Wags might joke that Silver Bullets is this week’s new Joe Swanberg indie. This meta-movie features Swanberg as Ethan, a filmmaker whose girlfriend, Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil), has been cast in a horror film directed by Ben (Ti West). Joe is jealous and insecure that his friend and girlfriend are working together, so he insists—despite Claire’s pleading—on casting her best friend, Charlie (Amy Seimetz), as his girlfriend in a film he’s not only directing, but also starring in (not unlike Swanberg). Things soon get complicated—especially since the film-within-a-film narrative distorts reality, fiction, and desire. Swanberg recently spoke with Slant about his work to date, the making of Silver Bullets, and the mumblecore movement.
Silver Bullets is one of six films you directed in 2011. What accounts for such prolificness?
I’m very schizophrenic these days. My wife got pregnant last year, and since we were having a baby in November, I was shooting and shooting. I accidently ended up with so much work. But I realized I like working that fast.
What are the benefits and challenges of being such a micro-budgeted filmmaker? Self-distribution, for example.
This year is the first year I’m doing self-distribution. IFC has put out the last five movies, I think. That’s been great for me. I can finish making one and move on to the next one. But because I have so much work all of a sudden, I wanted to try self-distribution and theatrical runs. And I’m realizing I’m going to only dabble in self-distribution for certain projects.
Your character, a film director, has a speech in Silver Bullets where he says, “The movies don’t make me happy.” The character further insists that he doesn’t make films to win prizes, make money, or get reviews. How is this attitude reflective of your career?
At the time we shot that, it was 100% accurate. I feel like I’m a little more optimistic now than I was when I shot that scene. I still make the work to get close to people and connect to people, and that’s more important to me than awards, and attention. But there are bills to pay, so it’s nice if the work can make a little bit of money. I’m not doing the things filmmakers do to make money. I’m creating a very noncommercial body of work. The films don’t make me happy, but making small personal films rather than more commercial work makes me happy.
There are many movies about moviemaking. Why did you choose this genre for Silver Bullets?
I didn’t mean to. I started out making a film that Jane Adams was the star of; she plays an actress running into all of her ex-boyfriends, who said they never wanted to get married and have kids, and now they are all married with kids. We shot on and off for two and a half years, but my mental space kept bringing the work back to filmmaking as a subject. I thought I’d go my whole life without ever making a movie about making movies. I’ve always been told it’s not a good subject for movies, but that’s all that I seem to be doing now. The real reason is that as a consumer of art, I respond to other artists’ autobiographical [work]—the books, music, graphic novels, and poetry. If this is the work that other people are making that I like, then I should stop couching my movies in thinly veiled autobiography; I should be more straightforward.
You make some pretty pointed statements about filmmaking—small interesting stuff versus the business side of art that is L.A. There’s talk about making movies as a “new form,” and you demystify the process of makeup, casting, acting, cinematography, and directing. Why such self-analysis?
The way I work—I go in without any kind of script or outline—has always been a discovery process. I want to grow from the creation of the work. I want to end the film as a smarter, more interesting person than when I started it. Invariably, the work will always feel like a work in progress, or a discovery process. I feel that this was not only an attempt to demystify, but to discover things I’ve not done in other films: makeup, working with a wardrobe person, etc. I wanted to create that duality between a small art filmmaker and a genre guy in the business making bigger movies. That’s true in my own life, my friends are directing Hollywood films and making TV shows, and I’m always making my small relationship stuff and getting to witness this other stuff as well.
You tend to work with friends and fellow filmmakers: Ti West, Larry Fessenden. How much do you rely on them to help bring your vision to the screen?
I rely on my actors a lot to bring life to the movie. I have rough sketches of themes and scenes. I build the film around the people. Once I have the cast in place, I’ll shape the movie to who they are. I’m grateful to my actors; it’s a big commitment to work with me. They need to be open to exposing themselves. It’s very different than receiving a script and shaping a performance out of someone else’s material.
What filmmakers inspire you?
That changes all the time. When I first got into movies, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers. That ’80s wave of cool New York indie filmmakers. These days, man, I don’t know. Eric Rohmer is a big inspiration lately. Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead. That James Gray movie, Two Lovers. Herzog, and von Trier, and Sayles; their personas are inspirational to me. All three have made moves that I love and movies that I don’t like at all. Also Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood. They have huge bodies of work; making a movie or two a year, and building a big body of work, where the work as a whole is more interesting than the individual films. I tend to get inspired by the people, more than the work they make. I only see one movie a year that really knocks me out, like Dillinger Is Dead. I’ve gotten snobby and picky about what I like. I read a lot. These days, Don DeLillo is a much bigger influence on my thought process. I just started reading Phillip Roth. I also just read Rabbit Run. Even though my films don’t resemble them, that’s what’s running through my brain.