HD Independents: A Prolific Indie Filmmaker

Swanberg: I was actually a big Sony PD150 fan. I had been shooting with that camera since ’99 or 2000, and I did my first two features on the PD150. Then I started to shoot a little bit with the DVX100 when we did the first season of Young American Bodies, and I really liked the Panasonic’s colors and movement. When the HVX200 came out, we decided with Hannah Takes the Stairs that we would go ahead and try to shoot on that. It was relatively new, but the thing that was the most appealing to me was the workflow. Being able to skip the logging and capturing process and just suck the footage right into Final Cut Pro really changed the way I was able to work. It almost gave me a live preview of what we were doing. With the improvised working method, it was really helpful to be able to cut stuff that night. If I felt like we were missing something, we could go back and grab some extra shots the next day instead of having a big production period and then realizing after the fact that it would have been great to grab an extra shot at that location.

HDVideoPro: What sort of lighting package do you usually carry?

Swanberg: What we carry with us as a kit are a couple of bulbs with different wattage that we can plug into lamps. We also always keep a couple of China balls handy and then just use a C-stand or just tape them to something—generally, just as a fill light if I’m having general exposure problems. I’m very conscious of shooting near windows and try to use as much natural light as possible; and I’ll scope out a location to see what kinds of lamps and practical lights are around. With the newer films, I’m sort of dropping the master ped down in the camera menu and letting the films get darker, so I’m actually carrying less light with me. One of the things we used on Alexander were a couple of small fluorescent tube lights that we were able to stick behind a dresser or hide behind some books just to splash a bit of color on a wall, but also for close-ups with somebody holding one right off camera. They don’t provide much light, but they’re really great just to bring the eyes out.

HDVideoPro: In terms of postproduction, how long does it take you to edit a project?

Swanberg: With the features, I’m usually cutting while I’m shooting, and there’s usually about a month after that where I’m going back in and smoothing it out. I also set up screenings for friends so I can get some feedback on how the cut is coming along, but all the projects have come together pretty quickly—mostly because the editing I’m doing while we’re shooting is usually very close to the cut that I’ll stick with. I’ll generally go back to time out reaction shots a little better, but more and more I’m shooting longer takes and doing a lot of the editing in camera, such as choreographing one- or two-minute-long takes with the actors. It’s pretty funny, I recently went back and looked at my first couple of movies, and when I looked at the [editing] timeline, those early movies were so choppy. You would see cuts every couple of seconds, and now when I look at the timeline in the new movies, there are big blocks of audio and video with no cuts for a minute or two at a time. I was joking with a friend that I would love to shoot a movie where the whole movie is just a sequence of two-minute unbroken cuts. Graphically, I would love to look at that Final Cut timeline and just sort of see big chunks and no cuts in between them.

HDVideoPro: Tell us about IFC Festival Direct and how you got involved with them.

Swanberg: They put out Hannah Takes the Stairs and also Nights and Weekends. For both projects, we had a small theatrical release and then simultaneously made the films available on VOD. When I was going around doing Q&As for the theatrical screenings, I was really amazed by how many people were seeing the work on VOD—not only was it available to a lot of people, but people were actually watching these small movies that they might not otherwise see. With Alexander the Last, because we had the relationship, when we finished it, we went straight to IFC and sort of talked about this idea that instead of waiting six months and trying to do a New York and L.A. theatrical release, why not make the film available on VOD the same day it premieres at South by Southwest? We could capitalize on the momentum we would get from the festival to make the film available right away.

HDVideoPro: What do you think the distribution model is going to be for indie filmmakers eventually?

Swanberg: I think it’s going to be very interesting and it will be a natural change. As a viewer, I still prefer to see a movie in a theater and experience it with an audience in an environment where I can really focus, but I think that’s changing; and as a filmmaker, it doesn’t bother me if people see the work in a different way. Younger viewers have grown up with the Internet and have been used to watching videos on a small screen and are comfortable with the idea of downloading a movie. I don’t think the theatrical experience is going to go away because there’s still going to be this sense of community, and the bigger films are still going to be an event for audiences. With independent films, what’s nice is that there are a lot of different options now. I know a lot of filmmakers that have come from the festival circuit and gone straight to DVD. A lot of people do self-distribution theatrically; TV sales have continued to be a way for smaller films to make some money. I don’t think anybody is holding their breath anymore for a big purchase out of a festival and a major theatrical release because that’s becoming more and more rare with small films that don’t have movie stars in them. So I see VOD as a very realistic delivery method for small films. With IFC and their relationship with cable companies, that’s anywhere between 30 and 45 million homes. For people who don’t live in a major city with a big film festival or an art-house theater, it’s allowing them to be able to still engage with film culture as it’s happening.

For more information on Joe Swanberg and his latest project, Alexander the Last, visit www.joeswanberg.com; for more information on IFC Films and IFC Festival Direct, visit www.ifcfilms.com.