[Last one, I promise! There’s a Greta Gerwig cameo in this one. I was one of the first people to write about “mumblecore.”]
Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg
The director pals around Davis Square with his peers during the Independent Film Festival
By Elisabeth Donnelly
The instant Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg stepped out of a car in front of the bustling Somerville Theatre last Thursday night, he ran into friends. And they couldn’t resist ribbing him about all the attention he’s been getting, particularly as part of a rising group of young directors making films on the cheap who are referred to as the “mumblecore” – so named for the verite speaking style of their characters. Swanberg had just come from a retrospective of his work at the Coolidge – not bad for a 25-year-old – and fellow filmmakers Nate Meyer and Craig Zobel gently teased him about being a celebrity.
Swanberg and his cohorts were in town last week to show their works at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Swanberg was here last year with his feature “LOL,” which skewered 20-something males and technology, and this year he brought his third full-length, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” about a woman’s relationships with three men. He’s been busy editing his fourth film and acting in films made by friends he’s met at previous festivals. Last year, he even managed to pay the rent with film-related odd jobs, such as shooting behind-the-scenes footage for the upcoming “Cabin Fever 2.”
For Swanberg, Thursday was the calm before the storm. He started the night answering questions about his work at the Naked Eye College Film Festival. He talked about his ambitions (“I still haven’t figured out how to make any money”), inspirations (citing documentaries, not, as assumed, early John Cassavetes or the French film “The Mother and the Whore”), and his work’s frank sexuality (“I don’t get why nudity is such a big deal”).
After telling the Coolidge audience that “technology is democratic,” Swanberg got a ride over to Somerville and headed to the filmmaker’s lounge, perched in the upper reaches of the Somerville Theatre building. Among the Connect Four games and Red Bull on ice, he found his fiancee Kris Williams, “Hannah” star Greta Gerwig, and “travel buddy” Michael Tully. Tully is also on the festival circuit (for his documentary “Silver Jew,” on the rock band the Silver Jews) and he and Swanberg have ended up on all the same flights to places like Nashville and Sarasota. Swanberg walked over to Tully and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. The two were dressed alike in Western shirts of differing plaids. After greeting Tully, Swanberg ran around the room saying hi to friends, his complimentary messenger bag, already covered with autographs by festival participants, slung across his back. Williams was by his side, discussing the documentary she just saw, “The Killer Within.”
Soon Swanberg and his pals headed over to Sacco’s Bowl Haven for a festival-sponsored night of candlepin bowling. “I love bowling with filmmakers,” said Swanberg, “because we’re all arty but we’re secretly such competitive bastards.”
The “Hannah” team – Swanberg, Williams, and Gerwig, plus Tully and Meyer – ended up in a rather silly match-up against another skinny filmmaker team, bowling backward, flinging balls, repeatedly mistaking Red Bull in plastic cups for beer, and dancing.
The dancing was prompted by the impeccable DJ skills of Gerwig, who switched up a Dave Matthews-heavy playlist to one stocked with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie. “As long as you stick with Bowie on the jukebox, you’re fine,” said Gerwig as “Life on Mars” blared through the speakers.
“Tully, you’re a master!” Swanberg cheered in broad Midwestern tones after a good roll. The self-deprecating Tully returned the praise as Swanberg took his turn, saying, “Joe knows the trick that diving in and making it [the film] is the victory.” Gerwig added that an audience member in Sarasota, Fla., told her: “I didn’t like the movie, but ya’ll seem like really nice folks.”
The friendships and collaborations that come out of these festivals are key, Swanberg said: “This is what it’s all about.” Many of the actors in “Hannah” are successful independent directors and writers whom Swanberg met on the festival circuit. Boston-based Andrew Bujalski, who plays one of Hannah’s suitors, was in Austin working on his new film and therefore absent from the festivities.
The Clash’s “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” came on the loudspeaker, and Swanberg sang along, doing a soft-shoe down the lane. “It’s exciting to get some attention,” he said, “but I feel like everybody just wants to get back and work on things.”
Originally published on Friday, May 4, 2007.