Horror Spotlight: Next Wave’s Joe Swanberg

Shaun Huhn (CineNiche)


Joe Swanberg’s filmmaking career began soon after he graduated from Southern Illinois University. In 2005 he debuted his first feature film Kissing On The Mouth at the SXSW film festival. In the same year Andrew Bujalski, a like-minded filmmaker, debuted his follow up feature Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski had already made a name for himself a few years prior with his first film Funny Ha Ha. Both directors utilized a DIY aesthetic to tell slice-of-life stories with improvised dialogue and micro-budgets. There was another very different film debuting that year – Ti West’s The Roost. Though West’s film had no similarities to Swanberg’s work, a competitive friendship was born.

When Bujalski dropped the term “Mumblecore” in an interview about the DIY film’s audio recording techniques, it stuck. While many filmmakers tried to steer away from this label, Swanberg embraced it. Always the innovative promoter, he began making connections within this community. By the time he was casting Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007) he was able to round up Bujalski, Mark Duplass, and animator Kent Osborne. Swanberg had already discovered Greta Gerwig for his second film LOL (2006) and gave her the lead in Hanna. After Hanna, he collaborated with her again for Nights And Weekends (2008). Gerwig went on to do the Duplass Brothers’ underrated (first-of-its-kind horror-mumblecore) film Baghead (2008). From there she went on to Ti West’s House Of The Devil (2009), then Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010), and straight to stardom.

From 2005 to 2009, Swanberg premiered a new film each year while also acting in other’s projects and creating his own IFC web series Young American Bodies. In 2009 he directed Alexander The Last which was produced by Noah Baumbach. He also had a tiny role alongside Larry Fessenden in Ti West’s Cabin Fever 2. He then used Kent Osborne again in Uncle Kent (2009). Swanberg’s next move was the hyperbolic horror-drama Silver Bullets. It was nearly a complete departure from his previous work. Swanberg sustained his themes of relationships in turmoil but added a self-reflexiveness that hadn’t been present in his work before.

In Silver Bullets, Swanberg plays a filmmaker, Ethan, infatuated with each of the actresses he casts. While editing his latest film, his girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil), one of his former startlets, is working closely with Ben (Ti West) making a werewolf film. As Ethan finds himself with a new leading lady (Amy Seimetz), Ben moves in on his girlfriend. The lines between fiction and reality begin to blur. Silver Bullets also offers a great prologue with Larry Fessenden and Jane Adams.

Once Silver Bullets was finished, Swanberg met Adam Wingard. Together, Wingard and Swanberg felt a rush of creativity that resulted in a landslide of quick micro-budget projects. First, Swanberg starred in Wingard’s A Horrible Way To Die (2010) with AJ Bowen then went on to one of his most productive years. During this exciting year, Swanberg made four more features (not including Silver Bullets) utilizing his new troupe. Autoerotic, Art History, Caitlin Plays Herself, and The Zone all feature a mix and match of actors and directors that have collectively worked on each others projects. He also took some time to do the cinematography for Kentucker Audley’s Open Five which starred Amy Seimetz, and in turn Audley and Seimetz helped on his projects as well.

Autoerotic features Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Ti West, Lane Hughes, Kris Swanberg (Joe’s wife and fellow filmmaker) and was co-directed by Adam Wingard. The film is an anthology story centered around sexuality. In one of its many incredible moments, Adam Wingard’s character – as a form of blackmail – forces his ex-girlfriend to make a mold of her vagina. We also see a very pregnant Kris Swanberg desperately attempting to orgasm.

Art History re-teams Swanberg with Kent Osborne and presents us with Adam Wingard as an actor and cinematographer. Swanberg again explores the entangled emotions of director and lead actress. Swanberg has always featured candid intimacy in his films. When he uses filmmaking within the narrative, he questions the involvement between cast and crew – this is a running theme throughout his work. Caitlin Plays Herself is a dramatic self-parody. The Zone has Wingard behind the camera again and features features Kentucker Audley, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Kris Swanberg. While collaborating on these films, Wingard was preparing You’re Next. And when it was ready, the whole group came together to support his project. Once finished, You’re Next sat in distribution hell for the next few years.

After You’re Next, Swanberg made Marriage Material with Wingard as cinematographer again. He was then asked to act in Ti West’s segment of VHS and jumped at the opportunity. While filming, he met Simon Barrett who had written another segment that did not have a director yet. Wingard, West, and Barrett fought for Swanberg, and this fight led to his first true horror story.

Swanberg’s segment for VHS, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” uses recorded SKYPE conversations to tell a story about a haunted apartment and a long distance relationship. Of course there’s a lot more to the story, but suffice it to say it was a perfect combination of DIY aesthetic and realistic horror.

After VHS, he did another short film Stray Bullets and collaborated again with Jane Adams, Larry Fessenden, Amy Seimetz, and Kate Lyn Sheil. In the same year he also lensed All The Light In The Sky with Adams, Fessenden, Osborne, Sophia Takal, and cameos by Simon Barrett and Ti West. He also acted in his wife’s film Empire Builder.

Most recently Swanberg made the higher budget film Drinking Buddies with Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, and Ron Livingston. Drinking Buddies also features Ti West in a smaller role. He attributes his ability to do this film by seeing how Wingard worked on You’re Next. In the past, he believed that the same money you invest in a low budget film could easily make 5-10 micro-budget films. The methods for independent distribution companies, like IFC, are changing, and they are now purchasing higher budget films for theatrical and on-demand platforms. This has led Swanberg to appreciate the raising of the bar. Since he made Hannah in 2007, he has received offers to do larger films but has stayed with his format to keep the films personal. Swanberg decided to branch out of his comfort zone after watching Wingard orchestrate You’re Next, a $750,000 film.

In keeping with his mantra of learning all there is about filmmaking, Swanberg has been a director, editor, cinematographer, producer, and actor. In 2013, he has continued his acting career along with his directing. He played a fetishist in Zach Clark’s White Reindeer, a distraught husband in Zack Parker’s Proxy, and AJ Bowen’s cameraman in Ti West’s The Sacrament. He currently has two films in post-production. One is a larger budget film with Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick called Happy Christmas, and the other is a horror film shot in the vein of an early nineties thriller called 24 Exposures. His horror film revolves around a morbid photographer (Adam Wingard) whose work re-enacts crime scene photographs. When one of his models is murdered, a detective (Simon Barrett) is sent in to investigate the artist’s work.

In eight years, Joe Swanberg has directed over twenty films, acted in over forty films (a lot of them his own), produced, shot, edited, and has done countless interviews promoting do-it-yourself filmmaking and micro-budget productions. He is today’s most prolific talent. While people tend to either love or hate his films, he continues to create. It has always been his passion in life to make films, and he views each of his artistic endeavors as a learning experience.

What originated as an idea to present a slice-of-life view of the mid-twenties existential crisis, using Dogme-95, has led to a body of work that acts like a manual on following your dreams. I graduated two years after Joe at the same university. We knew the same people, worked on the same student projects, and I even rented cameras from his wife, who worked the equipment room in that dark basement that we called film school. When I saw Kissing On The Mouth and realized it was the same Joe Swanberg that I had classes with my stomach dropped. There was an instant jealousy I couldn’t control, but underneath that and what lingered long after the jealousy dissipated was pure unfiltered inspiration. Whether or not you’re on board with his style, the key to Joe Swanberg’s success is that he provides inspiration for everyone he comes into contact with. He may have not started the mumblecore movement or the next wave horror movement, but he stands as an integral part of both. His ability to network and stir the creativity of the people around him is what makes Joe Swanberg a true champion of the independents.


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      1. Roxie Blevins November 26, 2013 at 3:10 am

        Your next!!

      2. Paul Dabrowski November 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm

        That was actually a very good film.