RT Talks With Hannah Takes the Stairs' Joe Swanberg

The DIY maestro talks microbudget flicks, Mumblecore, and Larry David.

Joe Swanberg is a busy man. Since 2005, he's completed three films (Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs), is finishing up his fourth, has helmed two seasons of a web series (Young American Bodies), has acted in several films, shot the making-of doc for Cabin Fever 2, and held down several day jobs.

His latest, Hannah Takes the Stairs, is a dramedy about a young woman who drifts in and out of relationships over the course of a summer. The 25-year-old Swanberg is one of the poster children for the emerging "Mumblecore" movement that includes Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha), Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair), Aaron Katz (Quiet City), and Ry Russo-Young (Orphans). The group is sort of a cinematic Native Tongues: they frequently help with each other's films (Swanberg appeared in Quiet City; Bujalski, Russo-Young and Duplass all act in Hannah) and share a no-budget, minimalist aesthetic that wittily and unsparingly looks at the social lives of twentysomethings.

Hannah Takes the Stairs opens Aug. 22 in New York, but will be available on-demand to Comcast and Cablevision subscribers the same day. RT talked to Swanberg about his peers, the trials of shooting improvised films on tiny budgets, and the genius of Larry David and Adam Sandler.

Rotten Tomatoes: Call it "Mumblecore" or whatever, but it seems like there's a large group of people that are doing something similar: movies about post-collegiates and their romantic lives in naturalistic settings. So, you meet these other directors and actors at festivals and you end up collaborating?

Joe Swanberg: Yeah, pretty much everyone I've met at festivals. That's the really cool thing about being able to take your movie around and show it. It puts you in direct contact with people who are like-minded and interested in similar things. I think the film festival circuit has certainly helped to foster the community. And we're living in a time where it's really easy to keep in touch with people via email, cell phones and that kinda stuff. It's great. You meet people in a setting where it's really conducive to hanging out and having fun. Most film festivals are really low-stress, and good times to hang out with buddies and talk about what you're working on and come up with new ideas.


Joe Swanberg.

RT: You've got a bunch of filmmakers acting in this movie. Given the fact that everyone lives in different cities, how do your movies come together?

JS: With Hannah I think I got lucky. Mark Duplass came, like, literally a week before he was gonna get married, and he came out to Chicago to act in the movie. Andrew [Bujalski] just happened to have a little window of, like, nine or 10 days that he could come out. Ry [Russo-Young] was finishing the cut of her movie, so she was at a point where she had a little bit of time. [Hannah] I got lucky on. But with the other movies, I plan the shoots around when people are available, and they usually take a really long time. With LOL, I ended up spending eight months on it, because I could only shoot when people were around and didn't have other things. If you want to get certain actors in your movie, you just have to be kind of flexible about their schedules.

RT: How much did Hannah Takes the Stairs cost?

JS: I don't think I'm allowed to say, actually. I think the answer I'm allowed to give is five figures.

RT: In other words, a little more than LOL.

JS: Yeah, way more than LOL. That's something I can definitely say. Kissing on the Mouth only cost about $2,000 and LOL only cost about $3,000, and Hannah cost way more than that. It felt like a really big budget to me, even though, in fact, it's not that big.

RT: What did that money do for you?

JS: It allowed me to be a full-time filmmaker for a couple months and not have to have a day job and be balancing a bunch of other stuff. It allowed me to bring in all these people from different parts of the country. It allows me to have an actual food budget, where we could eat healthy for the month we were shooting. It makes all the difference in the world.


Andrew Bujalski and Greta Gerwig.

RT: Many of the people in your cast are also filmmakers. What do you guys share aesthetically and intellectually, and where do you differ?

JS: Todd [Rohal directed] The Guatemalan Handshake. He's got pretty different sensibilities. Todd's just an awesome dude. I wanted him because I think he's hilarious and I though he could be a great actor. With Andrew and Mark, we approach a lot of things with similar mindsets. We're looking for a certain kind of realism or naturalism, and we go about it in different ways, but I think we're all striving for the same end result, which is to capture the patterns of conversations and how people interact in a very realistic way. There are different levels of scripting that we all use; I think I'm the most improvised of the three, and probably Andrew's the most written. But all of that is in pursuit of similar things, and I think that we kind of recognize that in each other.

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