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It may not be revolutionary to note that twentysomethings are different from thirtysomethings, but in director Joe Swanberg’s latest, Happy Christmas, he takes that idea to the next level when Anna Kendrick’s hard-partying Jenny moves in with her brother (Swanberg), his wife (Melanie Lynskey), and their young child.
Though Jenny might neglect responsibility at every turn, her presence actually helps Kelly (Lynskey) confront the state of her own artistic aspirations, allowing Swanberg to explore the very real tensions that emerge when one party in the relationship takes on the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. “I’m excited about the feminist issues that the movie tackles. I hope especially women come to the movie and see something that they relate to and that it gets husbands and wives talking about what those family roles are and maybe how to make them work for both people,” Swanberg told EW in a conversation about the intensely personal film and his fascination with all different varieties of female characters.
Check out the Q&A after the jump.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: From Hannah Takes the Stairs to Drinking Buddies to Happy Christmas, you seem to have a particular empathy toward your female characters, which is, unfortunately somewhat of a rarity for male filmmakers. Why are you drawn to these stories?
JOE SWANBURG: I think in general it’s because I’m curious. I try to make films to learn something about the world. I feel like I can bring my own male life experience to that, but I don’t know at all what it’s like to be a woman so when I start thinking for ideas for movies, I think I’m drawn to that. Because of the way that I work — I improvise the films and the actors bring a lot to it — it’s really a chance to collaborate with women and have them speak with their own voices and bring a lot of their own concerns to the project.
Your earlier films really homed in on the experience of being a twentysomething. Anna Kendrick takes on that stage of life here as Jenny — with somewhat messy results. Is it more difficult to empathize with that age group as you get older?
I don’t think so. I haven’t fallen victim to crotchety old man syndrome yet. But I think it’s a really challenging time to be in your 20s. The economy is a lot different from what it was 10 years ago when I was going through this stuff. I’m pretty sympathetic to that. But culturally you’re sort of allowed this extended adolescence, so it’s really up to the individual to chart that path for themselves. You’re kind of allowed to be pretty deep into your 30s and to still be kicking around and figuring it out. But I know that’s also frustrating to a lot of people. Hopefully with Happy Christmas we’re kind of exploring those issues without being too judgmental one way or another.
That idea is particularly frustrating to Melanie Lynskey’s character Kelly, who, as a responsible mom is sort of the polar opposite of Jenny. Can you talk about her role and the relationship between your character and hers?
Her role is really autobiographical and based on my wife. The struggle that her character and my character are dealing with is one of being in a household with two artists and how that gets complicated when you have a child. Some of that stuff breaks down along gender lines and some of that has to do with practicalities, but in the movie, Melanie and my character find ourselves in the position where I can make more money than she can so it makes most sense for me to work and for her to stay home with the kid. In terms of my own relationship it was really challenging for my wife to identify with the role of being a stay-at-home mom and what that meant. She thought of herself as an entrepreneur and a filmmaker and an independent person, and trying to wrap her head around that identity of being a stay-at-home mom was really complicated. It’s really hard not only to do it, but to attempt to fit in with all the cultural pressure that’s placed on women right now to “have it all.” To be great moms, but also to work. Melanie was really able to get into that. She really perfectly captures a lot of that conflict.
Was it awkward for you and your wife to explore these issues on film?
She was really collaborative on it. She talked to Melanie a lot and really helped her figure out who that character was. But also, I mean, she looks at cuts of my movies and she’s a filmmaker as well, so she’s really helpful in a lot of other ways too. But, yeah, it’s complicated. Like anything, it’s embarrassing to expose yourself and these complications. With this movie, we shot in our own house. Our son Jude plays Melanie and my kid in the movie. It’s just really personal. But both my wife and I have attempted in our filmmaking to use our life as an example, and hopefully by being specific about it, we can get at some universal things and talk about things that other people are going through. It just makes the world seem a little smaller and more comforting in a way. From the very beginning, I wanted the movies to ideally function in that way where, if I talked about the things that were embarrassing to talk about or difficult to talk about, it may, in some way, make life a little easier for someone else. I know that’s kind of grandiose-sounding.
Your next film, Digging for Fire, features an all-star cast of Swanberg regulars, including Kendrick, Lynskey, Jake Johnson, and Ron Livingston. Can you tell us anything about this one?
I’m editing it now. I don’t know quite what to say about it yet because it’s improvised, so I’m still figuring out exactly what it is, but Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt star in it, and again, it’s about a married couple with a child, and I think it’s a love story about the complications but also the joys of being married to somebody and raising a child with that person.
Happy Christmas also stars Lena Dunham (Swanberg’s longtime friend) and Mark Webber. It hits theaters July 25 and will be available on VOD starting July 26.