Happy Christmas Director Joe Swanberg on the Financial Life of the Independent Filmmaker
“Transparency benefits everybody.”
That’s Joe Swanberg, whose recommended Happy Christmas opens today, talking about distribution dealmaking, but he might just as well have been talking about all aspects of his career and financial life. Indeed, Swanberg is nothing but transparent in this long interview with producer, director and ArtHome founder Esther Robinson focused specifically on making a living as a writer/director — precisely the subject most directors won’t issue a comment on. The interview was conducted for Robinson’s current piece in the new print edition of Filmmaker, “Still on the Job,” in which she revisits several directors featured in an article five years earlier on filmmakers and their second jobs. Just a few sentences of what’s below appear in that article, but Swanberg had so much more to say that we transcribed, edited and are running their conversation in full. Below Swanberg talks about he and wife Kris Swanberg having a son and buying a house as well as the cash flow provided by his back catalog, paying down his credit card debt, joining the WGA and DGA, why he sometimes prefers to sell a film before its festival premiere, and much more.
Not everyone can be as prolific as Swanberg, but I think any filmmaker can learn something from this conversation. I can’t recommend it more highly, and I thank Joe for being so open with this at times personal information. — SM
Filmmaker: So, since my piece on filmmakers and their second jobs five years ago, what has your life been like? How has it changed? The biggest change, obviously, is that you and your wife Kris now have a son.
Swanberg: It’s just been constant moviemaking, and it’s been very hard. There’s something about having a little kid that makes you [more] aware of time passing in a certain kind of way. And a lot of that [filmmaking] was motivated by the uncertainty of life. When Kris was pregnant and we didn’t have any money, it was easy to work because we both were so unsure about what was going to happen. It was like, “I might as well go make another and another and another because who knows what next year’s going to look like.” Now there’s just a little more sense of what next year’s going to look like. Everything’s less uncertain now.
Filmmaker: Talk to me about how you have put your economic life together. Is it different than it was in 2009?
Swanberg: Well, 2010 was the big shift. We found out Kris was pregnant in February of 2010, and I made six features that year. My feeling was, okay, I will shoot a lot of stuff right now, and then, when the baby is born, I’ll just stay at home and edit. 2011 was crazy because I was trying to put those six movies out into the world. I sold Uncle Kent and Autoerotic to IFC, and that was the first time in the 10 years that Kris and I have been out of film school that we ever had any money. Usually I would sell a movie and put the proceeds either back into the next movie or live off of it until I could get the next thing going. Selling two [films] in the same year meant that we were living off of one of them, and then [with the money from the other], we decided to make a down payment on a house. We were like, “This is never going to happen again, so we should just do it, even though we can’t really afford it.” And so, we bought a house in the summer of 2011, and, financially, that’s been the big project. Then, in 2011, I still made a lot of stuff. I did a movie called All the Lights in the Sky, and then I went to Atlanta and did 24 Exposures. I was still living the same way I always had, cobbling together a month-to-month existence, but, in the meantime, I started to make money on movies that have been out there [for several years]. They’ve reached their second life: Netflix licenses, the Sundance Channel, DVDs, international VOD. There are these tiny accumulations so that every six months, when IFC does their accounting, I get a check for a few thousand dollars. And that income didn’t exist when we last talked.
Filmmaker: How many films are contributing to these few thousand dollars?
Swanberg: There are probably seven films out there with distribution that are recouping. They’re not each bringing in a few thousand dollars — it’s a few thousand dollars total. And the reason I’m getting a few thousand dollars every six months is because I paid for those old movies. I am the investor. Now, those movies only cost, like, a few thousand dollars [each], so it wasn’t a major expense. But when the movies show up on French Netflix, if there is a $600 license, I get that $600 license, which gets shared with whoever else has creative points.
Filmmaker: So, for you, there’s a financial cushion provided by the volume of your work, the fact that you have made so many films. It was stressful at first but now it’s paying back.
Filmmaker: There is a sort of aggregated income flow. $200 here, $200 there; you get income from seven films and that’s a mortgage payment.
Swanberg: Exactly. It turned out to be a necessary cushion. That money showing up was often what we needed to get by that next month. It’s unfathomable to imagine any other industry where the lag time between when you do the work and when you get paid for the work is three, four, six or 18 months, you know what I mean? It’s just crazy how when you’re on the filmmaking side, how un-urgent it all seems. It’s like, often, I know money is coming, but I have no idea when to expect it.
Filmmaker: Or even how much.
Swanberg: Or even how much. But it’s sort of like, “Okay, cool, that movie did well. But will I get that money six months from now? Will I get it a year from now? How much will it be?” The last couple of years have been this weird experience of always playing catch-up, always being a year behind whatever work I did.
Filmmaker: Your model seems to have changed with Drinking Buddies.
Swanberg: With Drinking Buddies, which I shot in the summer of 2012, I [got paid] to make the movie. I haven’t made any [additional] money from Drinking Buddies, and I probably won’t. But what it’s changed for my career has been huge. Because of that, I directed an episode of the HBO show Looking, which was great. I did a movie called Happy Christmas, where I worked with some of the same actors. So, the residual effects of Drinking Buddies have been really helpful in getting Kris and I to a place where we feel neutral. I still don’t feel like I’m making money, but 2013 was the first year where I felt like I wasn’t going further into debt.
Filmmaker: From the outside, you seem like a huge success. But the idea that even with all that success you’re just getting to neutral is intense.
Swanberg: It’s totally intense. For Kris and I, our dream right now is just to get out of debt — the hundreds of dollars a month in credit card debt from movies that I put on a credit card years ago. And that doesn’t even start to tackle student loans and stuff like that. Our family debt is $80,000 or $90,000. If we got to a point where we were at zero, that would feel like a major accomplishment. And then, actually making money, I don’t know how people do that. That’s this other thing.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like having a house has shifted anything besides your financial picture? Has it been nice to own?
Swanberg: Definitely. It’s huge peace of mind to know that not only is our mortgage going towards equity but also that, if for some reason, we couldn’t handle it, we could sell the house because it’s something of value. It’s not like the credit card debt, a monthly expense that just evaporates into the ether. The house feels like something that is for our family and that we can build upon.
Filmmaker: Do you guys both work out of the house?
Swanberg: Yeah, we both do.
Filmmaker: Well, the good thing about attacking the debt is that you’re sort of acclimated to a lower income level. When you finish paying off the debt, you can shift that money over to savings. That’s one of the strategies I teach at ArtHome — to just stay at that level. Don’t ever adjust to income, just move it into savings because income fluctuations can be so intense.
Swanberg: I think about that all the time. It’s been an amazing couple of years. I’m now actually getting paid to make the movies I want to make rather than having to spend my money to make the movies I want to make. But it’s scary to me because filmmakers get successful for a second, and then there’s like a five-year gap between movies, and you wonder what happened. But tastes change. The industry changes. Right now, I’m able to make money because of VOD, but if that revenue stream dries up… like, my movies can’t open in multiplexes, and they’re not necessarily slam dunks for TV. If for some reason in ten years iTunes and the VOD section of the industry becomes not a big moneymaker, I don’t know what we’d do. So, even the prospect of making a lot of money seems to me like it is all rainy-day money because it’s not sustainable. It never has been for anyone. Maybe we can name 15 filmmakers who were just as popular in their sixties as they were in their thirties. For most people, there is a window when your movies are financially successful, and then you eke out a living more on the fringes of the industry. Look at Peter Bogdanovich. He had a period of time when his movies were getting nominated for Oscars, making tons of money. He’s the same guy he was then, but he can barely get a movie financed now. This is Peter Bogdanovich, a master of the cinematic art form, and nobody wants to give him money to make a $5 million movie.
Filmmaker: So what’s your answer to that?
Swanberg: There’s no answer. I mean, the answer was buy a house and pay off debt. Get some things squared away while we can so the inevitable lean times ahead are less lean than they would be if we hadn’t built some infrastructure.
Filmmaker: Going forward, do you want to do more TV?
Swanberg: I’m not dying to do TV. I feel really spoiled because doing that episode of Looking was amazing, but, that’s because I really love that show. I love all the actors, writers and the creators. It was a dream experience. But, doing an episode of a network sitcom doesn’t sound like a dream experience. It’d be hard to do TV that’s not Looking or some cool HBO show or something like that. I’m still primarily focused on making my own stuff.
Filmmaker: What’s your output these days? You’re not at six movies a year. Are you at two?
Swanberg: No, I’m more like a movie a year right now.
Filmmaker: So you’ve gone all traditional?
Swanberg: Yeah. Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood.
Filmmaker: On your bigger-budget films, do you have the same kind of profit participation that you do on the smaller films for VOD?
Swanberg: What I did on Happy Christmas and what I’m doing on this new one, is to put some of my own money into [the film] and participate on the backend side in an equity way rather than just a creative way. If my movies are making money right this second, that’s the way to maximize that [income] the most, to participate to the largest extent on the backend side. I didn’t have any money to put into Drinking Buddies in terms of being an investor, but I did for Happy Christmas and I did for this one that I’m doing right now. Honestly, I would love to be the sole investor for a $1 million movie. Over the years, I learned that the people who take the financial risk also benefit the most from a successful movie. It’s a form of gambling, but I’d be betting on myself, and one success could pay for two or three financial failures. I mean, I’m nowhere near that point, but to me, that’s what the future looks like — the risk getting a little bigger each time. Gambling on a $500,000 movie rather than a $5,000 movie. It’s the filmmaker equivalent of a retirement fund.
Filmmaker: Right. But as your friend, my first thought is that you need to take some of that money and make solely funded, smaller Joe Swanberg movies so you have that 100 percent potential ongoing. The big movies will dilute your participation.
Swanberg: But their earning potential is a lot greater. If I am the sole investor in a $10,000 movie, I may only be able to sell that movie for $60,000. But if I’m a 20 percent owner on a $1 million movie that can make $10 million, that 20 percent’s going to be worth a lot more. Actually, even if I’m only a 20 percent owner on a $1 million movie that could make two million, that 20 percent’s still a lot more money. It’s a balance each time.
Filmmaker: I’m just saying that you should diversify your portfolio. I’m just being a wonk with you.
Swanberg: Mine’s already crazy diversified. I’ve done 17 features.
Filmmaker: No, but I mean, maybe, every three years, you and Kris need to make one [smaller movie] that has all those A-list actors, a film you can own 100 percent of.
Swanberg: Oh, absolutely. But the thing about that is, you have to let the A-list actors in on the participation too. [You can’t own] 100 percent, because really, they will bring the value more than I will. But yeah, that’s the idea. I would love to call Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson and say, “Look, guys, let’s do a $300,000 movie. I’ll put 100 in, you put 100 in, you put 100 in.” And then, we own it.
Filmmaker: Are you doing any teaching or any other new things for money right now?
Swanberg: The only other thing I’m doing is writing a screenplay I’m being paid to write by Fox Searchlight, which I’ve never done before. So, that’s sort of a source of income, but really, the idea is to make the movie. I’m not a screenwriter for hire. And it’s not enough money to really live off of. I couldn’t just do that one year. There would have to be other things going on. If I do more of that, it’ll always sort of be the second job that year.
Filmmaker: And does Kris have an income stream?
Swanberg: She does. I mean, she will this year when she makes her movie, but I mean, historically, she has. Often she was the one who was making most of the money. She was teaching for two years. She owned an ice cream business. She had a lot of other things she was doing. So, it’s actually been really nicely balanced between the two of us. We got married in 2007 and it’s just been lucky that she’s making some money when I’m not and then, when she’s not, I am. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe we can feel it three months ahead of time and then the other one steps up in some way. There have been very few times, thankfully, when both of us have been broke at the same time. This fall, when she’s going to be making her movie, I have earning potential. But, it’s better for me to not work this fall and let her focus on her movie so that we both have earning potential two years from now at the same level. So, this year and next year we are going to spend a lot of our time investing in her career.
Filmmaker: That’s the opportunity cost.
Swanberg: Exactly. It’s an investment like any other.
Filmmaker: Another big change since the last article is you’ve joined the WGA and DGA.
Swanberg: I had to join the Writer’s Guild because of the Fox Searchlight screenplay. I had to join Director’s Guild because of the HBO episode. But what that means is now we have health insurance for the first time in a long time through those guilds. And we have also a pension plan and residuals. I always had some form of residuals because I had ownership in the movies, but now I have contractual residuals. That is fundamentally going to change the way I make movies. I can’t go make a $5,000 movie anymore because of the way these unions work. I can still make very cheap movies, I just can’t make the kind of ultra super cheap movies I used to.
Filmmaker: It’s like an insurance plan of your own, like “no more ultra ultra budget low.”
Swanberg: Well, no, my desire to make those movies hasn’t gone away, it’s just that the practical realities are forcing me up a little bit. I mean, it was a big tradeoff. For a long time I was very resistant to joining either of those unions. But, I reached the point where the budgets were getting a little bigger anyway, and the idea of health insurance and some of the contractual protections were exciting to me and worth the tradeoff — especially the health insurance.
Filmmaker: So in that sense, Obamacare didn’t matter to you.
Swanberg: It would have, but the timing just happened to be that like, the second it got enacted, I also joined the DGA. But you know, those insurances only exist if I continue to make a certain amount of money every year. It’s possible I will lose those insurances at some point over the years and will need Obamacare, but for right now, if I do an episode of TV or a feature a year, it’ll be enough to keep those insurances active.
Filmmaker: Wow. Even just one TV show?
Swanberg: Yeah, the episode of Looking was enough that it met the criteria for the health insurance.
Filmmaker: Looking back, what would be the advice you’d give today to the younger version of yourself?
Swanberg: You know, I feel like I accidentally did the right thing. My relationship with IFC was such that when Hannah Takes the Stairs and then Nights and Weekends made money, because of VOD, it emboldened me to take more control of my own career and become more of a producer and investor. Looking back, those were the smartest things I did — take a bigger ownership stake in my own work and keep that relationship with IFC. A lot of people gave me a lot of flack for selling some of those movies to IFC before they even premiered at festivals, for not bringing them out onto the open market, but I knew they would return a profit. You hear about a lot of movies that did really well, that made $2 million in theaters, but you talk to those filmmakers and none of that money ever came back to them. The P&A expenses were super high or their backend was weird. Once I had that relationship with IFC, had been through all those contracts and the delivery process, and had seen how they spend money in smart ways, it made perfect sense to make that almost like a studio relationship. And then IFC changed. The company restructured, and they just weren’t putting out $10,000 movies anymore. And because they changed, I was forced to do something different, and that’s sort of where Drinking Buddies came from.
Filmmaker: You were kicked out of the nest.
Swanberg: Absolutely. It was like, okay, that’s not an option anymore. So how am I going to get people to see this work? The other advice I’d give is to keep it simple.
Filmmaker: What does that mean?
Swanberg: I formed relationships with actors and crew and kept those the same for project to project. I didn’t get an office space that suddenly cost $1,300 a month to rent. I didn’t get an assistant I had to train to respond to my emails. As the films progressed in level, I never introduced overhead. That was a really big factor in getting through the lean times. When there was money coming in, it was really appealing to think about not having to work from home or getting an assistant. But, I would have had to lose the office and fire the assistant, you know what I mean? That would’ve happened. I stayed totally lean and small, and when times were bad, it didn’t have to change.
Filmmaker: A lot of filmmakers don’t think of their working life as an investment in and of itself. But I think being consistent in how you work can have this incredible payoff. If you’ve got a track record and a plan for your career, then [investors] can put risk capital there without worrying about the filmmaker being able to deliver. I see a lot of people who will blindly just say, “I’m investing in my work” without thinking about what that means. For you, how do you make the calculation of whether that investment is going to pay back?
Swanberg: You can’t really. But I have the advantage of having been doing this for 10 years. I now have a sense of the industry that I didn’t have when I started out. I also have a lot of relationships that I didn’t have then. Like for instance, we sold Happy Christmas to Paramount. Jeff Deutchman moved over to Paramount from IFC. So it seems like a new relationship, but actually, it’s just a continuation of a preexisting relationship. I can now pick up the phone and call distributors. I don’t have to hire a sales agent and give somebody 10 percent of my profits because I have a lot of those same relationships. I think it’s just being cognizant of that kind of stuff and also being really realistic about the work that you’re making. I’ve had enough disappointments and been around long enough to not have any flights of fancy that I’m going to pour a bunch of money into a movie that’s going to be a gangbuster success. It’s like, “Okay, let’s put a little bit of money into a movie that I think can make a little bit more than we’re putting into it.” Taking those baby steps has always been more helpful than betting the farm.
Filmmaker: The last article I did for Filmmaker is called “There’s No Money” and it’s about the incredible freedom of knowing there is no money and then acclimating to that level.
Swanberg: Right. But that only works for so long.
Filmmaker: What do you mean?
Swanberg: Well, you can do no-budget movies up to a certain point, but in order for it to really be sustainable and to work in a truly, artist-friendly sort of way, at the point when your work is commercial, you need to pay people. Otherwise it’s exploitation. If I have four movies in a row that make money, it’s going to be really hard on the fifth movie to say to everybody, “Hey, show up. I’m not going to pay you anything.” It’s like, “Well, no, your movie is going to get distribution. People are going to see it. We also need to pay our rent, and we also need health insurance.” You have to be realistic about that stuff, too. No budget is the best way to start, and maybe it’s the best way to finish, but at some point in the middle, there’s a reason why we pay people upfront as well. It can’t all be riding on the success of the backend, unless it is in a fair way, [which means] you’re paying people their true rates after the movie sells.
Filmmaker: So much of this conversation is about relationships.
Swanberg: That’s all that matters.
Filmmaker: But there are plenty of young directors who think it’s about “my vision” and “my career.” How would you differentiate how you work versus that?
Swanberg: The way I work, where the movies are improvised and the actors are like, writing them with me, is fundamentally different from the get-go. I’m asking [the actors] to bring a lot more than most people are. I’m asking them to share themselves in a different kind of way. I have been on sets — not my own — where somebody doesn’t want to do something and the answer is, “Well, tough shit. You signed the contract. You took the money.” That’s so different from the kind of relationship I’m in with the people I work with, where usually they’re not being paid, and contracts don’t get signed until much later when distribution already exists. It’s like the movies are being entered into as a friendship, as relationships. And so, it’s just changed the way that I look at all of that stuff. But also, I’ve been around long enough to get burned a couple of times, and I just don’t want to do that to other people.
Filmmaker: I know. I was saying to somebody that your 20’s are like, “Ouch, not again.” And then your 30’s are about working out how to say “never again.” And then your 40’s are about cashing in on the fat Rolodex. “I don’t need bullshit, and my tree of friendship is pruned to just this sweet spot of awesome people.”
Filmmaker: I feel like my whole life is that way. I’ve pared it down to the essential people. I can get on the phone and make five things happen, where I used to have to try to figure it out. Like you said, you can now call the distributors directly.
Swanberg: You can just call them, in fact, before you make the movie, and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about this. Is this something that you guys have a place for in your slate of movies?” If the answer is no, maybe that’s not the best thing to spend a lot of money on making next.
Filmmaker: You’re doing your own market research.
Swanberg: When you have reached that level where your decisions have to be both business and artistic decisions, it’s amazing to have those relationships. Everything becomes an educated guess rather than just a guess. For instance, with Happy Christmas, I made the movie I wanted to make, but then, once it was sitting there on hard drives, I had the question of where [and when] to premiere it. It was amazing to be able to call a bunch of distributors and say, “I have a movie with ‘Christmas’ in the title. If this premieres at Toronto, would you have time to get it out by Christmas and would you even want to?” Getting that honest feedback from distributors — “No, September’s too late for us to have something out by Christmas, and also, because it’s an indie movie, we can’t compete with the Oscar [films]” — totally informed our decision to wait until the following year. If I didn’t have those relationships, I might have naively said, “Oh, because it’s a Christmas movie, we should premiere it at Toronto, and then somebody can buy it and put it out by Christmas.” And then what would have happened is that we would’ve premiered it at Toronto, somebody would’ve bought it and then waited an entire cycle to the next [year], at which point the movie would’ve lost all of its momentum. Or, a potential distributor would have gone, “Ah man, I love this movie, but we can’t wait 16 months to put it out.”
Filmmaker: How do you keep up with all these distributors, continue to maintain these relationships?
Swanberg: I’m in touch with these people all the time anyway. Magnolia, for instance, we’re always working on something. IFC, there’s always some email communication over international rights to some previous movie. Because of past work and past relationships, these people are in my inbox once a month anyway.
Filmmaker: You have both a financial and information long tail.
Swanberg: It’s useful for [the distributors], too. There are elements of this industry where being secretive is useful, but for the most part, transparency benefits everybody. Well, let me change that: transparency benefits everybody with a good movie. And transparency benefits every distributor who’s honest. It’s only when you’re trying to sell a piece of shit or do some dirty distribution deal that secrecy works in your favor. But, if you’re talking about quality movies and financially sound distributors, there’s no reason not to be upfront and honest about everything.
Filmmaker: The problem is, is there are so few financially sound distributors.
Swanberg: And so few quality movies.
Filmmaker: Although most people think their movie has quality.
Swanberg: It’s hard. If you go to Sundance with a movie that nobody’s seen a single frame of and your intention is to start a bidding war, your odds of selling your movie for a lot of money do go way up, but I don’t know that you necessarily land with the best distributor. You just land with the person who’s willing to pay the most. Sometimes that’s the only factor that matters; sometimes you do need to sell it for the most money. But, if you’re in the position of just looking for the person who’s going to do the best job putting your movie out, what you’re looking for is somebody who could watch it on a DVD on an airplane and fall in love with it. They don’t need to see it in the frenzied bidding-war environment of Sundance. As a filmmaker, obviously, you don’t want somebody to see your movie for the first time on a DVD on an airplane, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that [person] is not the right distributor. It’s like what I was saying about IFC. Once I had that relationship and knew how it was going to work, even if I could have taken one of those movies to Sundance and sold it for more money, it would have meant starting a brand new relationship and learning everything from scratch.
Filmmaker: There’s also a perversion in our marketplace, too, because if you have a sales agent and they’re working on a percentage, then they have to get the biggest deal.
Swanberg: Well, the way those deals work, though, is that they’re working on a percentage over the lifetime of the movie, not just of the sale. And so, they are motivated also by long-term success.
Swanberg: It’s less apparent because in our industry, long-term success is such a questionable [prospect].
Filmmaker: I’m not sure people make many good decisions in that Sundance environment.
Swanberg: I agree. I don’t blame them, but it’s not necessarily smart. It’s safer to take the money upfront, but it may not be the best thing for your movie. It’s also probably in everybody’s best interest to think about who you want to spend the next year of your life emailing and on the phone with, and whose financial statements you want to be getting.
Filmmaker: Again, that’s where the risk comes in, right? Do you get paid upfront or can you invest in a relationship?
Swanberg: It’s tricky because it’s different every time. The industry in ways is getting both easier to navigate and a lot more difficult. Like, my first movie premiered at South by Southwest, but that same movie would not get into South by Southwest now. So, I feel lucky that I submitted in 2005, not 2015. But also, VOD didn’t exist back then, and my movie could get bought for VOD today if it went there. It’s just really complicated to stay on top of it, and it’s also complicated because not every filmmaker is as interested in being a businessman as I am. And I don’t blame them. But, in a way, being as interested in being a businessman as I am has enabled me to make weirder, more aggressively experimental movies because I know certain things. I don’t feel artistically limited by having my head in numbers a lot of the time.
Filmmaker: Could you talk a little bit more about this?
Swanberg: Well, I think that there is a notion that for artists to think about business is to corrupt the art process. As soon as you start considering market factors and numbers and all of that stuff, you’re not being a true artist, you’re not following your true vision. To some extent, maybe that’s true, but I think that by knowing the marketplace before I go into a movie, once I’m there, I’m completely free to do whatever I want because [there’s not that] giant question mark of whether there’s an audience for that thing.
Filmmaker: I do eight-hour personal finance boot camps for ArtHome, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that there’s a one-to-one corollary between people who say, “Well, I don’t want to think about money,” and then people who later in the camp realize that’s all they think about because they’re just so broke. There’s this point at which you don’t want to think about money, but then, every decision becomes constrained by it.
Swanberg: There are a lot of filmmakers I know who are making very sincere attempts to make work that is commercial, but they don’t know what that means. They pitch me a project: “I’m tired of doing the arty thing. I’m working on a screenplay now that I think I can attach some famous people to and actually make some money.” And then they tell you the idea and you’re just like, “Never in a million years is a) any famous actor going to want to do that movie; or b) is any distributor going to want to put it out. You are so deluded right now. You don’t know what ‘commercial’ means.” And these are smart people, but they shouldn’t be thinking about “commercial.” They stand a better chance of making money by following their own whacko artistic vision.
Going back to earlier, when you were saying that as an artist you need that space to have some failures, to try some things out — 2010, the year that I made those six movies, was an incredibly successful year for me because I sold two of them, but the other four, I didn’t. But I still needed to make those movies, and by being a businessman and having a lot of that [knowledge] running around in my head, I know when I’m going into a movie that stands zero chance of financial prospect. And then, I’m equally liberated with that, too. The filmmaker Ronnie Bronstein said something once in an interview: “Look, I make movies to go on vacation.” You wouldn’t spend $5,000 on a vacation and come home from it feeling ripped off. You’re choosing to spend that money for travel. Why feel any different about a movie? That made perfect sense to me. I feel like I’ve done that a lot, where I’m like, “Look, this is just going to lose money. That’s all there is to it, but it’s going to be artistically nourishing. I’m going to have fun doing it. I’m going to get to spend time with my friends.” If was worried about that project having to be commercial, it still wouldn’t be—plus, I wouldn’t be having as much fun.
Filmmaker: Are you finding now that actors are coming to you?
Swanberg: Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson were massive advocates for the process after we did Drinking Buddies, and I actually sense that their support turned a lot of people on. And then, when Anna Kendrick came back and did Happy Christmas after Drinking Buddies, that sealed the deal in terms of the perception [of me] as a filmmaker. You couldn’t ask for better champions than those three actors. They’re really talented, everyone knows they’re nice people and likes them, and there they were saying, “I had a good time making this movie.” It’s really changed the conversations I have had with actors about working with me. When I was casting Drinking Buddies, I spent those entire meetings just trying to explain what the hell I did.
Filmmaker: I wish I could’ve seen that.
Swanberg: It’s like, “There’s not going to be a script. I don’t know what it’s about yet, and I need you to help me figure out what it’s about.” That was just such a complicated process. Now, I don’t have to do that anymore. People are like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m having coffee with you right now because I’m interested in that, so let’s start talking about ideas.” It’s just such a huge relief.
Filmmaker: I love the idea that Olivia Wilde is your gateway drug.
Swanberg: Oh man, she’s been so incredible. I can’t even count how many meetings have started with, “I’m friends with Olivia. She said this was amazing, so I totally wanted to meet with you when you were in L.A.”
Filmmaker: I wonder if you may have come upon all of this by being a Midwesterner. I’m from Minneapolis, and I’m really similar to you: I love art, but it has to be practical. And I’m really nice. Yours is like Midwestern filmmaking but with the urban edge of experimentation. And at its core you’ve got to be nice to your neighbors.
Swanberg: But you still have to throw a good party.
Filmmaker: What do you mean?
Swanberg: You have to deliver on what you promised. You can’t send out an invite to a rager and then people show up and there’s only six people eating cheese and crackers. Jake talked about this a lot, actually. When we got on the phone, he was really skeptical about coming and doing Drinking Buddies. The financing wasn’t in place and it was very shaky at that point. I told him, “Look, you’re going to get to come to Chicago. You can drink beer on set. You’re going to have a ton of creative freedom. You’re going to work with the other actors. If you stay out too late and you’re tired and you come to work, we’ll make your character tired that day. And if you have too much beer at lunch and you’re feeling a little drunk, we’ll just make your character a little drunk.” His brother lives in Chicago and just had a kid. He was like, “I’m excited about possibly coming and seeing my nephew.” I [said], “Your brother can come to set and bring the nephew. We’re going to have a fun, good time making this movie.” And he was like, “Okay. I’ll do it. But, if you’re lying to me, I’m going to be really upset.”
And so, you know, the experience of Jake talking about and promoting Drinking Buddies, a lot of that was him talking about getting there and the promises I made were being followed through on. And that’s why on this new movie I just shot, Jake is the lead. He and I wrote it together. He’s become a major artistic collaborator, and it’s because he trusts me now. I’m not full of shit. And that’s what I mean when I say you still have to throw a good party. I feel like that’s where it breaks down — if the actors are promised something and they don’t get it.
Filmmaker: What you’re saying is that you’re giving them the respect of an actual exchange, which tragically, is a surprising scenario.
Swanberg: I know. Isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that insane, for a really successful actor to be like, “I would just like to be able to utilize my intelligence. That’s all I’m asking, is that I not be treated like a puppet.”