The prolific American indie filmmaker has a strike rate that would be the envy of most Australian directors. Happily, he’s willing to share his secrets on how to get low-budget movies up and out there.
8 Aug 2014 - 12:13 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:29 AM

You think it’s tough to make a feature film for less than a million dollars? Joe Swanberg has made more than 15 of them and he’s barely 33 years-old. The lo-fi micro-budget writer-director of improvised relationship dramas such as Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, and 2013’s breakout hit Drinking Buddies, says his films have ranged “from about three or four thousand dollars for my first film, Kissing on the Mouth in 2005, to about $600,000 for Drinking Buddies. So even my biggest film was really small!”

Drawing heavily from real life, Swanberg’s movies are typically talkative and candid, with actors bringing their own dialogue into broad scenarios. Themes circle around relationships, sex, fear of commitment, and the dilemmas of being young and creative in Middle America. A key figure in the unofficial ‘Mumblecore’ movement (along with Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers), Swanberg’s films are often rough around the edges. Handheld camerawork, natural lighting and minimal production design mean the focus is firmly on story, character and incredibly naturalistic dialogue. This is what makes films like his latest, Happy Christmas, so genuinely warm, funny and insightful. Perhaps it’s a lesson to Australian filmmakers whose work is too often praised as ‘beautifully shot’ – technically brilliant, but deficient in character development and storytelling.

A guest of the Melbourne International Film Festival, and in town to support festival screenings of Happy Christmas (starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey and Swanberg himself), the Chicago-based Swanberg took some time out to share a few of his filmmaking tips. Admitting he knows “not very much at all” about the Australian film industry, and being far too smart to suggest he’s found a definitive model, Swanberg’s impressive output and track record (he’s finally making a modest living, in part through VOD licenses to his back catalogue) are enough to make his wisdom worth your while. Here are his tips.

1. Use what you’ve got

My biggest tip for filmmakers– especially for low budget independent filmmakers – is to utilise the things you have access to, which has always been important in my career. Only having access to cheap video cameras and inexpensive sound equipment meant we couldn’t fall back on those things. I had to rely on the stories we were telling and the actors I was working with. I get emails from filmmakers all the time and I’m always having to remind them that if they are anxious to make work, then the thing that they can make most quickly is a movie where they’re utilising the people and the equipment they already have access to. I think a lot of independent filmmakers end up in the situation where they have some idea they’re really excited about, and it’s going to take 10 years to get it made, and then they feel frustrated those entire 10 years. This is a different way to go about it. Rather than spend a long time getting the financing to make one movie, just make a lot of movies over time and hopefully arrive at the same place with more work to show for it.

2. Focus on character and story over high production values

I was inspired by the Dogma 95 films which started coming out while I was in film school, and really liberated me from the need for that high production value. The whole Dogma manifesto is kind of against that focus on high production values and more on character.

3. Invest in ownership of your work and live lean

If you have ownership of your work, then that work can provide an income forever and that is often not only more lucrative, but more secure than upfront payment, or doing the work for hire for someone else. Oftentimes you just can’t – a movie is going to cost a certain amount of money and I just don’t have that amount of money. You trade ownership for the ability to get the thing made. But there seems to be conventional wisdom in the industry that you shouldn’t put your own money into your films. It’s kind of an old Hollywood mantra and there are stories of people getting burned, investing in their own projects or their friends’ projects. But it’s like betting on yourself, and that’s has always made sense to me.

You also get used to living on a really small income. The trick is not getting comfortable with more money, when you have it, because that makes it impossible to go back. That’s been the training of the last 10 years. Any time I had some money come in, I didn’t create that luxury padding around me, but put that money back into something creative, because film is the kind of industry where careers have ups and downs, so if you get to comfortable during an up, it’s going to make a down period really difficult. My wife’s also a filmmaker, so we’ve had the life over the last 10 years, where hopefully if one of us is broke, the other one of us is making some money. We’ve weathered the tough periods that way. It’s always been surviving on the bare minimum and when there’s money, that gets invested back in projects.

4. Trust your actors and use their intelligence

I don’t think actors are utilised nearly to their full potential. I’m discovering they’re incredibly smart and talented and are often just handed a script and told to read lines. It makes sense to involve them a lot more in the process. It’s important to be open to the idea that the actor may understand the character better than the director does. Actors act in a lot more movies than directors direct. It’s important to cast the right people. But once you’ve cast the right people, it’s important to trust them. They have to trust you too, and you have to earn that, in order for it to be a real collaboration, and then it can turn into something really interesting.

5. Tell stories about women

I’m drawn to telling stories about women, and it feels like it’s open territory out there as a filmmaker because there are just not enough strong female roles. I feel like stories with interesting women are the ones I want to see, and the ones I want to tell.

Happy Christmas is currently available on VOD platforms such as iTunes (Apple TV) and Netflix. The film will also screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday, 10 August with Joe Swanberg in attendance as a guest of the festival.  (Picture credit: Getty, Stuart C. Wilson)