How Kissing on the Mouth Leads to Happy Christmas: Joe Swanberg Spends 75 Minutes with IFP Chicago

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas

Joe Swanberg (in conversation with the Tribune’s Nina Metz) offered a chronological and candid assessment of his career to date last week as part of IFP Chicago’s “75 Minutes With” series.

A fascinating interview with Swanberg on many of the subjects he discussed last night was published online last month by Filmmaker Magazine and can be read here.

Here are a few observations from his IFP Chicago gig.

Metz asked him about his blogging about the making of his films, which she found insightful. He said he did this for his first five films, and that all are still available on the individual film web sites.

The candid sexuality in his early films was a kind of “political statement,” he says, in response to the lack of realistic depictions of the way sex is a part of our lives.

His budget for “Kissing on the Mouth,” his first feature, was about $3,000. It played at SXSW.

The emergence of reality television informed “the visual language” of his work, especially in the early days.

The challenge to filmmakers now is different than it used to be, when the means of production, the cost of shooting was a “barrier to entry.” Now the challenge is not to make a film but to get people to see it.

When his wife, Kris, became pregnant in 2010, he went on a project binge, figuring he could watch the baby and edit them all. The result was he released six features in 2011. When two sold to distributors, they bought a house, planning to figure out how to make the payments as they went forward. “I’m trying to normalize filmmaking like a job,” he says of his lifestyle.

Photo: John Otterbacher

Nina Metz and Joe Swanberg talk shop/Photo: John Otterbacher


He’s at peace with the “mumblecore” designation—a coinage to describe ultra-low-budget, improv-driven  work like his, saying that it helped bring a lot of visibility to his work that it might not have otherwise gotten.

“Drinking Buddies” was a game changer for him, with its $600,000-$700,000 budget.  (Before that, about $60,000 was tops.) For the first time, he worked with a casting agency (which he says do not get paid unless a movie is made). 

With the wider release of the film, he saw a much broader range of reactions to it. He playfully retweeted many of the negative responses along with the positive responses. “Then it hit Redbox. People were fucking renting it at Wal-Mart—not the people going to see an independent film at Landmark,” he says with a bit of incredulity of the response that garnered.

Swanberg says the US gross of “Drinking Buddies” is about $4 million across all platforms, from theatrical to VOD. Add to that international bookings via Sony, and the producers made good money. (Though Swanberg is not yet seeing additional returns from it.)

His latest, “Happy Christmas,” was a scaled-down affair, made for $130,000;  about $200,000 total, when all the festival and distribution expenses are accounted for.

Next up is “Digging For Fire,” written and produced with Jake Johnson and again starring Anna Kendrick as well. (Brian Hieggelke)

 

 

  • brian d evans

    I found it interesting when he comment on ones worth as a director in Hollywood. “Ones worth is determined on the talent they can attract.” Enlightening