SXSW Interview: ‘Alexander the Last’ Director Joe Swanberg

In an exclusive interview Joe Swanberg talks to us about Alexander the Last, the current state of mumblecore and simultaneously premiering the film at SXSW and on-demand.
By  · Published on March 14th, 2009

Joe Swanberg makes films quickly and cheaply. Cumulatively, the budgets for the six he’s made since 2005 probably equal less than one day on Watchmen. In so doing, however, he’s fast become one of the preeminent figures in the mumblecore movement devoted to small, personal movies without any frills that depict the lives of disaffected twenty-somethings.

Alexander the Last, his latest work, premieres tonight at South by Southwest (SXSW) and on-demand through the partnership between the festival and IFC Films’ Festival Direct. In Swanberg’s characteristically improvised, vérité style the film depicts the emotional complications that arise when sisters Alex (Jess Weixler) and Helen (Amy Seimetz) develop crushes on the same man (Barlow Jacobs). In an exclusive interview, Film School Rejects spoke to the filmmaker while he was on a recent pre-fest stop in New York.

FSR: What are the particular challenges of writing about women and evoking a sisterly bond?

Joe Swanberg: Almost to a full extent the movies are improvised, so the way that I’m working as a writer is just by sort of being a collector of ideas that I’m getting directly from Jess and Amy. So that sister relationship is based a lot on information coming from Amy who has a sister and who sort of knows the ins and outs of it. It’s fun for me. I like to make films about relationships that I don’t really understand so that I can explore them.

In a way as soon as [it was] decided Jess and Amy would play sisters that process starts, where Amy tells us a lot about her own experiences, she and Jess start to form their own new relationship outside of that and because there’s no script to base it on or specific scenes to tackle it gets to be a lot more all inclusive, so that they’re going after more of the general vibe of sisterhood than looking at “ok we have to make this seem realistic, how do we do that?”

When you’re bringing in new people into this heavily improvised world, do you test them to make sure they are up to the challenge?

I don’t. People who I cast I’m [usually] casting them because I’ve met them in person and I just like being around them. I usually have some kind of feeling about people that I think they would be good in a movie, or particularly in something that I’m working on and that has never involved auditions or screen tests or anything like that.

In the case of this movie I met Amy through a mutual friend who liked her and thought that she was good and I just sat down and started talking, had dinner with some friends. Jess I had seen in Teeth so I already knew I really liked her in that movie. I never was worried that she couldn’t do something more dramatic. I really liked Teeth and I really liked her in Teeth, so it’s fun for me to try and take the great energy in Teeth but to do something different and to get to see her do something different.

Do you feel like your movies could work in the same way if they weren’t improvised?

I don’t know. The reason that I’ve stayed away from a script is because the thing that I’m afraid of is that all of the characters end up just sounding like me. If there is truth in the movies that I’ve been making hopefully it’s because the performers are being honest and also because they’re always saying things that they would actually say. They’re not ever having to interpret my words.

Having said that, I’m starting with the new work to be a lot more deliberate with the ideas and even with the blocking and the camerawork and things like that. The dialogue is still improvised but the ideas themselves are a lot less improvised. I hope that doesn’t make them less truthful, but what it’s doing is it’s making them maybe less realistic, or it’s not going after the concept of realism so much anymore. I want everybody to be able to speak with their own voice. Even that might change. I might start writing scripts, but if I do it will be because I do want them all to sound like me, or sort of be different mouthpieces for my ideas.

A big motif in this film and in your past work is the interplay between life and art. Why do you keep returning to it?

At this point I think it’s safe to say that I’ve returned to it enough that it is important. I think the reason it’s important is because I spend so much of my own time thinking about this. These movies are for a general audience, but at the same time are still very personal and making them is still a way where I’m able to think about things out loud and focus for a long period of time on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and most of the time that is some sort of crossover between being an artist and being a person outside of making art. The ways in which this changes, one film with people being actors and musicians and another being writers, is because of the people I happen to be working with at the time but I think I’m attracted to the struggles of artists.

And then there’s an element, like with Alexander the Last, of marriage. Everybody’s relationship is obviously different, but there’s nothing specific about marriage because it’s something that every culture has to deal with and that sort of commitment. So hopefully all of the films have that too, some very specific thing that relates to art and artists and then something much more general that the artists are dealing with that everybody can find as an entry point.

Have you encountered any of the backlash against mumblecore, and, if so, how do you explain it?

I have a weird relationship to mumblecore and to the backlash just because they both are things that I feel like have been put upon me. I just am making movies and before I was making movies. It’s hard to have a bad attitude about it because in order for there to be a backlash about it there has to be generally praise and support. That stuff, all of it including the backlash, is all part of a general discussion that is the whole purpose of making the work in the first place. The only fear is that people who have never seen any of the work are already turned off by it just from reading people’s descriptions of it. I think everybody’s just going to have to ride that one out. It’s really interesting, though. Nobody quite knows what to do with it. I think there’s evidence of that by the fact that people are still writing about it, or just coming to it now, just first exploring these movies.

Also the work is changing so much. I don’t know, I can only speak for myself, but my working method is changing and the work itself I feel like is changing, so the things that people used as the definition of mumblecore isn’t necessarily true to the work anymore and especially won’t be as the characters move into their 30s and 40s, but I think the term might stick with all of us and be redefined as we change. It’s also sort of become a catch all. I see basically any American filmmaker making a movie about characters in their 20s, whether it’s improvised or not or anything is being called mumblecore now, so the more the word gets thrown around, the broader the definition gets, the less meaning it has or ever had. I still look at it generally as a positive thing. It’s a way that people could talk about a lot of work that individually might not have found an audience, but as a movement, as a genre, was able to get an audience much bigger than film festivals. Also it’s reaching internationally, which the movies might not have had as much success doing on their own, which is making some international festivals feel like they have to pay attention whether they like the movies or not, and my work has benefited as much or more than anybody else’s, so I can’t really be down on it.

The films are in many ways heirs to a long tradition of democratized cinema.

I totally agree. That’s the thing, when the IFC Center [IFC’s New York City arthouse] was doing that [retrospective] series in 2007 I really was hoping they would include Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It or Caveh Zahedi’s movies. There are so many filmmakers that did exactly the same thing 20 and 30 and 40 years ago. In Andrew [Bujalski’s] case, who’s still shooting on 16mm, they did exactly the same thing. So using a video camera instead of a film camera I don’t think makes it brand new. The thing that’s changing now is the distribution model. That’s a big difference, the way that these movies can reach people without having to do the film festival circuit or without having to receive a traditional theatrical release.

What are your thoughts on the film premiering on-demand simultaneous to SXSW?

[Co-producer] Anish Savjani and I went to IFC with the idea based on the knowledge that they wanted to do something with SXSW and we had worked with them on the previous two films. I think it’s fantastic; it will let people who can’t physically be in Austin experience the movie if they want to, and I just think that’s so cool. Especially having become a cinephile outside of New York City, in the suburbs of Chicago, there’s just so much work that I was reading about all the time that I wasn’t able to see. We had cable and if we had on-demand and I could have watched all of these movies that were opening at film festivals, as a young filmmaker that would have been so exciting to me to have that kind of access. Instead, I have tracked some of those movies down and some I haven’t even seen, so making it available is a huge step forward and we’ll see what comes of it. I don’t think that the theatrical experience will go away, and I don’t even think that it will go away on the small arthouse level, just because it’s just going to maybe cost more or become more of a connoisseur experience, which is what happens to everything. If there’s a small but devoted audience there will be theaters that can find those people.

Do you see yourself ever moving out of the more personal realm of mumblecore and into Hollywood?

I don’t want to say that it wouldn’t ever interest me. Right now I don’t have any ideas that would require a lot of money or a big studio effort. The thing that’s always drawn me to each project is the people that I would be working with and there are definitely people in Hollywood that I find really exciting to work with on something. If I ever did a bigger project that’s probably how it would come about; there was an actor or actress that I really wanted to work with, or a chance to work with a certain DP or producer. There’s ways I can see that happening, but it’s not that interesting to me. It’s not something I’m pursuing, let’s say that. I’m really artistically satisfied making this small personal work. It’s what I’ve always been interested in and will continue to be interested in, even to the extent that I’m funding the projects myself. They’re not really moneymaking ventures. To a large extent I’m making them for myself, always with the knowledge that there is an audience and always with a presentation that isn’t personal. Otherwise, I would just make them and sit in my living room and watch them.

Instead I make them and I don’t want to watch them. They’re only for other people, but the thing that’s the most exciting to me about the small amount of money that these movies can cost now is that filmmakers can finally work personally the way that writers and painters and poets have always. They don’t need a big overhead and they don’t need everything to be financed by somebody else. That I think will always produce a lot of interesting work. It will also produce just a lot of work, what we’re sort of seeing now, but I think it’s a good thing. I have faith that outside of the official channels good work will always find an audience. I don’t have a fear that this stuff will become a wave of digital information that nobody can keep up with. I think that we naturally want to find good stuff and tell our friends about it. And there are no geniuses out there that haven’t been discovered or anything like that. If you’re making work and it’s good and people are relating to it it’s working its way through people’s hands.

Do you get the sense that your films play well to audiences outside of the target demographic?

Yeah, LOL especially played really well for older audiences, who I think were just sort of fascinated by it, ethnographically interested. I think there is a pretty diverse audience for the work. I’m definitely not just making this stuff for people my age. Also, the newer movies have older characters in them, and probably will continue to. I’m starting to work with people with more experience who are interested in their own kind of things.

The audience is largely a mystery to me. Most festival audiences that I encounter tend to be younger, but those are the kinds of people that are going to festivals and seeking out that work in a theatrical experience. Once the movies hit DVD or are on TV I really lose track of who might be flipping through and come across [it] or who might put it on their Netflix queue randomly. I also make work for the Web and that’s where I really have no idea who the audience is, and I hope that it’s older people. Really I just hope that it’s for some people out there. I’ve always had this feeling that if you can make very specific work that’s not general where people aren’t caricatures, you know like the jock who’s supposed to represent all the jocks or something like that, that it makes it more universal actually in that everybody can relate to a specific human being more than they can relate to an archetype or a caricature or something like that.

For more of the best SXSW film coverage on the web, keep an eye on our SXSW ’09 homepage.

Related Topics: