SXSW Film Panel: Joe Swanberg Keynote

The indie film king of fast, cheap, and frequent has advice

Joe Swanberg began by taking the crowd on a peppy journey through the endless catalog of his small, intimate films.

From the earliest SXSW premieres, when no other festival would take him, to Hannah Takes the Stairs, which carried a Noah Baumbach credit and put him on the path to full-time filmmaking; Digging for Fire, where he learned about the pros and cons of using famous actors; and Drinking Buddies, which he laughs is the movie – after 10 years and 15 films – he’s known for starting out with.

Those expecting dollar amounts, nuts-and-bolts, were satisfied and horrified by the margins Swanberg threw down: How a series he and his wife made for (Young American Bodies) doubled its budget each season, from $500 per episode to, by season 4, a whopping $5000. How narrowly the life-changing Drinking Buddies escaped harrowing financing rounds to be made at all. How heavily Hannah benefited from IFC’s first push to legitimize the streaming model – DVD about to give way to streaming altogether. How little reviews mean, beyond the importance of their existence.

Multiple times, Swanberg carefully pointed out the serendipitous tech windows and vogues into which he’d stumbled. A film a year for a market that no longer exists, four seasons of an Internet show when those existed, finding streaming just ahead of Netflix, and so on. “Theatrical [release] is dying, for all of us,” he told the assembled, aspiring indie filmmakers. But he followed that up with very specific thoughts on money.

First: Better to have no money than some. Scrappy, creative thinkers get scrappier when forced to be creative about how to ask for things. Therefore, always act as if you have no money. Second: Better to have some money than no money. A law of the universe is that people only want to give you things you don’t need, and perversely want to deny you the things you do. Therefore, always act as though you need no money. Third, a corollary: Time is money and should be budgeted likewise, but so is happiness. Nobody who hates what they’re creating ever loved what they eventually created, and you’re burning out future relationships and options when you put your name on something bad.

This could be tuned out, like the Amanda Palmer/startup-speak snake oil it resembles, but it’s much easier to take coming from Swanberg, who managed to distill his (also dubious) mumblecore aesthetic and swift turnaround into something respectable, even transcendent, carefully differentiating between “improv” and what his films are about, which require different tools altogether.

That inhabiting a moment, specificity, requires tiny turnarounds and budget because asking a person to hop in and out of a headspace for a month, on a big-budget film, is a larger request than simply filming several hours a day, scriptless, editing in-camera – and, if necessary, course-correcting in editing at night, for the next day. As an excuse for making fast, cheap movies, it’s compelling, but better yet, believable. Or as Swanberg eventually said, to pin-drop silence: “Honest is the easiest thing to be.”

Joe Swanberg Keynote

Monday, March 14, Austin Convention Center

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