Taubin.
It all started innocently enough.
After seeing young director Andrew Bujalski’s super low-budget Funny Ha Ha, Swanberg and his wife, Kris, made their hyper-sexualized film, Kissing on the Mouth to combat what they perceived as Bujalski’s prudishness.
Kissing on the Mouth appeared at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in 2005, at the same time as Bujalski’s follow-up film, Mutual Appreciation, and Mark and Jay Duplass’ The Puffy Chair, another early entry in what would become the mumblecore genre.
Swanberg then released two more films: LOL, about a group of arrogant men and their obsession with the Internet; and Hannah Takes the Stairs, which stars Bujalski, Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig.
Both LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, along with Swanberg’s most recent feature, Nights and Weekends, went on to screen at SXSW. The festival served as a breeding ground for the genre, all of which culminated at the 2007 IFC showcase.

Watch the trailers for three classic mumblecore films: Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL and Kissing on the Mouth.

Now that the hype has faded, the legitimacy of mumblecore as a movement has been questioned. But a better question might be if lumping these films together in the first place was misconstrued.
“The thing is, we all made movies separately and then met each other,” explains Swanberg. “Any idea of there being an influencing factor will go away once our new movies come out.”
Indeed, many of mumblecore’s key players have long since gone in their own directions. At one extreme, the Duplass Bros’ latest film, Baghead (a hybrid talkie-comedy/horror flick starring Gerwig), was mildly successful. At the other, Bujalski seems to be lying low.
Meanwhile, Swanberg, who claims he rarely sees the other members of the group anymore, is working hard to avoid being defined by labels and to solidify his position as a full-fledged director.
“There’s been nothing else along the way where I’ve thought, ‘maybe I could do that,’” he explains. “It’s only been making movies.”

Don’t Call It Internet Porn

Swanberg takes his realistic aesthetic to the Web.
Over the last few years, Joe Swanberg’s efforts to paint a realistic picture of young-adult sexuality have expanded onto the Web.
The long-running series “Young American Bodies” follows six “fictional” post-collegiate Chicagoans as they navigate their often sticky relationships and explore their sexual potentials. Swanberg, who has acted in all but one of his films, stars alongside wife and series co-creator, Kris Williams.
Another recent project, Swanberg’s documentary series, “The Stagg Party,” follows Brooklyn-based photographer Ellen Stagg as she boldly balances her passion for risqué, erotic photography and her legitimate commercial work.
The intelligence and intimacy Stagg employs in capturing her subjects (often members of the adult film industry) provides a unique perspective on an under-represented genre.

FLYP Media gives you full access to two complete webisodes from Swanberg’s recent series, “Young American Bodies” and “The Stagg Party.”

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I think the fillm short I saw was, “A Better Proposal.” Very orginal…And that’s saying a lot these days. I’m going to share these with my twenty something niece. Keep being creative.

Shelita Benash
Dec 20, 2008

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