Joe Swanberg has been a busy guy. Immensely busy. Starting with 2005’s Kissing On The Mouth he’s directed over a dozen films including Hannah Takes The Stairs, Nights And Weekends and last year’s werewolf pic Silver Bullets. He’s also found time to act in films such as A Horrible Way To Die and You’re Next (a movie he’s absolutely hilarious in).
As one of the directors (and actors) of V/H/S – Swanberg is once again stretching his horror wings. I spoke to him recently about his dalliances in the genre, his recent acting roles, and his ideal career trajectory.
In the film, “When a group of misfits is hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they discover more found footage than they bargained for.”
Hit the jump to check out the interview! How did Silver Bullets come about?
“I wanted to use werewolves as a way to talk about actors, basically. So for me it was like, with the werewolf mythology the full moon rises and people turn into werewolves and wreak all this havoc. Then they wake up the next morning not knowing what really happened. I thought it was a nice way to talk about actors who are given a part in a movie where they’re allowed to transform into somebody else and do allowed all these things they wouldn’t normally do. Then when the movie ends they’re just people again with real relationships and real issues. And the choices they’ve made in the film I don’t think are completely separate from the people they have to live with in real life. I thought it would be fun to use werewolves in that way.”
You also act in and direct a segment of V/H/S. It seems like you’re making more and more forays into horror.
“My first involvement was acting in Ti’s segment. I’m friends with Adam and Simon and Roxanne and sort of knew that the movie was being made and Ti asked me to act in his segment. I’ve really been trying to do projects that are outside of the typical “mumblecore” type stuff. So I very loosely threw my hat in the ring with Roxanne and told them if they were interested in a director who wasn’t a horror director doing one of the segments then I’d be up for it. Then through Simon’s persuasion and my involvement with You’re Next it finally came back around that they were willing to take a chance on me.”
Contributing to a found footage horror anthology, what was your ultimate goal?
“I didn’t want to do something that was subverting genre, I wanted to actively try and make something fun and scary.”
And you worked with someone else’s material.
“Simon [Barrett] wrote the script. It was actually the first time I had worked with somebody else’s material. I wasn’t involved in the creation of the script, but it instantly appealed to me. I was reading the script for the first time completely blind, sort of following the twists and turns the way an audience would.”
With Ti West’s segment, did you shoot in continuity?
“For the most part I think we did. As an actor its really helpful, you can know what’s going on at all times without having to gauge your performance on what you think might happen tomorrow. Ti was really adamant that we go through all the same things the characters go through and shoot in the same locations and all that. So we flew to Los Angeles and then we drove two days out to the Grand Canyon, shot a few days there and drove two days back.”
After seeing You’re Next in front of a crowd, that might be a breakout performance for you. Is that something you’ve considered or prepared for?
“Yeah. I’ve always really liked acting. I never thought about it in film school, but ever since I’ve been acting in my own stuff I’ve really liked it. And Adam [Wingard] is the director who has taken this chance on me and given me some of the bigger, meatier roles. So I’m hopeful that it’s something I can keep doing.”
You’re starting a new method of distribution for your films. A subscriber based model. Can you talk a bit about that? On your website it says it’s for your more personal films. Are some films earmarked for the subscription model while others will go the more traditional route?
“Yes. If the distribution model works and it’s something I continue to do year after year I think it’s something that I’ll have to decide which films fit in one mode or the other. What I like about making a lot of films, over the past 2 years I’ve made a lot of stuff, is that I have the freedom to put the films out into the world in different ways. For filmmakers who only make a film every 2 years, it’s a big thing to ask of them because they want their work to be seen by as wide of an audience as possible. But if I make seven films in a year, I put a few out through IFC, I can put four out through this distribution model, I can put one on my website for free. There’s a lot of ways I can get the work out there. I think the next few years for me will be a lot of experimentation.”
You do a lot of films. What do you see as your personal trajectory? What are you building towards?
“I would say all of the films I’ve made so far I would consider film school basically. I’m just trying to make a lot of work and get better as a filmmaker. I think my challenge to myself is to try a lot of things. For a long time I’ve been doing this naturalistic handheld documentary realism type of movie that sort of became known as mumblecore or whatever. But I made five movies in almost the exact same way and, while I was refining the process the whole time, it seemed like it was becoming a trap to keep making movies that way. I don’t want to have a career where I just do one thing for 50 years. With Silver Bullets I pushed myself to do things I haven’t done before like using a score and having a tripod. They’re minor things, but for me they’re big changes. And I’m still trying to do that. I want to the films I make to become part of my education until I become a well rounded filmmaker who can do lots of things. Comedy, Horror, Drama etc…”
“I also want to build a big body of work. I admire filmmakers like Robert Altman, Spike Lee, Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen who make a movie a year, or sometimes more. I think it’s cool because each movie seems to be less important in the context of their whole body of work. That’s the kind of career I would like to have.”
So you think working in the Paul Thomas Anderson mode of making a movie every four or five years puts too much pressure on an individual movie?
“That’s not really how I work. There’s a lot of filmmakers who do work that way that I really like. But I’ve never approached filmmaking in that sort of meticulous highly crafted way. For me the movies are very loose and open. They’re a collaborative effort so my directorial voice isn’t as strong as most filmmakers because I’m into opening up the movies to be shaped by the actors.”
V/H/S premieres at the Sundance Film Festival as part of their Midnight Programming On January 22nd.