Filmmakers and friends Swanberg and Decker—who both have features at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival—discuss the immorality of not making comedies and the challenges of making sexually charged films.
Joe Swanberg and Josephine Decker have amassed a fascinating body of work that seems to continually intersect. Swanberg, who has directed over twenty films in less than a decade, has been receiving phenomenal reviews for his most recent film, Drinking Buddies, while Decker, who has frequently appeared as an actress in Swanberg’s films, has been receiving rave reviews for her short feature Butter on the Latch, including a New Yorker article that called her film “an utter exhilaration of cinematic imagination.” Separately, they have established strong, original voices that continue to garner praise. Together, these two boundary-breaking artists often grapple with themes of community and sexuality in highly intricate and nuanced ways. With both filmmakers screening work—Decker’s Butter on the Latch and Swanberg’s thriller 24 Framesat the upcoming La Di Da Film Festival, Swanberg and Decker sat down to talk about their films and the challenges they are working to tackle.
Josephine Decker I’m heading down to Sidewalk [Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama] this weekend. Are you going?
Joe Swanberg I wish. Drinking Buddies is opening this weekend and they need me to do press. There’s a lot more to do and there’s a lot more interest, people are really watching this one. It’s already been a big success on VOD.
JD That’s great! It’s a great title, too.
JS People who love the movie think it’s too mainstream of a title and people who hate the movie get really upset because they feel misled by a title that makes them think it’s going to be a really fun romp.
JD I like the title and I imagine you’re pulling in an audience that’s looking for a stupid comedy but gets something smarter. Win-win? OK: questions. How do you feel like the stories you want to tell have evolved since you started making movies?
JS Honestly, I don’t think the stories that I want to tell have changed. I think the way that I’m interested in telling them has changed a lot. I’m interested in an audience now in a way that I didn’t used to be. Very early on I was interested in critics. I was a kid who went to film school and who grew up loving independent and art house movies, so that was the stuff I wanted to make. The more that I’ve been doing it, the more that it has become my job and how I make money and support my family, my engagement with some of the movies has changed. I’m still making very aggressive art house movies but I’m also interested in connecting with bigger audiences, too.
Over the course of the last couple years I’ve started to consider the very noble goal of entertaining people, which I don’t take lightly. I had a conversation with Madeleine Olnek, and she gave me one of the greatest pieces of film theory that anyone has ever given me since I’ve been a filmmaker. She said, “If you have the ability to make comedies, then it is immoral not to.” I really have not stopped thinking about it since she said it and it’s why I did Drinking Buddies after a string of very insular, arty movies. I started thinking, “Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s a waste of a gift if you can entertain people and make them laugh, make them feel better—maybe it’s immoral not to.” It’s really intense but it really struck me. I think that everything I make for a while, even it’s traumatic, you will find in the comedy section of the video store.
JD That’s interesting because it begs the question, “What is a comedy?”
JS I just think about the audience now, about holding up my end of the bargain. I think about what it means for someone to come and spend twelve dollars and two hours of their time and all of these parts of the equation; I really think about my role in that. Is it just to put up on screen whatever I feel? Is there a sort of implicit contract that I am to entertain them? That used to feel really gross but now it feels sort of noble, the task of entertaining people. It’s not easy, that’s the other thing about it. It is much easier to make an art film. It’s much easier to make “smart choices” that film critics respond to. At this point, I could do that shit with my eyes closed. (laughter) How do you make America laugh? To me, that is a challenge. I’m ready to tackle that.
JD I think, too, that your films have been screening to bigger and bigger audiences at bigger and bigger festivals and it’s different to watch a film on your own with a small group than to watch it with a big audience. You think “Oh, no! This part feels slow and it didn’t feel slow when I was watching it alone on my TV!” You want them to love it.
JS Do I get to ask you a question?
JS What does it feel to be one of the few filmmakers out there making films about female sexuality?
JD Wow. I don’t feel like I’m one of the few.
JS How many are there? First of all, you don’t see many women directing movies in the first place, but, beyond that, sexuality is such a minority of the topics of films and when you combine that with the scarcity of women writer-directors, I feel like you are in the minority of the minority.
JD Wow, that’s cool! I mean, I don’t know if that’s true—I’m a part of this female filmmaker collective in New York, Film Fatales, and we talk a lot about magical realism and female sexuality, so I feel like there are a ton of women making this kind of work. Eighty of us female filmmakers very interested in having open conversations about female sexuality meet in living rooms once a month. But, in terms of people who have work on the circuit right now, maybe you’re right?
JS When you go to a film festival with Butter on the Latch, for example, you are both going to be one of the minorities in that you are one of the few women directors in the program and then, additionally, you’ll probably be the only film in most festivals that is explicitly about female sexuality. Do you feel representative of something? Do you feel obligated to present that point of view?
JD That’s funny, because when I’m trying to pitch things, I’m aware that I have to pretend like I represent something that I definitely don’t feel like I do. People want to hear that “Josephine’s making work about female sexuality,” but the truth is that I’m just making work about my sexuality, which is totally weird. I would be shocked if any other woman felt the same about sexuality as I do. I’m so glad that my first lesson in making films was Bi the Way because I learned really early that everyone’s sexuality is different. No one can ever represent a larger group. But it is exciting to make work about my sexuality because it allows people to talk about their sexuality and that’s what I’ve craved my whole life. I can’t believe I went through all of puberty in Texas and wasn’t able to have conversations about my sexual experiences with my own best girl friends. I mean, could we talk about being with men? Yes. But could we talk about our own pleasure? No. I’m actually very nervous that when Thou Wast Mild and Lovely comes out, people are going to be very offended and say, “This is not female sexuality!” And I’ll say, “Of course not, it’s my weird quirks and the things that turn me on!”
JS That gets at the heart of my question. Are you nervous? Excited? Do you feel brave or vulnerable? What is it like to be out there with that stuff?
JD Honestly, I wonder if it will hold me back. I don’t know if female programmers will feel like “This is not the way we want to portray female sexuality” because I’m saying, “some women want to be dominated. Some women want to be dominant.”
JS So, what you’re saying is you want to be dominated. You want to be dominant. You’re saying the film is about your sexuality.
JD True. I would curate a sexual experience in which a partner would become violent because I am curious about how that would play out in my own sex life. That is the thing that I am nervous about with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Marina Abramović, who stabs at her hands and breathes into fans until she passes out, gets people saying, “She’s so masochistic.” How is that the thing that you take away from her work? She’s the most powerful woman in the world. I don’t think sexuality has to go the way you expect it to go to be a pleasant experience. Often, I am turned on by thinking a sexual experience is going to go one way and having it go dramatically the other way. Unpredictability is so exciting; we want to be surprised.
JS I want to keep asking you questions, but I’ll let you ask me one.
JD I brought a list.
JS Look at that preparation, that says a lot about you and me. You’re asking me all of these questions and I’m just babbling, asking you whatever comes into my head.
JD The irony is, I think your questions will probably be better than mine because you’re going with the flow of our thoughts. So, next question: What is it like to act in a sex scene in a movie that is not your own?
JS I’ve done it a few times and I go through different thoughts about it. The internal, heady thoughts are probably the same as a lot of people: “What does my body look like? Is this unflattering?” Insecure kinds of things. I think a lot about the other person: “Am I making this person uncomfortable?” There is a lot of typical guilt and shame built into taking your clothes off in front of cameras and other people. Also, on the self-conscious end, I’m aware of my reputation as someone who makes a lot of work about sex and the negative side of that reputation is as someone who sort of exploits people or gratuitously uses sex in movies. So, when I’m in a sex scene, I wonder, “Is this fodder for a cannon that the critics of my work can use against me?”
On the positive side of it, it’s nice be an actor and not be in charge of it. It’s hard to be in sex scenes in my own movies because the power dynamic is already shifted, you know? I’m the boss and the creator of the situation, and when I’m in it, there is a weird power dynamic. I have to work with people I trust a lot. When I’m in someone else’s movies, I’m not engineering the situation so I can remove a big amount of stress from it in terms of worrying about all those things. Also, not being the director, it’s someone else’s job to make sure it comes out all right. I’m just doing my one job.
On your movie, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the sex scene I acted in was an incredible experience. I liked the people I was working with, I felt really comfortable on your set, and it was cool to have Ashley Connor, a woman, as DP. Honestly, it was kind of exciting to be objectified. I had never been in a situation where all of these women were looking at me in a sexual way. There are a lot of very good-looking men who get to feel that all the time, but that was the first time that I felt like “Oh, I’ve been cast as the leading man in this movie.” I mostly act in horror movies, though, so sex scenes in those are there for a very specific purpose. Your movie’s sex scene was a pleasant experience because the scene was an unusual part of the plot and because I trusted you and I liked Sophie and Kristen, so it was easy to feel safe. The big thing is that you always want the movie to be good. If I think the movie is going to suck than I automatically feel bad about it. Even if someone is like, “this is going to be horrible, its going to be uncomfortable, the actors hate your guts, but the movie is going to be incredible,” I’d feel a lot better than, “Oh, you’re going to be working with all of these amazing people and it’s going to be a lovely experience but the movie is going to suck.” On your movie, I felt really good because I thought the movie was going to be really good. You never know, but that always adds to my comfort level.
JD That scene is very sexy.
JS It was very sexy to shoot. It was the only time for me that a sex scene was actually sexy to shoot. It never is. I think you created that experience, you wanted it that way. As an actor, I felt freedom to be invested that way. I’m not a deep actor, I’m pretty surface level. I can do a passable job but I don’t let myself go that deep. Your movie was one of the only times that I felt like it was a part of my job to really be present there. I’ve also never had a blindfold on, so that was weird. I liked it though. It was different.
JD It’s wild to hear you say that shooting sex scenes is never sexy. Your films are centered around sex, like Nights and Weekends. That’s not enjoyable? That’s amazing.
JS The sex scenes in Nights and Weekends were miserable to shoot. We were fighting the whole time. Greta [Gerwig] didn’t trust me at all by that point and I didn’t trust her at all. That’s the last thing we ever did together. We couldn’t be friends or collaborators after that shoot. It was the worst. I’m incredibly proud of that movie, I feel like its really good and people will still be interested in it long after some of the others, maybe, but the process of making it was the worst.
JD Well, it’s good that the movie turned out well!
JS (laughter) I can only be sexy and enjoy it if I’m not worried. You gave me permission to relax for like twenty minutes and that’s the only time I’ve ever been even remotely sexy.
JD At the time that we shot that I had known you for almost three years and the Joe that came out after the sex scene was like a different person; your joy came out. That’s not to say that you aren’t joyous, I’ve had a great time with you on a lot of different collaborations, but there was something—free.
JS It’s weird because I’ve know you for three years but we’ve almost exclusively known each other in the context of making work and, more than that, in the context of me making my work and that’s probably the least joyous I ever am. (laughter) We need to just hang out more!
JD We should go dancing!
JS Speaking of dancing, you have a really weird moment in Butter on the Latch that has to do with dancing . . . How did you come up with that?
JD I wish sometimes that my brain had a better way to narratively structure movies, but I have been trying to embrace that I make intuitive connections between what I am making and what I want to shoot and what happens on-set. I had no idea how those dream sequences would turn out. That movie was so improvised, very much inspired by you! I just was like, I want girls in the woods. I want these white dresses. I want old ladies. I want hair. And those are the main elements of the dream sequences. As you’ve seen on Mild and Lovely, I like to let the crew play a bit when I am working from intuition. It’s fun to let Ashley [Connor] try things and to hear what actors want to experiment with. Sometimes I get mad at myself after the fact for being too loosey-goosey on-set when actually, I do have very clear visions that I just need to arrive at through experimentation. But I think those Butter on the Latch dream sequences were a natural outpouring of my vision for the beauty and terror of the woods combined with the talents of the actors at hand. The woman that dances in Butter happened to be a modern dancer for a long time and her initial dancing was too good, so I told her to throw a tantrum instead. Her tantrum is very graceful – and weird.
JS How do you feel like intuition changed Butter on the Latch? Did you end up with the film you started out to make?
JD I’m actually surprised how well we stuck with the treatment. But we had some genius inspirations on-set that shaped the film. The night before our last day of shooting, Sarah Small came to look at the footage and I think she was just blown away by how beautiful it was turning out. We sat up late into the night and made up a whole new ending that riffed on the original but took it much further. I’m so happy with how twisted and distinct it became—even more than I had hoped. It’s funny, having now made a scripted movie and an unscripted one, I think my process is somewhere in the middle.
JS How do you feel about the fact that you’re going to have to talk about sex for the next few years in interviews and Q&A’s because of your movies?
JD Bi the Way was my first movie, and so I was not only talking about sex but everyone thought Brittany, my co-director, and I were a couple, so we were constantly having to talk about that. I think, now, I love it. It’s a part of why I’m making these movies. We are making things that we never got to experience when we were kids. Being open enough to talk about sex feels so liberating. Maybe it will get old if I have to answer the same questions a hundred times, which I’m sure you have to do for your movies. I guess I must like it a lot, but, to be clear, I never thought of filmmaking as a means to an end to talk about sex. I think my movies explore not just sex but everything I’m afraid of, which is why I need to make them. The only thing I’m starting to hate talking about is getting naked for Marina Abramović. I didn’t know that would follow me around forever. I’m happy to talk about collaborating with you, about sex scenes in my work and other people’s work, but I think getting naked for Abramović will follow me until I make something that trumps it.
JS I can tell you this, it’s never going to go away. I still get asked about masturbating on camera for Kissing on the Mouth, my first movie. That’s why I asked if you’re already getting sick of it.
JD I love Marina Abramović the person and artist, but I’m sick of talking about the incident.
JS I have another question I’ve been wanting to ask you, so I’m going to tie it in. As a woman who makes work, not just film work but also performance work, do you feel like men assume things about you or have an attitude towards you that is caused by that?
JD I think that who I am as a person is so dramatically different than what would be a part of some fantasy that’s like, “Oh, this girl is so kinky because she acts in Joe Swanberg’s movies and all these sex scenes and she’s naked all the time and she got naked for Marina Abramović.” Once you meet me, you see that I’m so goofy and such a good, wholesome girl. Those kinky hopes are dashed pretty quickly. I’m also really good at redirecting energy to a much more sincere space. That isn’t always good though. I think sometimes it’s nice to let people view you as sexy and enjoy that. When I was younger and I would get sexual attention from men, I would always re-route it into intellectualism or figure out how to squash it with my dork-dom. I didn’t know how to let in that kind of attention. My friends who really exult in the sexual attention they get, they have a lot of power. Being objectified is not just about being an object, it’s about receiving the energy of being a powerful, sexual person.
When thinking about your sex scene in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the word “objectification” is really a problem because it’s not like you were just being objectified. You had a relationship with these two actresses who admire, respect, and get along with you and who think you’re sexy, and so its not just like you are an object. They are seeing you as a sexy person.
JS Have you seen 24 Exposures?
JD No, where has it been playing?
JS The premiere was at Fantasia in Montreal and La Di Da will be the second screening.
JD What is it about?
JS It’s an erotic thriller about a photographer and a private eye. The film centers around these questions about whose responsibility is it to say “no” when you’re uncomfortable with something and explores all of these ideas about objectification. When a man takes a camera and takes a photo of a woman with her clothes on, is he actively objectifying her? These are questions that Art History asks—it’s not new stuff—but by taking those questions and placing them in a genre film, I feel like it complicates them in a way because the film is actively, constantly muddying the questions that it’s asking by taking part in exactly the kind of filmmaking it’s criticizing. Rather than take this critical, distanced, objective stance against, say, the exploitation of women, the film is playing right in the world of these B-movie erotic thrillers and then pulling out every few minutes and asking a question and then diving back in to very surface level, genre stuff. It’s very exciting for me because there is nothing more boring than a filmmaker that’s criticizing something from a distanced, safe space—preaching to the choir and standing arms length from something and saying, “This is so wrong, don’t we all agree it’s so bad? Here’s ninety minutes of my lecture about how awful this all is.” 24 Exposures is like a ’90s Cinemax, soft core, erotic movie that lives and dies by those rules and does feature a lot of gratuitous nudity. (laughter) And then within all of that, it’s critiquing and criticizing it.
What I’m most excited about is that, as a filmmaker, I’m implicated in all of that, in all of the questions it’s asking. There is nothing safe about where I’ve positioned myself in the movie. If you agree that the film is exploitation and that exploitation is wrong, then I am guilty. (laughter) Hopefully that’s a way to start the conversation.
I have very complicated feelings about it as well, because I’ve worked with so many smart, strong, independent, interesting, amazing, women and it’s always very weird for me when criticisms of my films take the attitude that I’ve somehow tricked these people—or successfully manipulated them—into being in my movie. It’s really dismissive of the women that I work with.
JD I agree. I’m always very critical of the people who are critical of you in that way because I never felt that in our working relationship.
JS I feel like this new movie is very much a big, grey, messy, blur in terms of those questions. The erotic thriller side serves to undermine the questions and the questions undermine the erotic thriller aspects of it. I’m really excited for people to see it. It was nice to screen in Montreal; the Q&A was nice and tense in terms of those kinds of questions.
JD Joe, it was so nice to catch up with you more!
JS It’s fun to talk with this formal limitation on our conversation.
JD It’s nice that Thou Wast Mild and Lovely will come out and we’ll constantly have to talk about the obscure things in our art through long phone conversations. Bye, Joe.
For more on Joe Swanberg, visit his website.
For more on Josephine Decker, visit her website.