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Directing on a Dime: Chatting with Mumblecore Moviemaker Joe Swanberg

Directing on a Dime: Chatting with Mumblecore Moviemaker Joe Swanberg

Blog - Directing on a Dime

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .

It’s hard to go to a festival these days and not see one of Joe Swanberg’s movies. At the age of 29, Joe has already built an impressive body of work. Three of his films have been released so far in 2011, with a fourth scheduled for VOD release later this month. A darling of the independent Mumblecore scene, Joe has worked with up-and-comers like Greta Gerwig (whom Swanberg directed in Hannah Takes the Stairs and LOL) and the Duplass brothers. I talked with him about film school, his huge body of work, the festival circuit and the current state of the film industry.

Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to be a moviemaker? Was it an early age kind of thing, or did you figure it out later on?

Joe Swanberg (JS): I figured it out at a fairly early age. I got interested in movies during my freshman year of high school, and over the next year or two I decided I wanted to actually make them. So I went the pretty typical route by making things with my friends and then going to film school. When I got out, I decided I wanted to make small movies instead of trying to start as a PA on big movies and then working my way up the system.

MM: Were there any particular films that influenced you?

JS: Well, the movie that got me interested in being a filmmaker was Raising Arizona. That was the first movie I watched where I was aware that there were directors behind the camera. I think before that I just watched movies in a very passive way, but that was the first time I thought “Oh, this movie is unique because there are individual directors with their own abilities.” And then after that I got really into Jim Jarmusch and Tarantino and Kevin Smith, all the big indie guys at the time. So that ‘80s-early ‘90s independent film scene was what I really clung to the most.

MM: How much does it usually cost to make one of your movies?

JS: The cheapest one I’ve made was $2,000, and the most expensive one I’ve made was around $60,000. I paid for the first two (Kissing on the Mouth, LOL) myself with money I’d saved up from working. I met this producer whose company paid for Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights & Weekends and Alexander the Last, then I paid for a few of the latest and Kent Osborne, who’s acted in a few of the new ones, paid for some others. So it’s always been a direct process of one person funding the movie. I’ve never done any big fundraising or anything.

MM: You made quite a few feature films last year. How do you manage to get so much work out in so little time?

JS: Well, I got really lucky. The festivals that historically have rejected my films accepted them this year. I was expecting them to come out slowly, but then Sundance took Uncle Kent and Berlin took Silver Bullets and Art History, so by February three of the seven films were already out there. IFC is putting out another movie I made, Autoerotic, in July. I still have three others, and I’m figuring out where to show them.

MM: Take us through your usual process, from writing to post-production.

JS: I tend to start by figuring out whom I want to work with. Instead of getting an idea first, I cast somebody, base the idea around them and work with them to come up with the storyline. The most I have is usually just a page of notes. I don’t write traditional scripts, so preproduction is usually only like a month or two. And then we shoot really quickly, like in a week or two. I edit while I shoot, so I usually finish the movies the same day I finish shooting them. That’s how I was able to make so many last year.

MM: Most of your work has been shot on DV and HD and with a very small cast and crew. Have you ever thought about shooting on film or working on a bigger production?

JS: A little. I came close to doing that, but the process was really frustrating. The producers were trying to raise money and cast well-known actors, but the money wasn’t there. That happened twice, so I just bailed. I couldn’t stand working so hard and not making a movie. I’m a little trigger-shy about jumping into a scenario like that again, especially since I’m able to make so much work doing things the way I like. But you know, I’m sure that at some point I’ll make a bigger movie. It’s a challenge I’m interested in, but I don’t have any immediate plans.

MM: Do you think film school is worth it?

JS: I had a great experience. I recommend it because the first few movies you’re gonna make will be terrible, and to make them in a film school environment means that you’re working with other people at the same skill level. It’s a lot less pressure than spending real money out in the real world and trying to work with a professional crew that has way more experience than you as a director. I think film school is still a great testing ground. It’s a place to meet people and, ideally, learn a lot without the pressures of the real world. But the technology is now so good that you absolutely don’t have to go to film school to learn how to make movies. The benefits are all personal benefits relating to who you can meet and the experiences you can have.

MM: Any advice for aspiring young moviemakers?

JS: The thing I always encourage people to do is make personal work. I think the mistake a lot of people make is that they try to make “calling card” movies or to emulate the films they like. But the landscape has gotten really competitive, and people are making so many movies that festivals are now completely overwhelmed. So rather than make a low-budget version of a Hollywood movie, filmmakers just starting out should be trying to make unique movies. Your work is more likely to stand out if it’s true to you and if it’s individual. There’s a lot more room for individuals than there is for copycats.

Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. He now lives in Austin, where he is writing a book on the making of The Legend of Action Man. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.

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