Q&A: ‘Happy Christmas’ Director Joe Swanberg on Corrupting Anna Kendrick, Shooting on Film, and Making Peace With Mumblecore
Somewhere in the last few years, “mumblecore” went from aesthetic insult to defiant badge to legitimate entry in our collective film consciousness. Now it’s all but ready for wiki-history books, and if you need proof, just look at Joe Swanberg. Swanberg’s prodigious filmography was the hardest of mumblecore: His unapologetically aimless, lo-fi style in LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends represents the quintessence of the movement. Then came last summer’s VOD hit Drinking Buddies, in which Swanberg combined two of the ultimate male fantasies — Olivia Wilde and craft beer — to create a startlingly authentic romantic comedy (of sorts). Swanberg, of all filmmakers, had broken into the mainstream. Now mumblecore’s former poster-child director is using actual celluloid: His latest, Happy Christmas, was shot on Super 16 with Beasts of the Southern Wild DP Ben Richardson and he’s got a 35-millimeter movie in the can. So, if even Joe Swanberg’s shooting film, it feels like mumblecore may have passed its high-water mark.
But while Swanberg could be growing up, he hasn’t lost his shuffling, anarchic instincts. It may have the warm graininess of real film, but Happy Christmas takes Anna Kendrick, America’s biscuit-making sweetheart, and gleefully turns her into a mid-twenties problem child. She ambles around Chicago (with Lena Dunham, no less), blacks out at someone else’s house party, and then hits on the baby sitter/pot dealer her brother had to get to watch his baby because she was still too hungover. But, as per usual, Swanberg has taken a Todd Phillips logline and crafted a discomfiting, authentic look at what happens when mid-twenties extended adolescence runs into the brick wall of thirties maturity. However stumbling and tentative it may seem, Swanberg’s voice captures his generation’s own tentative stumbling. So, with Happy Christmas popping into an art house near you on July 25 (it’s also already available on demand), we couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to Swanberg, reflect on the mumblecore moment and what it’s like using honest-to-god physical film, and pitch him on the inevitable Problem Child remake.
It must have been fun turning sweet, innocent Anna Kendrick into a quasi-alcoholic.
It was. It was nice getting to know her while we were making Drinking Buddies and seeing how wide ranging her talent was — and how she hadn’t been given a ton of opportunities to be a mess. It was exciting that she was up for that, and it was really fun to work with her and see how far we could push that. The reactions have been kind of extreme. When we screened at Sundance, there was an almost visceral negative reaction to her. Even during the Q&As, people were almost upset with Anna, the actress, because of things the character had done. But I hope I get to keep working with her and we get to keep pushing the extremes.
It’s probably because she seems so intrinsically adorable and lovable. To think of her blacked out on the couch; it’s like, “Where did that come from?”
It’s interesting. She’s been working professionally since she was so young that I don’t know she had time in her personal life to go through this period. She’s very put together. The way certain people can talk about their early twenties as several years of being a little out of it; she didn’t really ever have that luxury, I don’t think. What got under people’s skins was really her selfishness. That’s what Anna and I talked about: having that character be so self-centered and unaware of other people’s feelings. The drinking and stuff doesn’t help that, but it’s a bigger issue rooted in who she is, and the behavior just makes it worse.
So you’re saying Anna Kendrick is not a burgeoning alcoholic; that is actually acting.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess I’m saying what she could bring from her own life and her own experience was just the most selfish, ugliest natural instincts of self-preservation and self-focus.
My theory is the tiki basement her character stays in brings it out. You shot this in your own home … so that means you actually have a tiki basement?
My wife and I bought that house from a 91-year-old woman who built that back in the ’60s. Even in our own life — I mean, we have a kid now so we’re not allowed to be irresponsible anymore — but there’s something about being down in that basement that feels like we snuck into our grandparents’ house without permission. I always feel on the verge of being caught down there. Definitely, it breeds irresponsibility.
Beware the tiki.
You’ve built a lengthy filmography of digitally smeary movies, but this is shot on actual film — Super 16. Is this your first time shooting a feature on film?
I haven’t done it professionally. I did shoot a lot of film in film school. I circled back around partially because I got nervous it was going to go away, and I don’t think I’m wrong. So there was a little bit of nostalgia, and there was a little bit of fear of missing out on an opportunity to work professionally in that format. There was also a really strong feeling that the vibe of the movie I wanted was couched in that kind of warmth. Everything about it’s different. The 1:85 ratio, the swirly grain that brings to mind home movies, and the choices of the music we used: It all felt right to me. I wanted this analog, whirly-swirly warmth. Ben [Richardson] had shot Beasts of the Southern Wild on Super 16 and we talked about what we would be gaining and what we would be giving up and it felt worth it.
There really is a funny psychological effect to it. The movie feels like a family photo. It’s just there’s never really a family photo of you passed out drunk on your mom’s couch. This is that.
Exactly! The outtakes from the family album.
But you’ve built your career on prolific digital filmmaking: shoot first and ask questions later. Did film change your process?
It changed very much the pre-take conversations we had because we were a little more structured in terms of blocking and how we wanted something to go. We chose a shooting ratio that allowed us some flexibility; I didn’t want to be hemmed in to only doing something once. But I knew we couldn’t do it 10 times. There was a little bit of that going on. Honestly, the biggest change was that there was this newfound giddiness and thrill when the camera was rolling.
Yeah, it focuses everybody in a different kind of way. There’s a real sense on set that there’s money rolling through the camera. Once that slate goes down we’re at work, and not in a bad way — in a good way. It’s like “OK, guys, this is real now.” And then when we call cut everyone can laugh and joke and hang out again, but we’re here to make a movie. That’s lost a little with digital. In many ways that’s advantageous. There’s a lot to be said for the flexibility, and honestly, in my own career I wouldn’t be here now without digital tools.
Will you keep trying to shoot on film? And will it be hard to go back to digital after?
I think I’ll keep trying to do film for a little while. There’s still a little mojo that I’m getting from it that I want to keep. And I also think that my feeling about it is: Why not go shoot the next one on 70 millimeter and do the one after that on an iPhone. ’Cause in a lot of ways I’m guilty of nostalgia to a degree, but I’m also ready to totally fuck with the system. I’m happy to switch from a very cinematic movie to something that looks like it was shot on a Xerox machine. Both of them are exciting to me.
If you shoot on 70, then you know every critic will make the same quip about the 70-millimeter mumblecore film.
I know in the past you haven’t exactly been in love with that label, “mumblecore.”
You know what it feels like now? It feels like warm, luxurious candlelight. I feel so lucky to have been around when that happened. I can’t say for sure but I suspect that whatever time period I’d been born into, I would’ve pursued the independent filmmaker route; but that’s been more challenging in other decades. I got out of film school in the early 2000s and due to the luck of when I was born, I happened to enter into a festival and digital filmmaking scene that was really open and supportive. That thing ended up being called “mumblecore.” It could’ve been called anything, but it speaks to a community that I was grateful to be a part of — and I’m still a part of.
So you’ve made your peace with it.
Whatever mid-twenties bitching I did about the word “mumblecore” and all the negative connotations it brought to my mind, now that I’m in my thirties, all I feel is grateful and lucky to have known a bunch of other filmmakers that were interested in the same thing I was interested in.
Speaking of fellow filmmakers, you and Lena Dunham finally got to work together. What was that like?
We’d known each other for a really long time; she started sending me emails when she was in college actually. She was watching this web series that my wife and I were making at the time. I’ve been a fan of her student films; I acted in a web series that she did in 2008, so it’s really been one of those situations where I just have been amazed and excited to see everybody all at once realize how talented she was. I wrote the role in Happy Christmas specifically for her; but she’s so busy! Really, she bent over backward to clear the time in her schedule. That’s again a situation where I feel really grateful. It would have been easy for her to say no, and I would’ve totally understood that, but she made the effort to say yes. And it was a lot of fun.
So was there a master-student feeling working with her on set?
She’s the master and I’m the [student]. I have a lot more to learn from her these days than she does from me. I feel like I spent the whole time picking her brain.
I have to say one of my favorite scenes is the life-baby-career girl chat with her, Anna, and Melanie Lynskey. I love that your movies almost always pass the Bechdel test; but as a male filmmaker, do you ever get self-conscious or nervous approaching an all-female conversation?
No. I would feel more self-conscious if I was writing dialogue. What I’m doing is just setting the stage and allowing these women to speak with their own voices and bring their own ideas to the table. I do it because I’m interested and curious. I know what it’s like to be a man and I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman. As a filmmaker whose main motivation is curiosity about the world, it’s a way I can jump into a project and hope to learn something, and come out in the end a little wiser maybe. Really, it’s despicable we don’t have better roles for women. Culturally, all of us are guilty; so whatever little part I can play in putting complex, interesting, likable/unlikable, whatever — real women on screen, it’s the least I can do it.
Well, I can’t wait to see the 70-millimeter mumblecore movie. Or actually, after this, I’d pitch you for the inevitable Problem Child remake: Problem Child Mid-Twenties.
Actually, the new movie I shot, I shot at Larry Karaszewski’s house — who wrote Problem Child. So maybe it’s in the future.