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EXPOSED: JOE SWANBERG on neo-late nite thriller 24 EXPOSURES

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Prolific actor-director Joe Swanberg has a whirlwind autumn ahead.  With the summer-long media blitz and theatrical release of Adam Wingard’s YOU’RE NEXT this past weekend alongside the arthouse roll-out of his own rom-com DRINKING BUDDIES, two upcoming films at the Toronto International Film Festival (Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT and Zack Parker’s mind-blowing PROXY), and coming off the World Premiere of his genre-bender 24 EXPOSURES as part of Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, Swanberg’s evolving streak in the indie film world is starting to pay off in a major way.

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Ariel Esteban Cayer, Joe Swanberg and Helen Rogers at the Fantasia Film Festival

Swanberg is one of those Cassavetes-type renegades that seems to pop up in all kinds of unlikely places, forging strong collaborative ties that bolster a singular love-it-or-hate-it cinematic vision. His reputation as a provocateur was cemented as one of the founding “mumblecore” filmmakers that emerged from the SXSW Film Festival nearly a decade ago, but over the past few years we’ve seen Swanberg go through a second renaissance with teasing tendrils in the horror genre. While his films were always audacious, his collaborations with the likes of Adam Wingard, Ti West and Larry Fessenden have afforded him a new outlet for what he terms his ‘simplistic relationship movies’, a topic directly explored in his seminal crossover film SILVER BULLETS (2011 – available in a boxed set from Factory 25 HERE). But with 24 EXPOSURES – the fourth feature he’s shot this year alone – he dives into the genre unreservingly, happily enveloping his characters in the tropes and signifiers that genre fans love, while still allowing for that sometimes uncomfortable bleeding-over of fiction and reality that colors most – if not all – of his work.

In 24 EXPOSURES, filmmaker Adam Wingard plays William “Billy” Wingard – a character based loosely on himself – a photographer who specializes in fetishized death-scene photos. We can see that he has a budget to work with, complete with elaborate FX makeup, constructed sets and professional crews, but we are never privy to who his employers or clients are. He has a somewhat monogamous relationship with his girlfriend (Caroline White), a supportive creative collaborator who also allows for consensually polygamous excursions. But Wingard crosses the line when his obsessions start to take him outside the agreed-upon guidelines for how these sexual diversions play into their relationship, and he must reluctantly consider the repercussions.

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Meanwhile Wingard’s frequent screenwriter Simon Barrett plays Michael Bamfeaux, a morose homicide detective who wanders through crime scenes in an emotional haze before being led to Wingard as a possible suspect when one of the murder victims turns out to be a fetish model. The two develop a surprising rapport, and Bamfeaux finds himself pulled into Wingard’s world – a reversal of his own – where death is fake and sexualized without trauma. So while there is a murder mystery going on in the periphery, the film still finds its center in the kind of frank discussion about sexual politics that Swanberg has been exploring throughout his career  – but filtered through the soft-focus façade of a late 90s cable TV erotic thriller.

I caught up with Swanberg just as I was headed in to watch 24 EXPOSURES for the second time in a single day. And as I’d just watched his latest – the yet-to-be-premiered AMATEURS – immediately before, a lot of parallels came up;  AMATEURS is about a writer who starts making home-porn with his girlfriend and uploading it to the internet without her knowledge (and whose lone overt genre element is a peripheral body-horror element), but the questions surrounding voyeurism and objectification are similarly explored in both films.

In town along with actress Helen Rogers (who also appears in Swanberg’s segment in V/H/S/ as well as Bryan Norton and Antonio Padovan’s gut-busting short film JACK ATTACK), Swanberg gave a great, confessional Q+A following his Fantasia Film Festival premiere, and it is this introspective quality that makes his recent genre-straddling films such a welcome addition to the horror canon.

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FANGORIA: Helen Rogers’ character is kind of a good entryway to a lot of questions that the movie poses.

JOE SWANBERG:  Yeah, she’s the audience.

FANG: Like she overtly asks Adam Wingard’s character where the line is between professional obligation and personal arousal…

SWANBERG: It’s complicated for me, and it’s something that I’m sort of endlessly fascinated by. I mean, the line shifts all the time on a project, your relationship with the people you’re working with. It’s something artists don’t talk about enough, and I think that it’s interesting because at some point, below a certain budget level and with a certain expected audience, you’re kind of out of the realm of it being a job. And you’re into the realm of it being a personal passion project. And so there’s a weird zone – and I’m moving out of that zone now, actually, and tackling projects that feel more like work to me – but I spent such a big part of my career in that zone of either paying for things myself or working with small enough budgets and casting my friends in them that the line was super blurry between what was the movie and what was life outside of the movie. And also I was working in situations where we were all living together in an apartment and I was kind of creating an atmosphere where I was purposefully breaking down the barriers between work and not-work. And running into complicated issues with that stuff. So I don’t know, the safe answer is that it’s all work, and that it’s best not to get too personally involved with anybody that you’re working with, but obviously that’s complicated and unrealistic and that stuff happens all the time.

FANG: Did you ever see the Richard Kern movie THE EVIL CAMERMAN?

SWANBERG: I probably have, I’ve seen a lot of his work, but I don’t remember it specifically.

FANG: Yeah, I wasn’t sure because it doesn’t seem like the type of thing that would be an influence on your work, but it reminded me of that, when Adam’s character is saying “Well I’m the irresponsible artist” and such, because Richard Kern started making films where he was overtly addressing those issues, and then at a certain point he was obviously like “fuck it, I just want to take pictures of naked girls.” Like he didn’t want to have to have a reason for it anymore…

SWANBERG: Yeah, yeah. I’m sort of already putting Adam at that place. I’m very neurotic about it, and conscious of it always. Adam is much less so, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted him as the central actor in this movie. And he keeps a tumblr page where he posts pictures he likes, it’s super pornographic, it’s very specific to his fetishes and stuff that he’s into, and I have a mixed feeling about all of it. I mean the uptight Catholic part of me is a little shocked that he’s willing to be so overt with that stuff, and then there’s a part of me that’s envious that he’s free enough to just say “I’m into this, it turns me on, I’m not apologetic about it.” But it’s a little dangerous. I feel a complete lack of introspection is what leads to bad situations, so I kind of wanted to address all of that. And in a way, I suspect Simon  functions a little bit as Adam’s conscience, his “Jiminy Cricket” in their real lives.

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FANG: But it’s interesting because Simon’s character in the movie, he’s normalized somehow because of this.

SWANBERG: Yes.

FANG: He comes out much more adjusted, that whole scene helps him in in some way.

SWANBERG: Yeah, it’s an escape for him, definitely. I think a lot of people could be liberated by art in that way, if they would be willing to embrace it. Simon’s character, in a way, represents my struggle with that stuff. But Simon also represents Simon, so… (laughs) It’s a complicated character. I wish it were in there a little bit more – I draw a few visual parallels, and then there’s one explicit one about it – but the idea of somebody who deals with actual dead bodies all the time, having a very sceptical view on somebody who fetishizes that, and for whom it’s just sort of a playful, fun thing. I do sense that he’s saved a little bit by stepping back from it. As with anybody who embraces their demons.

FANG: I also this morning just watched AMATEURS , I watched that and then 24 EXPOSURES right after…

SWANBERG: Oh, cool. Yeah, I made them chronologically pretty close to each other.

FANG: And as in many of your movies, there’s that crossover between fantasy and reality, director and actor, all the references to the actual processes of making a film, and having that filter of the film between you and what’s happening. But it seems like in 24 EXPOSURES, the relationships go through these kind of steps – Adam Wingard’s character is obviously struggling with it to a certain extent too, having guilt and not knowing if he’s behaving appropriately, and then you have the guy in AMATEURS who’s just totally despicable.

SWANBERG: He’s pretty committed to it. Yeah, for me the character in AMATEURS has a full-blown addiction, he’s like somebody who hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but who’s hooked. In 24 EXPOSURES it’s Adam’s relationship that’s the thing keeping him buoyed. He’s in a functioning relationship, and the art that they’re making together is enriching their relationship, and it’s only when he steps outside of that that things start to go bad. He takes it for granted, and he makes it “his” thing and not “their” thing. And then suddenly he’s way less in control of it, and also in deeper waters than he suspected.

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FANG: And both movies have a lot of issues relating to voyeurism and the objectification of women, and also the pressures to consent that women have – even when they go along with things and they seem into it…

SWANBERG: That’s not enough for the guys in my movies, a willingness to go along with it. They want them to actually like it. Which is where it gets troubling.

FANG: But do you think it’s possible to live out your sexual fantasies without compromising the integrity of the other person?

SWANBERG: It depends, I think it’s important to find someone whose sexual fantasies are aligned with yours. Dan Savage talks about it a lot, his attitude is: be generous in your relationships. Be willing to do things that are uncomfortable to you for your partner, and vice versa. That’s maybe a pathway to a more fulfilling relationship for both of you.

FANG: But then where’s that line, between doing it because it’s a healthy thing for the relationship and just being pressured to always do things you don’t want to do?

SWANBERG: Yep, that’s exactly it. I don’t have answers, that’s why I keep asking those questions, and why I’ve made so many films about it. That’s a big issue for me. Did you ever see this movie I did called THE ZONE? THE ZONE really deals with that more explicitly in terms of a film set – it’s hard, because actors feel the same pressure. Let’s remove it from personal lives, just in professional situations, there’s an equal amount of pressure on performers who’ve accepted a role and taken payment to be in a movie to do what the director asks. So if suddenly a director’s like “I want you to take your clothes off, and I want you to do this…”, and the actor’s like “Well, we didn’t talk about that,” I mean you’re on set and there’s a crew there already lighting the scene and you’re behind schedule, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on somebody to be a team player, to just go along with that. I’m very sensitive to that these days. I used to have an expectation because I was working with my friends that if they were uncomfortable with anything they could just tell me. I wasn’t taking into account how much additional pressure is added just by the environment. And how if I’d asked them privately ahead of time, maybe they would have said no to something. So I’m sensitive to it but there’s a part of me that thinks that nobody’s going to stand up for you but yourself. You’re the only person who knows your own line. So it’s complicated because artists should be able to put anything onscreen or on a canvas that they want, if they can find consenting adults to do that with them. The problem is when those adults say they’re consenting and they aren’t, I don’t know where to place the blame. And it’s hard to assume that the artist is being manipulative when some people have the confidence to just say no, even in a room full of people who are waiting, and other people don’t. So it’s a confusing issue for me, it’s something that at this point in my career I give people ten chances to say no. Because I’m so terrified of putting somebody in that position, I don’t want to be responsible for that, it makes me feel gross. But then at the same time, as an actor in other people’s movies, I’ve confronted the same pressures, they’re not always sexual, there are a lot of things, you don’t want to compromise yourself. If I choose to do it, I accept responsibility for that choice. It doesn’t feel right to me later, if I’m unhappy with it, to say “Well you pressured me into doing it.” So it’s a two-way street. Artists should be sensitive to it in terms of their requests, and performers should be clear with themselves about their boundaries and then be willing to say no.

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FANG: And so what about AMATEURS, because it’s pornographic, what kind of preparation or casting was needed…?

SWANBERG: Well they’re a real couple, and they’re friends of mine and they’re people that I’ve worked with, I’ve acted in their movies too. There was a long email chain before we shot the movie just making sure they were cool with that. I did a test with them where we shot some sex scenes with them, just to do it, so they could watch it later. Because there’s a theoretical part of you that’s like “okay, I think I could do that,” and then there’s the reality of looking at the footage and seeing your body onscreen and all of that. I wanted them to be able to privately have that experience before it was the movie. The big concern for me was always that somehow the making of the film would affect their real relationship. That would be horrifying to me if I felt like I’d planted a seed or something. But since shooting the movie they’ve gotten married, they seem really solid.

FANG: I find it really interesting, this – I don’t know if it’s a detour or not – into the horror genre world. Part of me thinks you’re making the same kind of films you always made, but because there are horror people in them, they get looked at as genre films now.

SWANBERG: That’s part of it, I certainly feel like they’re the same movies I’ve always made.

FANG: But are there ways you feel you get to play with things more because of the genre?

SWANBERG: Absolutely.

FANG: Like what?

SWANBERG: Visually, certainly I’m liberated. Like with 24 EXPOSURES, nothing really looks like that right now, and hasn’t, in my mind at least, since the 90s – that soft-focus Cinemax-type 90s look. That was a blast for me. The genre elements and the nature of the film allowed me to feel confident to go fully in that direction. If it were a drama or a romantic comedy, I wouldn’t be sticking these gauzy filters in front of the camera, so there’s a playfulness there that I really appreciate. And then there’s the appeal of latching onto a storyline that people are already familiar with, which is freeing in other ways. I mean I did it with DRINKING BUDDIES in terms of using the romantic comedy genre as a way to get people in, and the same is true especially with something like my segment V/H/S/, which to me is just a movie about a couple in a long distance relationship, and distrust and things like that, but it’s got these elements of a ghost story so that the audience doesn’t even have to be conscious of the second layer. Really, I’m envious of horror filmmakers. For me it’s always been the area that allows you the most amount of social commentary, so that you don’t have to sound like you’re on a soapbox. I’m going to entertain you and do something visceral to you, and then I also get to talk about these other things.

FANG: That’s one of the things I found most interesting about the fact that all these different filmmakers are collaborating, the straight indie world and the genre indie world, because the main thing that people complain about the horror genre all the time is that they lack characterization, they don’t have good dialogue, and then conversely the complaint people always had about mumblecore movies is that there’s no hook. So to me it was the perfect marriage.

SWANBERG: I totally agree.

FANG: And if I had to illustrate this cultural shift to someone – and I do think we’re going to look back at it and see it as a cultural shift – I think SILVER BULLETS is the movie at the center of that. Because it’s directly addressing that question of “why aren’t people going to see my movies, but they’ll go see this stupid werewolf movie?”

SWANBERG: It’s really fun stuff to talk about. And my friendships outside of the film industry with guys that make horror movies have been really important to the work.

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FANG: You met Ti West at SXSW when he had THE ROOST…

SWANBERG: And I had KISSING ON THE MOUTH.

FANG: I would have never looked at those two movies and figured that you guys would become friends and collaborators. What was it that made you come together originally?

SWANBERG: Well, a couple things. I really liked THE ROOST, we went and saw it and had a really fun time, and a big factor in it was healthy competitiveness. I think we both sensed equal parts ambition in each other, and – weirdly – some similar reference points. But then also Ti’s also said to me that when I was back at SXSW the next year with another movie, and he didn’t have another movie, he was like, “Fuck, I need to get to work!” And I feel that he and I have always inspired each other in that way. Because then he was back with TRIGGERMAN and HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS got a lot of attention that year, but then he went off and did a 7 million dollar CABIN FEVER movie that I came and worked on and I was like “shit, this is a real movie with a real budget!” So we had that back and forth and it just naturally bled into being in each other’s movies and making that a more concrete collaboration.

FANG: I remember Adam Wingard once telling me that when you first met, he offered to shoot one of your movies, and you were like, “I shoot my own movies!” So what changed?

SWANBERG: I saw WHAT FUN WE WERE HAVING. It’s interesting, Adam is such a weird guy, he’s super lovable, but at that point in my career when I met him, I was existing in a very aggressively arty arthouse world, and he wasn’t, and there was a part of me that thought “why on earth would I want my simplistic relationship movies to look like this?” And it’s an assumption that I get mad about when people make it concerning my movies, that just because I do it a certain way doesn’t mean I couldn’t do it another way.  I made that assumption of him, that he had his style and that’s what he does. So we didn’t know each other very well, we had just hung out at the Sidewalk Festival twice, and he emailed me and said “I’m making this date rape movie and I have a part for you.”

FANG: Is that what he actually said, “I’m making this date rape movie”?

SWANBERG: That’s what it was actually called at the time, THE DATE RAPE PROJECT. And I thought “this is going to be something I regret for the rest of my life, this will be the thing that they dredge up from my past… ” you know, super embarrassing. But I wanted to say yes, my tendency is to say yes to things. So I wrote him back and said “I’m interested, but I have a few concerns and reservations about this,” and he had already shot two of the four segments, so he sent them to me, I watched them right away and just thought, “this guy is a fucking genius.” They blew me away. And he had shot them each in a day and edited them in another day. And I said “So you mean to tell me you’re going to make a feature film in eight days?” And he said that if things went well, that yes, that was the plan. And it changed my life. It absolutely led into that period of UNCLE KENT and ART HISTORY and these movies that I was doing in like a week. Because I got to see him do it. So coming out of that I realized that he and I had very similar ideas about what’s important. And so the first thing we collaborated on was BLACKMAIL BOYS, this sort of weirdo gay porn movie, and then he basically lived with me for three months in Chicago and we did AUTOEROTIC together and then finished SILVER BULLETS, ART HISTORY, CAITLIN PLAYS HERSELF, THE ZONE, it was a whole year of almost exclusively collaborating with him.  I just think he’s a great DP, he’s an unconscious artist, he’s like what you see in 24 EXPOSURES, he’s not hyper-analytical the way that I am, it was refreshing to be around somebody who based everything on gut instinct.

FANG: So what is going to happen with your acting career as a result of YOU’RE NEXT being so big? Do you expect it to open up more opportunities for you as an actor?

SWANBERG: I wonder. I would like that to happen, I really enjoy acting, and if I could do more of that, I would be content to shoot less of my own stuff, and I’m feeling I need to slow down a little bit for my health and sanity. So part of me is hoping that people see it and want to cast me in things, but the life of an actor is really difficult. I don’t want to audition, I don’t want to have the life of a working actor. And you sort of need to. So I suspect I’ll just keep being offered roles through friends. But I can’t audition for stuff and face that constant rejection.

FANG: Looking at your casting a lot of times, many of these actors start with you and then watching how those actors grow and where they go afterwards, that’s an impressive hit-rate, so to speak.

SWANBERG: I’m really proud of it. Because of the way I work, casting is usually the most important thing. And it’s exciting to me to see that Greta Gerwig, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sophia Takal, hopefully soon Helen [Rogers], how these actresses I’ve worked with have really exciting careers now.

FANG: Do you think working in horror is something you’re going to keep doing?

SWANBERG: I’d like to, I suspect what’s going to happen is that horror will continue to make a lot of money for Hollywood and it’s going to be legitimized in the next couple years in a major way. When I talk to my agent about future projects the conversations are very much centered around comedies and dramas and sort of straight movies and I’m the one who’s always saying “don’t forget that I still want to do horror stuff.”

FANG: Were you a horror fan before?

SWANBERG: A little bit. I’ve always liked them but I don’t have a deep knowledge of the genre.

FANG: Do you find it to be a welcoming environment?

SWANBERG: Certainly, it’s one of the things I like most about it. It’s why I was always jealous of Ti and Adam and Larry Fessenden and those guys, there’s such a generous spirit to the horror audience. And even though they probably watch more movies than anybody, they’re not jaded, I feel like they still show up wanting to like things, there’s not this distanced sort of “Alright I’m here, impress me.” They wanna love it, and if you give them enough, they will love it. I’m hooked on it a little bit, seeing V/H/S/for the first time at Sundance, sitting in a theatre and listening to 500 people gasp because I made a choice to cut from thing to another thing, it makes you feel good as a director, so I’m riding that high still.

FANG: So what does the next year look like for you?

SWANBERG:  I’m currently editing HAPPY CHRISTMAS, the film I shot in December, and hopefully that will be playing around next year, there’s one script I got development money to put together, there’s another script that somebody else wrote that I’m attached to direct, it’s going to be a year of learning experiences for me. A year of doing the things I shied away from doing when HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS came out and I got the first round of attention for my work. I want to know whether I like these processes or not, I want to work with a studio, I want to work with another writer and see if I like collaborating that way, and then at the end of that I may go back to doing five $10,000 movies in a row, or I may find that I enjoy having some more tools at my disposal and making bigger films. But it’s a big question mark right now.

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Although not quite up to date, you can find out more about Joe Swanberg’s films on his website HERE, which has links to buy many of them.

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About the author
Kier-La Janisse http://www.big-smash.com
Kier-La Janisse is a writer and film programmer based in Montreal, Canada. She is the Founding Director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and a film programmer for Fantastic Fest, POP Montreal and SF Indie. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver and co-founded Montreal's Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012).
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