Joe Swanberg’s Method to Direct Actors Without a Screenplay
A lot of people dislike Joe Swanberg. Just like a lot of people dislike Mark Duplass (and by extension the Duplass Brothers, but they often didn’t go that far in their research to realise there were two people before deciding they disliked him/them).
Because to Paul Thomas Anderson and Roger Deakins true lovers, their work is an insult: they don’t write real screenplays, they shoot with what they have, they make movies about mundane topics and they are currently making it, with shows on Netflix and HBO when they are not. What a slap in the face.
Really. Every time I’ve heard someone reject entirely the Mumblecore movement, it was a man, around the age or older than Swanberg or the Duplass’, lamenting about how bad their films were when he had such great love for films and so many amazing stories to tell.
The good news is, if you’re not dwelling into useless bitterness about your misunderstood genius but instead consider yourself a curious storyteller, there are many things to learn from them. Even if you want to make films lit by candles on Imax.
Proof is, only by deconstructing Swanberg and Duplass SXSW respective Keynotes, I’ve already extracted several nuggets of wisdom, from how indie filmmaking and money can go hand in hand, how to spend your $1,000 budget on a feature film, or handle the “this is not good” voice while writing. And if you haven’t watched any of those keynotes, you should.
One thing that’s been interesting me a lot lately are directors who are not writing dialogues for their actors. The technique is called improv, but for a feature film reality with budget and time constraints, improv still needs to be handled. The filmmaker needs to provide just the right amount of knowledge to her actors, have a vision, and make sure she is casting the right people.
Joe Swanberg has his own way of doing it. Swanberg casts actors but he wants them not to act. To him, improv means no acting. He casts his actors based on what he knows and enjoys about them as non-actors, and digs for that in his films.
Here is what he says about the topic:
“My approach to improv… I just saw Mike Birbligia‘s movie (Don’t Think Twice) last night, which is really about improv. I don’t think I am using this type of improv.
I’m sort of using improv like a storytelling medium and really what I’m encouraging people to do via the improvisation is just not act. So it’s like if I give you the lines ahead of time, you are going to figure out a performance, and I don’t want you to do that. I want you to be forced to exist in the moment we’re filming and I’m casting you because I want you to be you, I like you. I like how you talk, I like the type of jokes you make. Do those in my movie. Don’t go create a character that’s something else.
In a way the lack of a script forces presence, ideally. So it’s much more about that.
I talk to actors all the time who are like ‘I don’t know, I don’t improvise, I don’t know how to do that.’ It’s not about that. We’re sitting here having this conversation, if you can do this, you can be in one of my movie, this is all what I’m asking you to do.”
Swanberg made 15 features before getting his real first hit with Drinking Buddies, but he honed his directing skills to the point where his show “Easy”, on Netflix, is the perfect illustration of fiction that feels like documentary. Every actors plays just the right tune (and every episodes is a brand new story about new characters). When you get that good at getting natural performances from your actors, I want to learn from you.