When your films are described as “mumblecore,” a seemingly unflattering term applied to a loose school of independent filmmakers including Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski, you might have to fight now and then to gain respect. Joe Swanberg did so, literally, going mano a mano with a critic who called his films “self-indulgent” and “narcissistic” and a few other things that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. Last September at the annual Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, Swanberg, 32, and the critic donned gloves and sparred for a few rounds. For those who like to see a film critic get beaten up, there’s a video of it online that’s worth watching.
But in Boston promoting “Drinking Buddies” (opening here Sept. 13), Swanberg is not so pugnacious. Maybe that’s because the new film, a hip romantic comedy about the tangled relationships of co-workers at a brewery, looks like it might be his big breakthrough. Or maybe it’s just because the director understands why some people hate his movies.
“Their criticism isn’t wrong,” he admits. “But there was a reason why they were like that. In the mid-2000s when I started making movies, reality looked like YouTube and reality television. I was interested in conveying that reality. So the movies needed to be hand-held, they needed to be shot on consumer-grade video, there couldn’t be dolly shots, and it had to look like it was done in someone’s crummy apartment.”
But what bugged Swanberg was when people assumed that he made movies like that because he didn’t have the skill or talent to do otherwise. “As much as I understand why people would not like my work, or that of other mumblecore directors, that was the only thing that was annoying: the assumption that none of us knew how to make a movie. But all of us had gone to film school. I certainly had learned three-point lighting and had shot on 16mm and edited on Steenbecks. I came out of film school very rigorously trained in the methods of making films, and chose not to do that.”
So in the 10 years after he graduated from Southern Illinois University, Swanberg made more than a dozen features, mostly slice-of-life, threadbare, unscripted tales about the banal troubles of young people like himself and his friends, and starring himself and his friends. The most expensive of these, “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (which made a leading lady out of Greta Gerwig in 2007), cost $50,000 to make. Screened mostly at festivals, these slackerish features gained a cult and critical following. And at a certain point people in the film industry started to notice. Actors in particular. When Swanberg was finally ready for Hollywood, Hollywood, or at least some of its top acting talent, was ready for him.
Even with such bankable talent as Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston signing on to star in “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg had to make adjustments to his usual process in order to raise a budget that, at $500,000, was 10 times more than any of his other films. In particular he needed a genre label in order to pitch it. “The romantic comedy template was a way to talk about it that made sense. And the two big movies that were inspirational for this were Paul Mazursky’s ‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’  and Elaine May’s ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ . These were romantic comedies that existed before the genre became the lame thing it is now. Plus, it was helpful to have a template to follow. I was nervous going into this one. I knew it would be a different kind of challenge and it was useful to have some signposts along the way in terms of structure and characters and narrative.”
As for Swanberg’s long resistance to working the old-fashioned way, that proved to be not so difficult to overcome. “After 10 years in the woods, it’s sort of coming home and embracing the way movies have been made forever,” he admits. “I got out of film school and tried to reinvent the wheel and unlearn everything I learned and make these professionally amateur movies. But with ‘Drinking Buddies,’ I’m fully accepting the system that’s been in place forever. I’m working with a script, with actors, with a producer, a cinematographer, a wardrobe person. I see it as less of a breakthrough, and more like a first feature. It is the first real movie I made.”
If “Drinking Buddies” proves to be a success, Swanberg is open to making more such “movies.” “It seems like that’s in the realm of possibility,” he says. “It will depend on whether this makes any money. I’ve been out to LA a couple of times in the last few months, having meetings and reading a lot of scripts to see if there’s something somebody else wrote that I might like. I’m certainly open to it.”
Meanwhile, he hasn’t quite given up making films the way he used to. “Since I did ‘Drinking Buddies,’ I did another really small movie that I shot mostly at my house with a crew of five and some friends. It’s called ‘Happy Christmas.’ Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham star in it.”
Somehow, having Kendrick, an Oscar nominee for “Up in the Air” (2009), and Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s hot series “Girls,” as friends you can casually call up to work on a project suggests that Swanberg’s days making $3,000 movies might soon be a thing of the past. Still, he doesn’t think he will ever shake off the “mumblecore” label. “I think the word is here to stay,” he says. “I can either spend the rest of my life calling it the ‘m’ word, or I can just embrace it.”