Has Joe Swanberg Gone Hollywood? Don't Count on It

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Following the success of "Drinking Buddies" and the hype surrounding the Lena Dunham-starrer "Happy Christmas," the hot director tells THR why he'll continue making no-budget projects like "All the Light in the Sky."

There’s a narrative about Joe Swanberg that goes something like this:

After making no-budget improvisational films with his friends, the "mumblecore" auteur has “grown up." He now makes genre films (V/H/S and 24 Exposures), works with hot young Hollywood actors (Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson), has found a wider commercial audience (Drinking Buddies) and has finally hired a real cinematographer to shoot his films (Beast of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson). 

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The evolution of Swanberg, though, is a little bit more complex than this -- and for proof of that, look no further than his new film, All the Light in the Sky. The film is loosely structured around Faye (Sophia Takal), an aspiring young actress, coming to stay with her aunt (Jane Adams), a 45-year-old Hollywood actress in the midst of a career and life crisis. The film is composed of a series of improvised conversations that drift from its thin plot, but that find emotional resonance in topics ranging from old lovers to global warming. 

Shot by Swanberg himself and starring friends from his previous movies, including filmmakers Ti West and Simon Barrett, the film has all the hallmarks of the filmmaker’s earlier work. It was actually shot right before Drinking Buddies, and while Swanberg fully embraces the new collaborations, tools and audience he’s gained from that breakthrough hit (and subsequently Happy Christmas, which is premiering at Sundance), the director tells The Hollywood Reporter that he fully intends to continue making films like Sky.

“Ideally, I will make at least two movies a year, one of which will be a $10,000 movie that I make with my friends. I just can't help wanting to do that and also, like with All the Light in the Sky, if Jane [Adams, the star and co-writer] and I wanted to, we could have gone out and raised money for that movie and made it a bigger-budget movie and all that other stuff. But there's a freedom in the way we made this film.”

For Swanberg, that freedom is an “organic” process where the lines between inspiration, scripting, production and postproduction are blurred. With Light, the process started as a conversation Swanberg and Adams had while filming Alexander the Last (2009).

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“Jane was telling me she kept running into all of her ex-boyfriends in New York and all these relationships had ended because these guys were terrified of commitment,” recalls Swanberg. “But now they were married and had kids.”

“For the record, it was one or two ex-boyfriends,” chimes in Adams.

“In my version there's like 15 guys,” Swanberg laughs. “It's like a Charlie Kaufman movie, where every guy is an ex-boyfriend. “

The story evolved as their conversation shifted to long phone calls while Adams filmed three seasons of HBO’s Hung and Swanberg made a handful of films. Then, when the two collaborators finally had a window of time to shoot, Swanberg took his mobile studio on the road:  “Basically my whole working method has been making sure all the tools I need to make a movie can fit underneath the airplane seat in front of me.”

Adams marvels at just how do-it-yourself Swanberg has become: "He showed up at the beach house with a backpack, a bag and two actresses: 'OK, here's the movie.' "

Another aspect of the freedom Swanberg’s process allows is the ability to film in segments. The first Malibu shoot lasted 10 days, after which Swanberg returned to Chicago to edit. He then screened the cut with Adams and they figured out what could be added. "These aren’t reshoots," Adams explains. "It’s more like a writing process and adding a chapter to a book."

Swanberg says the challenge is figuring out how to “take these 400 ideas and get at least 200 of them into the movie." And that's a lot of the rewriting process and coming back for multiple shooting periods. It’s sort of like we look at a cut of the movie and say, “Oh, this thing, that's really important to us, is not in the movie. How do we write a new scene to make sure it gets in there and ideally how do we make that scene include three of the other ideas or images, or things we thought were funny.”

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It's not a filmmaking technique that's based on strong, dramatic, narrative storytelling, Swanberg says. It's much more experiential and the hope is that everything comes together.

“With every improvised movie I have ever made,” Swanberg explains, “it's this leap into the void where there are these six characters and these disparate elements, I hope they work, 'Action!' "

In making All the Light in the Sky, the biggest leap of faith is the inclusion of the David character, who is played by, and based on, real-life environmentalist and entrepreneur David Siskind. In the film, Siskind plays Adams’ friend, and their scenes together are narrative detours into discussions of Siskind’s installation sites (test sites to build a solar panel farm) and his recent divorce. Swanberg explains how the environmentalist’s story ended up becoming part of the movie:

“I was in L.A. shooting a movie and this actress I was working with is David’s niece. I was picking her up and dropping her off every day and I just found myself talking with David about his job. I was interested in his work and I was really just interested in him. He was going through a divorce at the time and seemed really open and willing to talk about it.  Then one day I just said to him, ‘I don't know why, but I feel like you should be in this movie I'm about to make and I feel like you and Jane would have fascinating things to say to one another.’ ”

This type of approach is truly a leap of faith that Swanberg realizes might not always bear fruit, but at the same time has potential to elevate his work. For example, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in reviewing Light comments that Siskind gives the film “a cosmic context,” while most other positive reviews saw a strong thematic connection between the characters’ stations in life and Siskind’s talking about the inevitable erosion of the Malibu coastline.  

Swanberg freely admits that he does not go into these films knowing how all the puzzle pieces will intellectually fit together, but often it’s enough for him to just feel a connection on a gut level. It’s an approach and freedom that is afforded to him because he is a DIY filmmaker at heart with a network of collaborators he can draw upon.

“I just always think, if you pitched these movies and tried to talk through them, people would be so confused," he says.  "But hopefully when you watch them there's an internal logic."