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Joe Swanberg Tells Us About ‘Happy Christmas,’ Lessons Learned from ‘You’re Next,’ and More

Joe Swanberg doesn’t make movies the same way most people do. He’s not concerned with trying to dream up elaborate set pieces that take a team of fifty people to execute. He doesn’t spend years meticulously rewriting a script. He has an idea, he finds some actors (which often includes himself), and then they figure out a way to turn it into a movie.

Off of the heels of the fantastic Drinking Buddies, Swanberg has re-teamed with Anna Kendrick for Happy Christmas (available now on DVD), an endearing, honest comedy about the ebb and flow of responsibility we all experience transitioning from one adult role to the other. In this case it involves Kendrick’s aimless 20-something character moving in with her brother (Swanberg) and his wife (Melanie Lynskey) to both help get over her own breakup and help them out by babysitting their young son. 

The improvised nature of Happy Christmas means Swanberg and his co-stars explore some fundamental, relatable truths about modern relationships with emotional, raw performances. All involved are remarkable talents who make everything look easy, but improv is far from the easiest way to make a movie, so we talked to Swanberg about the process, why he still uses it, and if he’ll ever move away from it. When dealing with deeply personal, intimate issues in a movie, and the people making the movie are also your friends, do you ever have fears as the director that they’ll feel you’re just projecting onto them?

Joe Swanberg: It’s occasionally touchy. It’s a privilege for me to be in a position to talk about things that are important to me. I think in a best case scenario, the actors I’m working with feel the same way. If it’s something personal and close to them, it gives the actors a chance to talk about it or get it out. I would say on every single project there’s stuff that ends up in the movie that feels exposed and makes everybody nervous, but there’s something about the audience entering it where they meet you half-way.

I’ve always been drawn to movies that make me feel less alone. There’s something about being vulnerable and exposed and putting that out there that draws an audience in. When it goes well, it makes people feel very grateful that you talked about something that’s also close to them. With each movie I do, I learn a little more about the best way to go about that, to make sure I’m asking the right question of the actors and keeping the door open to them not wanting something to be in the movie. If there’s something sensitive, I’ll show them the movie first and make sure they’re cool with it being out there.

[Joe Swanberg in You’re Next] You once said that seeing how professional Adam Wingard was on the set of You’re Next made you change the way you directed Drinking Buddies. Did that attitude still carry through to Happy Christmas?

Swanberg: It’s hard to say which aspects of this are just related to getting older and having made more films and being more conscious of certain things, but there was an aspect to my earlier movies where the experience of making the movie was getting everyone together in a group situation and having fun and creating an environment where we were living in the movie 24 hours a day. I think You’re Next was the first movie I was on where it felt like a professional set.

You did a long, hard day at work and you didn’t feel like hanging out with everyone, you felt like going home to sleep because you knew there was going to be another long, hard day tomorrow. That’s what Drinking Buddies felt like to me. There was a nice, clean divide between work life and personal life. Where I had previously hoped to muddy those waters and create an environment where we were all in it all of the time, I was much happier to have that divide for Drinking Buddies so I could feel like I was at work and doing something that required all of my focused energy.

I think I’ve brought that to everything I’ve worked on since. I want the experience to be fun, but we’re not just there to have fun, we’re there to work. But again, that might just be because I’m getting older and I don’t feel like cramming seven people into a one-bedroom apartment and making a movie for a month. I’ve already done that. I’m more of an adult now, I need a different experience. It would seem this movie came from you observing how life had changed for you and your wife after your son was born, but what does it take for you to jump from thinking “This could be a movie” to “This should be a movie”?

Swanberg: That’s very interesting and I think it depends. In the case of Happy Christmas, coming off of Drinking Buddies, I basically texted Anna [Kendrick] right away and was like, “Hey, I’m kicking around this idea I think you’d be great in, when is the earliest you’re free?” I didn’t have a fully formed version of the movie, and I was expecting Anna to be like, “Oh, cool, it was fun working with you, but I’m done with this process.” But she liked the improv and was up for doing it again and had a window in December. That’s how it often happens with me. I have an idea that I’m excited about and then the opportunity presents itself and that is then the cause to get serious about what the movie is going to be.

And also because of the way I work, I try to leave a lot open to being on set figuring it out. I leave a lot up to the actors. I don’t want to be at home writing everything out in super specific detail and then getting on set and having everyone just acting it out like automatons. I’ll only go so far in the writing of the movie because I’m sincerely interested in what the actors do with it and have to say about it. With Happy Christmas, once Anna said she had that window in December and Melanie [Lynskey] also had that window, that become a conversation that all three of us were having, not just me. Even though you keep climbing in your career and attracting bigger talent to work with, the “When are you available?” process is still a fundamentally indie way of making movies.

Swanberg: Oh for sure. I think most people would be surprised by how indie the process still is. In a way it’s kind of cool if the movies feel bigger than they actually are, but Happy Christmas was a tiny, tiny production. I mean, we were shooting in my house, it was that small. And I’d like to keep it that way. There’s nothing exciting to me about logistics. I don’t think it’s cool to figure out how fifty people are going to park three giant vans on a street and light the s—t out of a restaurant. That to me sounds very stressful. I’d rather find a restaurant that already looks how I want it to look and then figure out how three people are going to quickly sneak in there to shoot a scene. That’s more where my head is at. Do you have any interest in moving into a role where there’s a whole fleet of people around you who can figure out the logistics of the van and the location and the lighting for you?

Swanberg: I do, and mostly because I don’t want to back myself into a corner. I don’t want to accidentally create a situation for myself where I’ve closed off the world of bigger movies or studio projects because I don’t know what I’m going to feel like 5 or 10 years from now. Ideally I can create a situation where I have the option to do both, and both things are available to me on a project-by-project basis. And I am starting to have those conversations with people who want me to do bigger things, even potentially studio projects, to see if I like it or if I’m even good at it. I am hoping to switch it up for the next couple movies. A lot of filmmakers are heralding TV as the new place of artistic freedom. Do you feel the same way?

Swanberg: There’s nothing for me that would provide more freedom than the movies I’m currently making. Unless I was in a Louis CK situation where a network was giving me money and they weren’t even looking at scripts and all they had were expectations that I’d deliver something 30-minutes long and suitable for television. The movies I’m making now I can do 100% with no oversight, so TV to me doesn’t feel like it would be liberating, it would be restrictive. But I understand the appeal of it and it’s exciting to me to telling a story over a long period of time. But I love the movies and I don’t think TV is the same thing. I’ve always been drawn to cinema and feature films and it’s still an art form I’m not even close to being great at. I’d rather keep trying to get better at that then jump onto a TV thing.

Happy Christmas is available now on DVD and VOD.


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