Most independent filmmakers submit their movies to any festival that might take them. But Joe Swanberg wasn’t quite ready to take that step when South by Southwest producer Matt Dentler surprised him with an invitation to screen “Kissing on the Mouth” at the Austin-based fest in 2005.
It proved to be a fortuitous offer, introducing Swanberg to kindred spirits and future collaborators (who would come to be known as “mumblecore” for their low-key, improvisational-styled portraits of contemporary twentysomethings — a label the filmmakers only half-embrace, especially as they now consider mainstream opportunities).
This year, Swanberg returns to debut his fourth consecutive feature with the fest, this one a relationship story called “Nights and Weekends” co-created with Greta Gerwig — a fitting opportunity to reflect on how he got here and what lies ahead.
Variety: South by Southwest brings you full circle, considering that the so-called “mumblecore” movement more or less originated at the 2005 SXSW film festival, right?
Swanberg: How the stars aligned and put us at the same festival the same year as “Mutual Appreciation” and “The Puffy Chair” and “Four-Eyed Monsters” — those were all movies made in different parts of the country by people who pretty much had no idea each other existed. We all just got along really well, and after the festival ended, everybody just stayed in touch and started talking about trying to collaborate on things.
Variety: That crystallized with “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” since you cast two other mumblecore directors — Mark Duplass (“Puffy Chair”) and Andrew Bujalski (“Mutual Appreciation”) — in the movie.
Swanberg: Determining to work with Mark and Andrew as actors in one of my films, that was something I started talking to them about right away. I made “LOL” in the meantime, and then I met (producer) Anish (Savjani) in 2006 when “LOL” played SXSW, and that’s sort of what got the ball rolling in actually having a budget and getting all those guys to come live in Chicago for a while and make that movie.
Variety: Now that the group has gained a certain notoriety, where do you go from here?
Swanberg: The plan is to continue working the way I’m working. Hopefully I’ll be able to work with some bigger-name actors, which mostly seems like the thing that stands between the films and wider release.
Variety: The Duplass brothers and Andrew Bujalski both seem to have their foot in the door with Hollywood. Is that something that interests you?
Swanberg: There’s a project that I’ve been developing for a while called “Save the Date” that would require a much bigger budget and actors that are working in Hollywood films. But right now, I feel frustrated by the projects getting bigger. I think it changes a lot of things I don’t want to change about the way I work. Today, I feel like I would rather just keep making small movies with my own money and have complete control over them.
Variety: Are you worried that bigger budgets would mean having to make artistic compromises?
Swanberg: John Sayles seems like he’s managed to do it, but it seems like everyone who tries to do that “one for them, one for me” thing ends up just doing a lot for them. It’s really appealing to have those big budgets and to work with crews of really skilled people and to put a lot of money in your pocket at the end of the day.
Variety: Unlike the independent revolution of the ’90s, when directors like P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino came of age, you don’t seem to be concerned with nailing “the perfect shot.” It’s more about emotional honesty than filmmaking flair.
Swanberg: I think it will go in waves. A lot of what we’re doing is probably in response to those filmmakers, and I think the next wave of filmmakers will probably get really annoyed with our lack of slick style.
Variety: Do you have to fight the idea that your movies look the way they do because you don’t know what you’re doing?
Swanberg: That’s the most frustrating misconception — that we couldn’t work in another way or that the way these movies look or feel comes out of incompetence. And I think in everyone’s case, that’s totally untrue. Everyone went to film school, everybody’s done these crane and dolly shots and stuff. Personally, the reason I don’t is that I respond to the performances more than anything, and I want to tell these stories without missing the real moments. The thing I learned in film school is the more time you spend setting up lights or dolly tracks, the more of an atmosphere of artificiality it creates. So I disregarded all that stuff and decided I’m just going to hold the camera with my hand and focus on the performances.
Variety: And yet, even the performances don’t conform to the mannered style of acting audiences are accustomed to seeing. Instead, there’s a naturalism to it some people seem to find off-putting.
Swanberg: Part of the problem is that I prefer to work with people who haven’t been in anything before, so each time out is like starting from scratch, where I’m working with unproven, unknown entities, which distributors hate. They’re like, “Put some people we recognize in the movies.” On “Hannah,” I really relied on the actors to bring a lot of ideas and story elements to it, and as soon as I cast Greta (Gerwig), the movie changed to fit who Greta was and what she was going through at the time. Had it been a different actress, that movie would have been completely different. I love that feeling that the movie I’m making at the time could only be that movie with those people.
Variety: Greta has a certain quality, like whatever Gena Rowlands brought to a John Cassavetes film, where you sense that you’re watching a star.
Swanberg: She’s somebody who could do whatever she wanted. I really think she could go and become a giant movie star, or she could keep making tiny movies and become a successful playwright. She’s sort of too cool and too smart to be a lame Hollywood star, but I think she wants to and will pursue work in bigger movies.
Variety: To what degree do you even identify with the mumblecore label?
Swanberg: For me, it seems obvious that there are similarities between these movies, especially now that we all know each other and we are all collaborating in certain ways. I think it’s more of a community than a movement. At no point in the history of knowing these guys has there been any discussion about what constitutes any kind of rules. And when I hang out with them, most of the discussions have to do with things other than movies. It’s just something that happened when we met each other and got along really well, and I think it will remain as the Duplass brothers make Hollywood movies and I make web shows. At the end of the day, it will always be a group of people that like to hang out together.
Variety: Are the Zellner brothers part of that group? (The Austin-based siblings, David and Nathan, are SXSW fixtures. After premiering at Sundance, their feature “Goliath” will play the festival this year.)
Swanberg: Yeah, totally. On a social level, that group is really huge, and I hope that’s something that will get a lot of attention this year. There are a lot of other filmmakers people don’t know about yet because their films haven’t gotten this kind of exposure. Guys like Frank Ross — I acted in his last two movies, and he’s acted in my last two movies. The Zellner brothers definitely. Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”) and his wife Mary. This guy David Lowry from Dallas, Texas. It’s really inclusive.
Variety: And yet, as more people see these films, it will liberate them to add their voices to the mix. The fact that this approach is so democratic means there will be a need to innovate as others start to compete.
Swanberg: I never had those delusions of making the movie that goes to Sundance and gets bought for $5 million. I think the model will start to resemble indie rock more than any traditional film model. A lot of these musicians play in a couple different bands and alternate touring with recording new music, and though they don’t become super-wealthy, they manage to make a living doing it. For those who continue to make small movies, I think that model’s going to be something that makes a lot of sense: You make a film or two a year on a small level and put it out on DVD or maybe have a small theatrical release, and then in the meantime, make money by speaking at universities or doing the touring the festival circuit thing — and that’s cool to me, actually. I never got in it to be rich, but it would be great to make a living as a filmmaker.