Uncle Kent Director Joe Swanberg
Since Joe Swanberg’s first feature film, Kissing on the Mouth, premiered at SXSW in 2005, he’s managed to make at least a feature a year, multiple web-series, and found regular launch-pads at SXSW and IFC Films. When Swanberg directs a film, he really functions as a craftsman of the entire work: while he eschews screenplays in favor of improvisation, he works as cinematographer, editor, and usually acts in the film. As the nexus of a low-budget film movement stressing honesty, stories chronicling the lives of people in their twenties, and improvisation (this movement begins with an “M,” ends with “core,” and was never a good label), Swanberg received much attention and a fair share of controversy, in large part due to his unblinking and unglamorous depictions of sexuality.
When 2010 came and went, it seemed almost strange that Swanberg didn’t release a new film. For a director with as much dizzying drive and an ability to make films inexpensively, it seemed that Swanberg would only increase his pace of production. Well, it turns out Joe was busy. He will premiere three features this winter — two at Berlin, and Uncle Kent will debut simultaneously at Sundance and on VOD (through Sundance Selects).
Uncle Kent — the story of one weekend in the life of a charming but lonely 40-year-old Los Angeles cartoonist (played by Kent Osborne) looking for human connection through the internet — packs a surprising punch. The film exists exactly now, in a world of Chatroulette and Craigslist, but the protagonist of Uncle Kent seems a little too old to be playing kid games. The tragedy of the film is that he knows it.
Filmmaker: So…how many films do you have backlogged? Seriously — you’re premiering one film at Sundance, and two at Berlin? How did you find the time to make them all? I’m actually very curious about the workflow for the films.
Swanberg: Last year was really productive for me. I’ve been working on Silver Bullets since late 2008, but I made Uncle Kent, Art History, and three other films between May and September. One of them, called Autoerotic, I co-directed with Adam Wingard.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Kent Osborne a number of times over the years, and now you’ve got a feature that appears to be — at least somewhat — inspired by his life (and of course, starring him). What drew you to Kent’s life? And where does fact and fiction blur in the creation of the “Kent” character?
Swanberg: I think Kent’s a great actor, and really fun to work with, so he’s been in almost everything I’ve done since we made Hannah. I’ve wanted to do something with him as the lead the whole time, so the timing finally worked out and we were able to make this film. It’s an idea we’ve been talking about in various forms for about three years. It’s certainly inspired by his life, but I took plenty of liberties as well. It’s great that Kent is comfortable enough to go with me to that place. It puts him on the spot and some people will assume everything is real.
Filmmaker: How has your process of making a feature developed over the years?
Swanberg: I’m outlining films a lot more now. I used to jump in with next to nothing and figure it out as I went, but that process usually took eight or ninemonths. It took over two years in the case of Silver Bullets! I’m still improvising and changing things on the fly, but now I’m going in with a game plan and I’m working much faster. I like this quick pace. I’m able to tackle a theme or an idea from several differed angles now without getting myself bogged down for a long period of time.
Filmmaker: For you, is directing a film intrinsically linked with also being behind the camera as cinematographer? What about editing? Would you potentially trust those duties to someone else for a future film?
Swanberg: Directing, photographing and editing certainly feel linked to me. I think about them as different pieces of the same whole. One of the reasons I like to do all three is because I want to be good at all three, and the only way to get good is to practice. I don’t have any misperceptions about my skills. I have a lot to learn as a filmmaker. I’m only just starting on something that I intend to do for the rest of my life. Five years is not enough time to get good at anything. I’m working hard now so that I can hopefully make good work when I’m 50. I’m hungry to learn and hopefully I’ll see progress in all of these departments over the course of my career.
There are a few editors and cinematographers who I trust 100%, but most of those people happen to be directors as well, so they’re usually busy and it’s hard to pin them down to work on my films.
Filmmaker: How much does location factor into your stories as a character? You’ve shot in Chicago plenty, and Brooklyn for Alexander the Last. Uncle Kent was obviously shot in Los Angeles — and looks specifically like Silverlake. But could you have made it elsewhere? Was the location dictated by the fact that Kent lives in Los Angeles, or…?
Swanberg: The location was important, but only because Kent lives there. I’m always much more interested in people than I am in environment, but this time it was so specifically Kent’s environment that it took on extra weight.
Filmmaker: Does the idea of sitting down, writing a screenplay, and then directing that script pretty faithfully appeal to you at all? Or is it just sort of antithetical to the way you like to tell stories?
Swanberg: It’s interesting to me as a challenge, and I’m sure I would learn a lot, which appeals to me, but I don’t have the drive right now to sit down and write a script. And I’ve never read a script that was SO good that I wouldn’t want to change a lot of it once real people got involved.
I like working with people. I want to have conversations and I want people’s personalities to push against each other. I’m not interested enough in my own ideas to spend time writing them down. Maybe I would have fun writing a script with another person.
Filmmaker: When some of your films have been translated for subtitles when the film is going to play in another country, are you ever surprised to see the words on a page in something resembling, well, a script? And do you think you could ever achieve that level of honesty of character and dialogue without your specific process of improvisation (i.e. by sitting down at a computer and writing it all before shooting)?
Swanberg: I look at the transcripts for the films when they’re finished and I’m 100% sure that I could never write something like that. It’s two or three or five or ten totally distinct voices, and each person is bringing their entire life experience to the table. Very few writers in the history of the world have been talented or schizophrenic enough to have that many fully developed voices and personalities talking to each other. I’m certainly not capable of it.
Filmmaker: You continue to get wonderful performances from people who aren’t “actors” (professionally, at least). Can you talk about how you go about casting, how someone’s personality will inspire a character (and in many cases, character/story details)?
Swanberg: I usually start with one person who I want to work with, in this case it was Kent, and then my radar goes up for people who might be good to enter his orbit. Jennifer Prediger is someone who I have been trying to work with for quite a while. We met several years ago and I liked her and thought she might be good in something, and this was finally the movie where it made sense to work with her. I have a lot of people like that. There are about ten people at any give time who are always in the back of my mind when I start developing a film who I’m trying to plug into something. Sometimes those people start out with small roles and then move to bigger roles, or sometimes they jump right into a really big roles.
Josephine Decker is a director (she co-directed the documentary Bi The Way and has made several shorts and music videos), and we met at the Sidewalk Film Festival in September 2009. We hung out in the same group for a few days there and stayed in touch afterwards. I knew I would like to cast her in something about 2 minutes after I started talking to her, but we never discussed working together.
When I emailed her about Uncle Kent, it was probably out of the blue for her, but she was one of those people in the back of my mind for several months before that.
It’s hard to say what it is exactly that I’m looking for when I find people who I want to work with. I’m probably picking up on eagerness and ambition. I’m probably getting a vibe from people that they are productive and energetic and willing to work. Filmmaking involves rejection so often that it feels really good to meet people who are accepting and excited to work with you. So there’s also the ego thing going on where I want to work with people who want to work with me!
Filmmaker: Kent’s character is so nuanced, so human, so funny…and yet there’s such a core of sadness to the character. The scene in the pool — between your character and Kent’s — really gets at his lack of desire to settle into a permanent relationship, and…the feeling he has that at age 40 he’s almost, well, over the hill. Can you describe your relationship — as the storyteller — with “Kent,” the character? How you feel about him?
Swanberg: I think it’s an incredibly sad film. I think all of my films are sad. They usually end with the characters right back where they started, often worse for wear. Sometimes they have the fake feel of happy films, like Hannah, but I think the ending of that film is really sad.
Uncle Kent is maybe the saddest because the character is older and there’s less of a sense that he has the potential to change. When the characters are in their twenties it’s easy to say, “They’ll figure it out. Everybody is confused in their twenties,” and people can walk away not feeling so sad. But the character of “Kent” maybe feels more defeated. I see it both ways. I also think the character has tremendous freedom, which I envy. He makes good money and is free to do what he wants, sexually and otherwise. I see that as liberating while at the same time acknowledging that it’s not my own personal recipe for happiness.
I don’t think being married and having children is the only way to be happy. And for many people, it’s the way to be unhappy! So I’m not sad for the character of “Kent” because he doesn’t want to get married and have kids. I’m sad for him because he invests so much of himself into each experience. He lives life in a very vulnerable and open way, which is what makes him so appealing, but it also allows him to be hurt each time.
Filmmaker: Do you have any discomfort with filming nudity? When it happens in your films, it always seems very natural to the stories you choose to tell. What are the early conversations you have with actors about the places you’d like to go and what you’d like to film?
Swanberg: My attitude and approach to this has changed over the years. I used to be very cavalier about it and I was under the assumption that if actors or friends were uncomfortable with what was happening while we were shooting, or with what was seen in the work, then they would speak up and tell me. But that wasn’t happening. Some people were quietly justifying things, or afraid to talk to me, or they wanted really badly to be comfortable with things and didn’t admit that they were uncomfortable until long after the fact when it was too late to undo it. And I unfortunately hurt some people and lost some friendships because of this stuff.
So now I don’t take anything for granted, and I don’t count on actors to be honest with me about this kind of stuff. The situation is too loaded. So we talk a lot about what everyone is comfortable with ahead of time. And we talk more about it while we’re doing it. And we talk even more about it after we’re finished. It’s of course easiest to deal with ahead of time, before we shoot, because there is the least amount of pressure and it’s still possible to change things. But even after the film is edited I make sure to go back and double check and I let everyone know its not too late to voice concerns with me. I would rather have the headache of changing a finished film than the devastation of losing a friend or feeling like I’ve hurt someone.
Having said all that, it’s still important to me to include sex and sexuality as normal and integral aspects of people’s lives. And I want to make sure that stuff is just as honest and real as everything else that I do. Just like every other aspect of filmmaking, hopefully I’ll get better at it the more I practice and I’ll discover better ways to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy with what we’re doing.
Filmmaker: When Kate leaves after the weekend at Kent’s place, he meticulously takes every item that was touched by her — sheets, his clothes, etc. — piles them up, and tosses them in the washer. I think it’s one of the finest sequences you’ve ever filmed, and really quite devastating. Can you can talk about those moments, how and when you decided that they were part of the story?
Swanberg: I’m especially proud of the last 30 minutes of Uncle Kent and I agree that the sequence you’re talking about is some of the best work I’ve done. We had the luxury of shooting the film mostly in sequence, so after Kate’s character leaves we were able to have the conversation about what “Kent” would do next. It seemed right that after deflating the air mattress and stripping the sheets of off it, he would just keep going. So we went through the rooms in his house, one by one, and had him clean up every trace of the weekend. As I was saying about the endings of my other films, when he eventually takes the clean sheets and clean clothes out of the dryer and puts his apartment back together, he’ll be right back where he started at the beginning of the film.
Filmmaker: Uncle Kent is going to be available via Sundance Selects. Can you talk about that?
Swanberg: I’m so happy to be making my work available this way. There are so many people in the country who love film and take part in the film community online or through magazines but can’t attend Sundance and don’t have art house theaters near them. And, even if they do have art house theaters near them, there are so many more films being made than can be programmed at any one theater. So the Sundance Selects program and VOD in general is really allowing people to keep up with film in real time.