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Interview: Chicago Filmmaker Joe Swanberg. If This Post Were Rated, It Would Be NC-17

By Ali Trachta in Arts & Entertainment on May 27, 2008 8:30PM

Joe Swanberg isn't a typical filmmaker. His work is just as likely to capture characters discussing some quirky intricacy of life as it is graphic sex, and his on-going Chicago-set web series Young American Bodies is no exception.

Audiences and critics are taking notice of Swanberg's style as he gains underground fame in the “mumblecore” genre, which is characterized by improvised, low-budget films that document the lives of introspective twentysomethings. His work portrays a sense of realism, both in the dialogue and the sexual content, that mainstream scripted films rarely do.

Swanberg's films, including Kissing on the Mouth, LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, have made him a regular at the SXSW Film Festival, and his web series, Young American Bodies, premieres its third season today. The show, filmed on location around town, follows the lives of six post-college urbanites that live together, sleep together and ponder the complexities of the relationships they've created. Chicago serves as an ideal backdrop, since certain neighborhoods are saturated with the young and hip, all looking for a warm body on cold nights.

The sexual content in any of Swanberg's works can be a bit of a shock for the first-time viewer, and may even appear gratuitous at first glance. But according to Joe, the no-holds-barred nudity is part of the realistic style he is dead set on creating. His intention is not to have his work come across as cheap thrill porn, but simply to create a thorough and accurate portrayal of the complex lives of young singles. To that end, he refuses to sugarcoat sexuality, which he sees as part of the everyday human experience.

Though many filmmakers dream of bigger budgets and Hollywood success, Swanberg seems content to follow the serendipity that has thus far guided his career, and to let the quality of his work and his personal happiness come before fame and fortune.

[Ed note: Some NSFW content follows, so if you're anxious about bare breasts, avoid.]

Chicagoist: Everywhere your name is written, it’s surrounded by the word 'mumblecore.' Do you feel pigeon-holed into that category?

Joe Swanberg: I’m fine with it. If anything it makes it easier for people to talk about these movies now that they have a term they can use. But it also makes it easier to dismiss the movies, so it probably balances itself out. Truthfully, it’s a lame thing to complain about because it means people are talking about the movies. I would rather have that than the alternative, which is that nobody has ever heard of them.

C: Since you had already seen success at festivals with films prior to making Young American Bodies, what drew you to doing a web series in the first place?

JS: When we started making the web series I actually had not had much success with the films. Kissing on the Mouth showed at SXSW, which was success, definitely. This guy that I knew asked to see it, and he liked it and gave it to the programmer, and the programmer got in touch with me. That, like, never happens. It was really lucky. I feel like my entire career is based on that foundation of one lucky thing happening. So the film played at SXSW but for the next six months it was rejected from every festival we sent it to. I started making LOL because I thought I’d better make a new movie, because no one is going to see Kissing on the Mouth again. I was nearly finished with LOL by the time Kissing on the Mouth started playing festivals again. It played festivals in the Fall while I was still finishing up LOL. So when I initially pitched the idea to in October of 2005, I hadn’t finished LOL and Kissing on the Mouth had only played two festivals, so it’s not like there was much success to speak of. There was mostly rejection. But Nerve said, ‘Cool. Try it.’

It’s worth noting that when we started making Young American Bodies I felt like a complete failure as far as film was concerned. I was really down in the dumps. I felt like no one was going to see Kissing on the Mouth, LOL was probably going to be rejected, so I thought maybe I’ll just make this web show because at least there will be some online audience. It was an excuse to keep working.

Then within three months life did a 180. Kissing on the Mouth got a DVD distribution deal, LOL got invited to a lot of festivals, and we were making Young American Bodies which had a big audience the following summer. So in that span of six months from when we pitched the idea to when the show went online was a really big transition to that concept of success. I did not feel successful when we started making that show. I just thought that I ought to continue to work, which was the best decision I could possibly make.

Each year I feel like this is as good as it’s ever going to be, so appreciate it, because it could go away. Then something else always seems to happen that’s completely unexpected, and there’s this weird delay effect. Every time I get sort of arrogant and think, ‘Oh, this will definitely be successful,’ it never happens then. It’s always when I’ve forgotten about it and moved on and started working on something else. Only then will people find it. I’ve just learned to get over it. I don’t make any predictions about anything anymore. I just keep working and realize that it’ll always happen a year later than I think it will.

C: Young American Bodies is now in its third season. When you first began the series, did you anticipate it would come this far?

JS: I don’t know that I anticipated that it would. We hoped that it would. The plan was to make it a TV series and see however many seasons it went. We just made the first one to be its own thing, but while we were making the first one we always talked about season two, and when we made the second one we were always talking about season three, and we’re talking about season four now. But that doesn’t mean anything other than we leave it open at the end for it to be as much as we can make. It’s a show I would keep making for a long time, given that I still had the time and given that it is still something that the people I’m working with wanted to do.


C: So like any other series, you don’t really think about the end being in sight.

JS: Right. The characters will keep changing and all that stuff will keep going on. It’s so different because there’s no real point to it. Like for example, I really like that show Friday Night Lights, but there’s obviously a football season that they deal with and there’s the conflict that comes with that. There’s a built-in narrative and a built-in structure. The season starts with the beginning of the football season and ends with the end of the football season. Here there’s no real logical time passage. You just keep existing with these characters. Conceivably we could take two years off and still come back and make the show again. There’s nothing that’s rooting it in any sort of real time. It’s something we could continue to do for the rest of our lives, technically.

C: Because it’s more character-based than plot-based?

JS: Right. You could check in with the characters at any point. There’s no reason it has to be every year.

C: Since Young American Bodies isn’t scripted, what kind of direction do you give the actors before you begin shooting?

JS: It depends. Sometimes very little and other times we’ll talk about it a lot. It also depends where we are in the season. It’s not scripted, but we’ve never started shooting without some sort of loose breakdown of the episodes, but it’s usually just one sentence about what happens in a particular scene. At this point, in shooting it, we’ve figured out how episodes are structured the best way, or at least how to visualize them before we shoot them, so it moves a little smoother now. In the first season we were shooting anything at first, and then we started to narrow it down. Now we’re really able to think about a season. It’s easier to wrap your head around what 12 episodes look like and how much we can fit into each episode. It’s gotten less piecemeal I think. There are some scenes that just totally stand alone scenes that we think are just funny ideas, then there are ones that are there to advance the plot. A lot of times we’ll just start rolling the camera and see what happens.

C: Which you can tell to a point by watching it. Many of the scenes in Young American Bodies have a very authentic, very unedited feel. You leave in the pauses in conversation and short moments of lag time. What’s the intention behind this style of filming?

JS: I think it just appeals to my sensibilities. A lot of times the awkwardness is just what I think is funny. It appeals to my sense of humor when somebody’s sort of stuck - like something happens or something’s said and the person doesn’t know how to respond - that’s funny to me.

C: Which, of course, happens all the time in real life.

JS: Yeah, but it’s nice though because we get to edit it to make it better than real life. I started working this way because, I don’t know, I went to film school and did the traditional storyboarding and writing a script and all that and I didn’t like the work that I was doing. But even more than that I wasn’t having fun. I was really stressed out, but ever since I made Kissing on the Mouth I’ve always had a lot of fun working. A lot of it has to do with surrounding myself with a great group of people and just making it, and not having to have a purpose other than to enjoy what we’re doing. And also making something that’s realistic. When I’m shooting and when I’m editing that’s what I’m more attuned to - does this feel real. A lot of the stuff is really cartoony. It’s a different version of real. These aren’t anybody’s real lives but emotionally it’s resonate even if it’s stupid. It’s hyper-reality, or a heightened sort of realism where only the moments that seem most funny are interesting.

C: The conversations that the characters have embody a very 'real' and relatable feel. For example, in an episode from the second season, your character, Ben, chats with his male friend Kelly as they watch two women dance. They realize that no matter how hard they try, as two men they could never dance provocatively and end up turning anyone on. These are the kinds of bizarre, in-the-moment kind of thoughts that go through everyones’ heads. Is that an example of a scene created off the cuff?

JS: It’s hard for me to even remember whether that was an idea of mine beforehand or if it was something that just happened. I don’t want to give the impression that we just show up with no idea what we’re going to do, but a lot of times the only idea I’ll have is just some little thing in my head that I think is funny. Like in this new season, there’s a scene with the character Kelly and me in which we’re just wearing the same color shirt and sitting next to each other. Frank, who plays Kelly, realized we were wearing the same color shirt and that idea was just funny to me. And then something came out of that! But that was the only idea we had - 'let’s just sit there next to each other wearing the same color shirt.' It can be as simple as that.

Here’s the thing, I go into it without any expectations. Therefore, whatever happens, I’m happy with it. My standards aren’t set on anything specific, so if you go in with no idea and you come out with some scene, then it’s better than what you had before. I keep that style of thinking the whole time. If something about it doesn’t work or is not quite right then we’ll build from it. We’ll either go back and reshoot a little bit or we’ll make the joke come in a later scene, and use what we have as set up.

C: Specifically regarding the sexual content in Young American Bodies, you appear to follow that same theme. It feels unedited, as if you’re purposely leaving in the awkward and clumsy moments in an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of sex. Again, what is your purpose behind that decision?

JS: The purpose of making the show so sexually explicit in the first place is that I get really frustrated by the lack of that sort of content in the rest of the stuff that I see, both in the mainstream and in the independent films. There are only a few films a year that are even a little bit sexually adventurous. Even stuff that has no budgetary restrictions or actor restrictions, they still don’t mess with that. Everybody shies away from it. In 2005 when I was showing Kissing on the Mouth at festivals, I was still really frustrated with most movies, especially in the way they deal with sex. What’s the big deal? This is something that we’re dealing with all the time, and it’s completely devoid in movies. Why are we shying away from it? That’s my question. We show everything else realistically and then when it comes to sex, we put the camera on the other side of the room and light a bunch of candles...

C: It’s all shaved legs and bodice ripping.

JS: Yeah, it’s just weird to me. I kept asking myself, ‘What’s freaking people out so much about this?’ So then we charged forward with the show in the same way we did Kissing on the Mouth. We just went for it. We took the idea of a soap opera or an episodic TV show and put realistic sex scenes in it. It can still be funny and it can still be dramatic, and it can also be sexually explicit. That’s still the way I think about all the films that I make, which is, 'What would be the most realistic way we could show this? Then let’s show it that way.'


The idea of ‘explicit’ is really funny to me. Like if you watch someone eat a bowl of cereal, and they lift the spoon to their mouth then chew the cereal you would never be like, ‘Oooh that’s so explicit!'

C: And think about how we show murder scenes in movies.

JS: Right, in all of its detail. So that’s the whole concept with sex. Is there a good reason why people aren’t showing this? So far I can’t find a good reason, other than it makes some people uncomfortable. On a Hollywood scale I totally understand the business logistics behind it. You can’t make a movie for a lot of money that doesn’t appeal to a really wide audience, and that kind of stuff does make people uncomfortable. But if you’re making small work for a small audience you can totally go all the way with it.

C: It doesn’t seem like you have much of a Hollywood agenda. Are you concerned that if your films became more widely distributed they would be rated NC-17, which would narrow your audience?

JS: No, I’m not concerned with that. Nights and Weekends, the film that I just finished, I’m fairly certain that would get an NC-17 rating if we sent it through the rating process. But it’s still being released by IFC in theaters and on TV as unrated. So no, I’m not too concerned about that. The only time I would change it is if there were more money involved and a bigger audience was necessary, at which point I would probably insist on an R rating. If it were something that was going to be an issue, it would be an issue before I started working on it. I wouldn’t wait until I had to go through those battles.

C: Speaking of IFC, has the third season of Young American Bodies changed in any way now that they’ve teamed up with as a co-producer?

JS: We got a little bit more money which was great. We got to shoot on high definition instead of regular video. But no, they’ve been great. Both Nerve and IFC have been great about being totally hands off. Basically we make the show we want to make and we give it to them. There’s no input or anything like that, which is why I’m working on the web instead of trying to get some TV show going. I like that freedom.

C: Your wife, Kris Williams, has worked with you on several projects and produces Young American Bodies with you, as well as plays a character in the show. With all the partner swapping and explicit sexuality that goes along with series, how do you two handle it?

JS: It’s been a slow process. Before we made Kissing on the Mouth we’d already been together for five years, and by the time we started making Young American Bodies we’d been together for six years. We dated all through film school, and during that time neither of us did any sex scenes or kissing or anything like that. So it was a good four years into the relationship before we even entered into those kinds of discussions, which was great because we knew each other really well already.

It’s not that big of a deal in the sense that it’s something you get comfortable with really quickly. In Kissing on the Mouth there’s a scene where I kiss Kate Winterich, who’s the star of that movie, and that was the first time we’d done anything like that. But it was just me, Kris and Kate there, and Kris and Kate are best friends. It was weird for like an hour, but then everyone was totally over it. By the time we started shooting Young American Bodies it was less weird already.

But it’s still tricky. It’s not something that we take lightly. It’s not something we talk about all the time. All I can say is, if you were to act in scenes like this, within five minutes all the glamour and mystique around it would be lost. It would be just like acting in anything. You would realize that you’re still having to think about the same things like lighting and camera work and acting. So it’s weird, and then you get over it really quickly, and then it’s like work again. And once you’re over it you sort of stay over it forever. But if anyone is thinking about making work like this it’s important to know that it’s still sensitive for everybody. It can get tricky. It can get emotional.

C: You’re becoming old hat at SXSW. Did anything stand out about your experience debuting Nights and Weekends at the festival this year?

JS: I feel totally lucky that the festival continues to grow in prominence and that I continue to have movies there, which is great. Each year that festival has gotten a bigger audience and more attention, and I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.

C: You’ve really established yourself there.

JS: Well I hope that’s the case. I don’t want to take it for granted. That festival’s really opened big things in my life.

C: Have you ever thought about Sundance or anything else along those lines.

JS: Sure. Hopefully I’ll get to show a film there sometime. We submitted Hannah Takes the Stairs to Sundance but they didn’t select it. I have a feeling that the film we’re finishing now, we’ll send it there. I went to that festival for the first time this year, and I don’t really like it. It’s not a dream of mine anymore. There’s a period when it would’ve been, but things change. It’s not what it used to be. It’s still a good market as far as a place to sell your movie, but as far as an environment to discover important new work, it didn’t seem like that to me this year. I don’t have stars in my eyes about it anymore. I’ll go there if it’s beneficial for the movie, but I wouldn’t choose it over SXSW 'just because.'

C: What do you have stars in your eyes for? What are you looking to do in the next few years?

JS: In the shorter term, like in the next two years, I’m just going to work a lot. I have a lot of ideas that I’m excited about. I’m happy working at the level I’m working at right now with small budgets and working with my friends. There’s nothing about that that I’m eager to change. If that changes naturally or something cool comes along then I’ll do that, but I’m not striving for that.

In the longer run, just to make better movies than the ones I’ve already made. Five years from now if I could say that a movie I made is better than the one I made before it, that would be amazing. In five years what I would really like to do is to be totally self-sufficient as a filmmaker so that the work that I was making was making me enough money to live on and enough to fund new work. I would also love to be in a place where I could be producing other people’s work, because there are a lot of filmmakers that I think are doing really good work for not much money, and I would love to be in that position where I could just give people money and not worry about it. That would plenty for me on a professional level.

Joe’s new film Nights and Weekends will be in theaters this Fall. The third season of Young American Bodies premieres today. Click here to watch.