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SXSW '05 Interview: 'Kissing On the Mouth' Director Joe Swanberg

by Scott Weinberg

The KISSING ON THE MOUTH Pitch: Raw. Honest. Naked. “Kissing on the Mouth” is post-college life in close-up. Ellen is sleeping with her ex-boyfriend while trying to ignore the fact that he’s looking for more than just sex. Her roommate, Patrick, isn’t helping matters with his secretive and jealous behavior. The small cast served as the only crew on this intimate and humorous film featuring real interviews with recent college graduates and a graphic documentary approach to sex and conversation.

"An attempt to be honest and accurate."

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
This will be my first time at SXSW, along with everyone else involved in the film, and we couldn't be more excited. Kris, Kate, and I have all worked for other film festivals (Big Muddy Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, and some others), but none of us has had a film play at a festival before. This is the first time any of us made a feature film.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
A basketball player. I really wanted to go pro, but I didn't even make the high school freshman team. I went from being really serious about sports to being really serious about film in only a few months. It was around the time that I saw Raising Arizona and I was just blown away because I hadn't seen anything so weird or funny before. Suddenly I had a new passion, and I had two little brothers who could act in my movies.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I was making little movies with my Dad's camcorder and my brothers and friends acted in them. Then later in high school my parents were nice enough to sign me up for a summer film class at a college in Chicago. We shot on 16mm and my film got chosen along with a few others from the class to show at the final presentation. I think then my parents knew I was serious about it, and thought I might have a shot at making movies for a living, so it was a little easier for them to send me to film school. I went to Southern Illinois University, where I met Kris Williams and Kate Winterich. Kevin Pittman was my friend from high school, who I was happy to get a chance to work with.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
We get to brag a lot to our friends, so that's cool. I guess that's the only way so far. Also sometimes in the middle of the day I get really nervous. That didn't used to happen.

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
I think that I secretly dreamed of playing a festival like SXSW, but didn't think it was possible, so I focused on getting the movie done, and just thought that we would burn some DVDs and sell it ourselves on the website (which is what we will probably still end up doing). Once a few people saw the movie, and the reaction was pretty positive, I thought maybe we should go for it. SXSW is still the only festival we have sent the film to. I'm still getting over the shock of actually being accepted. I should also point out that a few people helped along the way with encouragement, advice, and favors. They know who they are.

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
I recently went through some of my old notebooks, and was shocked to see that a lot of the things we did in this film were ideas that I had written down years ago and forgotten about. So I guess this film has been in the works in my head for quite a while. Kris and I got serious about it around Christmas of 2003, and that's when I started writing what was the beginning of the script. I talked to Kate, and she agreed to be in the movie, so we moved full steam ahead. We shot something for the first time in late February 2004, and Kevin joined the production not long after that. We improvised a lot of it, and changed the story as we went, so we shot on and off all the way up to July 2004. We all had full time jobs, so it was a matter of shooting at night or on the weekends whenever we could get together. I was done with a cut by August that I have been tweaking and polishing ever since. We sent a tape to SXSW in October, but I've still been making small changes and cleaning things up.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
I learned a lot of lessons, so here are a few... I learned that if a group of people trust each other and believe in what they are doing, it's possible to make a movie everyone is proud of. I learned that it's hard to be a control freak and also act in your own movie, so at some point you have to trust that other people will do a good job, and when you do, they will do a good job. I learned that if you buy people food at every shoot, they will work for practically no money, and sometimes literally no money. Probably most importantly, I learned that if you make a movie with a lot of sex and nudity, you should NOT wait until it has been accepted into a major film festival before you tell your parents about it.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
No, I have a lot of movies that I really love, and all of them live somewhere in my head, but I can honestly say that there is not a single frame of my film that I consciously borrowed from something else. We shot every scene on the fly, without a single storyboard, and just did what felt right for every shot. I did not stop watching movies while we were making Kissing On the Mouth. In fact, I would often take everyone out to see a movie after we were finished shooting for the day. It was not for preparation or inspiration, but only to have a good time, because we all love movies.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
None. I do not like remakes. It is something that bothers me a great deal. I would ask them if I could please have the $40m to give to 1,000 filmmakers who I selected to make original films for $40,000 each. I have a feeling that between those 1,000 films, some of them would be very popular and would make back much more than the original $40m. I think this is a good business plan.

Two parter – name an actor you'd KILL to work with, and then name an actor in your own film that you really think is destined for great things.
There are a lot of female actors who I would really like to work with. Samantha Morton and Natalie Portman are at the top of the list. But I think that I will probably keep working with first-time actors and people who are my friends. It would be hard to ask Natalie Portman to set aside 6 months to be on call so that I could shoot whenever I felt like shooting. But that's the way I like to work, and how I work best. That happened a lot on KOTM, where we were supposed to shoot, and someone wasn't feeling up to it, or I didn't quite know what I wanted to do that day, so instead we ordered pizza and watched TV. I think that most actors are very busy people, and would be frustrated by that kind of work ethic, and probably producers are frustrated by that too. So as a result it is not likely that I will have the money to reserve an actor for 6 months, especially not a famous actor.

To answer the second part of the question, I think that it will be obvious to anyone who sees the film that Kate Winterich is an amazing and brave actress and she could play any role in the world and do a great job. I really hope people take notice of her and pay her lots of money to be a movie star. That would be great, and she deserves it.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
Well, we are just about to start our ride, so I can't answer as a filmmaker, but having worked for festivals, and also as a person who goes to a lot of film festivals, I am often disappointed by the lack of risk taking. I am very young, so it's hard to know how much of this is just me changing, or how much is festivals changing, but I feel like I used to go to festivals and have my eyes opened, and now a lot of times I'm just having my views reinforced. Another disappointment is the desire for every festival to show premieres. I can understand the appeal on the part of the festival, but I would love to see the programmers get out of this habit, and focus more on the quality, because I think it's not good for the audience or the filmmakers, only the festivals. In a few years, nobody will remember or care where a film premiered, but if people never got a chance to see it, because it did not play their local festival because of its premiere status, that's a bad situation.

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
Maybe I have "made it." Having my film accepted at SXSW is already beyond my wildest dreams, so I don't know where to go from here? Actually, for me, really making it will be if John Pierson comes and sees my movie. As a kid in high school, when I was getting out of my sports phase and into my movie phase, I read "Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes" and it totally opened up my eyes to this whole world of film festivals, and international film scenes, and really got me headed on the path that I am on. It instilled in me a sense of independence, and passion for making a different kind of film. It's crazy to think that I could go from reading that book before I went to sleep when I was a high school kid dreaming of movies, to being at a festival and having that same guy sitting in the movie theatre watching my movie. In my mind, that would mean I have made it. Everything else would just be icing on the cake.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
I did not use that credit in my film. The only place you will see "A Film By" is on the website and other promotional materials, and it will always say, "A Film By Joe Swanberg, Kris Williams, Kate Winterich, and Kevin Pittman." This is not only because I believe that a team makes a movie, and should get the credit as a team, but also because we were literally the entire crew. In addition to acting in the film, we also performed all of the other tasks (sound, lighting, camera, writing, etc.). So I can honestly say it is "a film by" the four of us.


Kissing On the Mouth, starring Kate Winterich, Joe Swanberg, Kevin Pittman & Kris Williams, will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information, and be sure to check out the official Kissing On the Mouth website!.

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originally posted: 02/15/05 20:06:03
last updated: 02/17/05 10:22:20
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