If we didn't have to save the designation for the upcoming James Brown biopic, we could easily call Joe Swanberg the hardest-working man in show business.
The Chicago-based indie filmmaker has not only been writing, directing, producing and often appearing in his own features at an average of three per year for nearly a decade (he released six in 2011), he also pops up regularly in his friends' movies, such as Ti West's recent “The Sacrament.”
Swanberg's work has been growing in quality too since his early “mumblecore” films “Kissing on the Mouth,” “LOL” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs.”
Last year's “Drinking Buddies” displayed a new depth and maturity in the way he looks at people who haven't quite fully come to terms with growing up, as well as an improved degree of visual sophistication thanks to hooking up with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson.
Swanberg returns with Richardson and “Drinking Buddies” co-star Anna Kendrick for his latest release, “Happy Christmas,” out on limited release Friday. Also featuring himself, “Two and a Half Men's” Melanie Lynskey, fellow filmmaker-actors Lena Dunham and Mark Webber, and a little, scene-stealing newcomer named Jude Swanberg, the movie offers some clues as to how the filmmaker manages to be so prolific.
Perhaps most significantly, Swanberg employed his usual method of writing up a 15-page outline of the scenes he planned to shoot, then asked his actors to improvise their dialogue, character development and relationships. The shooting process was sped up by filming much of “Happy Christmas” in the house Swanberg shares with wife Kris and little Jude.
Much of the action was inspired by Joe and Kris' personal experiences as new parents, as well as the three-month period when his younger brother came to visit.
“Anna's character is very different,” Swanberg, 32, is quick to point out. “It was certainly nice that our son got to spend some time with his uncle and, actually, my brother was really helpful as a baby sitter. But y'know, it's difficult to have family, or anybody, up in your space. The pizza-burning incident really did happen, and there were some late, drunken nights.”
Such things make their way into “Happy Christmas” after Jenny (Kendrick) comes for an extended holiday stay at the home of her older brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Lynskey). Alarmed at first by her sister-in-law's irresponsible behavior, Kelly, a stay-at-home mom and frustrated writer, gets a new creative charge after bonding with Jenny and her best friend Carson (Dunham) over drinks in the family's tiki bar basement.
The women brainstorm a hopefully commercial erotic novel, bringing them even closer despite some continued dicey behavior on Jenny's part. The result is a warm, observant comedy that says a lot, especially about choices young women are faced with today.
Swanberg wisely refuses to take credit for much of that.
“I let them speak for themselves and I listen; that's the extent of the secret there,” he admits. “I'm fascinated by women and I think that they're really underrepresented in the movies, so it's always been territory that I've been excited to explore.
“A lot of this came out of conversations that my wife and I were having at the time, being new parents and, also, both being artists and trying to figure out balance time for our work with time for our family. It ended up making the most sense for us as a family for me to work and for her to stay home with Jude.
“It was difficult for her, and it was also difficult for her to talk about it because there is so much cultural pressure on women to not only be independent people in the workforce, but also to be supermoms who are making organic baby food and signing the kids up for all the right classes. I didn't feel like I had seen that particular story told, and for me, movies are a way to bring up conversations.”
There isn't much conversation from toddler Jude in the film, but the kid is a funny, delightful presence whenever he's on screen. His father was as surprised by this as audiences will be.
“It was an amazing experience to put him in the movie, kind of out of practicality and to add a sense of reality, and then have him turn out to be such a little actor,” Swanberg says. “As a dad, it's been really amazing to show the movie around and hear people respond to him in such a big way. He's just kind of a natural ham. He really took to it. We introduced him to the actors and made sure he spent time with them and hung out with the crew and felt comfortable with everybody.”
Though he's reluctant to plan a “Boyhood”-like chronicle of Jude's development in future films, Swanberg's son does have a few brief scenes in his dad's next production, “Digging for Fire,” a Los Angeles-shot relationship dramedy starring Rosemarie DeWitt and “Drinking Buddies' ” Jake Johnson. “Fire” boasts a vast and impressive supporting cast that includes Kendrick and Lynskey, which is kind of a tribute to the filmmaker's growing reputation among savvy, creative actors.
Swanberg isn't letting that go to his head. Unlike some mumblecore veterans such as Jay and Mark Duplass, Swanberg has little desire to work with studio or even awards-bait indie budgets. Tall and a naturally pleasing screen presence, he limits acting jobs for others to modest, personal productions, and he wants to keep his own films that way.
“It's the world I came up in, but it also continues to have the most space for experimentation and play,” he notes. “In my own work, I'm just not in a place to go make a movie that has a lot of pressure on it to make money, to sort of fit into the marketplace in a very specific way.”
That approach also enables him to spend a lot of time at the Chicago homestead, which came equipped with the tiki basement when the Swanbergs bought it.
“It has karaoke down there now,” he says with a chuckle. “It's definitely a hangout zone. During the summers, especially, we have Tiki Fridays down there. So, the door's open for anybody who wants to swing by for a mai tai.”