Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg: The Penny-Pinching Future of Indie Cinema
There’s low-budget guerrilla filmmaking and then there’s low-budget guerrilla filmmaking. Greta Gerwig, the 25-year-old star of indie-cinema micro-faves such as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends and Baghead, recalls an inspiring moment during a visit home to her native California. Making an overnight stop at a motel in Santa Barbara, she flipped through the TV channels until she was stopped cold by something on the local public-access station. There, she discovered a very curious action flick called The Pharaoh Project.
"It was beyond amazing," Gerwig says, her cadence by turns hesitant and headlong, as she recalls the insane saga about an elite squad of legendary warriors (Genghis Khan! Alexander the Great!) reincarnated to wreak havoc on the modern world. Really, it was like the director and his beefiest bouncer buddies were trying to create a Steven Seagal sci-fi/action epic on a PBR budget. "The most official-looking car they could get their hands on was a cream-colored Toyota 4Runner, but they played it like it was an FBI armored vehicle.
Gerwig, a Barnard-schooled playwright, screenwriter and director, has won glowing reviews for her comedic acting skills, mostly channeled into fetchingly flaky characters as romantically befuddled as befuddling. But even if the Los Angeles Times calls her “an ingénue for the text-message set,” and even if she’s about to start shooting John C. Reilly in her next feature, she still shares a nothing-fancy Williamsburg pad with a roommate. Make fun of The Pharaoh Project all you want. Gerwig won’t. “I just kept watching because there was so much there to admire,” she says. “It isn’t that far removed from the kind of movies I’ve made. The ‘let’s just go do it’ attitude. We’re interested in different things. I’m interested in the million tiny deaths that occur in everyday human interactions, and they’re interested in sweet-ass roundhouse kicks. But the motivation to make something is similar.”
Along with her friend and sometime collaborator Joe Swanberg, 27, Gerwig is one of the most prolific characters in a new wave of young filmmakers lighting up the indie landscape. The past few years have seen the arrival of a slew of talented, original directors who have thrived despite—and sometimes because of—miniscule budgets and improvised means: The list includes the Duplass brothers (Baghead), Aaron Katz (Dance Party, USA; Quiet City), Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake), Ron Bronstein (Frownland), Mary Bronstein (Yeast), Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound), Ry Russo-Young (Orphans, You Won’t Miss Me), Frank V. Ross (Hohokam, Present Company), Kentucker Audley (Team Picture), Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) and Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation).
Early on, Bujalski's sound mixer, Eric Masunaga jokingly referred to one of the films as “mumblecore,” and the label stuck for a while. It was catchy, and spoke to the indie-rock flavor of efforts like Swanberg’s LOL, in which urban post-grads stumble in and out of relationships, bands and poorly furnished apartments, endlessly discussing feelings they can’t always articulate. The use of consumer-grade handheld digital-video cameras, spontaneous dialogue and casts comprised mostly of other budding directors are also common tendencies, although by no means exclusively so. Katz gives his actors scripts. Bronstein, who co-starred with his wife Mary in the Swanberg-shot Web series Butterknife, works in 16mm. So does Zobel. Not everyone digs Final Cut software. In other words, these filmmakers are hardly clones—but they have more in common with one another than they do with everyone else.
This movement, as such, has branched out as Swanberg and his peers have begun to mature after years of film festivals such as Austin’s annual SXSW, which became a flourishing seedbed for the movement around 2005.
“The technology changed in the mid-to-late ’90s,” Swanberg says, giving his socio-cultural analysis as he takes a chair next to Gerwig in a photographer’s studio near the Manhattan Port Authority. It’s a brittle winter evening after a day of hiking around bleak locales in upstate New York, where the pair posed as Depression-era vagabonds—even as all-too-real panhandlers proliferate on the streets outside. “The resolution got better, and the Internet allowed social networking to happen like it hadn’t before. The threat of the actors strike in 2001 that paved the way for a lot of reality TV to hit the mainstream made a huge impact on the way mass audiences perceived handheld video. Because they got used to watching it, all in one year, with Survivor and every other show that came along shot in a run-and-gun style on a small camera.”
It wasn’t long before young filmmakers hit the festival circuit with their own low-budget projects, though, as Swanberg notes, “A bunch of celebrities had to make movies on [digital video] to legitimize it. Ethan Hawke had to make one, and Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming made The Anniversary Party, and everyone said it was cool, and even then it took a lot longer.”
Swanberg began shooting so-called “webisodes” in 2005 with Young American Bodies, a series for the erotically minded Nerve.com, which reflected the diaristic—OK, blog-like—intimacy of his features. “This whole idea of exposing very personal inner thoughts to a general public whether they wanted it or not seemed really crazy five years ago,” he says. “But it was around the same time that these smaller movies started to do something similar: I’ll tell my story and my friend’s story. If it plays festivals and people see it, great, and if it doesn’t, it still exists. I made my first two movies for less than 3,000 bucks.”
That vow of insularity can’t stick forever, though. Swanberg’s new film, Alexander the Last premieres March 14 at SXSW and, on the same day, becomes available by demand on IFC, as part of its Festival Direct series. The idea, Swanberg explains, is to make the film broadly accessible while it’s still playing festivals, and not wait for interest to fade. “The way people are watching stuff is changing,” he says. “If I don’t start putting these movies out very quickly they will start backing up on each other. Theatrical distribution doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Benten Films, a DVD outfit run by two film critics—Andrew Grant of FilmBrain.com and Aaron Hillis of GreenCine.com—has done an impressive job of packaging and promoting work by Swanberg and fellow indie upstarts like Audley, Rohal and Katz. But it’s not easy. “There aren’t enough distributors to go around,” Hillis says. “If you’re an independent filmmaker there are not a lot of options out there. There’s no more middle class. It’s just a matter of time before it becomes either The Dark Knight or mumblecore, with nothing in between.”
If that’s the case, Swanberg’s work doesn’t suffer from a smaller screen. Alexander—a slender (72 minutes) but quietly observant drama that says as much with silence as with its improvised dialogue—is lucky to have an irresistible center of gravity in Jess Weixler (Teeth), a rising star whose face is a delicate map of feeling. About nothing if not process, the film charts the keenly attenuated emotional swings of Alex, a young actress drawn to her handsome co-star Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) while her rock-musician husband is on the road. To further complicate matters, she has introduced the fresh-from-Kentucky Jamie to her older sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz), who actually engages in the fling Alex and Jamie pretend to have onstage. The milieu may not be too far away from the tempest-in-a-beer-can angst of The Real World, but the spirit is much closer to the bedroom intimacies of the French New Wave. Yet, even if Swanberg's actors are at home with casual nudity and candid couplings, their journeys of self-discovery are not linked to a larger political or philosophical agenda. They prefer singing their own songs and tinkering on thriftshop keyboards to dropping postmodern allusions to art and cinema. Their point is not to be clever, but to be honest. The film also broadens Swanberg's professional circle. Jane Adams (Happiness) takes a small but key role, and Brooklyn filmmaker Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), for whom Swanberg has been working as a cameraman and assistant director, helped produce when another project failed to jell. Likewise, the Duplass brothers, whose ambitions skew more mainstream, have cast John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill for their next comedy. And Reilly also takes the lead in Gerwig and collaborator Alison Bagnall’s Funny Bunny.
“There’s an audience now, and I’m wanting things I didn’t want before,” Swanberg says. “I want to shoot in other cities now, and I want to shoot in HD. I want to rent apartments, and I want sailboats and all these other elements. But before, I was content with a few people in a room.”
Gerwig—who spent the past year racking up performances in neo-grindhouse genre flicks like Ti West’s House of the Devil and a non-mumblecore indie in which Iggy Pop plays her dad—has a good laugh about her efforts to go Hollywood. “I’ve made a bunch of audition tapes,” she says. “I start cracking up because I can’t get through the scenes. Some of them, I have to cry and say things in Southern accents.” She drifts into her best Scarlett O’Hara: “Johnny did not kill that bay-buh! I killed it! Because I hated it!” Nonetheless, the actress confesses, sure, “I’d love to be the girl in the dinosaur movie.” Well, OK, maybe a movie with little plastic dinosaurs.
Gerwig says she was astonished to learn that the guys who made Cloverfield are fans. “The woman who casts Gossip Girl loves Aaron Katz. What!? But maybe I’m not supposed to say that. The number of people who are around watching you out of the corner of their eye is amazing.”
Swanberg—whose output has increased since he brought on Anish Savjani (Wendy and Lucy) as a producer—won’t likely be taking on any Cloverfield sequels, even with his handheld-video skills. If his films don’t make money, he’ll still shoot. “It’s a compulsion for me,” says Swanberg, who also finds time to continue acting in his friends’ movies, shooting Web projects and helping his wife, Kris Williams, with both her filmmaking and burgeoning gourmet-ice-cream business. “It’s not like I started doing it because I was good at it. Nor is it that I continue to do it because I’m good at it. I do it because I can’t help it, and I don’t know what else to do. I already know there will be a period when I will make 10 of them that nobody sees or likes or writes about. But the reason why I will continue through that period that nobody cares is not because they will care again but because I can’t help it. It’s selfish. I’m making these things for me.”