By Don R. Lewis | March 11, 2008

“Nights and Weekends” is your fourth feature in four years to premiere at SXSW. How do you feel coming into this one?
Joe Swanberg: I feel really good about it. More than anything it’s just that I feel good to have been able to make so many movies… I feel really lucky. I’m fortunate to work with really good people who are able to help me make stuff that at least Matt or SXSW or somebody wants to see.

What do you think it is with SXSW that’s coalesced so well with your movies?
I don’t know. When it started or when “Kissing on the Mouth” (Swanberg’s first feature) got in, I didn’t really know what SXSW was or what it was all about. It seems like over the past four years they’ve really made a point of programming stuff like mine and kind of built a home for it. And from my end, I’m really lucky that there’s a festival out there that has sort of… the same sensibilities that I do. It seems like everything’s kind of grown together. Matt’s made a home for these kinds of movies and at the same time there’s been a group of filmmakers that have continued to make this kind of work.

What do you think draws Matt Dentler to these kinds of films.
I don’t really know… whatever drew him to “Kissing on the Mouth” is beyond me. Like, he must have seen something that he liked and now I think he realizes he can provide a home for a bunch of filmmakers and a chance for all of us to get together every year and show our work. And also every year there’s movies he chooses out of a pile of entries that end up being friends of ours and it’s a new, great work like with “Frownland” last year. That’s what I’m excited about this year is seeing movies I’ve never heard of before and meeting filmmakers I’ve never met before who, you know, will become part of the gang over the next year.

In terms of Matt’s involvement with “Butterknife” and him being a programmer at the festival, did you ever feel like there might be a conflict of interest with him programming so many “Butterknife” actors’ films… and yours?
No, I don’t think so. Matt’s involvement with “Butterknife” is really minimal… it’s basically the extent of, that because of him, I met Ronnie and Mary. But at the same time, he wanted to be sure if we needed money or whatever to get the show done, he could help. So I can see how people might misinterpret it, or didn’t quite understand what his involvement was. It would be one thing if he put his own money into the show and was financially invested in me, but he’s not.

So basically he just helped put everybody together?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, that executive producer credit is a kind of nebulous credit anyway …it can mean a million different things. In this case it just means that because of him, we were all able to meet through the festival and do this show.

I thought last year would be like, the big send off for you and the whole mumblecore idea. You won the Eagle Pennell award, you had a huge premiere with “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” But now this year, you and a lot of others are back. Does it start to feel like… redundant or like you aren’t moving forward? Or better, do you feel like if you were some other filmmaker looking at how your films always get in and now all these friends of yours have films getting in, that it feels like a clique or some kind of fraternity?
Well sure, yeah, I think it would be easy to perceive that that way and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to feel like there’s some kind of club or something going on. But that all depends on whether you like the movies or not. If you think the movies are bullshit and these guys are all best friends and that’s why they show then it’s easy to think that. And if you do like the movies and then hopefully you think that each year they’re getting better, and that there’s a reason Matt continues to program them. But I’m sure, you know, that’s going to be a major criticism of the festival- that there’s so many return filmmakers. But also if it wasn’t SXSW, we’d all have to show somewhere. So either Matt shows these movies or Sarasota does or you know, AFI Boston or some other springtime festival. If Matt were to not show these movies just because he’s shown our movies before, they would end up landing somewhere else.

So have you heard any questioning of the whole programming thing or have you caught any flak over it?
No, not to me… I haven’t heard or read anything. For me I hope I’ll continue to make a movie or two every year for a long time and I’m sure there will be years when they won’t show at SXSW, but hopefully they will show there every year. And I don’t know what to say to someone who would get upset about that. I mean, I’m just trying my best to make good movies and I enjoy showing them in Austin at SXSW. And the other side of that story is to look at how much new work has been produced because of that festival and how many people have met there and how many collaborations that’s lead to. And so if Matt stopped showing those movies or if the environment became one that wasn’t producing so much good energy and so much collaboration then there would be a reason to change it or fix things. And as it is now, it just keeps growing every year. It’s like an illusion too.

And I feel like the thing I’m most excited about is to see movies by people who haven’t been there and I also think that might deserve some number crunching. Like, how many people have actually had films there before and how many are first timers. And I’m sure there’s more new filmmakers than others.

It just seems like when people out on the net, when they talk about SXSW, it always seems to come back to the mumblecore stuff.
Yeah, and that’s funny because the same people who complain about that are the same ones giving it more press. Like, if they’re pissed off about it, they have the ability to either blog about something else or blog about how it’s the whole mumblecore again and all they’re doing is feeding inti the hype and perpetuating why it seems like those movies are getting more attention than anything else. If everybody just decided to write about only first time filmmakers, then everybody would realize it’s like, what 6 percent of the festival [mumblecore movies] and that’s not very much.

Joe concluded the interview saying that he was excited for the festival and hasn’t experienced any negative energy so far.

So there you have it. On the surface, it seems like SXSW 2008 is rife with mumblecore fever but truth be told, the total amount of films by Swanberg and friends only make up less than ten percent of the overall program. With all the facts laid out on the table there doesn’t seem to be too much favoritism or politics involved, or does there? Everyone’s going to have an opinion on the matter but perhaps the films involved need to be seen before they get lumped into some kind of conspiracy charge.

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