Joe Swanberg is one of the pioneers of the mumblecore movement, writing and directing micro-budget classics like LOL with Greta Gerwig and Hannah Takes the Stairs. While his early films were sometimes confounding to more mainstream audiences, his latest fare has become increasingly traditional in its narrative and structure. From the broody rom-com Drinking Buddies starring Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson to his Netflix anthology Easy, Swanberg is exploring a new, more adult world with movies that tackle the pains of growing up. This is especially evident in his latest feature for Netflix, Win It All, starring Johnson who also co-wrote the script with Swanberg. Win It All is definitely the director's most linear, straightforward film to date.
Johnson plays Eddie Garrett a riff on his New Girl character Nick Miller, a hapless gambling addict waiting for his life to magically turn around with as little effort on his part as possible. When he's presented with a mysterious bag of money his worst compulsions and habits take over, plunging him into a debt he may not be able to scheme his way out of. The movie is surprisingly sweet and moves along quickly, which isn't exactly a mumblecore trait.
I recently chatted with Swanberg about making more mainstream movies, parenthood and finding ways to make his movies a little less white.
VICE: I really enjoyed the film. I was kind of on edge the whole time, expecting things to just get worse and worse.
Joe Swanberg: Yeah the movie definitely seems to walk that line. It's funny because we had a lot of fun writing it and shooting it but I don't think it quite dawned on Jake and I how close to disaster [Eddie] Garrett always feels. So that tension was a really happy surprise as we were working on the script and started to share it with people. We wanted these very classic plot mechanisms to work but you never know. I've never made a movie like this before so it was a really fun and new experience for me.
I think it's relatable though the idea that you are just one move away from total disaster. That feeling when he pushes the dresser against the door and he's like trying to talk himself out of making a mistake…
I know, it's like he knows himself well enough to be conscious of his actions and then also like really can't seem to help himself.
I relate very much. So what inspired this tale of woe?
Uh well, there's a comedy from the 80s called Sticky Fingers that involves these two struggling New York musicians who end up in possession of a bag of money from their weed dealer and I really loved that movie so I was telling Jake about it and was sort of wondering about this idea of this character babysitting this duffle bag and it was interesting to him. So over time, we used this as a jumping off point and really thought about like who that guy might be and the character that Garrett develops into in this organic process. You know, Jake and I don't live in the same city and a lot of his year is spent on New Girl and there's these windows where he has time to do other projects so what's nice about that is that there's always a natural gestation period when we have an idea we're excited about.
Jake's a really good writer and I don't have much practice as a writer or faith in myself as a writer. It's just not part of the process that I've really ever been that excited about.
This is your third feature together. When did you realize that this was a partnership or collaboration that really worked?
I think in the middle of making Drinking Buddies. For various reasons, we were both a little suspicious about each other so the choice to collaborate on Drinking Buddies really felt like one where we were each attempting to prove that we were who we said we were and that the process was going to be different from Jake's end. I pitched him how I work and it sounded good to him but I don't think that he really quite believed that it would be the way that I said it was. So what he felt from me was that coming out from the process of making that movie, he felt like I had delivered on that promise and for me, I really developed a total filmmaker crush on him and he's just so fun to watch, he's so funny, he's such a good writer, he's fun to have on set, he's a really inspiring and motivating person on set. So it was really nice coming out of that movie knowing that he wanted to work together again. It's a really nice collaboration and I'm hoping that we'll get to make a lot more movies together.
How do you think your own storytelling has evolved? I mean obviously you talk about this being a more scripted film, it's got a very traditional arc to it. How has your style evolved since LOL and the early days of your work?
Yeah, I've gotten older. I think there's been a natural progression in the kinds of characters that I'm interested in. I've had a lot more practice so I can see in my own work, a growing confidence in my work that wasn't there on the early stuff. I mean, I still like those old movies for how crazy they feel and I felt very political early on in terms of my opposition to story and structure and coming out of film school, I was very motivated to break apart a lot of things I had learned to see what functioned underneath the traditional ways of making movies and I think I'm at a point in my career where I am putting those back together now and I feel like I've really investigated, at least for myself, the outer edges of narrative and story telling in terms of not prioritizing that and instead, focusing heavily on character. Now, story has re-entered the process in a big way. The Netflix series Easy that I do is a pretty heavily focused type of storytelling that I avoided for a long time. I don't know. I'm sort of curious myself about how that will keep evolving.
I'm always sort of following my gut and right now, telling stories is really fun to me. I could totally see swinging back that other way and making some really weird and experimental stuff soon. I think I have a relatively short attention span and I do a couple movies in a particular way or pushing in a particular direction and then I get bored and I feel like I'm not learning enough or growing enough so I try to switch it up. It sort of ping-pongs between different motivations but the end desire is to attempt to turn over as many rocks as possible and explore as many techniques and not get stuck making one kind of movie or being one type of filmmaker.
There's definitely a theme of growing up or dealing with the ramifications of adulthood. Do you feel like a grown-up?
Yeah, me personally? Definitely. I was one of the first people in my friend group to get married, to have kids, I own a house, I have a mortgage now. It was sort of like - certainly the signifiers of adulthood are there. But also, in Win It All, I definitely relate to Joe Lotruglio's character, the internal pressure to be responsible and look after people and take care of people. You know, I'm the oldest of three and it didn't feel to me like a thing I chose. It just felt like an inherent part of my personality for as far back as I can remember. I wanted to do good and be good and impress my parents and be responsible. So that's always been there and I'm in my 30s. But yeah, I would definitely say that I'm an adult, a grown-up.
But also, now that I have kids, there's an interesting level of exploration in terms of trying to make sure I'm not getting locked into any rigid ideology but remain open to change and I'm noticing in myself that that is becoming more difficult the older that I'm getting. To some degree, I'm sure that I'll get locked in my ways with thinking and being at a certain point but I really am trying to stay as open as possible and just remind myself that just cause it's the way I've always done it, doesn't mean it is the best way. Life will be more interesting in the long run if I just continue to change and evolve.
I want to ask you about diversity. Obviously it's been a big conversation, particularly in the last couple of years. You've received criticism for the whiteness in your movies, is it something you think consciously about when you're writing and filming now?
Yeah, I would say that I've been as affected by that conversation as anybody. It's less like a conscious change in my work and more of the same sort of awakening that I think a lot of white America is dealing with. You know, you sort of have different things brought to your attention and you can't unknow them. To me, it's very exciting that we're waking up to a lot of systemic racism and even aside from racism—I think a lot of the reason why people bristle when they're accused of any racial bias in their work is because most people don't identify as having prejudice. People are like, "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a really liberal person."
In terms of the diversity in casting and in storytelling, what I noticed in my own work is that it's just easier to tell stories about white people who were my same age and going through the things that I am going through like that comes naturally and I don't have to think about that. The same thing goes for hiring practices basically. It's easy to fill my crew with people nearest me. So it's going to take a concerted effort on everybody's part to do the thing that is more difficult which is to say that if we just—this isn't born out of any hatred or prejudice, it's just born out of laziness. Without even thinking about it, you could be perpetuating a really damaging system.
So yeah, it's very much on my mind in a way that I am happy about and excited about and in terms of the stories that I'm choosing to tell with Easy and Win It All and some upcoming film projects, there's just a nice little voice in my head going, "Just think a little harder and try a little harder."
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