ALEXANDER THE LAST’S JOE SWANBERG By Alicia Van Couvering
If there were to be a mumblecore parade, Joe Swanberg would be the man in the shiny red convertible, waving to onlookers and trailing a team of baton twirlers in his wake. His films – LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights & Weekends – have helped to define a genre that was never supposed to be a genre at all. Alexander the Last, his latest, was executive produced by Noah Baumbach and stars Jess Weixler (Teeth), Barlow Jacobs (Great World of Sound, Shotgun Stories), Amy Seimetz and Justin Rice (Mutual Appreciation), as well as Jane Adams and Josh Hamilton. It’s already been snatched up by IFC for release, and its On-Demand roll-out coincides with its SXSW premiere.
While Swanberg’s previous films were about the awkward margins of 20-something relationships, none of them feel as specific or as deliberate as this one. The story concerns the mental and almost-physical infidelity of a married actress, Alex, (Weixler) to her touring-musician husband, Elliot (Rice). Jacobs plays Jamie, her southern co-star in a play about sex and relationships (being directed in frazzled, spot-on glory by Jane Adams), and Josh Hamilton plays the emasculated writer. Jamie is soon targeted by Weixler’s sister Hellen, played by Amy Seimetz. Sexy Hellen is something of a man-eater, and Alex’s fury when Hellen tosses Jamie aside is a thinly veiled declaration of love for her co-star that Hellen and even Alex herself sees right through. Meanwhile, Elliot has his own issues – how many ambiguous mood swings will he put up with? Smudging the art/life line even further is the movie’s last frame — a title card dedicating the movie to the director’s own wife, Kris. This is personal filmmaking.
FILMMAKER: So this seems like a departure for you, or a development – the story is much more focused, and it feels deliberately structured in a way your previous films don’t so much.
SWANBERG: Yeah I agree with that – it’s kind of funny because we shot the movie in the exact same amount of time as the other ones, but I think it was a combination of my own focus being more intense, the story line being something I had spent time thinking about, and the influence of Noah [Baumbach] and some other people who helped me to tighten it up.
FILMMAKER: When did Noah and others help you? In the script stage?
SWANBERG: Yeah, I mean we shot the movie starting in April but I had been talking to Noah since February about it. He was never on set but I was sending him edited scenes almost every night, so he was watching the scenes come together as they were developing. We shot the movie in two distinct segments – the main shoot was from mid-April to mid-May, and then we went back to New York in July for a week of the theater stuff. At that point we also did reshoots of stuff from the first segment. Then I came back again for another day in September to do re-shoots and additional scenes. Each time we were able to tighten the story and focus it a little more – and a lot of that was based on those conversations with Noah.
FILMMAKER: How did you get involved with him?
SWANBERG: I sent him an e-mail after I saw Margot at The Wedding – I got his e-mail address through a buddy of mine – just ‘cause I really liked the film. He had seen Hannah Takes the Stairs, and I had just finished the cut of Nights and Weekends, so I sent him that, and we just sort of started talking.
FILMMAKER: So you say you shot the film in the same way you shot the other ones, although one major difference is that you cast trained, experienced actors.
SWANBERG: That was sort of the biggest new variable – and that was another area where Noah was really helpful, talking me through that and giving me advice in that area. But I think I was ready to make that change. I think the second half of Nights and Weekends, which we shot in December of 2007, was sort of the first shift towards something more deliberate and more stylized, so I just followed through with that on Alexander. It made sense to make that shift because I was getting more specific about what I wanted, and in doing so I needed people who were used to doing multiple takes, whose skills are honed in that way.
FILMMAKER: One difference between a trained actor and an un-trained one is that the former knows what they did, and can repeat it.
SWANBERG: Right, exactly, exactly. They’re paying attention. Also, I think systemically I’ve been stripping dialogue away each time out, [on each new film]. So I wanted and needed people who were comfortable with their bodies and comfortable acting without talking so much. I needed and wanted a lot of it to be told through facial expressions and physical movements. So it was a nice sort of organic change for me formally, one that was definitely aided by that process of working with actors.
FILMMAKER: Did they ever demand things from you that weren’t expecting?
SWANBERG: Yes, definitely. Everyone was so different in their approaches, too. Barlow and I definitely had a lot of conversations about the character – he’s an actor who really likes to develop his character and figure out the back-story and know where he’s coming from. With Amy I had a lot of conversations about personal things like family; we started working from who she was and then built the character away from her. So those are sort of opposite approaches. With Barlow we started not with who he was, but from the character. And then Jess came into it with a lot of experience acting in movies and theater, and she was really willing to throw a lot of that stuff away and go into it sort of blind – with a story structure but not any tight scenes or a script to work from. You know it was really, I felt… I don’t what the right word is… I felt really good having that trust from her. You know because Teeth had just come out and with it all this attention, and I think it was pretty scary for her to jump into a movie where she had the potential to do something stupid. That’s always the risk people take with me, so I always feel grateful when I get that trust.
FILMMAKER: Just in terms of infrastructure – trailers and holding areas and PA’s — when you lose all that, the actors become just like crew members, and you have to deal with their moods in such a direct way. It’s interesting to me how imposing that intimacy affects and informs your films. This one seems to be sort of about the intimacy that you were in fact living while making the movie.
SWANBERG: I continue to work that way because the intersection of those things is still really interesting to me. The cast really is like the crew, literally, in that they’re carrying things from the place, helping me move lights around or turn lamps on and off, you know. Everybody who is there, since there’s only like three or four of us in a room at a time, has to chip in that way. Some days it’s super-easy; we show up somewhere and we shoot for 25 minutes and we get a scene out of it and we go home. And then other days it really is more like a very hard day of work for everybody. Usually I’m just working with my friends, and they just assume that this is how movie sets operate. This time out, with everyone having so much experience — I definitely think for the first few days everybody was like, “I don’t know if this guy knows what he’s doing…”
FILMMAKER: How did you convince them?
SWANBERG: Because I edit scenes as we shoot, by the end of the first week or beginning of the second week people start to see the movie coming together. And then that gets tricky, because they get to see, ‘Oh, this is how my character is coming across… how do I keep using that, how do I get inside of that.’
FILMMAKER: That is so dangerous.
SWANBERG: Yeah, it can be.
FILMMAKER: As a producer my job is often to shield directors from everyone and everything, or at least be aware that the infrastructure I set up has to have boundaries built-in.
FILMMAKER: And you don’t have anything like that?
SWANBERG: No. I mean we’re all living together in the same apartment. It was me, David Lowery [credited as Right Hand Man], Barlow, Amy, Jess, and Tipper Newton [Production Assistant.] And then Justin lived not very far away and would be over at the house a lot. So pretty much all the main actors from the movie were living in a one bedroom apartment in Williamsburg. Like, really, there were no boundaries – if anybody was upset or feeling weird or whatever, everybody knew about it. So all that stuff sort of finds its way into the movie. I sort of need that — I need a lot of tension and emotion, I need to have a lot of raw material to work from, you know?
FILMMAKER: Even though you already had the story laid out?
SWANBERG: Even though I had the spine of a story because, also, Jess and Amy had to become believable sisters in a very, very short period of time. And Jess and Justin had to become believable husband and wife. And I don’t want to do The-Shot-Where-We-Show-That-They-Are-Husband-And-Wife thing, you know? I want to feel that they’re husband and wife, and I want to feel that they’re sisters. To get that in a shortened time period also requires a heightened emotional environment.
FILMMAKER: How do you have time to edit and shoot simultaneously?
SWANBERG: A short day really could be like twenty-five minutes or an hour; usually the goal is like a scene a day. As it goes along into week two and three, it becomes two or three scenes a day. But by then we know a lot more about each other and we also know a lot more about the movie. So, for instance, getting a scene or two done the first week is really pretty hard because we’re spending a lot of time talking, trying to figure it out. But by the end it really isn’t too much to shoot three or four scenes in a day, because I really know exactly what I want. So that gives me time to edit. Also, I am sort of editing while I am shooting, in my head. And if I can choreograph a scene so it’s like four minutes long without any cuts, then obviously I’ll just take that shot and stick it right in the timeline. The scenes that are tough are the ones that I cover from several different camera angles – I save those until after the shoot is over.
FILMMAKER: I’m reading your and David Lowery’s set diary, and there is all this mention of horseback riding, surfing, boat trips… a lot of adventure-taking going on there.
SWANBERG: We did shoot horseback riding, we attempted to go surfing, we did go sailing, — in our own minds it was this big adventure movie while at the same time we all acknowledged that it was a very small relationship movie. But I wanted to open the movie up a bit and put in these kind of melodramatic set pieces, a lot which ended up not working – but they were still fun and useful to shoot.
FILMMAKER: Do you have a desire to shoot on film with a big crew and a crane and so forth?
SWANBERG: It’s like it’s not that I have no desire to do it, but I don’t yet have the movie that would require it. I feel quite certain that eventually I will have that idea and I will say, “alright, I need these things now.” But to shoot on film, even on a small budget, would mean that I couldn’t work the same way that I am working. I couldn’t edit the footage that night [and have an assembly in front of me while I’m shooting]. That is a change that I am not willing to make yet. If we were put on a time delay where I was waiting for dailies and couldn’t watch the previous scenes right before I shoot the next ones, it would affect [everything.]
FILMMAKER: It’s more like a typical novel-writing process than a typical movie-making process.
SWANBERG: Yeah, I think that’s probably pretty accurate — but it’s also like the writing process comes after the doing-it process in a weird way, you know? It’s sort of like first we do it. Then we write it. Then we do it some more. Then maybe we write it some more. I hope similar to a documentary that when something interesting happens on my movies that I don’t expect that the film is free enough and loose enough that I can incorporate all the surprises.