Young couples often embrace the idea of having children to truly bring them together and bring joy to their lives, but can understandably fret over the unexpected crisis that soon flourish with extending their family. Not only can welcoming a child pose limitations on their creativity for their work, particularly if they’re artists, but it can also put limitations on the mothers’ abilities to successfully balance having a career and raising a family. That at-times difficult process of finding that stability in caring for their young children while also stretching their full potential in their career is relatably explore in filmmaker-actor Joe Swanberg’s latest independent romantic drama, ‘Happy Christmas,’ which was inspired by his own family and career.
‘Happy Christmas’ follows an up-and-coming novelist, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), her film director husband, Jeff (Swanberg) and their two-year-old son, Jude (Jude Swannberg), as they live a peaceful life in Chicago. But when Jeff’s irresponsible younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), moves into their basement after a breakup, the dynamics of their family begin to change.
Jenny, who doesn’t express an interest in contributing around the house, embarks on a rocky romantic relationship with Jude’s babysitter, Kevin (Mark Webber), who’s also a pot dealer. She also reunites and spends time with long-time friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), albeit embarrassing her during a friend’s party the first night she moves in with her brother and his wife. While Jenny also doesn’t express any interest in working, she instigates an evolution in her sister-in-law’s career and marriage by offering to help her write a romance novel. After reuniting with her family and old friends, Jenny learns how to reconnect with loved ones, and undergo a natural, humorous exploration of growth, even though the changes in her demeanor aren’t instantly obvious.
Swanberg generously took the time recently to sit down in New York City to discuss filming ‘Happy Christmas.’ Among other things, the writer-director-actor-producer discussed how the inspiration for the independent comedy-drama came from conversations he had with his real-life wife, Kris, about the pressures she felt about balancing being an artist with being a mother; how it’s exciting to develop projects where he knows he’s going to learn things about the pressures of being a woman, which he feels isn’t explored enough in films and on television; and how he hopes to continue working with such actors as Kendrick, Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, who all appeared in his 2013 romantic drama, ‘Drinking Buddies,’ as directing a cast he’s already familiar with always them to delve into deeper, personal issues quicker and more easily.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new comedy-drama, ‘Happy Christmas,’ and based the presence of having your younger brother move in with you after your wife had your son, Jude. Why did you decide to helm a film that was based on your own personal life experiences?
Joe Swanberg (JS): A lot of the story came from conversations my wife and I were having in our lives. Many of the conversations were about motherhood and pressures she was feeling about being an artist and entrepreneur, as well as being a woman and a great mom. As we were talking about it, it was a conversation I realized I wasn’t seeing on television or in movies, and it felt really essential to me.
So the movie really started with Anna and Melanie being invited into that process, which is usually how I work. I tend to cast pretty early on, and work with the actors. So we talked about those issues when they were first cast. I felt Melanie’s motherhood issues would be most sharply contrasted by a younger woman who was on the flip side of the equation. She theoretically had everything Melanie was missing. Anna had spare time, energy, optimism and excitement, and in Melanie’s mind, Anna’s squandering that. That frustration felt exciting to me.
SY: Why was it also important for you to explore the feminist issue of how becoming parents, especially for women like Kelly, affects their professional lives and identities?
JS: Well, I always want to be making films in a territory where I feel like people aren’t working. I want to continue making stories I’m not really seeing. I’m also really fascinated by women. Their lives are really unexplored in movies, and we don’t get many movies with female characters. So it’s always been satisfying and fun to tell stories that aren’t being told a lot.
Also, with actors that good, every day is a pleasure on set, especially when I can give them space to do their work. As a director, I get to be surprised, excited and challenged every single day. It’s a different kind of thing from having to get through a script.
SY: Speaking of Melanie and Anna, who you mentioned earlier, what was the process of casting them and the rest of the cast for ‘Happy Christmas?’
JS: Well, I had just worked with Anna on ‘Drinking Buddies’ before filming ‘Happy Christmas.’ I not only knew that I wanted to work with her again, but also that she hadn’t been cast outside of characters who were very well put together and had Type A personalities. She was a lot more dynamic than that. That was a big early feeling about that character.
With Melanie, I had met her during the casting process of ‘Drinking Buddies.’ I didn’t cast her in that film, but knew right away that I wanted to work with her. So the second I was finished making ‘Drinking Buddies,’ I was right back in touch with her, seeing if we could work on something together.
Lena’s been a friend of mine for a long time. I had acted in a web series she had done, and we run in the same circle of friends, so we’ve known each other for a long period of time. So I wrote the part of Carson, knowing that I wanted to work with her as an actor. I also thought she and Anna would have a really fun rapport together.
With Mark, I had been a fan of his work, and had been talking to him around the time I was starting to put the movie together. I asked Anna if she had any recommendations of actors she thought would be fun to work with, and would be good in that role, and she brought Mark’s name up. That was perfect, because he was already on my mind.
SY: Like you mentioned, Anna was also in ‘Drinking Buddies,’ which also featured Olivia Wilde, and it’s also a female-driven film overall. Do you enjoy working with actresses to tell these stories about strong women?
JS: I do, but I think my motivations are always actor-driven first. But I do think there is a big discrepancy in the movies that we see. So until that equalizes, I think I’ll be more driven to focus on stories driven on women than men. Also, I know what it feels like to be a man, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. So there’s a discovery element there that’s more exciting as a filmmaker. It’s also exciting to be able to dive into a project where I hope I’m going to learn things.
SY: What was the process of reuniting with Anna on the set of ‘Happy Christmas?’ Overall, what are your working relationships and experiences of working with actors on several films been like throughout your career?
JS: It’s really great. I feel like as you keep doing projects together, your relationships become deeper and more complicated. A lot of filmmaking is getting to know somebody. When you come into a project already knowing someone, I feel like you can get to the more interesting stuff quicker. I’ll try to put Anna in every movie I make, if she’s up for it. I think she’s incredibly talented, and definitely one of my favorite actors.
That also goes for a lot of the people I’ve gotten to work with lately. Jake Johnson, who was in ‘Drinking Buddies,’ and I are working on another movie together (called ‘Digging for Fire’). I’m also trying to make another film with Olivia. These ongoing relationships are important to me, and I think we can continue to tell cool stories.
SY: While there are some actors you have worked with on several films so far, are there any actors you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to collaborate with on a future project?
JS: Oh, definitely. I really like Joaquin Phoenix, and he’s someone I would love to have the chance to work with. I also really like Amy Adams. There are a lot of actors I’m excited about right now. Shailene Woodley and Dave Franco are also really good.
That also goes for a lot of the people I’ve gotten to work with lately. Jake Johnson, who was in ‘Drinking Buddies,’ and I are working on another movie together (called ‘Digging for Fire’). I’m also trying to make another film with Olivia Wilde, who was also in ‘Drinking Buddies.’ These ongoing relationships are important to me, and I think we can continue to tell cool stories.
SY: Like with many of your films, you didn’t write a fully formed screenplay for ‘Happy Christmas,’ and instead allowed your co-stars in the movie to improvise most of their lines. Why do you feel it’s beneficial to write more of an outline, instead of full script, and allow the actors to improv their lines while you’re filming?
JS: Well, I like to let actors speak with their own voice, and I think that’s why I continue to do it. It’s also a way for me not to write women’s perspectives, and allow them to be themselves. It seems when I film that way, rather than solving the problems as a screenwriter, there are five or six of us on set, solving those problems. It’s always felt to me that the accumulation of ideas in the moment and real space, with other people, is a more natural fit than the solutions I would come up with if I was sitting alone with my laptop, and trying to come up with scenarios.
‘Happy Christmas’ was very well outlined, and the whole story was in place before the actors came on the set. But all of the things I love about the film are the details they brought to it, and not necessarily the story that I’m telling. That’s continued to be a fun process on all my films.
SY: Did you speak with the actors about their ideas for their characters’ backgrounds and arcs before you arrived on the set and began filming?
JS: We definitely did speak before we began shooting. I did have a lot of real-life things to base the story and characters on, so the skeletal structure and outline of the story was there. I would say the outline is 25 percent of the finished movie, and the actors brought in 75 percent of the finished movie.
SY: Since you both starred in, and directed, ‘Happy Christmas,’ did working on both sides of the camera influence each other?
JS: I think so. I go back and forth between acting in my own films and appearing in other directors’ movies. I like to act, and it’s fun on a movie like this to be in there in a small role. I think there is a way to influence the tone of it, and direct from within a scene. There weren’t really big days for me as an actor in this film, so I could mostly be a director, and once in a while jump in front of the camera.
SY: Are you interested in continuing acting in other directors’ films in the future?
JS: Yes, I would like to keep doing that. It’s really nice for me as a director to get to act in other people’s movies. It’s a real privilege to get to be that close to the action on someone else’s set. So I would hate to lose that access.
SY: Your son, Jude, plays your character’s son in the comedy, and had a natural ability to entertain, such as when he stuffed dozens of Cheerios into his mouth. Why did you decide to feature him in the movie, and what was it like working with him?
JS: It was really fun having Jude in the movie. As a dad, it was so special for me to capture him at that age. When we filmed the movie, he had just turned two-years-old, and he was really great, in terms of not camera shy or conscious of it. He was having fun and playing with the actors, and we had a lot of freedom of filming him in those scenarios. So I thought it was really great.
As he gets older, I don’t want to pressure him into acting, and don’t want to make him do something he doesn’t want to do. So I don’t know if it’s something we’ll keep doing. But he’s old enough now to have seen ‘Happy Christmas,’ and we talk about it. He says he likes acting, as much as a three-year-old can say he likes acting. (laughs)
SY: Like with ‘Drinking Buddies,’ you set and filmed ‘Happy Christmas’ independently in your home in Chicago, where you grew up. What has the overall experience of filming independently your home and in Chicago been like on both films?
JS: It was great to film independently and in Chicago, and it’s how I’ve made most of my movies. It’s a nice return to the earliest ways in which I worked. We filmed with a very small crew.
It was fun to work in my house, and it was nice to wake up on the set in the morning and know what we were going to do that day. The stuff we didn’t shoot in my house was mostly filmed around my neighborhood. I like that comfort and familiarity, and I want to keep making movies that way. I love Chicago, and it’s not put on screen all that much. But it’s also fun to go somewhere new, and that’s a different discovery process that I really like.
SY: How does filming in Chicago compare and contrast to maybe shooting here in New York, or in Los Angeles?
JS: Filming in Chicago is really nice, as it’s really film-friendly. The people in Chicago are still really excited about making movies. There’s a weariness of shooting movies in New York and L.A., because there’s such a history of independent movies and industry presence in those cities. So from homeowners to restaurant owners, everyone has been asked a million times if they can have a movie shot in their businesses or homes.
I don’t feel like that’s happened as much in Chicago, so people there are more open to allowing you in. That’s really useful when you don’t have a lot of money, and if you want to come in and capture people’s spaces. I’m not a big art department person, as I don’t like to come in and repaint all the ways and move all the furniture and totally re-decorate. It’s nice to pick a spot that already looks like what the characters’ places would look like, and work from that.
SY: Speaking of utilizing natural spaces and filming independently in general, do you feel that added to the creativity of the film’s story?
JS: I hope so, and would like it to ground the story in a story that makes sense to people. Especially with ‘Happy Christmas,’ I wanted this cozy feeling of a city at wintertime, and people are bundled up on the streets. I wanted the film to capture this intimate family feeling. So I feel like filming in real spaces adds to that.
We also shot on 16mm, and there’s something about that which feels nostalgic and homey to me. It looks like old home movies, and there’s something really comforting in that.
SY: Speaking of shooting ‘Happy Christmas’ on 16mm film, that choice helped give the overall movie a natural look. Do you think shooting on film, instead of digitally, was beneficial to making this type of story?
JS: I think so. There are two things I noticed that happened on set, which were really nice. We didn’t have a lot of film, so we couldn’t do a lot of takes. That made (cinematographer) Ben (Richardson) and I really focus on what we wanted to visually capture.
It’s hard to say this, because it makes people sound unprofessional on a digital set, which isn’t true. But when you know there’s film running through a camera, it creates a different atmosphere. Everyone’s really conscious that we’re making a movie, and that we’re working now, and I liked that. I also like having a casual set, and want the atmosphere to be relaxed.
But when the camera was rolling, there was something fun about feeling that energy in the space. We thought, okay, we’re really doing this now, and it’s costing money. We don’t’ have a million cracks at it. It felt more to me like film school, or when I first started making movies.
Written by: Karen Benardello