From filmmaker Joe Swanberg, Happy Christmas tells the story of budding novelist Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and her film director husband Jeff (Swanberg), who live a peaceful existence with their two-year-old son. When Jeff’s irresponsible younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), comes to live with them and disrupts things a bit, it prompts Kelly to look at her own life and career.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Joe Swanberg talked about why he decided to explore the aspects of this particular story, why he wanted Anna Kendrick for this role, comparing the reality of the relationship between Jeff and Kelly to Coach Taylor and his wife from Friday Night Lights, why he decided to shoot this on 16mm film, shaping the story during the editing process, that he didn’t shoot much more than he used, how grateful he is for how much he’s learned on the films he’s made, how he usually thinks two movies ahead, that he’s already finished his next film, Digging for Fire, with Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt, and what’s surprised him most about how actors take to his improvisational style of filmmaking. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOE SWANBERG: I actually didn’t want to make a Christmas movie. That part of it came from practical concerns. It looked like we were going to end up shooting in December, and once that looked like the case, it was fun to add what I feel are the heightened family aspects of Christmas. There’s a lot of cultural pressure around specialness and seeing your family. I feel like everything gets jacked up a little bit because of all of these expectations of love and family bonding. But, the real starting point was my wife and I talking a lot about the situation we found ourselves in. We found a kid and it just happened that I was able to make a little bit more money, at the time, so I ended up working and my wife was staying home with our son. It was complicated for both of us to go from being these two independent artists to having a very traditional domestic situation with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home mom.
It was the roles we didn’t expect we’d end up in. But culturally, it’s a lot harder for women, especially right now. There’s an expectation now that, in some ways, being a stay-at-home mom is a disappointment, and you’re not being an independent feminist and fulfilling your potential. But then, at the same time, if you’re a working mom, you’re still expected to be a super-mom at home, buy organic food, put dinner on the table every night, and do all the research into preschools. It’s really hard. There’s this expectation of having it all, and there’s a lot of judgement. Even when there’s not judgement, there’s the perception of judgement or the fear of judgement.
So, my wife was having a really hard time and we were talking a lot about it, in our relationship, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that in the movies, really. It wasn’t a conversation I was seeing married couples having on screen. There’s a magic quality that movies have, in making you feel less alone in the world. There’s an affirmation that you get, as a person, when you go to a movie and see people talking about the things that you’re talking about. So, I wanted to put that out there, just so that women that were having those feelings knew that they weren’t alone. Also, it’s really interesting, meaty territory to get into because, going forward, I don’t think it’s going to get any easier. The expectations placed on women are going to get even more challenging, as women become CEOs, and more and more often are entering the workforce at the top. It’s hard enough to try to have your own relationship and your own family, let alone to run a company, or whatever else. Men are just let off the hook, in a different kind of way.
In the film you character has his younger sister show up, but in real life, you have a younger brother. Was it a conscious decision to change that? Did you just want to work with Anna Kendrick some more?
SWANBERG: I just wanted to work with Anna more, yeah. I’m very amazed by her skills, as an actor, and was just anxious to see if we could push that in the opposite direction of what we did with Drinking Buddies, where she was a very mature, stable character. I’ve seen her play that put-together role a lot, so it was really exciting to ask her to flip onto the other side of that.
There’s such an ease and a level of comfort between you and Melanie Lynskey. Was that something you were hoping for, with your characters, or did you just get lucky, in that way?
SWANBERG: Well, she’s really good. She’s a much better actor than I am. I can play myself, and Melanie can actually act. I felt like, if I could do an okay job of being myself, she could do the rest of the work. But for me, the important thing was to put a couple on screen that was actually happy and in love with each other. And it’s not that that relationship is without its problems. Obviously, there’s a major lack of communication between them because I don’t know that she’s going through this. My character is oblivious to the fact that she’s having a crisis, so it’s not that they’re perfect. But, the way the dramatic structure of most movies work is that the stakes are constantly rising. You’re taught to build all of this tension, in all these different ways. But, it gets really grueling to go to the movies and feel like you’re seeing these couples who are incapable of solving problems together and are incapable of being happy. That didn’t look like my relationship. My relationship with my wife is fraught with all of the problems that any couples face, but there is a sense of humor that we have about it and a real desire to want to make it better. The best relationship that I can think of, in terms of that, was on the TV show Friday Night Lights, with Coach Taylor and his wife. It was so important and refreshing to see that depicted. There were all kinds of things, all the time, that were challenging their relationship. But, there was a sense of deep love and a sense of two adults who were capable of solving problems. It’s sad that that’s so rare, in movies and in TV. I just wanted Melanie and I’s relationship to feel like that.
Why did you decide to shoot this on 16mm film?
SWANBERG: There were a couple of reasons. My film school education was all on Super 8 and 16mm, and there was a desire to do that again, before it was too late. In the 10 years that I’ve been a professional filmmaker, the film part of the film industry is really disappearing, right in front of our eyes. And there was a feeling that I wanted from this movie, with the analog warmth that film provides. I looked for it in the music that we used, and the way that the characters interacted felt like this warm, snuggly blanket. I think 16mm does that, like nothing else. I hope it remains an option for a little while longer. I’m editing a new film now that I shot in April, and we shot that one on 35mm. I think I’ll try to keep working in film for a little bit. There’s something still kind of magical about it, that I don’t want to let go of.
What is the movie that you’re editing now?
SWANBERG: It’s called Digging for Fire. It’s with Jake Johnson, who was in Drinking Buddies, and Rosemarie DeWitt are the leads in it. It’s a love story again. It’s another movie about a married couple with a kid, but it’s a little more mysterious and a little more ambitious than anything I’ve done before. Ben Richardson, who shot Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, shot this one, as well, and we were really pushing ourselves, in terms of the photography. And Alicia [Van Couvering], my producer, and I were trying to be ambitious, in terms of the scope of the movie. At the heart of it, it’s about the real, honest struggle to try to build a life with somebody and to try to be happy, which sounds easy, but is really, really hard.
You’re a writing, a director, a producer and an actor. Do you identify yourself with one thing more than the others, or do you see yourself as a multi-hyphenated combination of things?
SWANBERG: I like to do all of them, but I guess I probably see myself as a director. If I had to choose, I think that that’s the aspect of the process that I’m most excited by, but I wouldn’t want to give up any of them. First of all, I learn so much about directing when I act in other people’s movies. Also, editing is so important to the process. And I feel like I’m getting better as a writer, all the time. I just have a desire to be as good as I can, at those things, so you have to put the work into it. I just have attempted to stay in practice and try to do a little bit of all of it.
Because your movies really evolve as you shoot them, how long does the editing process take?
SWANBERG: It depends. I’ve done movies where I was editing while we were shooting and was almost done with the movie when we wrapped. With Happy Christmas, because we were shooting film and we were trying to save money, we were only sending out our film, every two or three days, and I didn’t cut anything until after we wrapped. And I got so busy with Drinking Buddies that I edited, on and off, over the course of nine months. It depends on how busy I am on other things and how easily the movie comes together, but it’s a really big part of the process. I almost always edit a little bit while we’re shooting, just to make sure that the rhythms feel right and the characters are coming through, but sometimes that’s not possible.
How long was your first cut of Happy Christmas? Are there a lot of deleted scenes?
SWANBERG: We didn’t shoot much more than we used. This one was pretty well written ahead of time. The dialogue was all improvised, but the story was really heavily structured before we shot. It’s pretty close to what I wrote. There’s definitely not a lot on the cutting room floor. There are just longer versions of scenes.
You’re such a prolific filmmaker. When you think about all of the films that you’ve had the opportunity to make, are you really proud of the fact that you chose to keep blinders on and make the movies you wanted, the way that you wanted to make them?
SWANBERG: Yeah. It wouldn’t be possible now. I’m proud of them, but I also feel really lucky that I did it while I could do it, that I worked so hard before I had a kid, and that I started so young. It’s lucky. It’s not like I was smart enough to have some kind of master plan, but I always loved the work. As soon as I finished a movie, the most exciting thing to do was to try to jump into the next one. How I feel about it is that I learned a lot, so I’m grateful that I learned so much, at such a young age, rather than in my more adult professional career. By the time I made Drinking Buddies, which was the first thing that I made that a lot of people saw, it was nice to have so much work under my belt. I had quietly built this body of work that I could pull from.
You’ve already finished your next movie, that you’re currently editing, but do you know what you’ll be shooting next?
SWANBERG: I’m usually two projects ahead. It’s hard for me because I don’t have a really long attention span. I’ve never been able to develop a movie over several years, and keep coming back to it and adding to it. I get excited by the spark of an idea, and if I can’t go make that, there’s another idea that comes along that I get excited about. It has to happen quickly, in order for it to happen, at all.
With all of the movies that you’ve made and the actors that you’ve worked with, is there anyone that’s most surprised you, in how much they’ve loved and taken to your style of filmmaking, and is there anyone who’s found it the most challenging?
SWANBERG: That’s a really good question. I have almost always worked with friends, so there’s been a strong personal connection before we started working together. Drinking Buddies was the first time that I wasn’t working with friends. I have to say that, with all four of those actors, I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really scary to take this process that I’d been working on for 10 years, and then suddenly invite strangers into it. It was really an amazing feeling when Jake [Johnson] and Olivia [Wilde] got so behind the movie. They didn’t have to be that vocal about the process and the experience they had, but by being so positive about it and by talking so much about the movie, they opened the doors up to new relationships with other actors. And Anna [Kendrick] did the same thing, by coming back to do Happy Christmas. That’s a really big gesture that says, “I liked this enough that I’ll do it again.” It’s really opened the door for me. When I go out to Los Angeles to meet with actors for new projects, they say that they talked to Olivia and she told them that they should do it. It’s been really generous of all of them. That’s been the biggest surprise, feeling embraced by the establishment. I have yet to have the challenging experience. I’ve been really lucky. People don’t always like the process as much as someone else, but nobody has bucked really hard against it yet. But, I’m almost certain that that will happen. The more that I work with people that I don’t know, the more I invite somebody in who’s potentially going to really hate being there. I’ll check back in with you later and let you know who really hates my guts.
Happy Christmas is available on VOD and opens in theaters on July 25th.