HD Independents: A Prolific Indie Filmmaker

In current times, it seems the dream for most aspiring artists is no longer to write the next great American novel, but to make the next great American independent film. Case in point: At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, there were yet again a record number of feature-film submissions—3,661 compared to 850 a decade ago. Even for the lucky few that make it into the festival (118 feature films), the odds of those films finding a wide audience are slim. Much of this can be attributed to the emergence of digital video or, more recently, HD. It seems as if anybody with a little drive and a script is picking up a small high-def camcorder and making their very own magnum opus. HD Independents will be an ongoing feature story in which HDVideoPro will examine the trends, tools and processes of filmmakers working with high-def.

For the first edition of HD Independents, we profile Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who got his start making films early on in high school. After graduating with a degree in film at Southern Illinois University, Swanberg moved to Chicago and soon began working on his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth. The 27-year-old writer, director, actor, editor and cinematographer has since completed five features and is currently working on his sixth. If that isn’t enough, Swanberg also has created two online web series for nerve.com and spout.com. For his latest feature, Alexander the Last, Swanberg shot with a crew of two—himself and a sound person—using mostly available light and a Panasonic HVX200 with only two P2 cards for capture. Recently, Alexander the Last made its debut at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival and was also viewable through IFC Festival Direct on the same day. IFC Festival Direct is a VOD (Video On Demand) distribution service that programs films that aren’t necessarily slated for theatrical release in the United States. We spoke with Swanberg by phone while he was shooting a short film project for Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die comedy website.

HDVideoPro: What’s the independent film scene like in Chicago?

Joe Swanberg: It’s a little spread out. I can’t tell whether I’m just not tapped into it or whether it doesn’t really exist in the way that I recognize, but I’m kind of working on very small projects with groups of friends and things like that. I don’t PA on bigger productions or work on other movies even though I know there’s a lot of that going on in Chicago.

HDVideoPro: How did Alexander the Last come about?

Swanberg: It’s a very personal story for me. It’s about a young married couple—I got married myself a little less than two years ago—dealing with the commitment to the relationship, but also being in career fields that inherently involve intimate relationships with other people. The wife is an actress, and the husband is a musician—he goes on the road for long periods of time, and she gets cast in projects where she has to get intimate with other actors. For me, it’s about the struggle of being committed to a relationship while being committed to the art and how you can’t be fully committed to both at the same time. You sort of have to have a give-and-take in the two relationships.

HDVideoPro: Can you talk a little about your writing process? I noticed in the credits that your actors were also credited as writers.

Swanberg: It starts as a conversation between the actors and me, and then develops into an outline. Once we start shooting, we feel free to move away from that outline if something else is happening that we like. In terms of the schedule, we shot for a month from mid-April to mid-May of last year in New York, and then I went home to Chicago for two months to edit. While editing, I thought about the project more and kept having conversations with the actors, so we came back for a week in July and did reshoots from the first chunk of production and also shot some new stuff. Throughout all that, there’s sort of an outline of scenes that we’re working from, but never anything that resembles a script.

HDVideoPro: Why did you select the Panasonic HVX200? Were you a DVX100 user before?