Mumblecore and Horror: An Interview with Joe Swanberg

Movies Features Joe Swanberg
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If someone tells you they’re a fan of actor/director Joe Swanberg, it’s one of those statements that requires clarification, with the certainty that their answer will likely reveal quite a bit about their taste in movies.

If they say, “Well, I loved Drinking Buddies and the way he shoots realistic conversations,” then they’re talking about Joe Swanberg the director, a dramatist who rose to prominence as the godfather of the mumblecore genre. Along the way, he discovered the likes of Greta Gerwig, casting her in Hannah Takes the Stairs and LOL back in the mid-to-late 2000s. This is Swanberg the emotional auteur, dedicated to wringing the truest possible performances out of films that were largely plotless, scriptless and made for pennies.

However, if someone tells you they loved Joe Swanberg in an acting role, they’re almost certainly talking about one of his demented turns in an indie horror film such as A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next or The Sacrament. Running with a crowd of nascent horror filmmakers that includes Ti West, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, Swanberg has led an unusual double life as a director of dramas and actor in horror pictures. He appears once again in the upcoming psychological horror film, Proxy, which will be released on VOD by IFC Midnight on April 18. We chatted with Swanberg this week about the unusual duality of his Hollywood identity and role in Zack Parker’s Proxy.

Paste: Let’s talk horror. What is your relationship with the horror genre like, exactly? Are you really a horror geek, or do you just know a bunch of them?
Swanberg: It honestly started with just knowing a bunch of the guys. I grew up loving horror movies, and if you’re going to make indie films they’re always some of the easiest to envision making yourself because the genre allows them to be rough around the edges. I’m definitely a fan, but I didn’t expect to belong to this world the way I do now. I met most of these guys at film festivals, and it was a natural thing that happened. Being cast by them became self-perpetuating.

Paste: So do people often comment on the difference between your horror acting roles and your directorial dramas, then? Do they find that weird?
Swanberg: I don’t know that the worlds overlap that much. I suspect a lot of people who have seen me in horror movies have no idea that I’m a director, and vice versa. It’s kind of like I have split personalities.

Paste: Do you see yourself more strongly as one or the other, director or actor?
Swanberg: I like doing both of them. If I had to choose, I would direct; I think of myself that way. This sort of strange acting career I happened into is sort of a fluke, I think. If it went away and people stopped casting me, I would still have a full-time job as a director. I don’t see any scenario where I stop directing because I’m acting full-time.

Paste: So how are you choosing acting projects, then? Is it really just friends coming to you all the time?
Swanberg: It started out exclusively as friend connections, but in the last year or two, people I don’t necessarily know are offering me acting work—pretty much exclusively in horror films. Zack Parker, the director of Proxy, was like a friend of a friend—that’s how it started branching off. He knew Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett a little bit, but he didn’t know me. That’s how the world sort of is now for me as an actor; it feels like an extended family. One of the things I love about the horror world is that it feels like a community, there’s a sense that the filmmakers and the audience are in it together.

Paste: Have you been to the popular horror conventions and stuff, then?
Swanberg: I haven’t been to those big ones, but I’ve been to Fantastic Fest in Austin and places like that, getting a sense of how rich the community is. I keep up to date with what they’re up to. It’s like six degrees of separation; everyone seems to know somebody who knows somebody.

Paste: It seems like a lot of the horror characters you’ve played are people who seem like an everyman, kind of a bro, and then turn out to be really disturbed. What are you drawing on in showing their twisted side?
Swanberg: I do think there’s something very sort of suburban about me. I’m a normal-looking guy with a regular old haircut; I just look like a normal dad or something. But friends who know me from my filmmaking can see there’s some sort of weirdness there under the surface. I think directors are kind of riffing on what they know about me. Maybe there’s some rage or weirdness under the surface. It’s fun for me to play these characters who have something secretly twisted going on. I feel like David Lynch spent a lot of time investigating those kinds of characters.

Paste: You’ve worked with some of the better young horror directors out there today. How did working with Zack Parker on Proxy compare to one of Adam Wingard or Ti West’s horror movies?
Swanberg: They’re all very visual directors, which is really fun and educational for me. I’m definitely performance-centric; the camera work in my movies is really built around the actors. So it’s fun for me to work for these guys with really strong visual ideas, all quite different from how I am as a filmmaker. I also relate to Zack a lot because we’re both dads building our careers outside the typical New York and L.A. scene. In this film, it was cool to go into a situation where I was mostly working with new people and building new relationships.

Paste: Is there a really creepy, feature-length horror flick inside you that you want to direct some day?
Swanberg: I think I would like to. If I ever had a really strong idea for one, I would just go make it. The ideas I have are usually relationship-driven or comedic or emotional, but I would expect to make one someday. I like the capacity in horror films for social commentary. They’re maybe the best platform to talk about bigger, broader social ideas because they’re not usually soapboxy. You can make something thrilling, visceral and entertaining.

Paste: Would you do it with a micro-budget? Drinking Buddies showed people a glimpse of you working with a larger budget, so should we expect more of that?
Swanberg: I’m really comfortable in the low-budget space, and I’m working that way by choice at this point. I’m a big fan of limitations; I find them to be liberating. It’s always nice to have a small amount of money, a few actors and go from there.

Paste: I know we’re out of time, but here’s a totally unrelated question. What’s it like for you seeing Greta Gerwig having a bit of a moment now, following the success of Frances Ha? Did you ever think you’d see her starring on a CBS sitcom like How I Met Your Dad?
Swanberg: It’s actually taken a lot longer than I thought for her to achieve the attention she deserves. When I was making Hannah Takes the Stairs with her, I thought she might be a big, gigantic movie star the next summer. It’s exciting to see over the course of years how people have been paying more and more attention. But now that I’ve been making movies for 10 years, I realize that everything takes longer than you expect it will take.

Jim Vorel is a Central Illinois-based entertainment reporter and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.