Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CB Q/A #24: Joe Swanberg (Film Director/Actor/Screenwriter)

A word I use a lot, despite the fact it irritates me when others do, is "favorite." To me, that word should be held in reserve and only used to describe the most elite of personal preferences. Yet every week, I find myself saying such and such record is one of my favorite albums of 2009 or so and so is one of my favorite vocalists, novelists, artists, or whatever.

My fear is, by always saying favorite this and favorite that, the meaning gets watered down, and I become a pop culture boy who cried wolf. I use "favorite" - fine, overuse "favorite" - as a way of signifying to you, my dear reader, that I personally put my reputation on the line and endorse it. That I'd happily stand up in front of you before whatever concert or film you see or as you listen to whatever new album or finish reading whatever new book you bought that had my stamp of approval and take the heat if you didn't like it. So as much as I mean the word when I write it, it is moments like this that make me wish I didn't love so many things and write so frequently about them.

That's because today's interview subject, filmmaker Joe Swanberg is, you guessed it, one of my two favorite filmmakers working today (the other being his fellow mumblecore movement member, Andrew Bujalski). I try to take in any work of his I can find and end up respecting all of it, and liking damn near that much.

I got to meet Swanberg briefly at last year's film festival and he's a tremendously patient and open dude - he's even indulged me in a brief email correspondence a time or two - and finding out that someone who makes art you respect is also a cool dude is so much more of a relief than some of you might think. (How many Wilco fans got turned off the day they eventually came to the realization that Mr. Tweedy is a boorish, whiny baby?)

As you can guess, I was really stoked when Swanberg wrote me back with answers to a cold-called email Q&A request, and even more stoked when I read them and found how thoughtful he had been when replying. Swanberg has some serious Cleveland roots, and while he won't be in Cleveland for this particular screening (something about a film festival in Greece), he makes it back frequently enough to have a lot of affection for our fair city. Maybe some day we can get him to make a film here. Until then, though, you should start digging his work. In addition to the film he co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in with another fellow mumblecore veteran, Greta Gerwig, that is screening here tomorrow night (more on that at the conclusion of this post), he's also responsible for films like Alexander the Last (one of my ... favorites ... at the Cleveland Film Festival last year), Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, and Kissing on the Mouth, as well as the continuing critically acclaimed internet television series, Young American Bodies. You should get to know all of these pop culture artifacts. They are as in tuned with the zeitgeist as anything else out there.

1) In other work, a significant amount of what the audience eventually sees onscreen was the result of spontaneous, free-form acting, rather than a strictly scripted and staged depiction. To what extent is that the case in this film? Are there certain parts of the film that were particularly loose?

The first half of the film was extremely loose and shot in a nearly identical way to my other films. The second half, after taking a year-long break and thinking about the film so intensely, was much more structured. We had a solid idea of what would happen and we shot a few of the scenes several times in an effort to get something very deliberate and specific.

2) How much of the relationship in the film was inspired by events in your own life and how much is pure fiction?

I view NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS as an almost self-contained meta comment on the friendship and working relationship between Greta and I. When we shot the first half, we were in the thick of a weird confusing time where we were kind of best friends and kind of hated each other. And by the time we shot the second half, we weren't even really in touch with each other. We were just doing our own separate things. So in a way the film is all very accurate to the trajectory of our relationship. But all of the details are phony, and we were never a couple.

3) What is your favorite moment in the film?

I like the conversation we have about our parents, where we talk about making the same faces as our parents. We shot a lot of footage in order to get to a place were we were comfortable and we could have a conversation like that.

4) Do you think a message could/should be drawn from the way you have the relationship work out between the two leads in the film?

Long distance relationships are very hard. Anyone who has been through it will acknowledge that. I think the film is very realistic about that. I think the underlying message is that it's possible for two people to love each and still not be a good couple. Deciding not to be in a relationship with someone doesn't suddenly make the love less real. It's just that some people aren't compatible in that way.

5) You've received a lot of attention the last several years from key critical corners, both as an individual auteur and as a member of a loose cohort whose work has been dubbed part of the "mumblecore" movement. Clearly there is a lot of collaboration and overlap between the individuals often identified as key figures in the movement, but at the same time a thoughtful viewer can discern the individual voice of each of the filmmakers. To what extent has being viewed as a member of such a community been a boon to your work and in what ways has it been limiting?

The idea of a movement has given a lot of major outlets like The New York Times and Rolling Stone a reason to write about the films, so that has been very helpful in creating awareness about the work. But the films are very small and personal. They don't stand up to much hype. It's been an interesting few years. It hasn't had an impact on the way I make films, but it has certain impacted some of my friendships and relationships. The attention has also allowed me to realize that attention doesn't make me happy.

6) The city of Cleveland has made some noise recently about wanting to make this a more film-friendly city. In your opinion, what are the most important things a city can do to encourage that kind of industry attention?

I'm not really tapped into the industry enough to know what film incentives are worthwhile or not. Cleveland can become a vital film city if a lot of people pick up cameras and start making movies. And if venues around town are committed to showing that work and promoting local filmmaker. It's as easy as that. I think every city ought to look at Austin, TX as the model of a place that encourages and supports local filmmaking. I've never been in a more friendly and collaborative city in my life. I wish Chicago was more like that.

7) Last but not least, any previous Cleveland experiences worth sharing?

My mom grew up outside of Cleveland in North Olmstead and a lot of my family still lives in the area. I spend many Easters, Christmases and Thanksgivings there. One of my fondest Cleveland movie experiences was watching Major League for the first time with my family when the Indians were the laughing stock of baseball. But in general I have too many great Cleveland experiences to pick just one.

To check out Joe Swanberg's film, Nights and Weekends, plan to visit Cleveland's newest theater, the recently restored Capitol Theatre on West 65th and Detroit TOMORROW night (Thursday, 11/19). John Ewing, film series curator par excellence, will be venturing across the Cuyahoga from his usual roost at the CIA Cinematheque and programming a night of cinema for west siders in the know. Nights and Weekends will screen once and only once at 9:20 PM. Find more information on this screening, and other worthwhile film events this month, in my most recent Month in Film post here.

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