Last winter I emailed Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg and said I would like to write a profile of him. The reason was obvious: Unusual as it may seem for a dizzyingly prolific 32-year-old iconoclast who has directed more than 15 films in the past decade — and discovered Greta Gerwig, who starred in his 2007 calling card, "Hannah Takes the Stairs," and built a respectable side career as an actor in horror films — to be having a renaissance, Swanberg fit the bill.
Last summer he had his first financial breakthrough, the small romance "Drinking Buddies," which, like many of his movies, was about relationships and made in Chicago without a screenplay, relying instead on improvised dialogue and a loose outline. A divisive filmmaker who had spent most of his career so far working with nonprofessionals, Swanberg brought in recognizable, professional actors — Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Jason Sudeikis. And that, along with a newly pronounced confidence and care that many critics often felt were eluding his more quickly assembled independent features ("Drinking Buddies" took six months to finish, not six days), made all the difference.
The film was a hit.
Swanberg, who'd signed with the influential CAA talent agency (which helped get him the actors), found himself developing "a weird new trust within the movie business." "Drinking Buddies" cost around $500,000 (roughly 10 times his average budget) and brought in considerably more, scoring as a video on demand smash. Then he was hired by Fox Searchlight to write a romantic comedy. Then, for his first film after making "Drinking Buddies," he shot another small relationship movie, "Happy Christmas," which opens Friday. Kendrick returned for it. Also, Lena Dunham took a small role. Swanberg shot on the North Side, using his small Lincoln Square home as the primary set and casting Jude, his now-3-year-old son (and playing a role himself). And again, the results are more charming than fleeting — accessible and inquisitive, not aimless.
It's a good time to be Joe Swanberg. But, Swanberg wrote back to me, he didn't let anyone on his film shoots other than his collaborators, family and friends. He didn't want a reporter in his home, his car, etc.: "I already make my artistic and home life the subject of my work to a greater extent than most filmmakers, and it's important for me to draw a line concerning my private life and private space."
Seemingly exasperated, he said he would rather meet every month for a beer than let me in his house.
I took him up on it.
That was February.
The next six months were the right six months to have beers with Swanberg. In March, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York gave him a retrospective ("I make so much stuff, no retrospective is complete"). In April, he shot "Digging for Fire," his largest film yet, with an Altman-esque sprawl of It-actors and indie regulars: Johnson, Kendrick, Orlando Bloom, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson, Sam Elliott, Sam Rockwell, Jenny Slate, Rosemarie DeWitt.
But also, meeting Swanberg over beers might be the only reasonable way to talk to Swanberg. His movies have the feel of free-flowing conversations, adopting the wandering rhythms of life.
Said Ben Richardson, who served as the cinematographer on Swanberg's past three films (and also shot "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Fault in Our Stars"): "I think I became attached to the guy after a half-hour conversation. The nature of this business is you need a whole bunch of approval before you do anything, and one of the smartest things he has always done was take whatever opportunity was before him to do something. That said, I can't see him now taking a big studio film just because it's there. Those movies are often about the execution, and his movies are about the investigation of characters and what you discover about people through the process of making a film. Which would probably sound childish to the kind of people in Hollywood who hold purse strings, but Joe believes in that, and so do I, and so do others."
That self-possession, though, is not easy. These chats, which took place from winter until just a couple of weeks ago (and are edited here for space), are a frank window into the everyday life of a hot, struggling director.
We met at Hopleaf in Andersonville. The sky itself looked cold, and Swanberg wore a large blue parka and a friendly but guarded manner. He had recently returned from the Sundance Film Festival, where "Happy Christmas" had premiered. It sold to Magnolia Pictures and Paramount Pictures before the festival even began.
"Sundance went well," I said.
"Went well," he laughed. "I had been there before, but to be there with stars, attention, it was a difference. And we were in competition. It was like a family event, Kris (his wife, also a filmmaker) and Jude and I were on a red carpet. He won't remember, but we can show those pictures one day. It was interesting though, because I followed up a little movie that was a hit with an even smaller movie. My lateral direction in this industry is a source of confusion. Though I made all this stuff, 'Drinking Buddies' has been like a first film."
"Maybe, paradoxically," I said, "there was too much of you before — you made six films in 2011."
"I know there was too much of me," he said. "But that always felt like a bad reason not to make a movie."
"So what's your schedule like now?"
"I shot nothing last year. I promoted 'Drinking Buddies,' worked on 'Happy Christmas.' So far, I think I'm planned through May. I'll take summer off so Kris can shoot a movie. I'll watch the baby. I'm going to LA next week for meetings. I haven't been there since last year. You need to show your face. I'll try to make a movie or act in something this spring — I'll just call people and see what happens. The acting, that's friends offering jobs. I'm terrified of the audition world. I auditioned on tape for Jesse Eisenberg's magic movie …"