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The Risks of Making Death Fetish Art (Or an Art Film About It): A Chat with Joe Swanberg

We spoke to mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg about his latest film, 24 Exposures.

by Daniel Stuckey
Feb 4 2014, 9:30pm

Joe Swanberg's latest film 24 Exposures takes an innocently kinky scenario—a fetish photographer who likes the look of gored bodies—and spins it out into a gruesome murder mystery. There's a repetition in all the bloodied boobies, the fake and the real ones, and a kind of conundrum: what's sexy, what's interesting, and what's creepy.

At times everyone in the film looks suspicious: While Simon Barrett's quiet detective steers his murder investigation toward his own personal fetishes, while the photographer Billy, played by Adam Wingard is unexpectedly attacked by a bookworm who's just learned his girlfriend is involved in the gory smut.

The prolific mumblecore filmmaker has made 11 feature length releases in the past three years. He's also acted in a handful of films, including his own. While some of his productions (Drinking Buddies, Hannah Takes the Stairs) have bigger budgets and A-List casting, 24 Exposures—released January 24th—is a film managed on a smaller scale, and shot with good friends. But the size of his budgets has nothing to do with the scope of questions Swanberg asks in his movies. So I couldn't resist when the opportunity came up to ask Joe some questions about those questions.

MOTHERBOARD: Hi Joe, how are you doing?

Joe Swanberg: Good. How’s it going?

I got a chance to watch the movie about a week ago. It took me back to when I was younger; staying up late watching IFC originals without my parents' permission.

Yeah yeah, exactly.

I used to work for a fetish pornographer in San Francisco, so it was somewhat of a personal topic for me. What brought you to this focus of fetish in particular—with death and sexualized corpse scenes?

It started with acting with Adam and Simon and making friends with horror filmmakers. I was interested in the questions that they’re asking in the movie, like ‘Why take photos of dead women when you could take photos of flowers?’ So I, after acting in several horror films, and really growing up liking horror films, was just curious to make something that sort of explored that question with actual horror filmmakers.

I was wondering if you did any exploration down that alley of this type of fetish, if you did any research around building those scenes, or if you just kind of went for it freestyle on your own.

I just kind of went for it. I wanted the thing that the character [Billy] did in the movie to be defensible and indefensible. For him to be doing something that really stretched peoples’ idea of exploitation versus fine art, or something like that. So I figured that taking pictures of bloody, mutilated girls with their breasts out was a very tough sell, sort of in the fine art realm, like sort of a fetish pornography.

I totally connected with that, because that’s exactly what the guy that I worked for in San Francisco would say about his hardcore bondage films—which are porn nevertheless—but that there was always a fine art, and a creative defense for what was going on. I loved the trailer for your film, where Billy is kind of being “Mmmmm,”—uncertain about it—a kind of innate creative process. Is everybody a collaborator, deep down? What does it reflect about your experience with a collaborative creative process, and how people get involved?

Yes, that’s the question really. The thing I’ve been interested in 24 Exposures, you know it’s maybe the fourth or fifth the film that I’ve made along these lines—I mean the question that I’m interested in is, is like ‘Whose job is it to bear responsibility for not only the artistic project, but how we feel about it?’ So I wanted to really set up a dynamic where this question becomes ‘Is it the photographer’s responsibility or is it the models’ responsibilities to take care of themselves, or is it the audience’s responsibility to encourage this kind of work? And does that change if people are friends with each other? Like, where along the line does personal responsibility enter into it?'

Callie and Billy (played by Sophia Takal and Adam Wingard)

I’m sort of asking these questions about the straight film making process in general. Anytime you’re an artist who is stretching the boundary of peoples’ comfort zones, you know you’re going to wind up in situations where people are maybe fine with the thing while you’re doing it, and the images or the movies are going to end up on the internet. I’m kind of curious of who takes responsibility, and also the power structure of an artistic process. You sort of want to believe in this very kind of communistic, hippy-dippy—everyone’s an artist, we’re all collaborating on a project together—

—Yeah, there’s definitely that aspect of  free love floating around. I guess it’s kind of an entryway to collaboration. There isn’t a super formal way that this production within the film is taking place.

Well, one guy’s holding the camera and other people aren’t. For me at this point there’s no doubt that there’s a very strong power dynamic on the sets of movies, and in these creative situations: Photographers and models, and directors and actors can’t see eye to eye on these things. I think it’s foolish to pretend that there isn’t somebody who is in charge.

Right, one of the models who becomes involved kind of innocently picks up a camera and starts collaborating, and to me that’s something that that felt unlikely, but also it felt like it spoke directly about how people open their minds to this thing that’s ambiguous. That ‘Who is it for?’ question comes up again, is it for this guy [Billy] who’s wishy washy about why he makes it, or is it about the product? Is he just some fucking opportunist? It kind of seems like he defends it as a creative project, and that it just happens innately.

Yeah, his character ducks responsibility at every turn. His feeling is that this stuff  just flows out and he doesn’t think about it very much. It’s just something that he’s attracted to and drawn to, but all around him people start to die. But let’s say even in a more realistic situation peoples’ feelings start to get hurt, or relationships are being compromised. As an artist you have to start asking ‘When is it not worth it anymore? When are you pushing people so far out of their comfort zone that they’re getting hurt?’ Or that you’re compromising people’s relationships outside of the work. It’s really juicy interesting subject matter to me that I don’t think has an answer: It depends on the person.

How did your experience with collaboration in the past shaped this? Is there a great amount of autobiography with the ‘free love’ aspect of the film, or is that just a satire?

Well it’s not totally satire, but I’ve chosen to make quite a lot of work that challenges people. There are certainly are autobiographical things that are driving my interests. You know, the thing that’s sort of more interesting to me, that personally I’ve landed on is like—you really have to ask yourself hard questions if you’re going to make that work. You really have to know yourself and your own boundary lines really well to start challenging other peoples’.

For me it becomes about drama: How much drama as an artist are you willing to deal with? And that changes all the time for me. When I was younger, I probably thrived on the drama. I was excited by the fact that I was making work that was asking questions and raising points that made people uncomfortable. As I’ve gotten older I’ve already pushed those button, and it’s a lot less interesting to me, and my patience for drama has gone way down. But I wanted to make a movie about a character who seems oblivious to it, or seems totally unwilling to grapple with the idea that work that he’s making is affecting other peoples’ lives.

Billy (Adam Wingard)

...I wanted to make a movie about a character who seems oblivious to it, or seems totally unwilling to grapple with the idea that work that he’s making is affecting other peoples’ lives.

Do you think you’ve found any big answers about American sexual taboos or around fetish in general?

When I started making films the big questions I was asking were “Why is this stuff even taboo? Why aren’t we allowed to show this stuff?” I spent like five solid years making films about that that were sort of asking these questions. But nobodies’ attitudes changed. There was no sexual revolution. Nobody’s loosened up. The answers are that this shit is very deep-seeded and troubling to people.

What’s interesting to me, is the aspect of inserting sexuality is probably, which from an American perspective is what shakes sensibilities, whereas some place else I'd guess it’s the insertion of violence that gets people—like Germany. Have you seen reception of the film abroad?

No, it’s sort of just starting its life, so it’s only shown in the US and Canada so far. But hopefully I will get to have that conversation internationally this year, because I’m really curious about that. You can only learn so much from other people though, at some point, most of the exploration has to be internal. That’s sort of why these things are interesting to me. I think that idea that I keep coming back to is responsibility. This idea of consenting adults and what it means when consenting adults make artwork and it reaching various audiences via different channels. And there are different reactions to that stuff: If a reaction becomes negative whose responsibility is that?

Those were a lot of questions that I was asking. And there are sort of bigger first amendment issues. We do sort of have to defend a lot of artwork that we do find offensive just because. For me personally it’s important that the subject matter the audience can tackle is wide open. Even if the work bothers me I don’t want to live in a world where people can’t make it. And so the movie sort of deals a little bit with that too. These scenes he’s making of dead women, they might be gross, but they’re not illegal. And I think that the private eye character is dealing with that. Like “Why do you want to make this stuff?” But also, no one can stop you from making it.

For me it’s important that the subject matter the audience can tackle is wide open. Even if the work bothers me, I don’t want to live in a world where people can’t make it.

I guess it is illegal in some places, Max Hardcore went to jail for peeing on a girl.

Yea, I heard about that.

I remember there were places we had to be sensitive about shipping our material because there were really explicit rules about showing penetration while people are in a state of bondage, and so you always had to send unlabeled material in separate envelopes. What was the budget for 24 Exposures?

It was under $100,000. But I’ve made so many really cheap movies that it’s sort of one of my bigger movies despite it being so low-budget.

And how many films have you made?

I think it’s something like 15 at this point. A lot.