Joe Swanberg, Hannah Takes The Stairs
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the “mumblecore” tag, one positive thing it has certainly done is help bring deserved attention to filmmakers like Joe Swanberg. The precocious 25-year-old was born in Detroit, but moved around as a kid before attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he studied film. After graduation, he used money he had made from web design work to fund his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth (2005), which played at the SXSW Film Festival at the time the concept of “mumblecore” was born. His sophomore effort, LOL — which features “noisehead” contributions from many fellow mumblecorers — followed the year after, and premieres on DVD August 28 through Benten Films.
Swanberg’s third feature, Hannah Takes the Stairs, is arguably the director’s breakthrough film. Hannah (Greta Gerwig) is a recent college grad working at a production company with two writers, Matt (Kent Osborne) and Paul (Andrew Bujalski), who both take an interest in her, despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend, Mike (Mark Duplass). A fascinating portrait of Gerwig’s chronically unhappy romantic, Hannah Takes the Stairs is a lot more linear and conventional than Swanberg’s previous work, despite the fact that it was almost entirely improvised. Gerwig gives a phenomenal, career-launching performance as Hannah, while the film itself reveals a new focus and maturity in Swanberg that promises much for the future.
Filmmaker spoke to Swanberg about directing directors, his continuing quest to make “the one,” and his desire to make a PG-13 romantic comedy.
Filmmaker: You were only 22 when you made Kissing on the Mouth. How did you go about making your first feature at such a young age?
Swanberg: I’d gotten out of film school and made some shorts, and I was like, “God, I’m 22 and I haven’t made a feature!” I graduated in March, and by December I was really adamant that I was going to start shooting something. I was talking with Kris [Williams], who’s my wife now but was my girlfriend at the time, about all these crazy, experimental ideas: I wanted to make a movie with no characters that were there the whole time, and I didn’t want to give anybody names. I wanted to try a million different things. It got more and more conventional as we went, and what started as these really weird notions got honed down into a pretty recognizable feature. But I didn’t set out knowing it was going to be a feature, or knowing what length it would be, or what it would be like — we just kind of started shooting.
Filmmaker: LOL is also very unconventional, so did you use the same process on that film?
Swanberg: Since Kissing on the Mouth had already played some festivals, I was more aware that it would be a good idea to make LOL feature length. But the shooting process was definitely really similar, where I was just shooting scenes, not really knowing where they would go. At the time, we were even kicking around the idea that we wouldn’t ever have a definitive cut of the movie, and it would something we would put out on DVD where you could choose to randomise the chapters and just watch it in shuffle mode. We thought there would never be an actual narrative to the movie, or that the audience would have to piece it together after the fact.
Filmmaker: The people in your films are slackers, and yet you are 25 and have already made three features. There’s a great moment in LOL where your character is caught working on his laptop late at night, but do you have a similarly compulsive approach to work?
Swanberg: That moment is totally, sadly accurate! I keep really unhealthy hours. There have been times in my life when I don’t want to go to sleep because there’s so much to be done, and it’s just easier to stay up and try and work through it. In general, I have this weird relationship with sleep because I always feel like I’m missing something, like “If I go to sleep, something great’s going to happen, and I won’t be there to witness it.” I think that’s true of a lot of the people I work with. It’s this weird thing of workaholic overachievers depicting slacker underachievers, [laughs] but I think it’s something about exposing your worst tendencies. I always get a kick out of taking the things in my own personality that I think are really annoying and then making those be the focal point.
Filmmaker: Hannah Takes the Stairs is the first of your films that you haven’t also acted in, so did you feel as emotionally involved in it?
Swanberg: It’s funny, because I asked myself that same question somewhere in the middle of making it: “Is this still personal? Am I here in the making of this, or am I just outside of it observing people?” I realized that I’m Hannah, and I’m feeling that constant disappointment and perpetual dissatisfaction [she feels], only it’s in my film work, not with boys or relationships. It really became clear to me that the relationships she’s going through are very similar to the way that I’m making these films. I got really excited about them, and get way, heavily into them for a while, and then my attention shifts to the next project, and I move around looking for satisfaction, but ultimately not finding it.
Filmmaker: So does this mean you look upon your previous films as failures?
Swanberg: I’m really proud of those movies, but they’re not “the one.” None of them are ever going to be “the one,” but each time around somewhere midway through, I’m always like, “OK, this is the one. It feels really good, and I’m going to get it right this time.” Then I finish it, and it feels OK, but it’s ultimately not “the one” — and that’s what makes me go searching for the next one. But it’s exciting for me, not depressing. The thing that makes me sad is knowing how much each of these projects meant to me at one point, and looking back on them as just films that I made. You know, they obsess your life and take up all your time for eight months, they’re all you think about and you invest everything in them — and then two years later, it’s just a DVD package that’s sitting on your shelf that you occasionally show to friends. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Was it daunting on Hannah when so many of your actors were also directors? Were they constantly offering advice?
Swanberg: No, they were really good, but I think it was because they were hyper-conscious about not being like that! [laughs] None of them wanted to be the one that accidentally started directing. I wouldn’t have felt weird about it at all, and they’re input was definitely welcome, but I know there were multiple moments through the shoot when they would have to check themselves and keep from their first instinct, which would have been to take over a little bit and start directing the scene.
Filmmaker: Greta Gerwig is integral to this film, and somebody even described her to me as your muse.
Swanberg: I think she’s incredible, and the process of making this movie was just sort of falling in love with her, and realizing all the things that she could do. She’d gotten out of school, and her first job out of college was coming and being in this movie. I think she gives a really amazing performance — it feels committed to what’s going on. We had a lot of long talks, and she really legitimately cared for this character, wanted to make sure that the movie accurately represented her, and had a lot of great ideas. There were a lot of times where she would come up and tell me what she was going to do, when she wouldn’t tell the actors in the scene, so I would know what to look out for. Midway through the shoot, she and I looked at the scenes that we had shot so far and sort of pieced together the rest of the movie, and what was going to happen. She really deserves a lot of credit for this film.
Filmmaker: The role demands more of her than most actresses are willing to give, both physically and emotionally.
Swanberg: I felt like I had her trust, which is a really great way to work. It never felt like a process where I was trying to talk her into things. She’s really comfortable with herself, which is so important for a role like this. Greta is self-confident and smart and has a really good sense of what works,. Her sensibilities were on target, so she would know if something was going to work or if it was a good idea. There were no discussions about whether things were outside of her comfort zone or not, it was more like, “We’re making a film and it’s going to work, so I’m going to do it.” Everybody was like that. Mark Duplass showed up, and within a few hours he was [being filmed] naked in the shower with her!
Filmmaker: I believe the film was basically improvised.
Swanberg: It was a movie that was put together by the people in it. I didn’t tell a single one of them to say anything. Everything that came out of their mouth was stuff that they were creating, and the shape that the movie took was because of that. If there weren’t the need to have traditional credits like “writer” and “director,” I would really just leave it as a film by all of us, and have that be the final word on it.
Filmmaker: So how did the script evolve over the course of shooting?
Swanberg: We had the concept of the three guys [Hannah has relationships with] from the very beginning, and the general flow of the movie, so that structure helped. One of the other things that helped us was we started thinking of the movie in a kind of palindrome structure: the beginning and the end would mirror each other, and we’d work inward from that. Those were formal devices that we used, but then all the dialogue was improvised so things that came up naturally just had to be worked in.
Filmmaker: As this is a more conventional movie, do you think it will take you down a more mainstream path?
Swanberg: I’m really naive about all that stuff and I don’t have any expectations about what’ll happen. I’m not really interested in a lot of the conventional next steps, like getting an agent or writing a script or trying to do a bigger movie. I already made a really small movie since Hannah Takes the Stairs that I did with Greta that we shot last December, and the ideas I have now for future projects are all still pretty small. So it’s not a calling card or an attempt to get attention from the mainstream. But hopefully it will be successful and allow me to make small movies that will be seen by bigger audiences.
Filmmaker: Which movies are your guilty pleasures?
Swanberg: I really do have a pretty mainstream sensibility. I really love the movie That Thing You Do! that Tom Hanks made, and there’s a lot of stuff like that that’s really pretty conventional and cutesy. My guilty pleasure is probably a really good PG-13 romantic comedy – I love them! You know, a movie like Fever Pitch with Jimmy Fallon, those kind of Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler cutesy movies. I really like those.
Filmmaker: Is this a potential new direction for you then?
Swanberg: Totally, I would do it in a second! I’d love to make a movie with Adam Sandler and Samantha Morton that’s a PG-13 romantic comedy. That would be great. I love her, I love her — I’m obsessed with Samantha Morton!
Filmmaker: In a way that your wife understands?
Swanberg: Yeah, totally. I think Kris would freely let me off the hook to go and explore my Samantha Morton love! [laughs]
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Swanberg: Danny Huston is so fucking awesome in Ivansxtc. It blew my mind [so much] I actually went back and saw it the next day. I went home and said, “Did I really just see that? There’s no way somebody’s that good!” Then I watched it again, just because I couldn’t believe it. When I was in film school, I worked at this small film festival at school and showed it there, but it just didn’t get a response. I was like, “Are you people watching the same thing I’m watching? This is amazing stuff!” So I would give Danny Huston an Oscar — and also everybody involved with Jackass: The Movie!
Filmmaker: Finally, if the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) would you be sad that you hadn’t achieved?
Swanberg: Is it really obnoxious to say that I feel content right now? I feel great — what on earth would I have to complain about?! Moviewise things are really good, I’ve been very fortunate, Hannah‘s about to come out, I’m working on another cool project, I’m married and I had a great honeymoon… I dunno, I’m feeling pretty content right now! [laughs]