In a recent interview with Moviemaker Magazine, Chicago’s trailblazing indie auteur Joe Swanberg was praised by writer Sean Hood for creating a “sustainable production model” based on creative tribalism. The ever-growing network Swanberg has forged with invaluable industry collaborators has eventually led him to attract the attention of mainstream stars, a few of whom populate his latest feature, “Happy Christmas,” debuting in his hometown this weekend. It’s no wonder why Hollywood actors are lining up to work with Swanberg. The creative freedom he grants his performers is a refreshing alternative to the increasing rigidity found in studio blockbusters.
In honor of his latest slice of life, starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, and Swanberg’s own scene-stealing toddler, Jude, Indie Outlook takes a look back at seven great scenes from the 33-year-old filmmaker’s remarkably prolific career.
“Kissing on the Mouth” (2005)
The scene: Ellen (Kate Winterich) drives down the highway as dusk falls. She listens to the raw audio stolen from her roommate (Swanberg), who interviewed various other twentysomethings about their relationships.
Why it’s great: The interviews are real, and their insights give voice to many of the conflicted emotions left unmentioned by the often inarticulate characters onscreen. It’s a mesmerizing storytelling device.
“Hannah Takes the Stairs” (2007)
The scene: Hannah (Greta Gerwig) opens up to her new budding flame, Matt (Kent Osborne), about her insecurities, poignantly quoting Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” by observing, “I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me.”
Why it’s great: Swanberg keeps his camera focused on Gerwig as she delivers this quietly stunning, effortlessly authentic monologue, and makes her a star in the process. She went on to receive a well-deserved Golden Globe nod for her work in Noah Baumbach’s exquisite “Frances Ha.”
“Nights and Weekends” (2008)
The scene: The final, excruciating attempts made by estranged lovers James (Swanberg) and Mattie (Gerwig) to reignite their intimacy. It’s especially shattering when contrasted with the opening scene, where the couple doffs their clothes while practically devouring one another.
Why it’s great: A sublime example of how Swanberg explores character psychology through the language of sexuality. The physicality and ambivalent behavior of his characters express so much more than words could ever adequately convey.
“The Zone” (2011)
The scene: Three friends (played by real-life roommates Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Kate Lyn Sheil) stage a threesome for a film directed by Swanberg, and find that their real emotions of lust and jealousy cannot be suppressed.
Why it’s great: This deeply provocative experimental meditation was one of three pictures (“Silver Bullets” and “Art History” being the others) in which Swanberg actively questioned his own filmmaking techniques and whether or not they proved to be detrimental to his participants. The final self-reflexive sequence shows Swanberg enduring the post-screening critiques of his real-life wife, Kris, before putting his son, Jude, to sleep, thus suggesting that he’s entering a new phase of his life and career.
“Marriage Material” (2012)
The scene: A longtime couple (Kentucker Audley and Caroline White) ask each other much-belated questions triggered by their experience babysitting their friends’ child. Suddenly, their future together appears uncertain.
Why it’s great: My favorite scene in Swanberg’s entire oeuvre, this brilliantly written and acted two-hander is every bit as hypnotic and dramatically satisfying as the conversation between a prisoner and priest in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” Captured in a prolonged take interrupted only by a cutaway to dangling photos of the lovers, each contained in their own separate frame, this deceptively simple sequence displays Swanberg’s impeccable ear for naturalistic dialogue, as well as his assured command of tone.
“Uncle Kent” (2011) and “All the Light in the Sky” (2012)
The scene: These two films are paired here since they work as an ideal double bill, each centering on the lives of middle-aged loners in LA and their awkward stabs at romance. While Kent (Osborne) finds his advances deflected by his would-be love interest (Josephine Decker), Jane (Jane Adams) gets hit on by a smitten pal (Larry Fessenden).
Why it’s great: The scenes occur late in the films, and both deftly demonstrate how role-playing can be used as both a shield and a bridge in relationships. Decker confirms her disinterest in Osborne by reverting into a childish persona, imitating cats for her own amusement. Fessenden seduces Adams (and the audience) with his spot-on Jack Nicholson impressions with the hope that they will win her affection. It’s debatable whether they did, but I’ll admit that Nicholson never sounded better.
“Drinking Buddies” (2013)
The scene: Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston), find themselves instinctively drawn to one another, despite the fact that they each have significant others, and end up sharing a kiss during an impromptu picnic in the woods.
Why it’s great: Swanberg cements his status here as a master craftsman: the acting, writing, pacing, framing and direction of this single-take scene is utter perfection, boding well for his future evolution as a filmmaker.
“Happy Christmas” opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, July 25th. Purchase tickets to a special 7pm screening (preceded with beer samples at 6pm from Revolution Brewing and followed by a Q&A with the director) at the Music Box’s official site.