For the oral history of mumblecore, look no further than micro-budget guru Joe Swanberg, one of its de facto architects. Swanberg wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, and starred in his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth, which he made for $3,000. The film premiered at SXSW 2005 alongside Andrew Bujalski's second film, Mutual Appreciation, and Mark and Jay Duplass' The Puffy Chair, and it was at that very festival that the term "mumblecore" was coined.
This year, Swanberg was back in Austin for the SXSW 2017 premiere of his new film, Win It All. Though it is decidedly distinct from his previous work—Netflix commissioned and produced it in its first slate of original films—Swanberg has retained much of his mumblecore DNA, evidenced by the film's naturalism, improvised dialogue, relatively low budget, and the small, all-hands-on-deck crew that made it happen. Ever the renaissance man, Swanberg directed, edited, and co-wrote Win It All with frequent collaborator Jake Johnson, who also stars in the comedy as Eddie, a hapless gambling addict perpetually driving himself into debt.
"When I got out of film school, I was like, 'What do I unlearn from film school? Why couldn't I, no matter how hard I tried, make something good?'" —Joe Swanberg
Win It All does, however, ditch one tenet of mumblecore: the meandering narrative. Without sacrificing character for plot, Swanberg delivers a film with a neat three-act structure and the appropriate catharsis of a crowd-pleaser. Of course, it's still miles away from a studio movie; the director spares Eddie no hit, kicking him further and further into the gutter until the film becomes one sustained, nail-biting brace for impact. When comedy rears its genuine, idiosyncratic, and full-bellied head, you'll scarcely feel more grateful for a chance to laugh.
No Film School caught up with Swanberg and Johnson in Austin to talk about their uniquely collaborative, improv-based process, the virtues of the skeleton crew, how to make your next movie better than your last, and capturing it all on 16mm film.
Win it All hits Netflix on April 7.
No Film School: Joe and Jake, you have worked together before on movies with low budgets, where you strip all Hollywood studio conventions and work with what you have. You continued that aesthetic with this film, although it's in some ways a more conventional narrative.
Joe Swanberg: Well, we're working with a lot of the same team who's been with us since Drinking Buddies. We did Drinking Buddies and this one in Chicago, and then we did Digging for Fire in Los Angeles, but a lot of that crew came out from Chicago. We are now three movies into this collaboration. The crew understands the vibe and know the flow of this kind of set—there's some nice continuity there.
Jake Johnson: It feels like a family. And some people start getting promoted. Joe also hires a lot of young people, so all of a sudden I'll be like, "Wasn't that guy a PA?" And it's like, "He's now doing this [role instead]." And you're like, "Whoa!" You watch people evolve in the Swanberg world.
Swanberg: I came up making $5,000 movies. I went to film school and worked really hard on a lot of really bad movies—my own movies. When I got out of film school, I was like, "Something is wrong here. What do I unlearn from film school?" Basically, it's not through lack of effort; it's not through lack of passion—something is missing. I'm watching us drop from exhaustion from having worked so hard. Why are none of these movies that we're making any good? What's the disconnect? Why couldn't I, no matter how hard I tried, make something good?
"Now, we're making professional movies with professional actors, but the [micro-budget] ethos never went away." —Joe Swanberg
I tried to just scrap things. None of these scripts were any good. What if I just let people talk with their own voice? What if I try that? Is that going to yield any interesting results? These crews...having 15 people standing around, leaning on the wall, watching everybody work, is not helping. What if I got rid of those people, and it was just three people on set? What if those three people were also the actors in the movie, so whoever wasn't acting was holding a boom pole, and we're all switching jobs? I was just trying stuff, 'cause the other thing didn't work.
Those early movies are really rough. I haven't watched them in a long time. I'm a little afraid of what I did back then. But also, each time out, I was like, "All right, it's better than the old stuff. It may not be great, but, you know, there's something going on here."
'Win it All'Credit: Netflix
Swanberg: Now, we're making professional movies with professional actors, but the [micro-budget] ethos never went away. Each movie, I'm taking the positive lessons from the last one and just saying, "Okay, cool: this part's not broken, so let's bring this along; this part's not broken; this is good; this thing didn't work on the last one, so there's an adjustment we can make." It's not like they just keep getting better in some kind of logical way, but the things that don't work are opportunities to learn and try something else. The things that always have worked are the small crews, people having a lot of jobs and investment in the movie.
I've acted in movies with bigger budgets than anything I've made myself, so I've been on those sets. It's insane to me how segmented the film industry is. "Stay in your lane" is the mantra of the whole film industry. This guy has a job; his job is to touch props and move props around. I'm like, "I'm standing right here! I can fucking shift a prop!"
NFS: It's so inefficient!
Swanberg: Yeah. "What are you doing? Robert's supposed to be in charge of that glass, and you moved the glass!" I'm like, "What are we talking about? Are we all adults right now? The glass is in the way! Does Robert need to come from base camp to move the thing? We're really gonna wait eight minutes for Robert to come and move the glass?"
I came up in a world where it was like, "Hey, Jake, would you mind shoving that table two feet over? It'd be nice."
Johnson: We hate it. [Laughs] We're like, "Excuse me! I'm making sure the light hits my skin perfectly, so I've got a perfect complexion!" That is the fun of doing a Joe movie.
"My writing cap is still on while we're shooting. I'm the first audience—I watch takes as if [I were] sitting at home watching this movie." —Joe Swanberg
Certain actors aren't gonna like it, and certain actors are going to love it. You go on a set, and you're just there to act. You're just excited about it. Then, all of a sudden, there's a PA who's following you around with walkie-talkies going, "Jake's going to the bathroom." You're like, "Don't tell everybody!" And then they're like, "I just gotta keep track of you." I'm like, "While we're shooting, what do you think's gonna happen? I'm gonna evaporate? What could possibly happen? I'm an adult person!"
On Joe's movies, there'll be moments where I'm like, "Is there something I should be doing?" And they're like, "Well, whatever you want."
Swanberg: Guess what, if you wanna go a restaurant and sit down and watch some sports, fine....
Johnson: Go do it! But I just need you to—
Swanberg: —be back in an hour. You know your phone that has time on it? An hour from now, let's be back here.
'Win It All'Credit: Netflix
NFS: I imagine that atmosphere is conducive to your improv-based style. Is it true, though, that Win it All was more scripted than your past endeavors?
Johnson: The dialogue is always open. Every story beat, we knew where we wanted to go. We had a treatment for everything. But everyone has a different style. Keegan [Michael-Key] liked to see the treatment, so we would show him the scene before shooting. Keegan and I would sometimes say the lines, and then Keegan would start adding stuff. With [Joe] Lo Truglio, he and I would go over the beats. With Aislinn [Aislinn Derbez], Joe and I would basically say, "This is where we need to go, but now let's just have fun doing it." So it always changed. When it was my character alone with his naked excitement, we knew the exact script. We could always start there, but we it beat-perfect, not word-perfect.
Swanberg: My writing cap is still on while we're shooting. I'm the first audience—I watch takes as if [I were] sitting at home watching this movie. So a lot of what I'm doing is for clarity. Especially with the improv, if we're not reciting dialogue, where we've already figured it all out, I can just be like, "There's a possibility that what you just said could be misconstrued. Let's figure out a different way to say it."
The other thing I'm doing is getting ideas that are borne out of the improv. So, there'll be a thing that happens, that I'm like, "Oh, okay, this is really funny. What if we took that joke, note it, and, like, three scenes from now, we can call back to it, and I bet we would get a good laugh out of it.
I don't know what's gonna happen [with improv], which is nice. It really does allow me to be the first audience, because there's no part of me that's sitting there going, "Mm-hmm, and he says this, and she says ..." I'm watching, because I don't know. And so then, I'm like, "Okay, great. That take was awesome, but our camera is in the wrong spot right now. You guys did all your good work with your backs over there, so let's take five minutes and rejigger this scene, now that I kind of know what it is."
"We wanted to make sure we're never in a situation where we want another take, and we go, ugh, but it's film, it's expensive. Let's just do what we need to do for the movie." —Joe Swanberg
When I've [acted in] the scripted stuff—even when I'm on my best behavior, and I'm really at work and doing it—you reach a point where you've heard the dialogue enough times. Your batteries are winding down a little bit. It gets lazy and I feel bad about it. In the improv process, every take's different. It's no fun to just be like, "Cool, we got that. Now let's do it exactly the same [again]."
But it also depends on the personalities. When we got Aislinn, we imagined the Eva character to be a little bit more grounded, a little bit more serious. Well, Aislinn is a goofy person, which we didn't know. She's funny and loves doing bits. We love doing bits, but we didn't know she did. So when she came, we were all having a lot of fun. We would be laughing a lot off camera, doing the same bits we always do, and then it was just very clear that when we started calling "Action".... Well, we know what needs to happen. We could do the serious version, but it's just more fun like this.
'Win it All'Credit: Netflix
Johnson: That is what you need on these movies: you need the right pieces. Casting on this was really important to us. We threw the net way open, and we said, "Let's just get people who are really cool." And we realized, not everybody works in this [process]. You've got to be the right type of actor, who's able to do your job, but then bring something that we never saw before to give that magic on set. Aislinn and Nicki Excitement and Keegan and Lo Truglio and Berg—everybody just kinda brought that magic.
NFS: Did shooting on film impact the process at all?
Swanberg: We tried to not let it [impact anything]. When Jake and I talked about shooting film, we didn't want it to be a limitation. We just committed to shooting as much as we needed to do. Jake and I said, "Let's make sure we're never in a situation where we want another take, and we go, 'Ugh, but it's film, it's expensive.' Let's just do what we need to do for the movie." And so we stuck with that. And the truth is, we're not a 50-take vibe on set anyway. We do three takes, if we're being honest with ourselves, and six takes if we really need a lot of coverage.
For me, the difference is, video never stops rolling on a set. As an editor, I get really annoyed with that tendency to start the camera at the beginning of the day and just roll eight takes through when people are talking, resetting things in between. I was always the guy that was scrubbing through 70-minute takes. So, with film, it's a bit more regimented, like, "Okay, now, we're rolling; now, we're stopping; now, we're talking about it; now, we're rolling again."
Johnson: But we still did a lot of takes sometimes [even though we were shooting on film]. We did about 12 takes of the scene where we're walking home at the end of the night because [Joe] wanted it as a one-er. I got in a really bad mood, and that was my first fight with Joe. I was like, "My dear, it's about three in the morning. What haven't we got?" Joe goes, "I think I would like another one." I was like, "Then let's do another one! What would you like me to do? You want me to do a fuckin' somersault?" [They both laugh.]
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