For most filmmakers, releasing three movies in a year’s time would be an incredible achievement; but for Drinking Buddies director Joe Swanberg, that’s an average — perhaps even sparse — output.
The Chicago-based jack of all trades has directed 16 feature films, four short films, two television episodes, and two segments for film anthologies since 2005; in the last half-decade especially, he has become both one of the most prolific independent filmmakers and the poster boy for the digital DIY ethos that has emerged along with cheap, streamlined cameras and editing technology.
Working with a crew of regular collaborators, Swanberg has established his own sub-genre and aesthetic, working quickly to make movies that often capture moments rather than manufacture them. Many of his films are lo-fi productions that focus on everyday people living everyday lives. His high-water mark for productivity came in 2011, when he released six directorial efforts and acted in two other films that were released that year.
Swanberg’s 2013 filmography starts with Drinking Buddies, his most high-profile work to date, which starred Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston. This winter, he’s releasing two more films: All the Light in the Sky, which features two of his regular collaborators, Jane Adams and Sophia Takal; and 24 Exposures, which also stars Takal, as well as Caroline White and Adam Wingard, the latter of whom works with Swanberg regularly both in front of and behind the camera.
So, how does he do it?
Step 1: Eschew the traditional screenplay and pre-production.
For most screenwriters, it often takes years to transfer an idea to Final Draft, and even longer to complete a polished screenplay. Then, of course, it takes more time to acquire a producer and financing.
None of this is an obstacle for Swanberg, who, in working with many of the same people over and over again, develops a shorthand and trust that allows him to throw up his filmmaker’s bat signal and gather the team whenever an idea is ready.
Adam Wingard: “A lot of the times, I would hear about it two weeks beforehand, and it would usually come out of nowhere. Joe would be like, Let’s go out for six days. In two weeks, I’ll fly you out to L.A. or Chicago. Usually, he just kind of had an idea for something in a vague way.”
Usually, that vague idea becomes a tangible single-page outline, which Swanberg doesn’t necessarily show to everyone involved. Basically, he’s working from a mostly mental guideline.
Jane Adams: “He’s got a script in his head, and he makes the actors effortlessly and comfortably able to improvise, in that it’s almost like there’s a tiny outline for every scene. Joe talks about making an outline for the movie, but really, there’s a little outline before he shoots any scene.”
Jake Johnson: “He knows where the story goes and what happens in each scene. He’s incredibly organized.”
In the case of All the Light in the Sky, Swanberg and Adams had been discussing making the film for several years, really from the moment they met and had a discussion about how, in Adams’ view, young women were far more powerful than they realized. The film is about a middle-aged actress (Adams) who is visited by her actress niece (Takal), and focuses largely on their relationship together, and each woman’s relationship with men.
All the Light in the Sky is the third movie Swanberg and Adams made together. (The first two were Alexander the Last — about a married actress, her sister, and both the sexual and creative temptations they face — and Silver Bullets, which stars Kate Lyn Sheil as a young actress cast as the lead in a werewolf film, which has some consequences on her life.)
Swanberg: “All the Light in the Sky was pretty well-outlined actually, more than Alexander the Last or Silver Bullets. I think it was really useful to have that sort of multi-year conversation and writing period that we had, because once we sort of got into it, we moved really quickly, and it did feel like we had a really good handle on the story. The one-page outline that we worked from looked really close to what the finished movie ended up being.”
All the dialogue in All the Light in the Sky was improvised, per normal for Swanberg films, but the actors did have specific inspirations and directions for their conversations — often, they were the ones suggesting them.
Adams: “I would say to Joe, ‘What about if this scene, if we’re in the car … and then the call comes, and she says this and I say this.’ So we would plan it to that extent and then we would shoot that. Or Joe would say, ‘You talk to Sophia and I want you to say this thing’ … So it wasn’t completely improvised in the moment. There were things that we needed to cover. And we agreed on things.”
Swanberg: “There’s definitely a big sort of post-take writing process that involves dialogue writing in the sense that, you’ll do the take that is 100% improvised, and then, after the take, we’d say, ‘OK. Cool. That’s great. Now do this.’”
Step 2: Be flexible. Very flexible.
No matter how tightly scripted, no film ends up as an absolute animation of the original screenplay. And some of the best directors are known for their willingness to adapt their visions. Swanberg, for all his mental organization, takes that flexibility to a new level, both before and throughout the production process.
Wingard: “It was always like, All right, here we are. Let’s start with Scene 1 and go from there. And each [scene] unfolded differently … I remember he would even be recasting the roles right after we started, and the whole thing would go in a completely different direction. Or maybe he had an idea on the page … and it would turn out that that premise that he initially had became less important and it just went in a completely different direction and became more about the situational moments of these characters.”
The fact that plot points are less significant in Swanberg’s work than they are in most films makes it easier for him to alter the direction and order of his scenes, whether radically or subtly — what’s important is the feeling of the characters, not specific beats in the story. Films like 2011’s Uncle Kent, about a shiftless animator and a girl who comes to visit, could be rearranged and reassembled with any number of new scenes. The same goes for All the Light in the Sky, which largely features discussions about relationships, some swimming, and small affairs.
Sophia Takal: “Things are constantly shifting and changing. He’s very flexible without seeming wishy-washy or directionless.
“I think The Zone [another 2011 film] is an example of a film that expanded a lot from the original one-page outline. It was initially supposed to be a sort of remake of Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teorema. There’s a scene where we are all sitting around, giving notes to Joe, and that was an actual scene where Joe showed us what he did and we were really giving notes. We didn’t know the scene would end up in the movie, and we certainly didn’t know about the many layers he ended up adding on. The finished film really morphed and expanded from the original.
“Focusing on the process doesn’t mean the product is going to be shitty or un-thought-out. On the contrary, I think a lot of times, it yields a project with more depth and nuance. I mean, you never know — we could all die before the movie is finished, so we sure as hell better enjoy the act of making the film, the day to day.”
Step 3: Shoot people where they live, physically and mentally.
In many of Swanberg’s projects, his friends play loose versions of themselves, thrust into whichever situation they’ve concocted for the purpose of the film. It’s not that their personalities are the same as their characters, per se, but actors often inhabit the characters far beyond the normal line-reading required in most movies. Instead, they are asked to make decisions as in the mind-sets of the people they are playing.
Johnson: “Working with Joe is incredible for an actor. He wants the actor to own his or her own character. Joe holds actors accountable. He expects you to make choices and care about the scenes.”
Wingard: “He would tell me first who was going to be involved in it. And that would inform [the movie] because those people become the subjects of the movie. He might have a loose plot or whatever, but by and large, the films you could tell were going to be dictated by the cast that he was being inspired by.”
It was a bit different with the movie 24 Exposures, where Wingard plays a fetish photographer, with White as his girlfriend and Takal playing one of his friends/models. Obviously, the story line was very different from anything in the actors’ actual lives, and so the film had more of a narrative thread (including a murder-mystery plot and more characters than usual). 24 Exposures therefore also required a more focused outline, which amounted to three pages.
Takal: “We watched a cut of [24 Exposures] and I had a strong opinion about my character’s direction. I basically asked Joe for more screen time. It was awkward because an actor asking for something like that can seem pretty egotistical, but I felt pretty strongly that it was necessary for the movie to work as a whole. So, the day I was heading back home, we shot a couple extra scenes and I think they helped — I haven’t seen that movie yet! — but he was very open to my suggesting adding those scenes.”
24 Exposures was an outlier in another way: They shot somewhere other than Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. Quite often, Swanberg makes his films in the homes of his stars. All the Light in the Sky, for example, was produced largely in Adams’ apartment. Most of his movies are shot amid real-life situations to add authenticity.
Takal: “Technically, the first film we worked on together was Silver Bullets in 2010. Kate Sheil, Lawrence Levine, and I were all living together at the time. We went to Joe’s parents’ house for the Fourth of July and Joe wanted to shoot a scene there between him and Kate. Lawrence held the boom during the scene, and his sunglasses kept on falling off his head because he was sweating and he was really worried the sound was going to be bad.
“Then, in January of 2011, Joe came and stayed at our house and made The Zone… I don’t know how much Joe knew about the final film when we were making it, but if he knew where it was going to go, he certainly didn’t share it with us. We shot it in five or six days, and for the duration of the time Joe was with us, we never knew what was going to wind up in the movie [or] what conversations were real.”
Step 4: Get in and get out.
As a director focused on naturalism, who demands few exact words from his actors, it makes sense that Swanberg has little use for doing multiple takes (usually, it’s no more than two).
Swanberg: “I don’t think we ever feel the need to purposefully change it if it’s working, just to have an alternate version or something. If it’s good and needs a little tweak, we’ll just make a little tweak.”
This on-set brevity enables his films to be shot over the course of just a week or two, which of course keeps production costs down as well. As he’s grown as a filmmaker, Swanberg has also begun working both with more seasoned actors, which has cut down even further on his production time. Not only that, but those partnerships have enabled him to add further elements of cinéma vérité to his work.
Swanberg: “Working with someone like Jane or Sophia, it allows the longer takes because they just are such natural storytellers, and they’re so skilled as performers, you can just hold on them for three minutes. If you look at a lot of my earlier movies, where I was acting in the movie with a bunch of other non-professional actors, those movies are really ‘cutty’ — there’s a lot of edits in those movies, not necessarily because stylistically I wanted that, but because I had to cut around performance and things like that. So if you sort of look at my body of work, the newer movies do have a lot of longer takes, because I’m finally able to do that, working with people that can sort of sustain that kind of frame for a longer period of time.”
Step 5: Take DIY to the extreme.
Though Swanberg attended film school, he decided to ignore all of the traditional means of production that he was taught were necessary for a career in filmmaking, rejecting what had largely been a permission-based system that required outside money to fund every project. And luckily, Swanberg began working when digital cameras became cheap and available, enabling him to pursue his own avenue of filmmaking.
Swanberg: “We’re living in a time right now where it’s really very much possible for anybody to make a movie, and I think that ends up being advantageous for the kinds of artists who aren’t perfectionists. It’s always very easy to talk yourself out of doing something … I’ve had to force myself into being the kind of filmmaker that would rather make the movies than make the perfect version of the movie. And what you discover is that they’re always better and more interesting and different than what you thought they’d be anyway.”
Making films independently goes beyond budgetary concerns, as well; Swanberg is often not just the writer-director of his films, but the cinematographer and editor too.
Swanberg: “I have a very hard time separating all of the different jobs in my head. It’s a lot easier for me to move quickly when I’m the editor because I know when we’ve got something that we’re going to use, and same with being the cinematographer. In the kind of circumstance where it’s just a few actors and maybe a sound person … I can just set the camera up on a tripod and frame it, or I could try and explain to somebody standing next to me how I would want them to set the camera up on a tripod. There aren’t enough moving parts to involve another person.
“Adam Wingard shot a few of my movies that were that small. That was a situation where I really specifically wanted his eye taking the shots. But with All the Light in the Sky, it was a movie that I knew so well in my head, it was really just the natural choice for me to shoot it as well.”
Adams: “When we started shooting Silver Bullets, we were just shooting in my apartment. Joe would show up with a backpack on his back that had all the equipment he was going to use, and holding the camera in his hand. And he would just shoot stuff, and kneel in the hallway of my studio apartment with his laptop and just edit right there. That was his training.”
Swanberg: “I can understand why David Fincher doesn’t want to hold the camera in his own hand and kneel in the hallway editing his own movie, but for everybody else, it’s a great way to learn the craft and learn about yourself and start to build a body of work. I mostly have retained those habits, even when I’m working on slightly bigger movies … They’re going to be techniques that I use for the rest of my career, no matter what the movie is.”
The appeal of shooting digitally is largely how much cheaper it is than shooting on film, where every second of every take is captured forever on very expensive film stock; it is ironic then that one of Swanberg’s signature traits — doing only one or two takes — doesn’t necessarily take advantage of that.
At the same time, the fact that he shoots only minimal takes does make shooting on film ultimately feasible. His next movie, Happy Christmas — which stars Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey, and Mark Webber — marked the first time he shot on film stock since his film school days.
Swanberg: “I’ve done it enough now [that] going in, I do have a good sense of how much I’m going to shoot. The math sort of made sense in a way that I knew I wasn’t going to spend a small fortune. And actually, the cost of the film stock and processing and stuff wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, knowing that I was only going to do two takes of everything. And the other reason is the fact that it’s not going to be an option for very much longer, that it’s going away. And I wanted to make sure that I did that one more time before it was impossible.”
Happy Christmas will be Swanberg’s second big-name feature in the last two years. His first, Drinking Buddies, helped his unique style gain mainstream recognition and an A-list cast. Many hailed it as a big step for the director, but to Swanberg’s collaborators, that’s dismissive of his other work.
Takal: “Joe forced them to take his process more seriously by putting people in the movie that ‘legitimized’ his work to a large swath of the population. I think critics were calling it a ‘big breakthrough’ for him for that reason — he was working on a larger platform and succeeded at bringing his style and his process to more established actors. But I wouldn’t ascribe a value judgment to the work as ‘better’ (or ‘worse’) than his previous films.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t know that the actual content of the film is better or more accessible than, say Nights and Weekends [Swanberg’s 2008 film with Greta Gerwig]. I think people are responding to the celebrities in the film. They can’t dismiss it as ‘a guy making movies with his friends with a cheap camera.’”