Joe Swanberg – Happy Christmas


Last week, early morning I grabbed my coffee and had myself a little chat with filmmaker Joe Swanberg. We spoke about his upcoming film Happy Christmas, Anna Kendrick and authenticity in art. For those in Melbourne, or those planning to be, there will be screenings on the 6th and 10th of August. You can also stream or download (or do both, I can’t tell you what to do) Happy Christmas from digital stores like iTunes, Google Play, EzyFlix and X Box video. It’s a great hangout kind of film, get on it Movieholers!

And now for your reading pleasure…

Both ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Drinking Buddies’ circle around the world of drinking culture – highlighting both the humour and the gritty reality behind alcoholism – why is this so important for you to put in your films?

It’s kind of new territory for me, with Drinking Buddies I was just really excited by the Kraft beer culture that’s really taking off in America, it has been on the rise for the past five or six years. The alcoholism or potential alcoholism of those characters wasn’t something that I was thinking that much about, but as the movie started playing around it really became part of the conversation. I think that also informed Happy Christmas a little bit.

In Chicago it’s just a really heavy drinking city and I just noticed that it’s just very much a part of social life here and I’ve always been interested in reality and attempting to document real people and real situations. It just seemed appropriate for me, especially dealing with characters in their twenties.

 With Happy Christmas, was this inspired by more personal events?

 Definitely! The whole movie was inspired by autobiographical elements. My younger brother came to live with my wife and I when my son was just born and we had just bought a house and had just moved into the house. It was really fun to have him with us, you know, he was really helpful with our son but he’s younger than us and I felt like we’re just starting our own family and to have a sibling in the house was really… complicated at the time. That was sort of a jumping off point and then a year later, as my son was getting older, my wife and I started talking a lot about our identities and what had changed since he was born. It was about how our lives changed because of our personal and financial situation. I made more money than she could have at the time, so we found ourselves in this area of difficult gender roles where I was the breadwinner and she was the stay-at-home mom. That was just what made sense financially at the time, but we didn’t really relate to those roles, and hadn’t planned to find ourselves in that position, so I didn’t feel like I’d seen a movie that got into that subject matter. Especially from the woman’s point of view and the complications of being an independent artist, and being a mother, and not only the practical changes but the social pressures too. The identity issues behind, too, behind saying you’re a stay-at-home mom and not feeling like you’re a feminist, or not doing enough, that women are also expected to be professionals and to do everything. It was really interesting, so I just wanted to put that on screen to maybe start that conversation for other people.

I was amazed at how much Anna Kendrick hit the mark as a troubled/irresponsible twenty-something – as much as the stereotype is thrown around, the performance just felt genuine and I simply couldn’t dislike her character. What was the process of building Jessica like?

It was really fun you know, I’d just worked with Anna on a movie called Drinking Buddies right before this. I feel like I cast her in this role of a responsible, nurturing character and in the past she played these very put together, ‘type A’, kind of neurotic busybodies. It was really just as I got to know her through Drinking Buddies, I was just blown away by how talented she is. I just wanted to do the complete opposite in another movie, to see how far from that image we could push it. So I was basing it a little on my brother, but I also wanted Anna to bring a lot to it as well. So we just started talking a few months before we shot the movie, and we were just really trying to get it right for this character who was behaving badly, but not really a bad person or malicious in any way, just really selfish and bad at owning up to her own mistakes.

What is something you want the people watching your films to take away from them?

 With Happy Christmas specifically, my biggest goal, my most grandiose hope for it is that for young couples that have kids it might be a way to start a conversation about equality and their marriage. A lot of this stuff is difficult to talk about, so I think that movies are a really great way to start a conversation. If you have characters to talk about and you’re not really talking about yourself [laughs] you can discuss certain subjects and get into a more uncomfortable territory. That’s always been a hope of mine, I would say across all of the movies I’ve always tried to make work that makes people feel less weird and less alone in the world. If we can put people’s most embarrassing, private moments on screen, as an audience you sit there and realise you aren’t the only person who did that or feels that way. It makes the world seem a little smaller.

It’s something movies have done for me and I’m just trying to give it back a little bit.

Having your son, baby Jude, in the film would have made for an interesting experience – what’s it like directing your own son?

 I tried not to direct him, I tried to just let him get comfortable with the actors and the crew being around and to not make a big deal out of it when the camera was rolling, to just have him exist in those scenes. It was just really fun! I caught him at a really great age. He had just turned two and he was just really open to everything, he was really comfortable around strangers, he’s changed a lot though. He’s three and a half now, and there are all kinds of new challenges.

 One thing I’m absolutely fascinated by with your work is your portrayal of romantic relationships, even Jessica’s relationship with Mark Webber’s Carson just felt so authentic, and something not too common in most films I’ve seen recently. I feel like I’m watching people, not a formula – are formulas something you generally try to avoid?

I’m really interested in relationships; it’s been the subject of nearly all the work that I’ve done, specifically romantic relationships. I think that I want to try and capture the awkwardness of a lot of that stuff and the difficulty of communication. Mostly because I think if we as people were just better at talking to each other we would all be so much happier if we could just say what we wanted. Instead we just talk around everything, we get self-conscious or we get embarrassed or we’re unsure of ourselves and that’s what makes us unable to communicate very well [laughs]. I just want to put that stuff on screen and maybe just snap somebody out of it a little bit. Really though, the actors do a lot of the great work, I’m always trying to cast people who I think are going to have an interesting dynamic together and I then try to stay out of the way and let that play out. Anna and Mark knew each other a little bit but not super well, so it was just a really fun dynamic of seeing them work together and play off of that.

I enjoyed watching the struggle (particularly Kelly’s) of creative pursuits not panning out the way characters hoped – as a creative person yourself, is this your experience? Life getting in the way of art? 

Definitely, especially with filmmaking; it almost never goes as you hope it will. I’ve tried to incorporate that into the process and the way that I work by not planning too much ahead of time, and letting real life get in there as much as possible. It’s a constant frustration, there’s just so many ideas you have that are just not going to be realised in your lifetime. It’s really tough to be a creative person, and to have an imagination, to then have that come up against reality. 

This is far more general – but to you personally, what makes a good film ‘good’?

You know that’s interesting, I was having a conversation with my friend Jeff Baena, he’s a director and he recently made a movie called Life After Beth (coming out later this year). He and I were talking about that. We kind of landed on this subject of authenticity as a really key component in any piece of art being good. That’s different for everybody and that’s why different film makers can make such different works and people respond to a David lynch movie and also a David Fincher. We talked about why massively different styles could be equally appealing to people sort of across the board, where almost everyone can say, ‘Yeah, that was really good’. I truly think that’s authenticity, I think we can feel it; it’s something we can almost register in our bones. It’s easier said than done because it’s become a skill of communication, like, how good are you at taking what’s in your head and putting it on a page, canvas, or screen or whatever and doing it in the most direct way possible so it feels true to a person.

Can you tell us about your upcoming project Digging for Fire?

Sure! I’m editing it now, it’s another movie about a relationship about parents. I think thematically – I still don’t know because I’m still figuring out exactly what it’s all about – you could say that it’s about the struggle of trying to be in a relationship with somebody and build a healthy, functioning relationship where you are constantly compromising and also maintaining an identity as an individual. It’s about how having a child makes that even more difficult, because you have such a central focus point in your life. It’s like half of each of you and you can really pour yourself into that, but remind yourself that you are still a human that has your own desires and hopes and dreams. That’s just a territory I’m playing around in, I’d say that it’s like an adventure movie kind of. Half a relationship movie, and a half an adventure.