Filmmaker Joe Swanberg at the bar in the basement of his home in Chicago. (Joel Wintermantle / Chicago…)
Even Joe Swanberg has to stop to count the number of Joe Swanberg movies out there right now. Just this year he premiered "Uncle Kent" at Sundance and unveiled "Silver Bullets" and "Art History" at the Berlin International Film Festival. The 30-year-old filmmaker also released "Autoerotic" on video-on-demand with limited theatrical play dates. He has been shooting throughout 2011 as well and is on course to soon finish his 15th film (10 of those he made in just the last two years).
The AFI Fest 2011, which starts Thursday, will spotlight Swanberg, hosting the world premiere of his newest film, "The Zone," alongside screenings of "Art History" and "Silver Bullets." Those three films will be part of a DVD set from the boutique label Factory 25, with a fourth film, "Privacy Setting," exclusive to that set.
All three films screening at AFI Fest concern the act of filmmaking and the intertwining of personal jealousies and artistic insecurities, capturing a snapshot of a filmmaker in motion. As Lane Kneedler, associate director of programming, writes in the AFI Fest program notes, "These three films function as unique time capsules capturing an artist wrestling with his complex conflicts, all the while struggling to have his art catch up with his actual emotional development."
"Silver Bullets" finds Swanberg (who appears in all three films in roles of varying size) playing a filmmaker agonizing over his small, personal work in the face of his actress girlfriend's more mainstream success. "Art History" features two actors trying to figure out if their attraction to each other is real or the byproduct of a movie shoot. "The Zone" traces the interrelationships of a trio of roommates once an outsider enters their dynamic, before revealing additional layers of psycho-emotional complexity.
These are themes drawn quite directly from Swanberg's own life, and in this prolific run Swanberg has inadvertently created his own undertow. It would be easy for audiences to miss out on the maturing of his sensibilities, creative breakthroughs and growth as a filmmaker quite simply because they're unsure where to start.
"There is a danger that the amount of work out there right now has divided the small audience rather than attempting to get everybody to see one of the movies. But I'm not worried about it, truthfully," said Swanberg recently from his home in Chicago. He was there for just a few days in between finishing a shoot in Atlanta and flying to Vienna for a film festival. His wife, Kris, was shooting a film of her own in their house, Swanberg helping out on that as well.
"The hope for me is that the sum total of the work says something bigger than any of the individual films can say by themselves," added Swanberg, who will appear at AFI Fest.
Born in Michigan, Swanberg studied filmmaking at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and he began garnering attention even with his early works, the features "Kissing on the Mouth" (2005) and "LOL" (2006) as well as the Web series "Young American Bodies." His third feature, 2007's "Hannah Takes the Stairs," became a prime example of the emerging American micro-budget scene. If one were to make a diagram of contemporary American independent filmmaking, Swanberg would be somewhere near the center, if for no other reason than his productivity and appetite for new collaborators has led him to work with a roll call of notable actors and filmmakers — Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Andrew Bujalski, Noah Baumbach, Ti West, Lynn Shelton, Larry Fessenden, Jane Adams, Ry Russo-Young, Aaron Katz, Amy Seimetz, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine. Antonio Campos, a producer on the recent indie sensation "Martha Marcy May Marlene," appears briefly in "Silver Bullets," adding a new branch to the Swanberg family tree.
Swanberg is strongly associated with the ultra-low-budget digital filmmaking movement known as "mumblecore," which largely concerns the emotional lives of the post-collegiate urban creative class. His work generates sharply differing opinions; just this year in the New York Times, one review lauded his "subdued, digressive, naturalistic style" while another chided one of his films as "mush" and declared that any viewer who doesn't "wish for the 74 minutes back has an empty life indeed."
"I think I was surprised that in the negative backlash there was some kind of energy from people where they were mad at us for having even made the films. And that's what weirds me out," Swanberg said. "The sense I was getting from the faction of the cinephile community that really hated the mumblecore movies was 'How dare these people even make these movies. It's an insult to me personally that this movie exists.' By this point I expect it."