Interview: Kris Swanberg

Kris Swanberg is the writer-director of the independent feature films It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home, Marriage Material, Empire Builder and Unexpected, and director of the web series Young American Bodies. She has also appeared in films by her husband Joe Swanberg such as Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah Takes the Stairs. Unexpected premiered this year at Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic), and is now available on iTunes (US) and on VOD.

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Congratulations on the release of Unexpected! Having a movie out on VOD and a second child due almost simultaneously – how does that feel? 

The movie was released last Friday, and having the baby be due right after has taken my mind off the “what am I going to next” part. It’s funny, at some point in filmmaking, the work stops and you’re just waiting. With Unexpected, we started shooting last Sept, so I was in pre-production this time last year, and then we were working up until the premiere in January, and then working on getting the poster and trailer ready to go. Then at a certain point, besides interviews, you’re just waiting for it to come out – and that’s how I feel about the baby too!

It’s due on Sunday [9th Aug], so I’m in the zone where I can’t make a lot of plans. Every day feels like borrowed time, saying, “Well, the baby hasn’t come, let’s go out to dinner,” like some kind of strange summer vacation. On the one hand, I feel like I’ve got this, I’ve done this before, and on the other I feel like I’ve forgotten it, and I have to do it all again, but with a four year old as well.

 

Is VOD the answer to many parents’ issue with getting to the cinema? And what responses have you had from parent-viewers?

VOD is really helpful: we talked a lot about the aspect of home viewing when we were discussing distribution: we want everyone to see the film, but especially parents because we hope they’ll relate, and they can’t go to the movies!

I’ve gotten lots of feedback from going to film festivals and talking to people at screenings: I knew that women would relate – well, I hoped they would – but I was surprised by how many men came up to me and said “Oh this is what my wife was going through, and I didn’t understand until I saw the film.” It was similar for me: Joe understood more what I was going through after he saw the film.

 

You’ve acted in some of Joe’s films: how did acting help you with directing actors? 

It helped me because I know what it’s like to be on camera; I feel like the performances I have given have been naturalistic and that’s the kind of performance I want in my films – so I have an astute eye for what feels forced or staged, and could talk my actors through that. I’ve always had a fun time doing it – mostly improvisational work, which is easy because I feel really comfortable acting like myself. I would have a hard time doing lines from a script.

 

Your son Jude appeared in your film Empire Builder: how was it directing your own baby?

He was a baby when he was in the film! It was really easy because he didn’t realize he was on camera, or that we were making a movie. He just had to act like a baby, and he did that fine. It was so flexible because it was improvised and had a really small crew, so if he needed a break, we could shoot something else. Joe was on set the whole time, so I could hand Jude off and focus on something else.

He’s been in some of Joe’s movies recently. Now he’s a bit older, he likes the idea but he gets bored. He would not be great in someone else’s film! Joe was shooting a scene recently were we were eating dinner, and Jude was supposed to be in the scene, just chatting away as he does. He said he didn’t want to, so we cut him out. I can’t imagine forcing a kid to do that if they didn’t want to!

 

Unexpected is about pregnancy, and about how class, age and ethnicity affect women’s experience of pregnancy and life as a parent. How did you develop the story? 

A lot of it’s based on personal experience: I was a high school film and video teacher on the west side of Chicago, at a very low income school. I didn’t intend to be a teacher but I fell into it and was full time for a few years [Samantha, played by Cobie Smulders, is a teacher in a similar school in the film]. I hadn’t had much experience of that community’s demographic before: it was eye-opening for me, and taught me a lot. And some of [Samantha’s] pregnancy is based on my experience.

 

Samantha has a job interview where the interviewer isn’t sure how she’ll manage the baby and a new job at the same time. What kind of reactions to pregnancy and motherhood have you come across?

He says to Sam that it’s not going to work timing-wise, and she knows it’s true too: it’s just circumstantial. Sometimes people are treated badly and get fired, but it’s often circumstantial. I didn’t want to make that guy [the interviewer] a bad guy because that totally negative response rarely happens. When people experience that prejudice against maternity it’s generally pretty subtle, and it doesn’t mean that person is bad. The job environment [in the US] totally supports maternity leave, but it means you’ll miss something totally important by being away: that’s been my experience.

 

Several reviewers have noted it’s “non-judgemental” about motherhood. How do you see moralistic and judgemental attitudes affecting what films get made and how?

I felt that a lot from the reviews, that people are surprised – because we’re so used to the standard cinematic tropes about class and pregnancy. People go in expecting it to be cliché and stereotypical, and when it’s not they’re surprised. That really speaks to how ingrained those things are in our minds.

I totally didn’t set out to change that: I just wrote the movie based on what seemed to be the most realistic to me, because of what I had experienced. It was easy for me to do something based in reality. I wasn’t basing it on what I’d seen in movies before – because the clichés don’t really happen.

 

Has being a parent changed the stories you want to tell and how you tell them? 

No, not really. I think I’m more interested in relationships – being married and being in a long-term relationship has been what mostly inspires my ideas for films, at least right now. I don’t feel like now I want to make a bunch of movies about being a parent – but that anything I make has to be true to the experience. To tell a story about raising a child, you would have to do a whole other hour to cover it: pregnancy is just the prelude! You’d have to make another movie’s worth, like a mini-series.

 

Could you tell the stories you want if you moved from indie to studio cinema? Is that something that interests you?

I am interested in scaling up if it’s a project I can get excited about, but at this level, it’s nice to shoot my own material and feel passionate and stand behind.

 

Would you and Joe ever co-direct, or write and direct, a film together?

We probably won’t make films together: we’re supportive of each other, but we’re also independent of each other. That autonomy has been very helpful: we’re both directors, so it’s been good to do our own projects.

 

And how do you work together as parent-filmmakers?

Joe and I go back and forth with childcare: our son Jude is in daycare three days a week, and we don’t have a nanny. If Joe’s working on something, I’m parenting full time, and vice versa. We’re taking it one step at a time. The month before last, my film premiered in New York, with the full red carpet and press day and party. I was planning on going, and Jude was going to stay with Joe, but then Joe got a TV directing job in LA, so it made sense for Jude to come with me, and I got a baby sitter for the premiere.

Like Jude, we’re very flexible and forced to be so: that’s exciting for us. Both of us moved around as kids, and were pretty transient. We both enjoy that lifestyle, although sometimes it gets tiring – I sometimes wish we had a 9 to5 job and could come home from it. But today me, Joe and Jude went to the pool and had ice-cream, because we didn’t have work.

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