Can Joe Swanberg Make Mumblecore Sexy?August 24, 2011

Can Joe Swanberg Make Mumblecore Sexy?

IFC Films

On Demand Weekly's VOD Spotlight highlights stories from the On Demand industry. Chris Claro interviews director Joe Swanberg about his film AUTOEROTIC (IFC Films). Read our review of the film too here.


Can Joe Swanberg Make Mumblecore Sexy?
On Demand Weekly’s Chris Claro talks to
auteur of AUTOEROTIC and mumblecore poster boy.

The handheld aesthetic, improv dynamic, and no-gloss shooting style that permeated the work of John Cassavetes has seen a resurgence in the last five years through the work of such writer/directors as Andrew Bujalski (MUTUAL APPRECIATION) and the Duplass Brothers (THE PUFFY CHAIR, CYRUS). Practitioners of the style known as “Mumblecore” – so dubbed by a sound mixer who couldn’t hear the actors’ dialogue – the filmmakers either strip their movies of pretense – or lard them with it, depending on who you ask.



In 2005, the same year Bujalski and the Duplasses came to South by Southwest with their films, Joe Swanberg brought KISSING ON THE MOUTH, his mumblecore work, to the festival. A graduate of Southern Illinois University, Swanberg had been an aspiring documentarian, “But when I thought about making my first movie, I wanted to make a narrative film,” Swanberg says. Utilizing doc techniques to tell a fictional story, Swanberg cut his actors loose. “I let them totally I improvise and just try to catch moments as they happen.”

In his latest film AUTOEROTIC, Swanberg teamed with co-director Adam Wingard for a disquieting quartet of stories about sex and relationships. “Adam had done a similar project where he made four films on a similar topic,” Swanberg relates. “I liked the structure of it and the idea of getting actors to tell these disparate stories.




“Adam makes horror films and my work is more about relationships,” says the filmmaker, “so we wondered what would happen if we married his sensibilities with mine.” When Wingard and Swanberg connected, they set out “to make something weird, and something that inhabits this creepy space between horror and sex comedy.”

AUTOEROTIC fills that space with a tone that swings wildly among the film’s stories, which is just as Wingard and Swanberg planned it. “We had no rules,” says Swanberg. “The movie doesn’t quite inhabit the real-world space, but it also doesn’t fully go off into horror, either.” Swanberg says he and Wingard were inspired by a mixed bag of muses, which included the HBO series TALES FROM THE CRYPT and the soft-core oeuvre of late-night Showtime mainstay Zalman King. “We borrowed the aesthetics of them, but used them in a weird, creepy quasi-comedy.”



“Weird” barely begins to describe AUTOEROTIC which careens from broad comedy to voyeuristic unease as it tells the story of four Chicago couples dealing with various levels of sexual dysfunction. Contextually, it’s a true original, making neither apologies nor excuses for the behavior of its characters and its grungy, home-brewed patina, but it harks back to an era of filmmaking which Swanberg misses.


“We wanted to make a sex comedy for adults,” he says, “which

is something you rarely see anymore. Nowadays, if you have a

movie with a lot of sex in it, it’s either super-dramatic, and awful

and miserable and it’s about a prostitute or something,

or it’s juvenile like AMERICAN PIE."


Joe Swanberg

Embracing the mumblecore ethos, which Swanberg says has none of the rigidity of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, has meant micro budgets (some in the mid-four digits) and shooting schedules of one or two weeks. With improv supplanting an actual screenplay, Swanberg says he saves a lot of time on script writing, a component that can take other filmmakers months to complete. As a result, he can work in a fleet, purposeful manner.


“Usually, when I finish a movie, I’m ready to jump right into the next one, so all I need is the story idea and my cast and we can start shooting the next day.” The fruits of Swanberg’s lean shooting style are evident: “I’ve made thirteen features in the last seven years.”

What Swanberg and his mumblecore brethren seek, it seems, is an authenticity that is lacking in more conventional films that hew to the demands of Hollywood. “We try to capture the a certain vibe,” says Swanberg, “with a loose, rambling nature, and lots of improvisation from first-time, sometimes non-professional, actors.”

The filmmaker’s no-frills sensibility also reveals itself in his refreshingly practical ideas about distribution and exhibition. “A few years ago,” says Swanberg, “we did a day-and-date video-on-demand premiere of my film ALEXANDER THE LAST the same day it was shown at South by Southwest.”


Though many of the other filmmakers at the festival thought Swanberg was squandering an opportunity for his film to get a wider theatrical release, he had no illusions: “I feel like artists can’t be picky these days about how stuff gets out there. There’s so much stuff, the real challenge is just getting people to see your movie at all. If theatrical release is going to be where you focus your energy, it’s going to be a losing battle.”

With AUTOEROTIC, Swanberg and Wingard further the notion that 21st-century filmmaking is an egalitarian venture, a mode of expression open to anyone with an idea and a few shekels. “That’s been the real, true digital revolution. The really important thing that’s happened is that you can make films outside of Hollywood,” Swanberg says. “You can work at a level like me, in Chicago, and have a whole career that didn’t exist fifteen years ago.”



Swanberg is nothing if not a provocateur, and AUTOEROTIC, while never truly sexy, offers its audience an oddball combo of frivolity and frisson. Not unlike certain items on the sexual menu, the film won’t appeal to everyone. But if you want to see what a filmmaker can do with a four-digit budgets, a gang of game actors, and a tweaked perspective, take it all off for AUTOEROTIC.


- Chris Claro

Chris Claro is a contributing writer to On Demand Weekly. He is a former Director of Promotion for Sundance Channel and now works as a writer, producer, and media educator. He is a regular contributor to and contributor to the Eyes and Ears section of


Look for AUTOEROTIC (IFC Films) under your cable system's Movie On Demand section.

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