Joe Swanberg On 'V/H/S,' 'Drinking Buddies,' And Breaking Out Of His Comfort Zone
Indie auteur Joe Swanberg has established himself as the reigning poster child of mumblecore, for better or worse, but as the most surprising filmmaker contributing to the Sundance hit horror anthology V/H/S (in theaters Friday) he begins branching out of his comfort zone with a newfound energy; his entry, The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger, was filmed using Skype — and a script! — and is also one of the more memorable and inventive shorts in the midnight crowd-pleasing omnibus.
Between his V/H/S segments (he also acts in Ti West's road trip gone horribly wrong) and the forthcoming Drinking Buddies, which blends his improvisational style and mainstream stars Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde, Swanberg says he sees 2012 as a turning point in his creative evolution. "I feel like I’m ready to be a filmmaker," he declared to Movieline. Read on for more with Swanberg on how he and West accomplished a lot with very little for V/H/S, why acting in Adam Wingard's Your Next reinvigorated him as a director, and how his Drinking Buddies stars took to the Swanberg method.
You’re involved in two of the segments that most scared me, so well done. How did you first get recruited for V/H/S as a director and as an actor in Ti West’s short? I might venture to say that you out of the entire slate of filmmakers are not so much, or at all, thought of as a horror filmmaker.
I would agree! One of the cool things about V/H/S is I think it’s one of the first times it’s actually visible how interconnected the independent film world is, and how easily it crosses genres. I think there was a perception for a long time of mumblecore being this very inclusive little group of [Andrew] Bujalski or Aaron Katz and the Duplasses and I or something, and that the horror world did its own thing and the documentary world did its own thing. But all of us have been friends for a really long time and we just make different kinds of movies. I think Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard went to bat for me as a director for V/H/S, and it helped that [producer] Roxanne Benjamin had seen some of my other films. But I acted in Ti [West]’s first, so that was my first involvement in the project. He shot his in May and I didn’t shoot mine until August, so it was a while where I feel like Adam and Simon were lobbying for me to get the chance to do one of these.
Simon wrote your segment, which makes your V/H/S segment the first time you’ve directed something you haven’t written yourself.
Not only is it the first time that I’ve directed something I haven’t written, it’s also the first time that I’ve directed something that was scripted. My own films are all improvised. So it was really fun for me to play with somebody else’s material. And Simon wrote it knowing that I was going to direct it and I think he expected that I would just throw the script away once we started, but I actually really loved his script and thought it was a good first chance to go ahead and do that.
Your segment uses a Skype chat as its set up for tension; we watch as Emily (Helen Rogers, pictured with Swanberg above) experiences something strange as she chats online with her boyfriend. How did you fake it, or did you?
For V/H/S we actually just used Skype, we didn’t fake it. I did a bunch of research into the best way to fake it and I realized the best way was not to fake it. We were going to build this crazy, elaborate rig with multiple cameras that were connected to each other, and the more I looked at it and researched screen capture stuff I realized we could do high definition screen capturing and actually record live Skype conversations. So it’s a film made without a camera – laptops were our cameras.
But you used lighting rigs and such?
Adam Wingard DPed my segment and I wouldn’t describe it as a typical lighting set-up but it was modified for our purposes. Adam was usually moving with Helen – the other funny thing is because it’s a real Skype conversation, Helen was the camera operator, essentially. She not only had to act, she was in charge of what was seen and what wasn’t seen. So we had to do pretty elaborate choreography about where and when to turn the computer, when to set it on the bed, all these sorts of things, and Adam was usually following her off-camera with lights. The computer gives off a decent glow so we had some light motivated by the computer but we also had back-up lights, and the cool effect of that is, because it’s a real Skype conversation, one of the reasons we decided it had to be real Skype was that every time it gets bright on Helen’s screen you actually see that reflected on Daniel’s screen. If it wasn’t a real Skype conversation it’d be really difficult to get those lighting rigs set up right, but it’s fun to watch and it adds to the realism because when Helen turns on a light on, Daniel’s room brightens as well. It felt almost like directing dance. And we ended up editing after the fact but most of the takes are long, unbroken, four or five minute takes involving starting in the bedroom and going out to the living room, or weaving around the kitchen, so we had to light and choreograph these long 360 set-ups.
That’s pretty fantastic a feat to pull off. In Ti’s segment you acted and also operated the camera, home video-style. It’s cool to see performers having to innovate and actually work with the technology, whether in laptop or camcorder form.
One of the cool things about this project was the chance to do that. I’ve used Skype before in Young American Bodies, the webseries I do – we recorded a few scenes in that which were like Skype conversations – but outside of that it becomes really gimmicky if you were to do a whole feature film based around Skype or iChat. That becomes the thing. And one of the great opportunities of VHS is I feel like all the directors were liberated to play around with ideas that might not hold up for a feature running time but that work as shorts. The Skype thing was really fun when I realized that people only have to watch it for 20 minutes, and not for an hour and a half.
Well, now Paranormal Activity 4 is running with the Skype thing. I’m not saying they copied you, but yours did come first…
[Laughs] I know those guys, and I doubt that they’ve seen V/H/S. It’s unlikely that it influenced them. I don’t know when they shot that movie…
In Ti’s segment, what did you actually shoot on and how difficult was it to be mindful of your performance and operating the camera at the same time?
I forget the model of the camera we used but it was a little handheld portable – Ti did a bunch of research on cameras. We needed one with a light, because some of the real scary things about Ti’s are when the light switches on in the hotel room from the camera. As an actor it was a fun challenge to have to be mindful of that stuff, and it’s helpful in a way because one of the difficult things about acting especially when the goal is naturalism or realism is to not overthink it. You have to just be in a situation and react. So having the camera and having something to do with my hands that was occupying my brain I think made it easier for me performance wise to react to Sophia [Takal] and be in those scenes. It’s a much different experience than having a crew and a camera pointed at my face feeling like, ‘Okay, here’s the big moment – now act natural,’ with 30 people watching and we only get to do it two times so get it right.
Both you and Ti seemed to pull off these segments using so few resources. These must be two of the most affordable short films ever made.
Yeah, especially going to Sundance with V/H/S was really crazy – Ti’s and my segments were not the most effects-heavy of the bunch. The Radio Silence one at the end has a lot of really amazing visual effects, and David Bruckner’s, they built that monster creature and Glenn McQuaid’s has that video killer. Ours have pretty much practical effects. But all of them were really affordable. Even the super effects-heavy ones were made on moderate budgets, so it was great to go to Sundance and have the movie feel big despite the fact that it’s a low budget movie.
In your career so far you’ve made so many films in such a short time – you’re one of the busiest filmmakers around, especially since you’re not only directing movies, you’re also acting in other people’s films. How do you feel like 2012 Joe Swanberg is most changed from 2005 Joe Swanberg?
Starting with going to Sundance with V/H/S, I’m having the time of my life in 2012. It’s been the best, most fun year of my life as a filmmaker and it’s because I feel like I’m doing so much outside of what I’m typically known for. All the movies that I made in 2010 and 2011 when I was hyper-productive, that was sort of my last big push almost as a student; I was making a lot of work in an effort to keep getting better as a filmmaker and keep pushing myself to try things I hadn’t done before. Now I feel like with V/H/S and Drinking Buddies, which I just finished and stars Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston – it’s a much bigger production than I’ve done before – I feel like I’m ready to… be a filmmaker. I’m embracing being a director and what that means. Obviously I’ll be practicing and learning my whole life, but I feel like the kind of workmanlike attitude I’ve had the last couple of years is paying off now in the sense that I’m getting to put that practice into bigger productions that are being seen by more people.
Do you feel like this evolution is marked in your process, or your creative choices?
It’s in both, actually. A big turning point for me came when I was acting in You’re Next, Adam and Simon’s movie. Getting to be on the set of not a big budget movie, but one much bigger than the ones I make, and seeing Adam, who I’ve worked with really closely on $10,000 movies directing a much bigger movie with a full-sized crew and 20 actors and all these elaborate action sequences, I realized I’m interested in challenging and pushing myself. I don’t just want to shoot conversations in apartments. It would behoove me as a filmmaker, I realized, to know how to do that other stuff. Even if I never make an action movie it would be useful as a director to know how to shoot an action sequence. So I came away from that acting experience feeling energized as a director, to try new things. And V/H/S was the first thing I did. After that I went with an attitude of, like, cool – here’s an opportunity for me to do something I’ve never done before and to really mess it up. Not take the easy route. Figure out how to do this camera work and figure out how to do special effects and really make something that’s going to push me out of my comfort zone.
And did that extend to Drinking Buddies?
The same was true with Drinking Buddies, which was still improvised but improvised on a much bigger level, with a full crew that I had to learn to work with. I basically took the process that I normally use with three actors and two crew and do it with 20 actors and a 40-person crew. I’m looking for those challenges now. I’m looking to broaden my spectrum a bit.
Drinking Buddies is your biggest movie to date, and it features mainstream actors – how did they adjust to your process? You’ve practically established your own indie subgenre working in a specific style and with regular collaborators. When you were casting did you find that many mainstream actors fell into step with your sensibilities?
I went into the casting with the same attitude that I’ve used to cast all of my movies with my friends, which is, who are these people? Are they easy to talk to? Do they have interesting lives and things they’re interested in outside of acting that we can use in the movie? Are they fun to be around? It really was almost the identical process, and the result was I ended up with more people who I love and who gave amazing performances and who are totally ready to show up and figure it out every day. It’s possible they were intimidated by the situation but they never let on. They were really excited to collaborate with me and create these characters. I’m deep into editing right now, and the performances are amazing. Everybody’s going to look at these actors in a new way because of this movie – they’re all really alive in an exciting way. So it’s given me confidence to keep doing this and to feel like I can work with bigger name actors, and that the process isn’t antithetical to the kind of work I’ve been doing in the past or that they’ve been doing.
What did you learn about Anna and Jake and Olivia that you then integrated into their characters?
All of them, the way that I like to work is that everybody is kind of playing a version of themselves. I write characters and create a very simple set-up, and with the actors I flesh it out. There’s not one specific thing I could point to other than to say when you watch this movie you’ll be watching a really interesting hybrid of my ideas that I came into the movie with and their personalities that they brought to it. There’s a lot of acting happening, and there’s a lot of real stories being told. As is always the goal, I feel like I came out of the film feeling these people were my friends and not just actors I hired for a movie. We all learned a lot about each other during the shoot because that’s how the process works. The more everybody shares, the better the movie is and also the easier it is to create these relationships that don’t actually exist in real life.
Side note: I noticed that when you announced your cast for Drinking Buddies you earned a mention on Perez Hilton. Was that the moment when you realized you’d made it in Hollywood?
I actually wasn’t aware of that! One of the things about making movies that people started to watch and write about is that they also write mean things a lot of the time. [Laughs] I’ve been pretty disconnected for the past couple of years from any of the press stuff surrounding the movies, so I typically hear about it via friends. I certainly never go looking for it anymore. But now I know!
V/H/S is in select theaters Friday.