Indie Focus: Joe Swanberg makes a lot of Joe Swanberg mumblecore movies

Even Joe Swanberg has to stop to count the number of Joe Swanberg movies out there right now. Just this year he premiered “Uncle Kent” at Sundance and unveiled “Silver Bullets” and “Art History” at the Berlin International Film Festival. The 30-year-old filmmaker also released “Autoerotic” on video-on-demand with limited theatrical play dates. He has been shooting throughout 2011 as well and is on course to soon finish his 15th film (10 of those he made in just the last two years).

The AFI Fest 2011, which starts Thursday, will spotlight Swanberg, hosting the world premiere of his newest film, “The Zone,” alongside screenings of “Art History” and “Silver Bullets.” Those three films will be part of a DVD set from the boutique label Factory 25, with a fourth film, “Privacy Setting,” exclusive to that set.

All three films screening at AFI Fest concern the act of filmmaking and the intertwining of personal jealousies and artistic insecurities, capturing a snapshot of a filmmaker in motion. As Lane Kneedler, associate director of programming, writes in the AFI Fest program notes, “These three films function as unique time capsules capturing an artist wrestling with his complex conflicts, all the while struggling to have his art catch up with his actual emotional development.”

“Silver Bullets” finds Swanberg (who appears in all three films in roles of varying size) playing a filmmaker agonizing over his small, personal work in the face of his actress girlfriend’s more mainstream success. “Art History” features two actors trying to figure out if their attraction to each other is real or the byproduct of a movie shoot. “The Zone” traces the interrelationships of a trio of roommates once an outsider enters their dynamic, before revealing additional layers of psycho-emotional complexity.


These are themes drawn quite directly from Swanberg’s own life, and in this prolific run Swanberg has inadvertently created his own undertow. It would be easy for audiences to miss out on the maturing of his sensibilities, creative breakthroughs and growth as a filmmaker quite simply because they’re unsure where to start.

“There is a danger that the amount of work out there right now has divided the small audience rather than attempting to get everybody to see one of the movies. But I’m not worried about it, truthfully,” said Swanberg recently from his home in Chicago. He was there for just a few days in between finishing a shoot in Atlanta and flying to Vienna for a film festival. His wife, Kris, was shooting a film of her own in their house, Swanberg helping out on that as well.

“The hope for me is that the sum total of the work says something bigger than any of the individual films can say by themselves,” added Swanberg, who will appear at AFI Fest.

Born in Michigan, Swanberg studied filmmaking at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and he began garnering attention even with his early works, the features “Kissing on the Mouth” (2005) and “LOL” (2006) as well as the Web series “Young American Bodies.” His third feature, 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” became a prime example of the emerging American micro-budget scene. If one were to make a diagram of contemporary American independent filmmaking, Swanberg would be somewhere near the center, if for no other reason than his productivity and appetite for new collaborators has led him to work with a roll call of notable actors and filmmakers — Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Andrew Bujalski, Noah Baumbach, Ti West, Lynn Shelton, Larry Fessenden, Jane Adams, Ry Russo-Young, Aaron Katz, Amy Seimetz, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine. Antonio Campos, a producer on the recent indie sensation “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” appears briefly in “Silver Bullets,” adding a new branch to the Swanberg family tree.

Swanberg is strongly associated with the ultra-low-budget digital filmmaking movement known as “mumblecore,” which largely concerns the emotional lives of the post-collegiate urban creative class. His work generates sharply differing opinions; just this year in the New York Times, one review lauded his “subdued, digressive, naturalistic style” while another chided one of his films as “mush” and declared that any viewer who doesn’t “wish for the 74 minutes back has an empty life indeed.”

“I think I was surprised that in the negative backlash there was some kind of energy from people where they were mad at us for having even made the films. And that’s what weirds me out,” Swanberg said. “The sense I was getting from the faction of the cinephile community that really hated the mumblecore movies was ‘How dare these people even make these movies. It’s an insult to me personally that this movie exists.’ By this point I expect it.”

Swanberg’s films engage with the ways in which technology is changing people’s lives and manner of communicating — some scenes in “The Zone” were shot on an iPhone — alongside frank depictions of sexuality, with both male and female nudity. Swanberg himself has never shied away from appearing nude on screen, and one aspect of the backlash against his work has been a sense that he casts attractive young women to get them out of their clothes.

“I feel like there’s this impression of Joe going around that he tricks girls into engaging in these sexual situations in his movies,” said actress Kate Lyn Sheil, who has appeared in three films for Swanberg, including two of those at AFI Fest. “And I feel like that’s just not giving the girls much credit, and it’s creating this skewed idea of what the working process is like.”

Just as his recent films have played with the edge of life and art, so too does Swanberg’s work often bump up against his personal life. His wife appeared pregnant and naked in “Autoerotic,” and she provides a rather witheringly honest critique at the end of “The Zone.” Like it or not, her life with filmmaker Joe Swanberg becomes frequent fodder for the films of Joe Swanberg.

“I would say I’m not 100% comfortable with all of it,” she said of the way in which her husband’s films overlap with their lives. “I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had to have about it. And it’s something we have to revisit constantly in our personal relationship.”

Yet it is just that commitment to deeply personal filmmaking that has placed Swanberg firmly on his own path. Where some of his former collaborators have made inroads into studio filmmaking and Hollywood proper, Swanberg has pursued video-on-demand, the Factory 25 box set and other ideas beyond traditional theatrical distribution.

“I felt like I’d played the game a little bit, made some calculated decisions to try to make things a little more accessible, and it still wasn’t quite happening for me,” noted Joe Swanberg, referring specifically to his 2009 film “Alexander the Last.” “And then I went completely the other way and was excited to make work that was totally my personal vision, and suddenly the movies started to be invited to Sundance and Berlin, all these festivals that had rejected the movies where I was trying to make accessible work.

“So it was when I stopped trying and really just went crazy and went off on my own little trip, then that work was weirdly accessible in a way. So that’s a really great lesson.... I shouldn’t be making calculated decisions, I should be making weirdo art decisions.”