A long time ago, on a message board far, far away, I met Joe Swanberg. The message board was for filmmaker Roger Avary and a core group of us enjoyed daily visits to the message board to talk about nearly everything except for Roger Avary and his movies. Maybe that’s why he shut it down! Not to say there’s a single thing wrong with Roger Avary, it was just that a group of us finally found a place on the internet where the troll level was low, the conversation was high and the arguments well conceived. While “Rules of Attraction” brought us all there, we soon hijacked Roger’s board and made it our playground.
Joe was always the guy that came across as young and overly principled. He had a website in which he reviewed movies and had a few short films, but he was clearly working towards the bigger picture. He announced one day that he was going to employ many of the “Dogme 95” elements as well as explicit sex to make his first feature, and he hoped we’d all want to see it. Now, I’ve been around for awhile and if I had a nickel for every aspiring filmmaker that had a plan and executed it, I’d be able to make my own million dollar feature. To say I didn’t expect much from Joe, this smart, funny, well versed cinephile who represented well…on the web, was obvious. However as soon as he said he was doing a film, up went the website, out came the cast and on went the production journal. While we all sat geekily at our computers, arguing the merits of bit actors. pornography and the Dogme 95 movement, Joe was making a movie.
I was fortunate to screen the film for Film Threat shortly after he was done and damn it if Joe didn’t do exactly what he set out to do. “Kissing on the Mouth” was inquisitive, explicit, controversial and real. Focusing on a group of four friends and their inner (and outer) machinations, the film feels like a snapshot or home movie not only of the characters, but also of the people making the film. And there was sex…a lot of sex. In fact before all us web folk had seen the movie, Joe told us he was the star of a solo sex scene and that garnered him a good deal of teasing for a few weeks. But there he was, doing exactly what he said he was going to do, whether we wanted to see it or not.
Through all the routine reality, the unfocused talking and the somewhat mundane sex “Kissing on the Mouth” emerges as something rather pretty. The film and subject matter fall somewhere between the narrative unreliability of a Terrence Malick film and the audaciousness of a von Trier film. But “Kissing on the Mouth” is also incredibly simple and honest. I loved it and while it has warts, it was a start from someone who had something to say. When I was contacted about interviewing Joe Swanberg upon the release of “Kissing on the Mouth” on DVD through Heretic Films, I was excited. I’ve always had some questions and now they would be answered!
FILM THREAT: It seems like a decade ago when I first saw and reviewed “Kissing on the Mouth.” Since then you’ve made another complete feature (“LOL”) and have another one in the can (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”). When you look back on “Kissing on the Mouth” having done so much between now and then, what immediately pops out at you?
Swanberg: It certainly feels like a million years ago that we made the film. When we watched the DVD, we were shocked to see how young we looked. It was only about 2 years ago that we shot it, but we’ve changed a lot since then. I think the film is really pure and uncompromised. I’ve learned a lot about the film industry since we made it, and I’m not sure I’m capable of making another film like it. We were totally unconscious of the business side of filmmaking. We were being purely artistic, and our only goal was to make a film we believed it.
FILM THREAT:: Between making the film, editing the film and showing the film, what do you think the most valuable lessons you learned were. What did you do then that you’d never do now or what things did you learn that you incorporate now?
Swanberg: I was a lot more playful with KOTM than I am now. I was fully willing to experiment and try new things and risk losing the audience. The experience of showing the film at Festivals taught me that you have some room to play as long as you have strong acting and complex characters. I’ve focused more on the characters and the narrative in my recent projects, and less on playing with the form of filmmaking.
FILM THREAT:: It’s inevitable that I ask you about the sex scenes (both solo and with others) in the film. Can you describe some of the reactions the scenes have caused at festivals and other screenings?
Swanberg: It’s always mixed. Some people find the sex scenes totally refreshing and great, and others think they are gratuitous and offensive. When I think about the film, I don’t even think about the sex scenes anymore. It’s funny how used to it I’ve gotten over time. We never did it to shock people or challenge them. It was always meant to represent these characters accurately, and the sex wasn’t treated any differently than anything else we shot.
FILM THREAT: Did you shoot all the sex scenes yourself? Who shot the shower masturbation scene? What was the mood like while you were basically shooting your friends having sex? Scared? Nervous?
Swanberg: It only took about 5 minutes for all of us to get over the initial discomfort of shooting sex scenes and being naked around each other. It quickly felt just like shooting any other scene. The focus remained on making a good film, and all the usual technical considerations were floating through my head. I was much more concerned with how the shots looked then I was about people seeing me naked.
FILM THREAT: I understand you didn’t even bother submitting the film for an MPAA rating. Why is that? Can you talk a little about your feelings on America’s ratings system?
Swanberg: For a film like “Kissing on the Mouth,” we would basically be paying them money to give the film an NC-17 rating, which seems like a waste of money to me. I’m not sure if everyone realizes this, but they charge you money to rate your film. It’s not a service they provide. For most films, the MPAA rating is something that exists for the commercial marketplace. It determines whether you will be able to run advertisements in certain newspapers and on certain television channels.
This is why distributors spend a lot of money trimming films over and over again so that they receive an R rating instead of an NC-17. They will continue to go back and cut a frame here and a frame there to make sure that the films are just tame enough for the rating they want. Since I don’t have to deal with that process, I’m choosing not to. Nothing would be gained for the film by having a rating from the MPAA. I’m sure it’s something I’ll have to deal with in the future, but it’s my mission to give that organization as little money as possible.
FILM THREAT: Was there any interest from studios or distributors? What were some of those conversations like? After a fairly successful festival run, did any networks like IFC or Sundance Channel express an interest in the film? Were there ever any conversations about why they didn’t want to show KOTM?
Swanberg: I think the sex and nudity are only a small part of why the film has had a hard time getting into the world. Certainly the nudity has kept the film from being considered for IFC or The Sundance Channel. I was told very early on by our sales agent that those channels had a “no erect penis” policy. I’ve always been unwilling to edit the film for television or blur anything out, so I suppose it means we won’t show on TV unless those restrictions are loosened. Oh well.
There were a few theatrical distributors who toyed around with the idea of releasing the film, but it’s hard to tell how serious they ever were about it. It’s a strange film without any recognizable actors and I frankly don’t blame theatrical distributors for being shy about it. I do think the film will have a nice life on DVD, and I’m glad that Heretic saw the potential and decided to release it.
FILM THREAT: The director’s statement on the films site mentions how creating “Kissing on the Mouth” was all about overcoming your fears. On the surface, one automatically takes the nudity and sex scenes into account with this statement, yet there seems to be quite a bit of personal information being laid out there by you and your actors. What do you think was more difficult for your cast…the physical scenes or putting a lot of personal information and feelings into the film and thus, out to an audience?
Swanberg: It was a first for us in many ways. Not only had we never done sex scenes or anything like that before, but we hadn’t shared our personal feelings in such a public ways before either. I would say that they were equally difficult in different ways. The nice thing is that now I’m not afraid to be personal, and it’s great to feel like there’s nothing to hide and no reason to hide it. It has helped tremendously with my filmmaking.
FILM THREAT: Not to sound rude, but watching “Kissing on the Mouth” now, having seen both your follow-up “LOL” and your Nerve TV internet show “Young American Bodies,” “Kissing on the Mouth” feels kind of…primitive. Was that the look and feeling you were going for or does the aesthetic of your films have to do more with the growth as a filmmaker?
Swanberg: It was always our goal to make a film that we would outgrow. The only concern was to be true to ourselves in the moment. The further away I get from it, the more like a time capsule it seems. I would like to think that I have grown and improved as a filmmaker, but there are elements of KOTM that I wouldn’t be capable of doing now. It has nothing to do with skill, and everything to do with being 22 and making a movie with my friends.
I can never have that experience again, no matter how much I progress as a filmmaker. I hope I’m always making movies that are alive and of-the-moment and impossible to repeat.
FILM THREAT: When you and I first met on the web many years ago, I distinctly remember you saying (and this is of course paraphrasing) something to the effect of you didn’t ever want to make films for money or compromise your art in order to reach a larger audience. At the time, and with all due respect, I claimed this was a defense mechanism you created in case your career never took off. Do you recall having that stance and if so, has it softened now? It seems like your films have never lost that rebellious streak and you still aren’t afraid of getting real both physically and emotionally. But your films have also become more…”cinematic” and in some ways, less experimental. Can you talk about that?
Swanberg: I absolutely remember having that conversation with you and the other members of Roger Avary’s message board. I’m not sure how my stance has softened or changed, or if it has. So far I have remained unwilling to compromise my working method or the content of my films. I was lucky to have an investor and an additional producer come on board for my most recent film, HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, but I was very clear with them up front that I wasn’t interested unless I had full creative control over the film.
It’s not something I’ve had to struggle with very much at this point. I have yet to be offered any significant amount of money to make a film that I don’t believe in. I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but I feel like life is short and I would rather spend a few thousand dollars of my own money to make a film I believe in, than to accept a paycheck to make something that I don’t like. There are other ways to make money. I agree with you that my films are becoming more “cinematic” and less experimental, but that has more to do with my shifting interests than with any commercial considerations.
Lately I’ve been more interested in telling stories than I have been in challenging the form of cinema. That might change again, or it might not, but I’m still being true to my instincts and following my gut. I fully intend to make as many films as possible for the rest of my life, and I think they are bound to go through cycles where they lean more narrative or more experimental. It all depends on where I’m at when I make them. I don’t think about it very much. I always figure it will sort itself out in the editing room.
FILM THREAT: You’re a huge advocate of D.I.Y. filmmaking as well as a huge supporter of internet being used to share film and resources. While I try and be supportive of the internet as a film sharing environment, there’s so much total crap out there. What are some ways people can rise above all that and get their films shown and respected. What do you think are the best ways a filmmaker can use the internet effectively?
Swanberg: The Internet is a weird beast. I love it, but I don’t pretend to understand it. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. I would say that filmmakers should focus all of their energy on making good films. Only after they have done that should they worry about who will see it and how. As far as sharing information and resources, the Internet is an amazing tool. I’m in touch with filmmakers all the time asking for advice and getting updates on their projects. It’s a very good way to feel like you are part of a global filmmaking community. Just feeling like I’m part of the community is often enough motivation to get me off my a*s and on to a new project.
FILM THREAT: Getting back to “Kissing on the Mouth,” what were some of the ideas or influences that made you want to make the film? Are there any directors or films you looked at and said, “I’d like my film to look like that”
Swanberg: I tried my best not to directly imitate any other films or filmmakers. I have a million influences and images floating around in my head, and I’m sure many of them made it into the film, but I didn’t want to be conscious of that while we were shooting. I wanted to make it like a documentary. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen next. I wanted everything to be reaction.
Having said that, I am a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, and the ideas behind the Dogme 95 movement were obviously influential and empowering. Also the films and writing of Dziga Vertov and Werner Herzog. I’m influenced more by these filmmaker’s attitudes and ideas than by their actual films.
FILM THREAT: As time has moved on past shooting and exhibiting “Kissing on the Mouth,” what have the rest of your cast been doing? Your lead actress Kate Winterich was a real standout, was she offered any other roles aside from her bit part in “LOL?”
Swanberg: We are all still great friends and everyone is staying busy. Kate moved to St. Louis and she’s getting married soon. I’m hoping to work with her again on something, and I’m sure she would love to act in other films, but she’s been busy with the American Red Cross and other non-actor things.
Kris (Williams) just started a new job in Chicago teaching video to high-school students. It’s tough, because it’s a really poor school and the resources are limited, but teaching is her passion. She also working on a new series for Nervevideo.com. It’s a documentary series called “Girls and Boys” and she’s interviewing couples about their relationships.
Kevin (Pittman) is working steadily as a cinematographer, which is what he was doing before he acted in the film. I see him every once in a while, but he’s a busy man.
FILM THREAT: Talk a little bit about the film you just finished and what’s next for Joe Swanberg.
Swanberg: My newest feature is called “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and it’s about a girl who’s interning at a Chicago production company, and her relationship with two writing partners at work. I brought a lot of filmmakers to Chicago to act in this one. Andrew Bujalski (“Funny, Ha, Ha,” “Mutual Appreciation”), Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”), Ry Russo-Young (“Marion”), and Todd Rohal (“The Guatemalan Handshake”) all have roles.
Greta Gerwig, who played the long distance girlfriend in “LOL,” is the lead in this new one. It also stars Kent Osborne, who I met at SXSW this year.
It was a really great experience to have so many talented people from all over the country come together to make this one. I feel really lucky that it worked out. We rented an apartment in Chicago and everyone slept on the floor and we ate meals together and danced until all hours of the morning and bonded. I have a rough cut of the film now and I’m really proud of it. We will send it to Festivals soon and hope for the best.
You can order “Kissing on the Mouth” through Amazon or through the film’s website KissingontheMouth.com.