Joe Swanberg is a filmmaking machine. His buzzy third feature, Hannah Takes the Stairs, opens today. Along the way, he’s also found time to direct and produce two seasons of Nervevideo.com’s hot online series Young American Bodies, and to act in some fellow filmmakers’ works. He’s also one of the most important faces of what’s being called the “mumblecore” movement, but what gets lost amid the shuffle of press coverage is that his intensely personal filmmaking style has already begun to shift before our very eyes: Hannah Takes the Stairs is easily Swanberg’s most assured, narratively shaped film to date.
In the past few weeks, we’ve really seen the so-called "mumblecore" genre take off in the media. Is mumblecore actually a movement, or are journalists and film critics just being overzealous?
I don’t know if it’s a movement — we’re pretty skeptical about that. It’s just that a lot of us from different parts of the country are working on movies that have a similar aesthetic or mind-set. Everybody is working on each other’s movies, lending each other equipment, and generally being there and being supportive. For example, I’m about to shoot a new project, and the camera I’m using is coming from Austin, and the sound equipment is from another filmmaker in Chicago. For a filmmaker, that’s a more tangible relationship.
Your previous films were more ensemble pieces. This is the first time you’ve really focused more intently on one main character.
Had it not been for Greta [Gerwig, who plays the film’s title character], I don’t think it would have been that way. It occurred to me early on in the shoot that she had what it took to carry a movie, so I just kept it going — which was challenging, because this was her first movie. Even more than her performance, as a writer she really deserves a lot of credit, too. She was really generating a lot of those ideas. It’s amazing: She graduated from college in May, and in July she was in Chicago starring in this movie.
You’re also acting in Quiet City, Aaron Katz’s new film, which opens next week.
Yeah, Aaron called me, and I came out just for a day to New York to shoot that scene. At the time I was engaged and talking about getting married, and the character was pretty much like that, so we were able to improvise the scene pretty well.
And let me guess: You’ve already shot your next film.
Yes, I have. Right now, I’m editing a feature I shot back in December. Greta and I wrote it together and star in it. It’s called Nights and Weekends. It’s the story of a long-distance relationship, told through the times that the couple is together, not when they’re apart.
Let’s talk about Young American Bodies, which has been a big hit. Are you doing a third season?
We’re already casting and starting to write season three, and we’ll be shooting in November. Young American Bodies has become my absolute favorite project to work on. It’s a great way to work between features. It’s also the thing I’ve done that’s been seen by the most number of people. Sometimes you get caught up in features and the film-festival world, and I have to remind myself that these five-minute episodes are the thing that the majority of people are watching. —Bilge Ebiri