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SXSW '06 Interview: 'LOL' Director Joe Swanberg

by Scott Weinberg

The 'LOL' Pitch: Alex, Tim, and Chris all view the women in their lives through the dimensions of a computer screen or the lens of a camera-phone, but they must learn to balance their online fantasies and addictions with the demands of real life.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Three guys, and their relationship with women and technology.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
I was at SXSW last year with my first film, KISSING ON THE MOUTH, and I can say without a doubt it's the best Festival out there. I've been to a few since then, and nothing really comes close to the experience. I can't wait to get back to Austin. That being said, I had a great time at the Chicago International Film Festival (it's my hometown) and the Northampton Independent Film Festival.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
See last year's answer...ha ha ha.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I took a 16mm film class at Columbia College in Chicago when I was in High School, and that's when I knew for sure that I wanted to do it. Then I went to film school at Southern Illinois University.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
I'm really proud of this film, but now that it's on "the festival circuit" I'm a little afraid for it. I'm worried that critics will treat it badly and hurt its feelings. Films are very sensitive.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Which was the nervous one that was always afraid of getting in trouble? Fozzie? Or am I making up a Muppet that doesn't exist? I relate to the nervous one.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Since I played some Festivals with my last film, I kind of learned the ropes a bit. I never thought of film festivals or reviews when I was making artistic decisions about the film, but I certainly kept festivals in mind when the film was nearing completion. I started to get in touch with programmers and let people know that I was almost done with a new one. It helps to get the early warning out, so people are expecting the film. In that sense, I was very aware of time frames and Festival deadlines.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
C. Mason Wells and I just decided to do it. He was home from college for the summer, and we decided it will be good to make a film during those few month. Of course in the end the production stretched on much longer than the summer, because I don't write anything or plan ahead of time. This is a totally improvised film. Not only was the dialogue improvised, but the entire thing was improvised. We started making the film without knowing where it was going. We shot about 1/4 of the stuff before we even knew who Kevin Bewersdorf was going to play. It was made on the fly, with things changing all the time, which is a very fun way to work, but it takes a bit longer.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Surround yourself with creative people that you like and be brave enough to trust them when they have an idea. To date, I have not worked with someone I dislike. Everyone involved with my films is either my friend or someone who I want to be my friend. I've never had to yell at anyone on set, or get into any heated arguments about production issues. It's just always a very fun and friendly atmosphere. We shoot, we go out to dinner, we talk, we come up with ideas. Since I'm making these movies with my own money, I feel like they have to be rewarding experiences. That's the way I hope to continue approaching these projects.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
I love Lars von Trier and Larry David. They are probably the two biggest influences on my films. But I never watch movies before we shoot in order to get ideas about scenes. That seems like a bad idea to me. I like to show up and wing it. The less planning, the better. As long as the actors are there, and I have a camera and a microphone, it should be fine. And if it's not, we'll just re-shoot it later.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
I've always thought John Goodman would be pretty good. Maybe Jeffrey Tambor?

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
I stick with last year's answer. I don't want to remake, adapt, or sequelize anything. I would ask for $1 million and one year to make as many films as possible. Then I would go back to Chicago and get to work. At the end of the year, I would hopefully bring 2 or 3 films back to the studio, turn them over, and then go retire on the remaining $950,000.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Kevin Bewersdorf and Tipper Newton steal the movie as far as I'm concerned. They could both be huge stars if they wanted to, but I don't know if that's their goal. In addition to acting in LOL, Kevin wrote all the music, which you can download for free at the LOL website.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
A web designer, which I am most of the time.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Bill Cosby when he was 25 years old. But that's impossible. So I guess Samantha Morton or Natalie Portman. Or Robert Downey Jr. I like Scarlett Johansson a lot too, and Jon Gries.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
I think I've probably "made it" about as far as I'm going to. My wish from last year, for John Pierson to come see my movie, came true, so I'm a pretty happy guy. Then I even got to hang out with him when he came through Chicago. Yeah, I think this is probably about it. It was a good run. If I never make another good movie again, I'll still be pretty happy.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Very important to film nerds like me, not so important to anyone else. Critics continue to prove how unimportant they are by launching failing campaigns to bring attention to certain films or filmmakers. If you spend a lot of time reading film blogs, you start to believe that certain filmmakers or films are totally blowing up and becoming really important. Then you ask everyone around you, and they have no idea what you're talking about. I think it's a pretty self-contained world. I love when lots of critics get behind a filmmaker like Andrew Bujalski, because I agree with them and I think he's a great filmmaker. But it doesn't really translate to lots of people seeing his films, or distributors suddenly being interested.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
I guess it would be some product or thing that a friend of mine makes. I would try and support some small business. But the whole idea turns me off.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
If the producers already paid me, and it's their movie, and they don't care about losing the sex scene, then I guess it gets cut. If the producers care about the film, then I ask them to change the contract so that we can release it unrated. Really it's my goal in life to never have to deal with the MPAA. I plan to release everything I do on my own UNRATED. Why give them money?

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
LOL's website says, "A Film By Joe Swanberg, C. Mason Wells, and Kevin Bewersdorf," because I feel that the three of us covered all of the areas of production. But really credits don't bother me. I don't get annoyed when I see "a film by DIRECTOR" somewhere. If someone feels like it's their film, then I guess they should say that in the credits. But the LOL credits don't have anything like that. It's just the standard "Directed by, Written by, etc." stuff.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
I would never ask someone to do that. There are probably a lot of of great movies playing at the same time as LOL. In fact, I'll probably be off watching other movies while LOL is screening, and then I'll come back for the Q&A afterward. So if I'm not even going to watch my movie, how can I convince someone else to?


LOL, starring Kevin Bewersdorf, Joe Swanberg, C. Mason Wells, Tipper Newton, and Brigid Reagan will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official LOL website.

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originally posted: 02/09/06 11:17:41
last updated: 02/10/06 10:35:21
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