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Mumblecore Muse Greta Gerwig on ‘Nights and Weekends’ and the Ugly Side of Movie Sex

Burgeoning alt-muse Greta Gerwig cut her teeth working on the indie films LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, the ones that launched director Joe Swanberg’s career and helped define the ultra-lo-fi, unfortunately named “mumblecore” movement. Now Gerwig and Swanberg are back with an intensely emotional relationship drama that they co-wrote and co-directed — Nights and Weekends, opening at the IFC Center tonight — that may be their strongest, most relatable work to date. Gerwig spoke to Vulture this week about her tempestuous relationship with Swanberg and the joys of seeing your head explode.

So what was the inspiration for this movie?
The original idea was that we were going to make a movie about a happy couple. [Laughs.] But then when we started shooting it, it became kind of clear that we were making another movie. We shot everything that we wanted to shoot for the original movie we’d planned, and then we got into a huge fight. We didn’t talk to each other for, like, three months. And then we were going around the country to different film festivals with Hannah Takes the Stairs, and we started talking again. Joe brought the hard drives with all the footage from the first part of Nights and Weekends, and we opened it up, and when we put together what we thought the film should be, we realized that we had to shoot more. We shot the second half of the movie a year after the first half, so it was a year later in our lives, and a year later in the characters’ lives. It was a weird birthing process.

What’s your dynamic with Joe normally like, when you’re not estranged?
There isn’t a normal dynamic between us. Our entire relationship is based on work, and because of that, it’s sort of like we don’t know how to be any other way than completely intense and absorbed with one another. It’s never really been like, “Oh yeah, let’s just go grab coffee for an afternoon.” It always ends up with, like, screaming accusations. [Laughs.] I remember we were at the Saratoga Film Festival, and everybody texted each other at the same time saying, “Oh, God, Joe and Greta are fighting again.” We have this tendency to go into our own world, and I think it’s really obnoxious to be around.

Sounds like fun. So, you’re naked in a fair amount in this film. Did that come naturally?
I don’t mind being nude onscreen. Or anywhere, really. But having someone touch you on camera is really … [long pause] It’s really kind of an awful experience. Because half of your brain is like, “Okay, I wanna make this look real, because I want it to feel real for the audience,” but then you’re also fighting to say, “But it’s not real.” But it is actually real, because somebody is actually touching you. That kind of work that you have to do to disassociate from your body is kind of traumatic. I don’t enjoy that at all. It’s … gross. But these films are sort of this weird document that I’ll have as I get older — I can’t even believe now, looking at Hannah, that my 21-year-old self was okay with that! You know? I’m sort of shocked that I was just like, “No, it doesn’t have to be flattering, I don’t care, I’ll just be naked.” I think that’s sort of beautiful.

So would you take a role in a sort of big-budget Hollywood movie, if it came along?
[Laughs] Definitely! I’m not terribly precious about who I am. I’m from a really middle-class background — my mom’s a nurse, and my dad does small-business loans — so anything that would pay me would be great! And I’ve never done anything with a lot of money, but I did get to do this film directed by Ti West, called The House of the Devil

A horror movie, right?
Yeah. It’s a horror movie set in like 1983, and it’s about Satanic cults and babysitting jobs gone wrong. They didn’t have a ton of money, but I think it was over a million. One of the nice things about working on something that has a bigger budget is that regardless of whether the project is good or not, everyone that’s involved in it is so good at what they do. There were special-effects people who were so incredibly talented; they made, like, a cast of my head that exploded! I mean, even crappy movies like Maid of Honor — you know that really, really talented people worked on that. I don’t understand how movies like that end up being bad.

Mumblecore Muse Greta Gerwig on ‘Nights and Weekends’ and the Ugly Side of Movie Sex