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Mumblecore goes mainstream

Movement founders to reunite at SXSW

As far as its unofficial members are concerned, the “mumblecore” movement began and ended at the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival. But the nickname, hatched in jest one night in Austin, Texas, surfaced in an IndieWire interview five months later and stuck.

The phrase describes a collective of young filmmakers — directors such as Andrew Bujalski (“Mutual Appreciation”), Mark and Jay Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”) and Joe Swanberg (“Kissing on the Mouth”) — who, liberated by inexpensive filmmaking equipment and a do-it-yourself attitude, shoot casual, semi-autobiographical relationship stories. The “mumblecore” tag comes from what the New York Times described as films characterized by “a stream of low-volume chatter often perceived as ineloquence.”

Three years after their introduction at SXSW, the filmmakers are at a crossroads. Some wear their scrappy style as a badge of honor, preferring to narrowcast their stories to those already in the know via DVD and video-on-demand. But others, such as the genre-minded Duplass brothers, seem poised for mainstream success — their latest, a mumblecore-horror-movie hybrid called “Baghead,” was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for summer release.

Either way, the ever-expanding group of filmmakers represents a lo-fi response to the type of independent cinema hatched by Sundance in the past two decades.

“It’s always been a tough situation, because Sundance obviously gets first pick of the new American independent features,” explains SXSW producer Matt Dentler. A few years back, SXSW organizers made a conscious decision “to stop trying to be another festival and to develop a reputation for being a place that plays innovative, worthwhile films that are perhaps a little out of the ordinary.”

In 2005, that meant programming four films that would later be recognized as the foundation of mumblecore. The directors met at SXSW and became close friends as they continued to bump into one another on the festival circuit. Because they work on small budgets, the friends trade equipment, share actors and even appear in one another’s movies. But they also maintain their own visions and goals.

“It’s not like Dogma 95, where a very specific group of filmmakers outlined a list of things and did it,” Dentler says.

SXSW serves as an unofficial reunion for the group each year, a place where they can catch up and meet other like-minded filmmakers.

The subsequent attention, which included a two-week retrospective at New York’s IFC Center last summer, has translated into interest from distributors and studios.

After making “Mutual Appreciation,” Bujalski scored a deal adapting the Benjamin Kunkel novel “Indecision” for Scott Rudin. He’d like to do “bigger” movies “partially because I’d like to earn a living as a filmmaker,” he admits.

The Duplasses originally hoped to finance their modest productions by selling screenplays to the studios. “For a while, we were ducking and jiving, trying to find the right Hollywood job,” Mark says. “We discovered Hollywood feels like there’s a dearth of good writer-directors.”

The brothers sold pitches to Fox Searchlight and Universal; in both cases, the studios insisted they also direct, but that isn’t stopping them from running down to New Orleans and shooting a movie of their own this month. Still, working inside the system means an opportunity to cast bigger-name actors — a first for anyone in the mumblecore fraternity.

Writer-director Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”) predicts it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood whisks away his current muse, “Nights and Weekends” collaborator Greta Gerwig. Though he prefers working with nonprofessionals, Swanberg has also been developing a project, tentatively called “Save the Date,” to be made with known stars.

“In the past,” Bujalski explains, “it was difficult to do more than one credit-card-maxxer-outer before you had to start thinking commercial.”

But new equipment, like the DVX100 cameras these mumblecore pals FedEx back and forth to one another, means they can keep making films with or without the studios.

“You don’t need that big apparatus that everybody else has always needed,” says IFC Center’s John Vanco, who helped organize the generation’s Gotham debut. “It’s great that that’s not going to be the end for them if these big deals don’t work out.”

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