For the better part of a decade, director Joe Swanberg has become synonymous with independent romantic comedies, essentially carving out a unique subgenre of underground films assigned the moniker “mumblecore” for the extensive use of improvisational dialogue and handheld cinematography. Alongside the Duplass Brothers, Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham and Lynn Shelton, “mumblecore” has inched its way into the public conscience, especially as Dunham and Mark Duplass are becoming stars of the small screen and Gerwig is collaborating with heavy hitting directors such as Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen and Ivan Reitman. However, whilst also sticking to his roots as an independent director, Swanberg helped merge the aesthetics of “mumblecore” to the world of horror, appearing in Adam Wingard’s independent genre darling, A Horrible Way to Die.
Swanberg finally dove headfirst into genre filmmaking with his dual role in V/H/S, acting in the “Second Honeymoon” segment under the direction of Ti West and getting behind the camera for the fourth segment, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”. While retaining a watchful eye over the independent comedy landscape and contributing with higher profile pictures like Drinking Buddies, Swanberg has further established himself as a versatile and dependable genre actor, landing a memorable role in Wingard’s upcoming home invasion horror film, You’re Next and the mysterious Ti West-Eli Roth collaboration, The Sacrament. Now with V/H/S/2 hitting theaters this Friday, July 12th, less than one year after the first film hit theaters and VOD, Diabolique caught up with the ever-busy Swanberg to discuss his work in the first film of the unlikely V/H/S franchise, his scene stealing performance in You’re Next and the secrets behind The Sacrament…
DIABOLIQUE: You’re probably best known in the film community as an independent director and recently as a genre actor. What attracted you to the concept of a found footage horror anthology project?
JOE SWANBERG: Well, I came to the project in a roundabout way. First, [I joined] as an actor in Ti’s segment and then a couple months later as a director. I’d been doing relationship comedies and dramas as a director for a long time, but a lot of my friends were horror and genre filmmakers, so I’ve been increasingly drawn to that world and the kinds of fans that they had. I was interested in the differences between the art house and film festival junket I’d been on and the genre-driven world they were living in. So I was interested in stepping over to try that and see what it would look like if I’d made a genre film.
DIABOLIQUE: In V/H/S, you crafted a found footage story that was fully immersed in a digital medium via the use of Skype. Were you at all concerned that the Skype concept or execution would cause a visual or tonal imbalance with the other segments?
SWANBERG: No, I was very excited for the concept from the beginning. We knew there was a static way to do it and an active way to do it, so by giving Emily a laptop that she could move around the house with, we knew that with some choreography and stuff we could keep it visually exciting and interesting. Also, the Skype thing, as a conceit, is a tough one to talk doing an entire feature with, but knowing that the segments in V/H/S were going to be about 15 minutes long, I thought it would be the perfect chance to really go all the way with that and keep the entire film contained in that Skype world.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the most effective aspects about “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is the segment’s use of misdirection and the narrative curveball with its ending. How important was having an element of mystery to the piece? Was it intentional that the ending remains open and ambiguous?
SWANBERG: Yeah, definitely. I was working from Simon Barrett’s script here, which he wrote knowing I was going to direct it, and he expected that I would improvise off of it, because that’s what I’ve done a lot. I loved the script so much that I really wanted to stick to it. So I got to read it for the first time the same way the audience watched the short. He didn’t tell me what was gonna happen, so I found it really scary.
The questions at the end [of the segment], to me, left a lot of nice room at the end for interpretation, and it felt scarier to me if there was not really an ending, like if there’s a sense of the thing that you just watched is still going on out there. So, Simon and I had our own backstory about these characters and their history together, but also what Emily’s boyfriends’ role in all of this was. But it felt good to not tie it up too neatly and leave some questions.
DIABOLIQUE: Knowing your background as an actor has roots in the mumblecore genre, how did you approach your role in “Second Honeymoon”? Did the found footage aspect lend itself to improvisation or did Ti stick closer to the script?
SWANBERG: No, we had a lot of freedom. It was a fun acting assignment because a lot of the time, due to technicalities of organized shooting, you can’t move because if you’re not right there, you won’t be on camera. So we had a ton of freedom to really walk around and inhabit the characters. I really liked it. It was very similar to the way that I had worked before. I felt like my V/H/S segment was about me getting closer to the way that Ti or Adam Wingard make movies and that Ti’s segment was closer to the way that I typically make movies, so we kind of flip-flopped a bit. It was essentially what it looks like, which was a trip to the Grand Canyon. [laughs] As an actor, obviously doing the movie is the main reason that you’re there, but then there are perks that come along with it. For me, getting to see the Grand Canyon was the big perk. So I was at work but also kind of on vacation.
DIABOLIQUE: From past interviews with Adam Wingard, it appears that V/H/S was put together piece by piece. What was your reaction to the other segments in the film when you saw them for the first time?
SWANBERG: I had a great time with the film. I actually saw the movie for the first time at Sundance along with the audience. I had seen a very rough cut of Ti’s and I had seen mine, but I hadn’t seen the other segments. But right from the beginning- and my favorite segment in the movie is the first one, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” segment. So within 20 minutes of the movie starting, I already felt like I was watching something amazing just because Bruckner’s [segment] blew my mind so much. It was really fun though.
They gave each director a lot of freedom, but that’s really hard to tell if it’ll all fit together in a movie or not. I was really struck by all the similarities, thematically and tonally, in each of the pieces even though there wasn’t a lot of communication between the directors. I felt that V/H/S did a great job of capturing an unspoken zeitgeist thing that was boiling underneath the surface. It was like we all didn’t have to communicate about it to be on the same page.
DIABOLIQUE: As a director working as an actor in one capacity on V/H/S, was it difficult to remain objective to Ti’s segment and not let your directorial instincts come into play?
SWANBERG: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I’m not sure if I have a response to that. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of acting but I’ll always consider myself a director, and I always end up casting a lot of directors as actors in my projects. I have a complicated relationship between those two different roles and what they mean, but as a director, I’m always trying to be on my best behavior when I’m working on another directors set. I’m maybe not always succeeding, but I always try to default to them and not let the fact that I’m a director come into play while I’m acting. I would hope for the same thing when I’m casting other directors as actors in my movies.
DIABOLIQUE: As you mentioned, V/H/S was your first genre effort after a career of relationship and mumblecore work. Have you considered doing a feature length horror film following the reception to and your experience on V/H/S?
SWANBERG: You know, it’s something I still think about occasionally. [Genre directing] was a lot of fun and is something I’d like to do again. It’s funny because the interesting thing about making movies, for me, is working with actors, and the horror genre isn’t always actor-friendly or performance based. There’s a lot of technical skills from the director that aren’t necessarily reliant on very good performances, so if I do another horror movie or another genre thing, it has to have a story that has a lot of room for real characters and real performance work. The thing that I liked a lot about the script that Simon Barrett wrote for my V/H/S segment is that it’s really character driven and emotional in a way that I like. I think about it a lot but I haven’t latched onto what project that might be to bring me back into the genre world.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the best elements about “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is the dark, demented humor that’s present throughout the segment. Was it important to you that there’d be an element of comedy within Simon’s script for your V/H/S short?
SWANBERG: Yes, definitely. I think that comedy is usually important to horror films. I think all of my favorite [horror films] have an element of comedy to them. That’s not to say that they are comedies. There’s a whole world of horror-comedies, and that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about straight up horror movies. I think my favorite ones have a sense of humor to them, and as a filmmaker, I also think that the timing is similar. The timing and set-up of the way that you set up a joke in a movie for the biggest laugh factor is the same way of setting up a scare for the biggest scare factor. The two worlds are very similar to me in how I think about them.
So [the comedy] as always there, and Simon is really funny. It was present in the script from the beginning. Certainly, we focused on the black humor and the performances made sure that was an element that was in place, so that was important to us. I think that it’s really important to have catharsis between the scares. I think if you have a stream of scares all in a row, it’s like you’re waiting for each one. I think if you have a scare and then a big laugh, the audience is primed for the next scare. Really great horror filmmakers know how to balance those. I’m not including myself amongst the great horror filmmakers. It’s just an observation. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: You appear in You’re Next in an important role and you play a great character in the sense that he’s responsible for a lot of humor in the film and is the catalyst for much of the internal family contention. How much of that character was strictly from the page and how much of the character did you bring to the screen?
SWANBERG: Yeah, the bones of the character was there in Simon’s script. Simon’s script for You’re Next was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had reading a script. I loved it and suspected the movie could be a huge success. It was a really fun, smart and scary script. Coming into [You’re Next], I wanted to be conscious of that. I didn’t want to come in an improv the whole movie or my whole character. It’s just the way that I work as an actor. If the director allows me to carry on a little bit, then I have a lot of fun with that.
So certainly, I was comfortable there and I’d worked with Adam and Simon a lot. Most of the other actors in the movie were either friends of mine or people that I’d worked with before. It was a good environment for me to play in because I felt safe with it. I felt like they were going to do a good job with it even if I gave them ten takes. Even if nine [takes] were stupid, they’d use the one that worked the best. So yeah, I goofed around and I tried to keep it light and make people laugh. It was really fun having my job during that movie because it was such a fun character.
It’s great to play the asshole. It’s like they really set you up to stand out. I remember talking to AJ Bowen when we got to set and he was really mad because he wanted to play that character. [AJ] has a bigger, more important role but he was like, “You’re the asshole, man. You’re going to get all of the laughs.”And he was right. It was very much like that from the very beginning. It turned out to be a really fun, cool role.
DIABOLIQUE: Your presence in the film community has been very independently based previously to You’re Next being picked up by a major studio and appearing in Ti West’s upcoming effort, The Sacrament. Are you preparing at all for the increased public exposure? Is it important for you to always be ingratiated in the underground film community?
SWANBERG: Well, it’s interesting. I’m not preparing myself. It’s weird because I’ve been making movies for ten years now and a lot of people I worked with early on in my career and now Greta [Gerwig] and Mark Duplass are people that I consider movie stars now. It takes forever. I’ve witnessed very few overnight success stories in that way. It’s always a slow move in that direction, since there’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff going on and a lot of hard work.
So I like acting, and it’d be exciting if You’re Next did well and I was able to get more acting work because of that. I’m very realistic about the fact that nothing in my life is going to change, even if the film is a massive hit and makes a ton of money. Most of the things that I’m really focused on are directing things. I also don’t think the audience that’s going to see You’re Next is going to take the time and google my name and see that I’m a director. I’d be expecting a lot if I thought one thing was going to lead into the other.
I’ll tell you the one thing worth getting excited about is the idea of Adam and Simon having a big hit movie. Those guys are really good friends of mine and I’ve watched them work their asses off over the last couple of years and do really good work. Selfishly, it’d be nice to get a little bit of attention but most of my energy is towards my excitement for my friends and the sense that their lives are going to change. They’re going to have a lot of new opportunities now, and that is really cool.
DIABOLIQUE: We know that you probably cannot speak much about the project at all, but what can you tell us about your role in The Sacrament?
SWANBERG: Oh! That’s… a good question. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say or not say. I can say that AJ Bowen and I are the stars of that movie. I can say that I just did my ADR for it, so I’ve seen a little bit of the movie and you can expect something really good. I’ve been texting Ti every day about it, and every text I get from him is more excited than the last one. I know that he’s working on the music now and he says that it’s really good. It’s funny because as an actor, you spend so much time on set and you go, “Wow!” as things are being made and you sort of step out of the process for a little while.
Ti is eating, sleeping and breathing The Sacrament right now, but for me, I’m just off and working on my own things. The only thing that I really know about it is what I hear from him and the scenes that I did ADR for. I suspect it would show up at film festivals before too long and I’m as excited as anyone else as to see it. I’ll see it for the first time when it premieres, just like V/H/S.
DIABOLIQUE: As you know, there’s also a found footage cult segment in V/H/S/2. Are you afraid that Gareth Evan and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” segment will cast a shadow over The Sacrament or is The Sacrament more based in reality and thusly not conflicting over the subject matter?
SWANBERG: Yeah, they’re really different. When Sundance happened in February and the reviews started pouring out for V/H/S/2, I read about “Safe Haven,” and I didn’t know what the segments were about [beforehand], and I sent Ti an email and said, “Uh oh, are we in trouble?” Ti then saw V/H/S/2 and said it wasn’t the same, and then I saw V/H/S/2 and I can say they really feel different from each other. I don’t even expect comparisons will be made, actually, other than maybe a vague reference to [“Safe Haven” being] a cult movie being released in the same year. To me, the films feel like they’re in totally separate worlds.
DIABOLIQUE: So, what do you have coming out in the future? Can you talk about your upcoming directorial endeavor, Drinking Buddies?
SWANBERG: Sure. Drinking Buddies will be on VOD on July 25th, and then it opens in theaters on August 23rd, the same weekend as You’re Next. Magnolia Pictures is putting that out, and I’ve been keeping track of the film. It’s going to have a pretty sweet pre-theatrical release, so that’ll be nice. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play friends who work together at a Craft Brewery. We shot it in Chicago, and Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston are in it too. Ti West is in it as well. I keep putting him to work as an actor. It’s a fun, summer romantic comedy about craft beer, so basically, I was like, “How do I make my dream movie?” That certainly would involve spending multiple days in a brewery. So look out for that one.
I just finished directing a movie called Happy Christmas. We shot it in December and I’m editing it now. That stars Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham and Mark Webber. It’s sort of an indie family holiday movie. So I’m spending a lot of time promoting Drinking Buddies right now and editing Happy Christmas, so expect that to hit film festivals early next year.
V/H/S/2, which features segments from You’re Next masterminds Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, as well Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, will be in select theaters from Magnet Releasing this Friday, July 12th, and is currently available for rental on VOD, iTunes, Amazon and other streaming services. For more from Joe Swanberg, visit JoeSwanberg.com or you can follow him on Twitter: @joe_swanberg. As mentioned, Drinking Buddies will be on VOD, iTunes and Amazon on July 25th and in theaters August 23rd from Magnolia Pictures, and Swanberg can be seen in A Horrible Way to Die and the first V/H/S, both currently available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant Streaming. For more from Swanberg, You’re Next, and The Sacrament, as well as our blow-out coverage for V/H/S/2, keep checking back at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! And don’t forget to pick up Diabolique #17 later this month, which features more on Horror Comedy from the likes of Alex Winter, Doug Benson and Lloyd Kaufman, and even more exclusive comments on V/H/S/2!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.