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Film: The Starving Auteur

The New York Times may be hyping his movies, but "mumblecore" filmmaker Joe Swanberg is still struggling to pay the bills.

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In the four years since he started making films, Joe Swanberg has received the kind of attention some directors long for their whole lives. Each of his three features has premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. His latest, Hannah Takes the Stairs, is rolling out in theaters nationwide and airing on television through video-on-demand. At 26 he's already had his entire body of work showcased at the IFC Center in New York and been written up in the New York Times. But so far the attention hasn't translated into financial success. "It hasn't changed my life at all," Swanberg says. "I'm still sitting in Chicago wondering how I'm going to buy groceries. I'm not getting phone calls from agents or studios saying, 'What are you up to?'"

Within weeks of showing at SXSW last March, Hannah Takes the Stairs was picked up for distribution by IFC First Take, and Genius Products, a division of the Weinstein Company, has signed on to release it on DVD early next year. It's the story of a young TV assistant restlessly working her way through a string of romances with eccentric schlubs. As with his other movies, Kissing on the Mouth (2005) and LOL (2006), Swanberg worked without a script, instead creating an environment where the cast--friends and nonprofessionals all--would feel comfortable revealing their bodies and their insecurities.

"I don't think I'd want to work with someone who wasn't comfortable with it," he says. "I would never try and talk someone into doing something on camera. I think people could be talked into it, but I don't think the results would be the same."

Swanberg rented a Logan Square apartment for the shoot during the summer of 2006. The cast and tiny crew--Swanberg and sound recordist Kevin Bewersdorf-- lived there and spent practically every waking moment together. The lines between life and art blurred frequently. "We disappeared off into that world," Swanberg says. "We rarely left the apartment. It kind of became a compound. I would take things that were naturally occurring and say, 'Just keep doing that, Kevin's gonna get the equipment ready and in an hour we'll shoot."

In the title role Swanberg cast New York playwright Greta Gerwig, who literally phoned in her performance in LOL, appearing only in cell-phone photos--many of them nude--that she sent to her boyfriend, a costar. Swanberg had never actually met Gerwig before the movie's premiere, but they wound up working together during the festival on an episode of Young American Bodies, a Web serial Swanberg created for Nerve's video site. "Greta was really cool and easy to work with," he says. "She didn't have a lot of limitations or restrictions. When the wheels started turning for Hannah, I thought it would be fun to work with her again in a more challenging way."

The supporting cast is rounded out by other filmmakers, including Andrew Bujalski, director of Funny Ha-Ha and Mutual Appreciation, and Mark Duplass, who wrote and starred in The Puffy Chair, directed by his brother, Jay. Swanberg met Bujalski and the Duplass brothers at SXSW in 2005. Their movies were all included in the two-week IFC Center series "The New Talkies: Generation DIY" in August. In a feature hailing the series the New York Times said the filmmakers represented a cinematic movement that "bespeaks a true 21st-century sensibility" and "represents a paradigm shift in how movies are made and how they find an audience." Repeating a favorite term of the press, it called the movement "mumblecore." The name started as a joke made by Bujalski's sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, but it's refused to go away; Rolling Stone just called it the year's "Hot Genre" in its 2007 "Hot Issue."

Shot on shoestring budgets, mumblecore movies are linked by deadpan portraits of young people and low-key, frequently improvised dialogue. But Swanberg dismisses much of the hype. "We met each other from having already made movies this way," he says. "The movies would've been made regardless of whether we met each other. But I have gotten a lot of e-mails and MySpace messages from other filmmakers saying that they're inspired by it, and that it's cool that small, improvised movies are getting attention."

Hannah Takes the Stairs grossed a respectable $6,000 on one screen its opening weekend in New York and $18,000 total through its runs in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle. It played in Portland, Oregon, earlier this month and opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. This feature has more muscle behind it than any Swanberg's made to date, but getting it into theaters has still been a struggle. "The Music Box passed on it. The Film Center didn't really want to do it. They were like, 'I don't think there's an audience for it.'"

Film Center director Barbara Scharres admits she did have reservations. "Joe's movie and this movement appeal to a demographic that is more used to accessing entertainment through the Internet and other means that don't involve going to movie theaters," she says. To some extent, Swanberg sees her point. "I don't even know if I'm all that good at getting younger people to see the movie," he says. "It's not Napoleon Dynamite, that's quirky in a safe way. I don't think Hannah could be turned into a mainstream success no matter who tried to do it."

Swanberg financed his first two movies with just a few thousand dollars. Hannah Takes the Stairs was bankrolled by Film Science, an Austin-based production company. While it was made for significantly more than either Kissing on the Mouth or LOL, producer Anish Savjani will only say that the budget was "under $100,000," a common hedge when a film has financial deals pending.

IFC will have to recoup its investment before any money trickles down to Film Science or, finally, to Swanberg, but Swanberg believes the movie's prospects on the whole are good. "It seems very likely that Film Science will make its money back," he says. "It seems somewhat likely that I'll make some money. Probably not for a year." In the meantime, he's hoping the attention might lead to a paying job. "I'm in bad shape," he says. "I don't know how I'm going to make money next month."

Swanberg makes a very modest income from Young American Bodies, which he produces with his wife, Kris, and from various freelance gigs. He recently shot behind-the-scenes footage for Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, directed by his friend Ti West. But for now Kris, who teaches at a Chicago public high school and is working toward a master's degree in education at DePaul, is the breadwinner of the family.

"If I can make enough of these small movies that they'll all be out on video and bringing in some money, eventually five or six of them would be bringing in enough that I can start to live on it," Swanberg says. "It becomes more about having a body of work, rather than about having one individual film that's really successful."

In November the Swanbergs will begin production on the third 12-episode season of Young American Bodies. They both act in the show, which follows a group of twentysomethings and their rotating bed partners. Joe is also directing (and financing, so far) a new series for Spout, a social-networking site for film fans, called Butterknife, about a private eye and his wife. It stars filmmaker Ronald Bronstein (Frownland) and his wife, Mary. For Swanberg there are clear advantages to producing content for the Web. "The fact that anyone in the world could see it at any time makes me wonder why I'm working in a medium that's so limiting as far as who can see it and how," he says.

Not that he has any intention of turning his back on features. Nights and Weekends, in which he and Gerwig play a long-distance couple facing a pregnancy scare, is currently in postproduction, with Gerwig as coeditor. Also on the horizon is Save the Date, which could prove to be Swanberg's biggest production yet. Film Science and New York-based Camelot Pictures, which produced Garden State, are backing the project and trying to put together a substantial budget. And for the first time Swanberg plans on working with a script: Chicago comics artist Jeffrey Brown, best known for his graphic novel Clumsy, wrote the screenplay with playwright Egan Reich.

"It's scary, in a good way," Swanberg says. "Probably there's some part of me wanting to prove that I could do something different. But also I just feel like stretching a little bit right now."

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Daily 10/19-10/25 (see Showtimes for times), Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2600 or siskelfilmcenter.org. Swanberg will participate in a Q & A following the 10/24 and 10/25 screenings.

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