Playing Both Sides: Mark Webber Talks Happy Christmas and Directing as an Actor

From roles in fan favorites like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, to writing and directing semi-autobiographical passion projects like The End of Love and this year’s The Ever After, Minneapolis-born Mark Webber has proved himself a Swiss army knife of moviemaking talent.

He has found a kindred spirit in fellow indie poster boy and Jack of all trades, Joe Swanberg. Along with Webber’s recent appearance in Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, in which he plays the drug-dealing babysitter/rebound-love interest to Anna Kendrick’s protagonist, last week witnessed the world premiere of The Ever After at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film stars Webber and real-life wife Teresa Palmer, who also co-wrote the screenplay. For our Summer 2014 cover story, MovieMaker sat down with Webber to talk about his experience as part of Joe Swanberg’s merry band of improvisatory collaborators, and working both sides of the camera.

Mark Webber

Mark Webber

Sean Hood, MovieMaker Magazine (MM):  You’ve done a lot of work as an actor, and usually, when you are trying to decide whether or not to accept a role, you’re given a script. How do you decide to jump on board a project like this one, where Joe Swanberg has a story idea, but he hasn’t completely fleshed out the story yet?

Mark Webber (MW): I love things like that. I was very familiar with Joe’s work, very familiar with Melanie [Lynskey] and Lena [Dunham], and so for me that was enough. I love improvisation, and having made The End of Love in a similar way, I knew I was in really good hands. And it’s fun; it’s fun as an actor-director to work with another actor-director. It’s just kind of this unspoken thing that’s already there. For me, it’s enough just to see who these people are. How can I enhance this character? What am I bringing to it? Where do we gotta go? That’s enough.

MM: Melanie said something very similar, both in terms of just hearing what the project was about and hearing who the other people she was going to be collaborating with would be. That was pretty much enough. “Oh, I get to play and improvise with these people? That’s great. I’m on board.”

MW: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly it.

MM: Because of the types of movies that Hollywood’s making right now, where the average is $70 million and actors tend to be just another element in a big special-effects mass, I get the feeling that a lot of actors are willing to jump on board these kind of projects simply because they’re presented with the opportunity to practice their craft in a completely different way. Would you say that’s accurate?

MW: Sure. I haven’t been in one of those FX-driven projects yet, and I don’t think I ever really will. I like them. I liked them a lot more when I was a kid. I read comic books when I was younger, Superman and stuff; I thought it was cool. It’s funny, now I have a different level of respect for working on a movie like that. I did a movie called Scott Pilgrim where there was a lot of green screen and effects. Although it was totally different. It was connected to a certain level of artistry that made it unique, because [director] Edgar Wright’s really amazing. But I felt a little version of, “Wow, this must be what it would be like to make one of those big superhero movies.”

MM: Even if the content was different, the process would probably be close.

MW: Yeah. It’s extremely technical. You’re kind of an extra for a lot of the days, then stunt people come in, and at one point it’s like your performance has so many other elements, it’s not just coming from you. When you make a film like Happy Christmas, it’s all you. You’re really in charge of the pace and the tone and the beat. It’s kind of like doing a play at that point, which is fully reliant on what you are bringing as a performer. One of the scenes I did with Anna, the extended take, was almost theater. We just happened to be filming it.

MM: I love that scene. It is filled with so much tension. I was so nervous the entire time watching, for both characters. That’s not an experience I often get watching improv, that level of emotional engagement. One of the things I noticed about Joe’s films, and your film, was that I was extremely emotionally engaged the entire time. What are the elements that allow for the scenes in Happy Christmas to have so much tension in them as opposed to this sort of run-of-the-mill improv?

MW: I don’t know any other way to say it without tooting our own horn…

MM: Just go ahead and toot it.

MW: …but it’s a certain level of consciousness. Anna is an incredible actor. She has a really great sense of timing, and we had a pre-existing relationship. When you’re making movies, that goes a long way. When you have already spent some time with someone, that just permeates whatever you’re going to do on the screen, on a certain level. There’s a certain level of comfortability and we know we’ve got each other’s backs. That’s great. I am very aware that there’s this whole mumblecore thing out there. I don’t really know how it got the name. I guess maybe because there’s a lot of mumbling in some of those movies. When they’re shot, you’re sitting there and you’re finding it. You shoot the shit out of it from a couple different angles, and you’re shooting digital, so you can just sit there and talk to each other for 20 minutes, and then a scene is cut out of that. The difference with this movie was we didn’t want to make something like that. Also, we were shooting on 16mm, so we couldn’t just burn through some cards. We actually had real film.

MM: You had only a couple of takes?

MW: Yeah. I think we used the first take on that one extended scene with me and Anna.

Webber and Kendrick play with Jude Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia

Webber and Kendrick play with Jude Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia

MM: That’s what Joe said. The camera’s just sitting there, and yet that tension is all there. A similarity between Joe’s work and your own is the moments that are usually cut out of movies and television – those awkward silences, the moments when people are sort of stepping on each other’s lines, and especially those moments where people are struggling to find the words – are kept in.

MW: Yeah.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about what that’s like on set? Because it’s a different way of working.

MW: Yeah. For me, and I think Joe, there’s a fascination with real humanity, with real authentic emotions and how people really communicate in relationships. Very often in films we see the polished, refined versions of that. I’m interested in things that feel different and feel real. The majority of a lot of people’s communication with one another, the way it stops and starts and flows, is loaded with some awkwardness, with things that I think Joe does a really good job of highlighting in a way that’s still elevated and entertaining. It doesn’t bore you to death, and I think that’s because it’s really rooted in a genuine fascination with how human beings interact with one another. There’s a lot of really fascinating  exploratory elements to his process. It’s the classic phenomena of an artist who is learning about himself and his place in the world through his work and through his process. That’s really exhilarating to be a part of and certainly how I approach my filmmaking as well.

MM: In Joe’s circle, and yours as well, there are a lot of actor-filmmaker-editors, a lot of people with hyphenates… but especially actors. Do you think the reason that you guys gravitate towards each other is because you are all filmmakers? That you sort of understand the process in a way that an actor who maybe hasn’t had the experience wouldn’t understand it?

MW: Yeah, certainly, 100 percent. When Joe reached out to me I was like, “OK, great, finally. It took a while, but finally. This makes sense.” The approach of navigating through the industry and all the trappings, all the challenges that you’re faced with as an independent filmmaker, creates a certain level of camaraderie. It’s like, “All right, he’s one of my brothers. OK, we’re out here doing this thing ourselves and putting these things together in an organic way.” For me, in my producing and in my filmmaking now, it’s very much a healing process. I reach out to actors in a way that’s incredibly loving, filled with just a lot of respect for what they’re capable of doing and what they’ve done. As an actor, and having done this for a while just as an actor, it’s sometimes a really awful, humiliating, degrading experience trying to get yourself to be a part of a movie. So it’s really fun for me to be able to reach out. The feeling, the ability to go, “Hey, so-and-so, I got a part for you. I wrote this for you. Please come and elevate this with me. Help me figure this out. What have you done and what haven’t you done before?” Knowing that they’re going to come and work in an environment that’s incredibly supportive and going to draw out a certain performance from them… that’s sometimes really difficult to achieve in more traditional settings.

MM: Right. The words that keep coming up in my discussions are “trust” and “freedom.” The actors seem to have an enormous amount of trust in the filmmaker, and part of that is people like you and Lena, accomplished filmmakers in your own right, but a lot of it is the atmosphere that’s created on set. Being a co-creator in the process rather than a hand puppet.

MW: It’s great. It’s the best. I had to manufacture my feelings of trust and freedom on other jobs. It’s incredibly taxing to do that. When you don’t have to self-manufacture that, when that’s woven into the fabric of the process, it’s incredibly freeing. And when you get that freedom, that’s when you get a little bit closer to doing something that’s interesting.

MM: They say that films are a director’s medium, at least in Hollywood, and that television is the writer’s medium. Is it accurate to say that this kind of filmmaking is sort of an actor’s medium, in that the actor and the performance are the primary engine of the storytelling?

MW: It’s fair to say that. I think it’s the best combination of all three of those elements, to be honest. It feels the best to work in this way as an actor. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s entirely dominated by us and our process. Because there’s that respect and trust and freedom there, that it makes Joe as a director better able to think about composition and shots. To work with Ben Richardson, the DP, in a way that’s a little bit more relaxing, and in which he can be a bit more creative. He’s not dealing with insecurities or egos with the performance. It’s all really open.

MM: How was it working with Ben, who did Drinking Buddies and Beasts of the Southern Wild?

MW: He’s just amazing, he’s incredibly talented. It was like, “All right, the guy’s shooting film over there. I know he’s seeing something that I’m not seeing right now,” and it’s exciting. “Oh, man, I can’t wait to see what this guy did.” We were sitting at Sundance and watching the film for the first time and I was like, “Holy shit! This is great. I want to shoot my next one on 16mm. God!”

MM: You see that grain on the picture and it just looks so lush as opposed to digital.

MW: Yeah, it’s beautiful. Of course, Camera House went out of business, the one that processed film on the movie. I used to love to shoot Super 8 just because I loved the way it looked when it blew up, because it was like these giant spheres of grain. It’s just impossible to do that.

Webber and Palmer in The Ever After.

Webber and Palmer in The Ever After.

MM: The one big difference in the films that you’re making, as opposed to an ordinary director’s experience, is that the filmmaker is also in the film and, as an actor, there’s a certain responsibility that you have to create a story within the scene. How do you balance those two states of mind? Because one is very behind-the-camera, observing objectively, and one has to be very in-the-moment and responsive.

MW: It’s definitely schizophrenic. I feel like there’s two people, two strong voices fighting each other in my head. It’s just about knowing how to manage those voices and control certain impulses. Knowing which voice is leading that impulse at that time and navigating through those voices, making little distinctions that create a roadmap for my process. The good thing about directing is that so much of your job is in the team you put together. I think when you’re making films that you’re acting in, it’s even more important to have an incredibly close and trusting relationship with your cinematographer and the people behind the monitor who are going to call you out on certain things or make suggestions. That’s about it.

MM: Movies like yours and Joe’s often provoke negative responses in addition to raves. Are certain people just wired to enjoy these types of movies and others not? Or do you think it’s a case of people just aren’t in the habit of seeing these types of movies, and if they just watched more of them, they’d be able to get into them more easily?

MW: I think that it depends on what you’ve gone through in your life. But also your state of mind as you watch a movie: if you’re a little bit hungry or a little bit tired; if you’re a little irritated, or if you had a great day. Honestly, that’s what’s so interesting. Throughout the years, I’ve learned how to cultivate a sense of wonder and the light in the unknown. I read reviews, and sometimes you read two reviews from two people and they’re just polar opposites. I think, “Wow, are you having a bad day or a good day? How many movies did you watch before you reviewed mine? Did you watch The Amazing Spiderman and then The End of Love?” That’s the beautiful thing about it. I hope that certain people, who have only been exposed to big genre films, want to escape. I hope that my movies and Joe’s movies can sneak in there and make them be like, “Oh, that feels different.” There’s room for all those things.

MM: Some people believe that most people should not try to make movies your way because, unless you are extremely talented and really know what you’re doing, it’s just going to end up a disaster. Do you think your style of filmmaking is something that a lot of people should do, or is it a, “Don’t try this at home” kind of thing?

MW: I’m all for everybody trying it at home. I love it. I just watched a friend of mine’s eight-year-old kid make something and edit it on the new Final Cut in a way that blew my mind. People in the independent film world can piss and moan and complain like, “Oh, it’s overly saturated now and anyone can just make a movie.” Yeah, it’s true, but good movies are still good movies and bad movies are still bad movies, and it’s all relative to whatever your perspective is. I’m all for people going out there and experimenting, especially youth. I’m a huge proponent of that. I tell people all the time, “You can go do it now. If you have the tools, and you can get stuff free now, go do it. Don’t wait for someone to hand you something. You don’t need a producer, you don’t need a budget, you don’t need a studio, you don’t need anyone’s approval. You can be totally self-approved and go explore.”

It’s been really amazing to watch Joe as a filmmaker through the years, his process getting better and more refined, his films getting stronger and stronger. I feel like Happy Christmas was a culmination of having made movies in a certain way for so long, and it was a pleasure to be a part of a new level of his filmmaking. It was really inspiring, and it’s great when good things happen to good people. He’s a really great guy and I’m so happy for him. I want to keep building. I did a Lynn Shelton movie at Sundance this year as well called Laggies. It’s a shame how people equate things that are quote-unquote “commercial” as a step forward or a success. I’m not making the type of films that I’m making right now, and I know Joe isn’t making the type of films that he’s making right now, in order to be given the keys to whatever studio to make whatever thing that’s completely vapid, something not connected to some of his soul. MM

Mark Webber was interviewed for our Summer 2014 cover story, “The Creative Tribalist,” available on newsstands now. For more from that article, read Sean Hood’s interview with Melanie Lynskey here. Happy Christmas opens on VOD Friday, June 26, 2014, and in theaters July 25, 2014, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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