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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Writer/Director/Actor Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

Senior HTF Member
Nov 15, 2001
Real Name
Neil Middlemiss
Home Theater Forum recently sat down with Joe Swanberg, writer, director, producer, editor and actor in the independent film, Happy Christmas, which made its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival to high praise.

The film, starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, and Lena Dunham, centers on the disruptive influence a drifting mid-20's Anna Kendrick has when she comes home to live with her brother, his wife, and their 2-year old son.

Happy Christmas makes its debut on DVD on November 11, 2014.

HTF: Let me jump right in. I had chance to watch the film last night, and I'll be honest, it was not what I was expecting the film to be. But I mean that in a good way.

Joe: What did you think it would be? Based on marketing materials or what?

HTF: Yes, I was foolishly judging the film by its cover, and the DVD cover seems more innocent, more playful.

Joe: Yeah.

HTF: Like a film with a little lighter in intent, and I think that's why it was such a pleasant surprise that the film was actually something really real. Something very relatable, and was filled with people having conversations, struggling to deal with something, but always with a little bit of hope. And that really was a surprise. And I like that. So is that something you're aware of, how the film is presented and how the film is something different? Was that a marketing choice, or are you trying to surprise people with something that's very honest when they watch the film?

Joe: You know, in a way, it is a marketing thing. As the filmmaker my position typically is to let the marketing department do the thing that they do. I know how to make the movie, but I actually have found over and over again, that I have almost no idea of how to sell a movie or what that thought process entails. So other than doing interviews and talking about the movie, things like the publisher and the box art, it's just stuff that I consult on with a lot of other people. And often I am, the person that least understands the thing I made (laughs.) I’m too close to it and it's nice to have a little bit of distance some input from other people. The movie itself is based on a lot of real conversations my wife and I were having and things that we were struggling with after our son was born. In the movie, it's Anna (Kendrick) that plays my little sister who comes to live with us, but in real life, it was my little brother that moved in with us for three months. So it was all coming from a very real place and felt fresh to me. I just kinda dove in and tried to be as open and realistic and vulnerable about that stuff as possible.

HTF: Well, you have a very naturalistic approach to your filmmaking and that really comes alive with the improvised approach, which you tend to favor. So I'm interested in hearing about how you direct people through improvisation. How you set up the scenes and how you nudge to get what you want out of the actors – when you know when you've got what it is you think you want to get out of a performance in a moment and out of a scene.

Joe: I start with conversations with all of the actors. And I'm really trying to figure out what the actors are interested in and what about the character or what situation is exciting to them. Then at some point, I'll sit down and write an outline where I compile everybody's notes and thoughts and build some sort of shape or structure to it. And when that happens, it's usually in paragraph form, or maybe I'll write a sentence or two for each scene, and so when we get to set and we're shooting it, we're trying to exist in a moment. And I try to not be too precious about the thing that I wrote or how I imagined the story when I was sitting at my laptop. I'm trying to be very realistic about where we are, what the space is like, how people are feeling that day, and how we're gonna get the best out of the real situation. I don't do a lot of takes. I'm really looking for spontaneous, real moments, and for me, those happen less and less the more takes I do. Ben Richardson, who's been my cinematographer on the last couple of projects, at the end of a take he and I will look at each other we'll know that one felt the best - between the camera work and the performances and all of that. And because I'm my own editor, I feel like we can move on. I don't have to shoot traditional coverage for somebody else to have to cut it together later. I can sort of know the different pieces I'm gonna use.

HTF: Most of the setting of the film is in a house, and that provides a very comforting feel. But how challenging was it to get to be able to move the camera around and to capture the performances working in what is relatively a tight space?

Joe: Well, I talked a lot with my cinematographer about that and Ben and I came to the conclusion what we would do this one hand held which would allow him the most flexibility to move and adjust without laying down dolly tracks or having to try and fit tripods into tight corners or things like that. That kind of liberated us. But it was tricky. I think the bigger challenge is to figure out how to shoot in a small space in exciting ways so that we didn't find ourselves returning to the same shot over and over. You want the space to be recognizable but you also want a feeling of freshness each time, like each scene is its own thing and not just the camera got put in one spot and then we just shot all four scenes from the same angle.

HTF: And that does come through because it feels like a great deal of that house is explored because you did find different ways to hold conversations in the same space but in a slightly different way, so that definitely comes through.

Joe: Oh, good. I'm happy to hear that.

HTF: And the look and the feel of the film, very worn, very lived in and very relatable - a very 70s, late-80s vibe through the the color scheme, and the decorations. And even the choice to shoot in 16 mm. Was that a distinct choice to shoot in 16 mm and to have that look and feel? Was that something also personal for you?

Joe: Definitely. There was two things going into that decision. I had been making movies for 10 years, and I'd never done, outside of film school, anything on film. So I really wanted to do that before it was too late. I'm realistic about the fact that we probably won't have celluloid as an option for too much longer. And then, as you were saying, there is that 70s-80s independent film feel of 16 mm, and setting the movie at the holidays and shooting this family story in this specific house, 16 mm felt very evocative to me. It felt like it had the warmth and it had the kind of home movie, nostalgic feel that would be a good fit for this particular story.

HTF: And that choice works very well for the film. I wanted to talk about the journey that your wife in the film, the always-terrific Melanie Lynskey, takes. It's an examination of the sacrifice that a lot of women make. They pause their career for their husbands, they pause their careers to raise children. I mean, and this is one of the things that I think really liked about your film is that my wife and I have a 2½ year old, and my wife put her career on pause when he was born. But the conversations had in the movie about that, the give and take that your character in the film has about recognizing there's something that your wife gets a lot out of, that you don't want her to feel trapped, or that she's in any way giving up too much, or you recognize what she's giving up, and so you look for ways to give back and give space for her to explore that – It’s very relatable, and it is something that I want to make sure people who read this interview understand about your film. So having those conversations captured on film, was that cathartic given how personal this all is?

Joe: Yeah – and it was a little nerve-racking because it's so exposed. And because Melanie Lynskey, who's playing my wife in the movie, and not my actual wife, there's also a touchiness of trying to get it right and make sure that it was accurately represented via an actor. My wife had a lot of conversations with Melanie about this, and Melanie also talked to a lot of her friends who have children and who are dealing with this. I really wanted to get it right because I didn't feel like I had seen this in a movie before. For some reason, it just wasn't a subject matter that I felt a lot of films wanted to deal with so it was a privilege to get to put that on screen and have that dialogue. But it's really sensitive, and we thought a lot about making sure the movie was not judgmental of those choosing the stay-at-home parent path or choosing a career. It was more about the conflict and the challenges, and less about which one was right or wrong. But it was really fun, and led to a lot of great conversations on set between all of us and hopefully will, inspire some good conversations between husbands and wives as they watch the movie.

HTF: It's a great independent film. What do you think the state of independent film is in America right now? Are you hopeful for its future? Or are you worried about the number of filmmakers that we have out there or the quality of the young filmmakers that we have coming up?

Joe: I think there's a lot of great people working. I've felt pretty optimistic about it the whole 10 years that I've been professionally making films, and I know these things come and go. If you look back at our whole history of cinema, there are good years and bad years. There are exciting periods and less exciting periods. You have these little pockets where certain people hit their stride or maybe groups of collaborators hit their stride, and you get a lot of great movies. But in general I think that it's become easier than ever to make a film, which is really exciting. It's, uh, democratized what was formerly a pretty expensive art form to get into. And I'm waiting for that to happen in different communities in America. Where people who traditionally haven't had a voice could have a really big voice over the coming years if they pick up cameras and start making small movies. And I'm also really waiting for that to happen in Europe and around the world in a much bigger way. There's a long history of state financing in Europe and getting in line and receiving money from the government to make films, and I think that I'm starting to see that the tipping point happening where a lot of artists are just frustrated with that game and are just ready to go ahead and make the movie. So I'm pretty excited about what the next 5 or 10 years are gonna bring. But there's, in general, an attention span deficit that I'm noticing that poses a real challenge for thoughtful, complicated filmmaking. It's very difficult for anybody to sit there and watch a whole movie without checking their phones or playing on their laptop. And I think that forces filmmakers to make broader choices, and that's a little frustrating to me. I think that the kind of film that wants an audience to pay really close attention for the full 90 minutes, still needs to be seen in a movie theater, and we're moving away from that. I'm hoping that people reach a frustration point where they feel like they wanna go back to the theater and have that more pure experience. But I think the movies are doing all right. They still have a good life left in 'em (laughs.)

HTF: Well thanks for speaking with Home Theater Forum today. There’s a great deal of talent on the screen and behind the camera in your film, so hopefully more people will find it now that it's out on home video –

Joe: Well, thank you. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

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