Joe Swanberg: still the maestro of mumblecore

The indie workhorse may be directing bigger names on more generous budgets, but his lo-fi auteur sensibility remains firmly in place

It's almost impossible to stumble upon the words "Joe Swanberg" without the inevitable subheading "godfather of mumblecore". It's true, of course. As the auteur behind LOL, Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs, Swanberg has helped define the conventions of 'core: micro-budgets, incremental drama, conversation-driven realism, an aversion to swoony cathartic moments and (the clue is in the title) real-world sound.

"I watched every movie I could during high school and then went to film school," says the Chicago- based film-maker. "It never even occurred to me not to make movies. I had too many role models like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith. What all of their stories had in common was that they got together with their friends and made a movie. That was just as important a step as going to film school. The second you can, you just go do it. As soon as you own a camera and computer."

For much of the past decade, film journalists have toyed with rival terms including "bedhead cinema" and "Slackavetes movies". But mumblecore, which was coined by sound editor Eric Masunaga in 2005, is the handle that stuck fastest and longest. Among pre-eminent practitioners, Mark Duplass (director of Jeff Who Lives at Home) thinks it's a curse, while Lynn Shelton (of Say When) regards it as a blessing. What sayeth Joe Swanberg?

“I used to hate the word”, he admits. “But these days I feel it’s very lucky. I’ve been around long enough to realise how helpful it was when the movies were really small with no recognisable actors. Mumblecore became the most famous thing about those movies. At the time it was annoying. But it allowed people to talk about and write about it”.

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Meeting at SXSW

Unlike the folk behind most cinematic waves or schools, the pioneers of mumblecore were unaware of each other for quite some time. They came together at the 2005 South by

Southwest Film Festival

, where key mumblecore titles – Andrew Bujalski’s

Mutual Appreciation

, Jay and Mark Duplass’s

The Puffy Chair,

Swanberg’s own

Kissing on the Mouth

all made their bow.

"We all lived in different cities and we were making work, oblivious to each other," recalls Swanberg. "But that first year at South by Southwest I met the Duplass brothers, I met Andrew Bujalski, I met Ry Russo. The following year I met Aaron Katz there.

“Then, in 2007, the IFC centre did a series of films that really cemented the word and the idea of a community. And from there it genuinely became a community. Real collaborations came about.”

There were spin-off movements, notably mumblegore. The mumblecorps would soon be seen drifting in and out of each other’s films and final credits, as actors, producers, writers.

These days, however, Swanberg’s micro-movies aren’t quite so micro or non-professional. In 2010, just before Swanberg and his wife Kris had their first child, the writer-director made six feature films. By last year his still prolific output had slowed to one feature per annum, a pace, he says more comfortable with.

His profile, too, is on the up. His bittersweet dramedy Drinking Buddies starred Olivia Wilde and featured on Quentin Tarantino's top films of 2013 list. His new feature, Happy Christmas, is populated by Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey.

Wilde approval

“The biggest advocate I have is Olivia Wilde,” says Swanberg. “I feel like she ought to get a casting director credit on all my movies. She spoke so highly of the process in print and with other actors. The result of that was felt immediately. I’d go on meetings with people she would have them primed already. So it’s been a really fun couple of years. I get to play with people who I admire the same way I would have done with friends on a $10,000 movie.”

For Joe Swanberg, play means improvised dialogue and low-key drama, a method he says he "stumbled into".

“I saw way too many movies that were trying to do the Tarantino trunk shot, or trying to be Kubrick. Or Spielberg. I knew I couldn’t invent originality. What I do borrows a lot from documentary film-making. I just thought that if I go in with broad ideas and work without a script and allow the actors to do what they wanted and follow them around without putting words in their mouth, I might get something interesting.”

Happy Christmas casts Kendrick as Jenny, a hard-drinking party girl who comes to stay with her brother (Swanberg) for the holidays, much to the annoyance of his wife, Kelly (Lynskey), a novelist turned housefrau. Slowly, however, Jenny and her old pal Carson (Dunham) grow on Kelly. The shifts in their relationship form the spine of the film.

This is not new territory for Swanberg, who has explored female friendships many times across the 17 feature films he has written and directed since 2005.

“It’s curiosity on my part,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, so that’s the stuff that I’m most interested in exploring. Right now, sadly, there aren’t too many stories about women. So I feel like I’m playing in a corner that nobody’s paying attention to. It gives me a lot of space to stretch out and learn something.”

[TKSQUARE]Happy Christmas opens

today at Triskel Christchurch, Cork and is reviewed on page 10