With the release of his 15th feature, the star-studded romantic comedy, “Drinking Buddies,” this past summer, it’s clear that the Windy City’s micro-budget auteur, Joe Swanberg, has succeeded in working on a bigger budget while keeping his artistic integrity and improv-based naturalism entirely intact. Yet that doesn’t mean he hasn’t stopped making smaller-scale labors of love as well. The day after Thanksgiving, Swanberg’s latest exquisitely textured character portrait, “All the Light in the Sky,” opens for a week-long run at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago. The film features a marvelous performance by Jane Adams (of “Happiness” fame) as a 45-year-old LA actress whose career has yet to catch fire, and has deservedly garnered the director some of the best reviews of his career.
Indie Outlook spoke with Swanberg about his longtime friendship and collaboration with Adams, his love of Bernard Rose’s under-seen 2000 drama, “Ivansxtc,” and his unforgettable role in Zack Clark’s comedy, “White Reindeer,” which is set for a December release in Chicago.
Q: How did you and Jane first meet?
A: We met through doing “Alexander the Last.” That was a situation where we were only able to work together for a few days, but we both immediately felt like we had a good working relationship. We made each other laugh and thought it would be really fun to expand our friendship into something bigger. It was within a few hours of meeting Jane that we started talking about the project that became “All the Light in the Sky,” but we didn’t know at the time that it would be several years until we actually got around to making it.
When she got cast on “Hung,” she moved from New York to Los Angeles to do the show. We kept in touch through e-mail, and whenever I was in LA, we’d hang out. In the meantime, we worked on “Silver Bullets” over the course of a few years. The original seed of our idea was Jane’s observation that all the guys she broke up with in their 20s—because they didn’t want to get married and have kids—were now all married with kids in their 40s. We both thought that was an interesting starting point for a movie, and kept fleshing it out and coming back to it. When it looked like HBO wasn’t going to do a fourth season of “Hung,” we got back in touch and felt like that was the moment to make our movie.
Q: What attracted you to make a film about a woman grappling with middle age?
A: I think actors keep getting more interesting as they get older. Over the course of my career, I’m intending on having my characters grow up with me. I hope that when I’m in my 50s, the characters in my movies are in their 50s. Everything becomes more rich and interesting. It’s a shame to me that, culturally speaking, we value youth as much as we do, not that it’s not interesting, but we’re wasting our valuable resources, which is one of the bigger themes of “All the Light in the Sky.”
We make a comparison between this actress who’s middle aged and the sun, which is a middle-aged star as well. We have the environmental movement tied in with this idea that by not utilizing these talented actors who’ve gained so much insight and wisdom in their career, we’re wasting valuable natural resources. I hope the movie gets people thinking about how we can learn from these people by utilizing the skill sets that they’ve spent their entire lives developing.
Q: How did LA-based solar engineer David Siskind become cast in the film?
A: David’s never been in a film before. He is the uncle of Helen Rogers, the actress who was in my “V/H/S” segment [“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”] and is also one the leads in my new film, “24 Exposures,” which will be coming out in January. When we were shooting “V/H/S,” Helen was staying with David, so when I would go to pick her up, I would have conversations with him. I was fascinated not only by his career, but also by his life. He was going through a divorce and had older children and seemed willing to share that and talk openly about it.
I thought it would be so fascinating to take a solar engineer who’s emotionally vulnerable and put him with a professional actor as skilled as anyone working today. I knew Jane would be as fascinated by David as I was, and that we would get all of this interesting material. I could’ve put 30 minutes in the movie just of David talking about solar engineering. As you know from having seen my earlier films, I still consider myself a bit of a documentarian. I’m probably always going to opt for a real person talking about real things than a more structured dramatic scenario or “acting with a capital A.” David’s involvement was also a way for me to ground the film in reality by using his real name and allowing him to portray himself.
Q: Sophia Takal is an inspired choice to play Jane’s niece, partly because their resemblance to one another is uncanny.
A: I think Sophia is an amazing actor, and there was some suspicion on my part that she and Jane would not only get along and work well together but that they could believably play women from the same family. Women are so under-represented as subject matter in all of the arts, period. In film, we have many famous actresses, but they aren’t necessarily the leads of most movies. Throughout my career, I’ve always been drawn towards strong central female characters, and if there’s more than one of them in a movie, that’s even better.
Q: What sort of structure did you and Jane work within to create the script?
A: It’s a structure that we built together over our collaborations. To me, it felt like shooting that movie was the most natural thing in the world. We didn’t need to talk about it because we had been building to that point for three years by the time we finally got around to making it. It was a very easy, natural collaboration in the development of the outline and the writing, and especially as a director and actor. Our tastes and aesthetics are so aligned that we’re automatically drawn to the same sense of humor and same mysterious kind of emotional [material]. It was easy to find out what felt right and what didn’t.
Kent Osborne and Larry Fessenden and Sophia and Ti [West] all share those aesthetics with me as well. I’m not saying that Jane and I are on some secret wavelength. Potentially, you get to the point where you’re making your best work by surrounding yourself with people who are interested in the same things. You’re all moving in the same direction at the same time. I’ve been lucky to meet those collaborators and thankfully they continue to want to work with me so that we can go a little deeper each time.
Q: Kent’s character in “All the Light in the Sky” is highly evocative of his titular role as the middle-aged cartoonist in your 2011 film, “Uncle Kent.”
A: It’s not accidental at all. I was very much hoping to draw those comparisons, even though we give Kent a different name in the movie. I think of “Uncle Kent” and “All the Light in the Sky” as companion pieces in a lot of ways. They both look at how the industry works from the perspective of people working within it, and it’s obviously very different for men than it is for women. Even though Kent is “playing” Kent Osborne in “Uncle Kent,” he’s still playing a character. It’s not exactly the person you’d meet if you met him. We’re playing around with the idea of that character in “All the Light in the Sky.” Men are allowed to age in a very different way, and the insecurities that start to creep in during one’s middle age years are handled very differently by both genders. It was fun to bring Kent in and have him play the same character, thus marrying those projects together.
Q: The score by Orange Mighty Trio beautifully conveys Jane’s inner life that is rarely expressed in her dialogue.
A: I had worked with them on “Silver Bullets,” and one of the band members, Mike Vasich, is an old friend of mine. Our backyards butted up against each other when I was in high school, so we had known each other for a really long time. When I’ve worked with them, we’ve always started from music that already existed and then altered or expanded upon it. My wife, Kris, has had a different collaboration with them. They’ve almost always created brand new music for her, but for me, it’s always been useful to start that process by plugging in stuff that they already had made and then work with them from there. In the case of “Silver Bullets,” we started with a theme that already existed, and then they created several other pieces as variations on that theme. The first time I heard their music, it was instantly cinematic to me. Their music has always conjured images and felt like it was doing some storytelling of its own.
Q: In Robert K. Elder’s new book, “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” you discuss your love of Danny Huston’s work in “Ivansxtc.” How did that performance influence your own approach to working with actors?
A: Seeing that performance was a big moment for me. Up until that point, I had a really different idea of what acting was and who my favorite actors were. Seeing that movie gave me a real world example of how it could feel emotionally and what it would look like to go to those levels [of authenticity]. “Ivansxtc” is a very operatic film. Danny Huston’s performance seems at odds with the rest of the movie, which is so broad and soap opera-like. At the center of it, you have this incredibly grounded performance, and I thought, “What if every performance in the film felt like that?”
When I got out of film school, I thought that I was going to make documentaries, and then accidentally became a narrative filmmaker again. I wondered what it be like if I took the things I liked the most about documentaries—the chance to spend an hour and a half with a real person—and try to shape a narrative around it, while still allowing the audience to spend time with real people, or at least with a loosely artificial version of those real people. Hopefully with “Uncle Kent” or “All the Light in the Sky,” you get the essence of that person if not the reality of that person.
Q: You have a key role in Zach Clark’s acclaimed comedy “White Reindeer,” opening next month at the Siskel Center.
A: I’ve been a fan of Zach’s work for five or six years now. I knew him through working on Aaron Katz’s movies. He edited Aaron’s first movie, “Dance Party USA,” and was a part of that North Carolina School of the Arts crew. So when he called and asked me to read for it, I was thrilled. My character, in a way, is playing off the image that I’ve created through my own work, which is often explicitly sexual and focused on sexuality, so getting the chance to play this suburban swinger was really fun to me. I also love the character because he’s so sweet. His unusual sexual lifestyle wasn’t viewed in the film as corrupt or wrong or gross. He and his wife are a happy, functioning couple that have found a way to incorporate a less-than-normal sex life into their relationship. It was an exciting chance for me to put that onscreen, as opposed to making this couple the butt of a joke or a dark, morally corrupting influence.
I only worked on the movie for two days, but it was a great experience. Lydia Johnson [credited as Lydia Hyslop in the film], the actress who plays my wife, is amazing. I had seen her in Zach’s movie, “Vacation!,” and thought she was incredible. After “White Reindeer,” I cast her in “24 Exposures.” It’s also no secret that the star, Anna Margaret Hollyman, is a great actress, and I knew that I would get to work with her too. Having my own indie Christmas movie [“Happy Christmas”] that I’m finishing up right now, Zach and I joke about starting our own wave of indie holiday movies. You’ll be able to put an entire program of them together in the next few years.
Q: The person I’m most excited to see in “Happy Christmas” is Melanie Lynskey, another phenomenally talented, severely underutilized actress.
A: She’s very good in it. You won’t be disappointed.
“All the Light in the Sky” screens at Facets Cinematheque from Friday, Nov. 29, through Thursday, Dec. 5th. Joe Swanberg will be present for a Q&A after the 7pm screening on Saturday, Nov. 30th. “White Reindeer” screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday, Dec. 13th through Thursday, Dec. 19th.