RT Talks With Hannah Takes the Stairs' Joe Swanberg
The DIY maestro talks microbudget flicks, Mumblecore, and Larry David.
JS: My directing is really weird. Everything is based on whether it's working or not. I don't try to fix something if it's not working, I'll just change it. A lot of the people I'm working with are not actors, or it's their first time in a movie. I'm not trying to shape performances, coax performances out of them. It's more like I want to put them in situations that naturally work or allow them to be themselves. If it's not happening, I'll just completely switch it up, rather than trying to make it work.
RT: Obviously, someone like John Cassavetes comes to mind, but who are other influences on what you guys do?
JS: For me, I get a lot of influence from Larry David, with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Ricky Gervais with The Office, you know, that kind of improvised comedy that's deriving the humor from these awkward interactions and situations. I really have fun going off the script and seeing what happens when you put the actors in an awkward situation and force them to be their characters. Also, Werner Herzog's a big inspiration for me, not necessarily because of his movies, but more because of his persona. And I like his writing on film. I like what he has to say about the aesthetic truth, the methods he employs to make these crazy movies happen. That kind of stuff's really cool to me.
Ry Russo-Young and Greta Gerwig.
RT: You have gotten a pretty good response on the festival circuit, particularly at South by Southwest. Do you think about breaking out to a larger audience? Do you think that's possible?
JS: I don't know. I've sort of made my peace with it. Hannah Takes the Stairs, more than any of my other films, does have a chance to appeal to a wider audience, but I don't think it's Superbad. I do think there's a smaller audience that's looking for something that's a little more adult and a little more nuanced [than many Hollywood movies]. At the same time, I think everyone who's making movies hopes to appeal to the widest audience possible. I want to communicate with people, and I want to make something that works, and that people like. I'm never purposefully trying to be antagonistic or shocking or anything that would push an audience away. I'm always hoping to reach as many people as I can.
RT: What would be your ideal situation in terms of funding or actors?
JS: I do like the idea of doing something different, maybe doing something that's more like a genre film. And there are certain actors that I'd like to work with that would go along with working with a bigger budget. I think Adam Sandler's amazing, and I would love to do a movie with him. In order to make that work, it would have to be something that's more structured. Samantha Morton's great. I mean, there are people I'm drawn to that you just can't do a tiny, no-budget movie with. I would like to pursue some of that stuff, to see if I could do a movie with some of those people. And I don't really write scripts myself, but if I read a script I thought was really great, I would totally be up for doing a more traditional movie. It's just that I don't exist in that world right now. I don't have an agent. I don't take meetings or anything like that, so I don't really know what's out there. I'm not closed off to anything, but I'd just have to ask myself at every step if it's worth it. Am I doing the movie because I'm really excited about it and want to do it, or am I doing it because it seems like it's a big budget or something like that? It would still have to be the right thing, because my lifestyle's really cheap and I'm able to exist doing smaller movies, so if I'm able to do that, I'm happy to do that. But if something bigger came along that seems really cool, then that would be great.
RT: What's your day job?
JS: It's a lot of different things. I do some freelance web design stuff. I taught a directing class for this not-for-profit organization here in Chicago a couple months ago. I wrote a thing for Filmmaker Magazine a couple months ago. Occasionally, I'll get to go speak to students at a university and make a little money that way, which is great. I really like doing that.
Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig.
RT: So what would you tell someone about your film? Why should they see it? And where can they see it?
JS: I'm really proud of all the actors. Whether the storyline or the improvised format appeals to people, I think the performances are all really strong. For people who want to see acting at its finest, they should check it out for that. Greta [Gerwig] worked really hard on her character. Hopefully it's a really accurate, interesting woman character, which we don't see enough of. Oh, and it will be on-demand too. If people don't live in New York City, they can still watch it the same day it opens. Everybody with [Cablevision] and Comcast can see it the same day it comes opens. [IFC] is doing that with all of their First Take [Movies]. All of those movies are day and date theatrical and on-demand.
RT: What's next for you?
JS: A couple things. I'm editing a new feature called Nights and Weekends that I shot back in December. I did that with Greta Gerwig and she's also in the first season of Young American Bodies, a web show that I do. She's been in a lot of my stuff. She and I act [in Nights and Weekends], playing a long distance couple. I'm also about to start on a new web series called Butterknife. It's about a private eye. By day, he deals with the ugly side of relationships, and catches spouses cheating on each other and stuff like that. But then, by night, he's got this really cute, sweet relationship back at home with his wife. I actually just got home from London last week, because I was acting in a movie out there. Just after South by Southwest I went down to North Carolina, because I shot the behind-the-scenes documentary for Cabin Fever 2, so I'm still editing that. Yeah, it's crazy. I've always got five or six things going at once.