SXSW 2011: Joe Swanberg shines his 'Silver Bullets'
No filmmaker has come to embody the scrappy micro-indie, do-it-yourself side of the South by Southwest Film Festival quite so fully as Joe Swanberg. His movies, including "Hannah Takes the Stairs," "Nights and Weekends" and "Alexander the Last," all made noteworthy premieres here, and their handheld, improvisatory style typified a certain type of Digital Age independent filmmaking. His new film, a harrowing tale of personal jealousy and artistic anguish called "Silver Bullets," had its premiere North American screenings at this year's festival, and it seems the South By kid is taking big steps toward growing up.
"Silver Bullets" took some 2 1/2 years of on-and-off shooting to create. After making "Alexander the Last," which premiered at SXSW in 2009, the Chicago-based Swanberg found himself at a creative crossroads. After abandoning another project, Swanberg assembled a small cast and simply started shooting. Though his previous films had been noted for their loosely structured storytelling, this was something different.
"As I've made more work, I think it's been easier for me to work with actors without a script at all," said Swanberg during a post-screening Q&A on Monday night. " 'Silver Bullets,' I would say, is the most improvised of anything I've ever made because we started shooting without even an idea of what the film would be other than I know the people that I wanted to work with. So we tried a bunch of false starts and different paths until we accumulated enough material that it started to make sense.
"The writing developed out of the shooting, and there was never anything on the written page that I gave anybody. It was through phone calls and e-mails and things like that."
The movie centers on a young actress who is cast in a low-budget horror film. (She's played by Kate Lyn Sheil, who is one of the breakout actresses of this year's festival, thanks also to her role in "Green," an understated tale of pastoral paranoia.) The director of that low-budget horror film (Ti West, director of "The Innkeepers" also playing SXSW) seems to have amorous designs on her, which sets her boyfriend (Swanberg) into a spiral of jealousy and self-doubt. Framed lightly around a werewolf horror story, the slight tinge of psycho-sexual genre storytelling makes "Silver Bullets," despite its free-form origins, feel like Swanberg's most cohesively structured film.
(And if there was ever any doubt of the inter-connectedness of Swanberg's universe, at the film's first screening Sunday night there was nearly a full row of friends and collaborators who represented easily more than a half-dozen films in SXSW this year alone.)
Having come out of a creative torpor that for a time impeded his ability to make films, Swanberg, still not yet 30, is now in the midst of a bracing run of work. His film "Uncle Kent" premiered at Sundance, "Silver Bullets" premiered along with "Art History" in Berlin, he has another film already finished and has shot material to be edited into three more. Altogether, Swanberg is on pace to finish a staggering seven films this year.
Throughout "Silver Bullets," the character played by Swanberg, a maker of low-budget art films, expresses creative doubts, claiming to be searching for "new forms" with which to express himself. Seeing both his personal life and artistic practice crumble around him, at one point he earnestly asks, "Is the work enough?"
"I would say almost every word that I say in the movie was exactly how I felt at the time," Swanberg noted, "which is a little weird to watch now because it seems very whiny, and I don't feel that way anymore. It's like an embarrassing time capsule of me ranting about a bunch of stuff that I don't even believe anymore. But as I was going through it I was in a weird, deep hurting kind of place."
In setting the film amid a world of actresses and filmmakers, Swanberg decided to use "Silver Bullets" to directly address past criticisms of his work, including claims of a predatory sexuality, an emotional self-involvement and even technical issues of how he uses the camera. Even while adding layers of self-referencing psychodrama, Swanberg wanted the film to unravel the fake emotions and real feelings that go into his filmmaking.
"One of the accusations that comes at me a lot is that I'm making movies as a chance to make out with hot actresses," said Swanberg. "And so the thing is, critics are leveling that against me and what my movies are about, so I figured if I'm going to get accused of that I might as well make a movie that's about that, so at least there's a reason to have that conversation. Why don't we just make it about us, about a low-budget filmmaker dealing with his issues?"
— Mark Olsen in Austin, Texas
Photo: Joe Swanberg and Kate Lyn Sheil in "Silver Bullets." Photo credit: Joe Swanberg.