Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends) directed, wrote, and produced his latest flick, Alexander the Last, which will have its world premiere tomorrow night at the SXSW Festival while simultaneously being released on IFC Films Festival Direct Video On-Demand. As a mumblecore pioneer, Swanberg is no stranger to the ultra-low budget, home video-like films, with narratives focusing on young, often troubled couples played by unknown actors with a flare for improv. This formula can be tricky (we weren’t such big fans of his earlier film, LOL), but when it works it’s lo-fi magic — as in the case of Alexander the Last.
Swanberg’s latest boasts an indie cast with chemistry; the film is filled with a number of funny, warm moments in addition to our favorite part — a scene where he juxtaposes one couple’s real rompfest with a humorously awkward “put your leg there” love scene rehearsal between two actors. Alexander the Last tells the story of a creative married couple — an actress and a musician — who deal with the temptations that come with being young, broke, and attractive creative people surrounded by other young, broke, and attractive creative people. There are a few oh-so-complicated love triangles, but Jerry Springer, this is not. Swanberg doesn’t sugarcoat the heartache and confusion; he knows how to make personal pains into something universally compelling.
After the jump, we sit down Swanberg and discuss what went into making Alexander the Last, why he has a strange relationship with soundtracks, and how he met his wife. Note: if our post-screening eavesdropping is any indicator, this latest film certainly won’t be his last. In fact, it could lead to a Duplass Brothers-esque breakthrough.
Flavorwire: How did you come up with the storyline? It feels real, but it’s more polished than some of your previous work. Was that intentional?
Joe Swanberg: Thank you! I developed the story along with the actors, based on experiences we have all had. We didn’t have a script, but we were working from a fairly complete outline. All of the dialogue is improvised, but I was more deliberate with the photography and blocking in this film than in previous projects. My tastes are changing as a filmmaker and I think this is the first solid evidence of it.
FW: Tell me about the decision to team up with IFC In Theaters/IFC Festival Direct. Do you think other independent filmmakers will follow this trend? Do you see it potentially changing the future of indie film marketing?
JS: IFC has distributed my two previous features, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, and I’m happy to continue the partnership. video-on-demand seems to be a very good way to reach a wide audience and I think independent filmmakers are certainly taking notice. I don’t want to make any big predictions about the future, but it’s clear that marketing and distribution are changing (or being forced to change), and filmmakers need to be aware of this in order to help their films find an audience.
FW: We were particularly impressed by the acting in Alexander the Last. What was the casting process like?
JS: I started talking to Jess Weixler about a different project, but when that got pushed I asked her if she wouldn’t mind switching gears and working with me on something smaller and more personal. We had a lot of conversations about acting and emotional intimacy and where the lines get blurry between personal and professional relationships. I worked closely with her to develop the story and cast the rest of the film. I shot a short film with Jess and Justin Rice as a test and I really liked them together, so it made sense for him to play the husband. I met Amy Seimetz through a mutual friend and I knew I wanted to work with her, but I kept switching her part around. After I had the chance to hang out with Amy, Jess and Barlow at SXSW last year, it made sense to me to make Amy and Jess sisters and to make Barlow the cute guy who might possibly come between them.
Jane Adams and Josh Hamilton came to the project through Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Jane and Josh both have a lot of theater experience and have known each other for a long time, so it was really fun to throw them into the mix.
FW: There’s so much strong and dynamic chemistry in this film — with the two actors, the sisters, the married couple, and so on. Was there time for rehearsal?
JS: I don’t like to rehearse, because I want something spontaneous during the first take. Usually I will work from that first take to shape the scene, but I like to see what people do naturally first. Instead of rehearsals, I like to talk with the actors about the characters and themes of the film for the months and weeks leading up to the shoot. Jess and Amy talked on the phone several times a week for the month leading up to the shoot. They wanted to get to know each other really well and build the sister relationship. Justin and Jess were able to hang out, see movies, get dinner (I think they even went to opera) because they wanted to know each other well enough to be convincing as a married couple. Barlow and Jess had more limited contact, because we thought it would be better for them to get to know each other through working together, the way their characters do in the film.
FW: Jess Weixler as Alex was perfection. Had you seen her work in Teeth?
JS: Yes! I thought she was really amazing in Teeth. I was so excited that she wanted to work with me. I was happy to discover that she was very open and easy to talk to and she was ready to dive into my working method head first. It was fun to see her play a more subtle character, but she has so much great natural energy that I wanted to keep.
FW: Real actors portraying actors rehearsing for a play is hard to pull off. In your film, these scenes felt like a voyeuristic look into a real rehearsal. Ditto for the scenes in You Wont Miss Me, which you cameo’ed in. What’s your secret for pulling this off?
JS: David Lowery and I wrote a real play and let the actors actually rehearse it. Jane was free to direct them, because she was playing the director of the play, and Josh was free to interject or contribute thoughts because he was the playwright. It moved very quickly and was a lot of fun. I had specific ideas that I wanted to get across, so I gave some general notes before each take, but then I let everyone go. Of course we had to move much faster than a true theater production, because we only had a few days, so we had to let each rehearsal scene in the film stand in for what would have been a week or two of actual rehearsal.
FW: We loved the scene where the director tells Alex that it’s OK to be falling for her hunky love interest in the play. Have you witnessed actors falling in love on set? You and your wife have collaborated on projects. How did you meet?
JS: I don’t know if I would recognize other people falling in love on set. I’m usually too wrapped up in my own thoughts. But I have certainly recognized my own emotions being very heightened while working. Personally I’m more susceptible to falling in love with footage. There’s something about the way it never changes and my ability to edit it that appeals to my own control freak personality.
Having said that, I met my wife at college and I fell in love with her before we worked on any projects together. She told me her favorite movie was Raising Arizona and I fell into a swoon. We generally tend to bicker and disagree when we work together, so our relationship works a lot better away from movie sets.
FW: It’s hard to pull off a good soundtrack on a small budget. We loved Justin Rice’s scenes. How integral is music in your films? Do you have a favorite film soundtrack?
JS: I have a strange relationship to music in my work. I don’t like to use a lot of it, because it can feel manipulative, but I am getting more comfortable with it. This film was nice because Justin’s character is a musician, so it gave me a reason to have some music in there that felt natural.
Some filmmakers are very good at incorporating pop music into their films, but I am not really interested in that approach. My favorite film soundtracks are Harold and Maude and Nashville. I love the Cat Stevens music in Harold and Maude and because it’s all one artist it feels more like a score than a collection of songs. Nashville appeals to me so much because he has the actors do their own songs and the music is such an integral part of the storytelling.
FW: We know you hit Sundance this year with IFC. What was the best film you saw while you were there?
JS: The only film I was able to see was Humpday, which will also be at SXSW. It was exciting to see Lynn get so much attention! The film has some really incredible scenes.
If you live in New York mark your calendar for March 28; the film will be screening at the 92Y Tribeca and Joe Swanberg will be present for a Q & A.