'Easy': Joe Swanberg on making a TV show for everyone
Joe Swanberg — the filmmaker behind Happy Christmas, Drinking Buddies, and many more mumblecore features — took a break from movies to make Easy, a new Netflix anthology series focused on a new romantic situation each episode with the help of a stellar cast: The stacked lineup includes Orlando Bloom, Malin Åkerman, Marc Maron, Emily Ratajkowski, Kiersey Clemons, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jake Johnson, Aya Cash, Dave Franco, and Hannibal Buress, among others.
“I wanted to make a show that I felt like could always keep up with where I was at and that was flexible enough to stay interesting to me,” Swanberg tells EW. “And then, hopefully, that would allow the show to stay interesting to an audience. That meant telling a lot of different stories.”
Known for his improv-heavy films, Swanberg — who also recently directed an episode of fellow Netflix series Love — employed a similar approach on the set of Easy: Each episode began with a paragraph-long summary of what was going to happen, and then he and the actors worked together to create specifics like dialogue and character outlines. What resulted are eight episodes with varying styles that tackle the many aspects of modern sex and relationships.
See the trailer for Easy — debuting on Netflix Sept. 22 — below, and read on to see what Swanberg had to say about adapting his methods to television, how he landed on the show’s name, and why this is the kind of show he’d sit down and watch.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to make a TV show?
JOE SWANBERG: I sort of started with all the things I didn’t like about TV, and then landed upon something that I felt I could do that was close to the movies, really. Sort of approaching a season of TV like I would approach making eight different films and building this world. Creating these stories that overlap and connect in these small ways, and starting to think about approaching TV almost like Boyhood or the Seven Up! documentary series — introducing characters in this short form and then coming back in the subsequent seasons and checking back in on them and a year has passed, and we’re not really sure what has happened in the meantime. Maybe the effect of multiple seasons of this would be a deeper, more interesting use of the long-term television format than choosing a couple of lead characters and following them for a few seasons.
Can you talk more about what you don’t like about TV?
I guess it’s less what I don’t like about it, and more what I don’t connect to as a filmmaker. Coming from features, I like starting a project, telling the story, and then finishing that project. I was always really afraid of the open-endedness of television because I haven’t ever had characters who I have wanted to spend six or seven years telling their story. I looked around at a lot of shows and felt like TV insists that you keep following these characters even if you’re changing as a creative storyteller or even if those characters are maybe increasingly uninteresting to you. In that kind of network sitcom space, a lot of the time these characters are not able to change and develop so you end up with characters who start out as roommates in their mid 20s and 10 years later you’re still watching this shows where all these people in these mid 30s are still living together because the show demands it, and you’re kind of like, “What is going on right now?” [Laughs]
How was making a TV show different from making a film?
I wanted the show to have the same kind of relaxed feel as my movies, so a lot of things stayed the same. I worked with the same crew and shot the show in Chicago, which is where I’ve done a lot of the work, but there was just the kind of realities of the production that were different because each of these episodes has a different cast. I would bring a bunch of people into Chicago on a Sunday, we would shoot all week, and then they would leave on a Saturday, and then the next day a whole different cast would come in. It was kind of schizophrenic sometimes because we were reinventing the wheel each time out. Every story was approached with its own visual look, with its own vibe. Some are more funny than others, and all the casts have different acting methods. It was a whole new challenge, but I would say that I tried to bring everything that I learned from the movies into the TV show.
How did you decide what order you would put the episodes in?
I worked with Netflix to talk through an order we felt would provide a nice emotional arc but also keep things interesting so that we were spotlighting the differences between the different storylines. I wanted it to feel, if you were going to watch it in that order, like a season of television. But I also wanted to create a show that you could come to in any order, really. I wanted to make something that maybe somebody could just pop in for a couple episodes because there’s an actor they like in it or one of the stories feels like its resonates. I have two kids and I work a lot and my wife is a filmmaker also and I wanted to make a show that I would actually watch. I was noticing that typically by the time we get the kids to bed and finish up our work for the day, we don’t have a ton of time left at night to watch a movie or get into a season of TV. I thought it would be fun to make a show where there was no strong running storyline from one to the next, you really could just dip in and out of the series.
Tell me about deciding on the show’s name.
It was a long process. [Laughs] I didn’t want to pick a name. One of the things that I said to Netflix early on was that I had a few ideas but I wanted to make the whole season before we locked something in. “Easy” was a word that I really loved. I just love how it looks and how it sounds. There are the sort of sexual connotations to the word “easy” that I liked, but it didn’t limit the show to be just a show about sex or relationships. I was looking for something that would be an interesting title but that wouldn’t lock the show into any particular thing because, ideally, if I can do this for a long time, the show’s gonna cover all kinds of topics that will have nothing to do with technically season 1-type stuff. “Easy” to me felt big and open, like the show still had permission to change and be whatever it wanted it to be.
Is there one episode you’re most excited for people to see?
There’s a few of them that I think are particularly relevant right now so I’m excited just because they’re kind of landing in the culture at a moment that’s pretty interesting. One of the episodes stars Marc Maron and Emily Ratajkowski and it’s kind of about the selfie generation, and the difference between art and life and privacy — a lot of things that i’m thinking quite a bit about these days. One of the episodes starts Aislinn Derbez and Mauricio Ochmann, who are Mexican actors, and Raúl Castillo, who’s a Mexican-American actor. That episode’s all in Spanish. We set it in this neighborhood called Pilsen, which has a big Mexican population. It’s still improvised, but all the dialogues in Spanish and subtitled in English. What’s exciting to me is they all feel to me like they’re for different audiences. I would hope that somebody who sat down and watched the show would like all eight of them, but they’re really stylistically different and formally different. I suppose I was more after making one episode that everybody could love and hopefully you like the others as well.
If you had to pick one word to describe the show, what word would that be?
Accessible. [Laughs] I sort of say that jokingly, but I also did think a lot about it. I’ve made a lot of films over the years, and some of them have felt really fun and kind of easy to check out and others of them are really rigorous and very much feel like they’re for a kind of closed-circuit art house audience. But with this show, I really wanted to make something that was open and accessible for an audience to kind of come in and, as a filmmaker, I realized that above all else, I really want to communicate with people. I want the work to be engaged in a dialogue with the audience, not so much a monologue just coming from me.