'VHS': Joe Swanberg talks horror anthology
If you’re looking for a horror movie which features a doomed house break-in, a doomed night of drunken revelry, a doomed second honeymoon, a doomed walk in the woods, a doomed long distance relationship, and a doomed attempt to attend a Halloween party, then look no further than V/H/S (actually, there’s little point looking anywhere else). This Sundance-screened, found footage anthology film, which is currently available on VOD and debuts to cinemas tomorrow was directed by, amongst others, Ti West (The Innkeepers), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell The Dead), and Joe Swanberg, who also stars in West’s sequence.
The fact that Swanberg did double duty on the project is doubly surprising given that the filmmaker, although very prolific, is something of a newbie to the ways of terror cinema. “I’m somebody who’s been working completely outside the horror genre,” he admits. “But I’m actually friends with, and have collaborated with, a lot of people who make horror movies. So I’ve been kind of been itching to be involved with something for a really long time.” Swanberg is a leading light of the so-called “mumblecore” group of low budget filmmakers whose two best known members — Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig — both appeared in the director’s 2007 film Hannah Takes The Stairs. But Swanberg seems to be making up for lost time horror-wise. He is one of the stars of the forthcoming genre film You’re Next, which was made by another of the V/H/S directors, Adam Wingard. “I play one of the children in this family which is being terrorized by masked man,” he says of the project.
Below, Swanberg talks about his involvement with V/H/S — both behind and in front of the camera — and why boxing a film critic is not something to take lightly.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In preparation for this interview I rewatched the V/H/S segment you directed — “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” — and made the horrible mistake of doing so while eating lunch. It really should come with a warning: “Don’t watch while consuming food.”
JOE SWANBERG: I like that. We should put it on the posters.
I interviewed Ti West a while back and he basically said that one of the main reasons he agreed to direct his V/H/S segment “Second Honeymoon” (in which a couple are stalked by person or persons unknown while on a road trip) was so he would go on a paid vacation with you.
Well, it was a working vacation. But it was pretty great. I’ve had difficult experiences making movies and V/H/S was not one of them. I feel the producers picked a lot of really great people to collaborate with and everybody seemed to have the right, fun attitude about their segments. Yeah, it was really cool and especially with Ti’s [segment] it was great because he cast Sophia Takal to act in the movie with me. She and I are friends and we’ve worked together on a bunch of movies. So there was automatically a shorthand there.
The two of you do make for a very convincing couple.
Yeah, totally. I think we knew exactly how to play that. We know each other well enough to know how to push each other’s buttons. Sophia’s actually getting married this weekend and tomorrow I’m flying to her wedding.
Did you volunteer to direct her wedding video?
Uh, no. Thankfully, I’m just going to go, have fun, and not have to touch any cameras.
The segment you directed — in which Helen Rogers plays a young woman investigating what appears to be a paranormal phenomenon in her apartment — is told entirely via the medium of Skype. Watching it, I couldn’t work out whether that would be easier or a hundred times harder than filming the story in a more conventional fashion.
It was in some sense really easy because there weren’t a million camera setups which is great. The trouble was, we really had to choreograph these sequences because Helen’s acting and she’s also functioning as the camera operator. She’s moving through the apartment and we had to light and think about audio in a 360 degree way. So we had to put the microphone on the base of the computer but out of range of the camera so as she walked around we were getting good audio of her and then we had to light in such a way that she could move through the whole space without seeing any light stands or things like that. It was really fun once we got going but each scene with movement required a couple of hours of setup before we could get rolling.
There’s a scene in which Emily starts digging into her arm with first a scalpel and then some sort of large barbecue fork which may actually be the most gruesome sequence in the entire movie.
Oh, totally. We worked with a special effects guy called Lino Stavole (The Mist, Grindhouse). I think he’s a genius. It was important to me to do practical effects. I always feel like, even if they don’t look perfect, there’s something tangible about a practical effect. So he designed this really great little piece of prosthetic on her arm that she could actually move the thing around in. There’s just something so disgusting about seeing it really disappear into her arm and seeing the skin move up and down and everything. And then we sort of played it for comedy too. Rather than making it this intense horror moment it becomes, for her at least, this very light moment where she’s just curious, which I think it makes it so much grosser.
I don’t want to spoil anything but I felt sorry for her character in a way I very rarely feel about people in horror movies.
I agree with you. I think that is one of the big strengths of (segment writer) Simon Barrett. Emily is such an interesting character and she’s so consistently behaving opposite of the way we’ve come to expect female horror characters to behave. Rather than being terrified by the situation, she’s actually excited and curious about it and feels like it’s an opportunity to help somebody — which then of course makes it so much more sad. It was really exciting to tackle a character like that, who’s the sort of the brave, adventurous one. It’s her boyfriend who’s like, “Hey, get out of there!”
The segment leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Yes. Simon and I worked out the whole mythology but, in the editing, decided what to reveal and what not to reveal. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of room left for you to guess exactly what is going on.
When did you first see the whole of V/H/S put together?
I didn’t see the movie until it premiered at Sundance. My first viewing of it was with an audience, when it was way too late to make any changes. [Laughs] But actually that was really liberating for me. I did the work on mine then it was really fun to get to watch the move with the audience and to also be surprised by what was going on.
Next: “When the bell sounded I went in swinging”
I have to confess I read this on Wikipedia, but is it true you directed 7 movies in 2011?
It’s true. Well, they came out in 2011. I made them all in 2010. I was having a Roger Corman moment. We found out my wife was pregnant in February and I felt like, after the baby was born, I could still edit from home but it would be a lot harder to shoot movies. So I had this moment where I was like, “Well, maybe I’ll just shoot a lot of stuff between now and the baby coming and then I’ll slowly edit those movies over the next couple of years.” In fact, I just shot and edited them all really quickly and then I had all these movies on my hands. It was a strange year. In January, I had a movie called Uncle Kent at Sundance and then two weeks later I had two movies in Berlin and then one of those movies was at SXSW and then another one opened theatrically at the end of April. It was a very schizophrenic couple of months. In a way, they all sort of got abandoned by me. They’re like my little orphans because I just didn’t have the time or energy to nurture any of them out in to the world. So I am not making that many movies anymore.
At the recent Fantastic Fest in Austin, Tx., you took part in one of the annual FF “debates,” during which you verbally sparred with and then actually boxed a critic named Devin Faraci (The subject of the debate was: “Mumblecore is cats— and is giving a bad name to independent films”). These events are usually tongue-in-cheek affairs but I understand this particular encounter turned into a more serious duel.
It was tongue-in-cheek for me. I fear it became less tongue-in-cheek for the other guy. It was great. Devin and I talked and joked beforehand and also we talked and joked afterwards.
I don’t want to press the point, but from the footage I saw there didn’t seem to be a lot of talking and joking when you got in the ring.
No. But I had never been to Fantastic Fest before. So I was like, “We’re actually supposed to box, right?” And Tim (League, president of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of cinemas) was like, “Yes, I keep wanting people to actually fight and no one ever does.” So, uh, when the bell sounded, I went in swinging.
Have you considered calling Uwe Boll and forming some kind of UFC directorial tag team?
That’s kind of a great idea. That may be a project in the future.
You recently directed a film called Drinking Buddies. I don’t want to say it sounds like a “step up” for you. But given the cast includes Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, and Ron Livingston, it seems like something which could potentially get a much bigger audience than some of your previous movies.
I hope so. One thing that I’ve discovered over the years is that one of the ways that people see movies is through actors that they like and have seen in other movies.
I could have told you that.
But here’s the thing: When I fell in love with filmmaking and got into independent films, the movies that I was seeing didn’t have famous people in them. That didn’t used to be a prerequisite for getting people to see your independent film. In the time that I’ve been making movies, I’ve really seen that change as Hollywood actors have started doing more and more tiny budget movies. So it’s an adjustment I’ve been forced to consider.
But I took my time as well because I really wanted to build a body of work first so that when I did a movie like Drinking Buddies there was a precedent set for the way I worked and how that collaboration would go. So it ended up being a really amazing experience. It actually felt good doing a movie of that size and I’m kind of excited to do more of them.
Some readers may not have seen any of your films. What’s the best Joe Swanberg starter movie?
I would say Uncle Kent is probably the easiest one to see — because it’s on Netflix Instant — and a good place to jump in. Hannah Takes The Stairs continues to be one that people are watching and connecting with. Also, in the meantime, Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass have become famous actors. I was saying that it’s easier to get people to see your movies if they have famous people in them. It’s also easier to get people to see your movies if your non-famous friends become famous in the interim.
You can check out the trailers for V/H/S, Hannah Takes The Stairs, and Uncle Kent below.