The biggest joke in LOL, Joe Swanberg's second feature, may be the one that the filmmaker plays on the audience. Neither romantic (though there's plenty of frank sexual content), nor a comedy (though there are many funny moments), LOL feels less like the rom-com that its title suggests and more like a digital age mash-up of Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game and David Cronenberg's Crash "“ on the one hand, a humanistic, if occasionally bitter, social critique disguised as an ensemble comedy and, on the other hand, a chilly, unsentimental look at the ways that our fascination with technology (in this case, cell phones and the internet) keeps us apart when it's meant to bring us together. While Swanberg's lo-fi digital images and casual sense of plotting may not achieve the cinematic heights of either of the aforementioned masterworks, LOL has a charm all its own. Some of that charm, no doubt, is a product of its production history: The whole thing was made by Swanberg and his friends in Chicago without a script for a mere $3000. What's even more impressive, though, is how the movie starts as a comedy of awkwardness and gradually molts into a bleak satire with a mature, dramatic punch. For this, credit goes to the non-professional performers and Swanberg's sharp editing of his improvised source material.
After premiering in March at South by Southwest (where it was very warmly received), LOL had its East Coast premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival. The night after its first screening in Philly, I had dinner with Swanberg and two of his collaborators, Chris Wells and Kevin Bewersdorf. All three, as actors behind the improv, are credited as "co-writers." (Bewersdorf also composed the soundtrack.) Among other things, we talked about improvisation, choosing one's collaborators, and making a feature on the cheap.
Here's some of that conversation:
Kevin Bewersdorf: The process [of making a film with Joe Swanberg] is basically just maximizing accidents. Make as many accidents happen as possible because the accidents will be genuine. Sometimes it's a technical nightmare because Joe will just be like, "Alright. We step out here. Here's the mic. Let's just start shooting. Let's just go and do it. Let's just do it." And I'll be like "No, wait, Joe, I mean, the light's not enough here. We're not going to be able to hear the mic." And Joe's just, "No, let's just go. Just shoot, just shoot."
Chris Wells: I feel exactly the same way. We did the phone sex scene, before I knew it the camera was rolling and I was already sort of doing it. Joe didn't give me any time to think about it, which is probably better. I think that's how Joe can get performances [as good as those he gets]. People don't think about it.
So: How do you maximize accidents?
Joe Swanberg: Well it's something that I just realized on the first film [Kissing on the Mouth] that I was making. Things started getting knocked over. And I started thinking about how nothing ever gets knocked over in movies. So in my first movie, multiple times, somebody will open up a cupboard and something will fall out of it. Or they'll do something and a thing of laundry detergent will get knocked off of the washing machine. Or I'll accidentally bump the table and a thing will fall over on it. And so then I started thinking, "Why don't things ever fall over in movies?" They do, but then they don't use that take.
Kevin: So it's not really accidental, in that you choose to use the take where the accident occurred. It's deliberate.
Joe: Yeah. Right. But I specifically set up a scene with enough misinformation that people are going to have to invent things that aren't there. I'll explain a scene to a point, but then I'll leave crucial information out so that the actor will have to actually be thinking while they're in the scene. They can't just go through it [pre-rehearsed]. As Kevin was saying [at the LOL Q+A at the Philadelphia premiere], the second or third time [you do the scene] then you start to react to what you did the first time. But the first time there's gotta be stuff that both of the people don't know so that they have to be on the spot and think of it. For instance, I put Kevin and Tipper [Newton, who plays a girl named Walter] on the porch and I said, "Tipper your parents live in St. Louis and, Kevin, you're trying to get to St. Louis. Now go!"
Kevin: Or, for example, in the scene where I'm going to film Tipper making noises, you didn't tell Tipper that's what I was going to do. You said to Tipper, "He's going to ask you to do something. Do it. And Kevin will film it." So it's about keeping people in the dark just enough.
Joe: ...enough that they're comfortable, but not enough that they know what they're going to do before hand.
Because if all you say is, "He's going to ask you to do something," then she might say, "no" in the scene. Instead, she knows she's gotta say "yes", but she doesn't know what she's saying "yes" to. And that keeps the way she says it fresh.
Joe: That's a good point. If you leave it totally up to chance, it could go horribly wrong.
Kevin: You have to have the skeleton set up. But you don't know how anything hangs on it. Chris: I feel like with my [scenes] it was interesting because I kind of knew the direction the scenes were going to go, but Greta [Gerwig, Chris' co-star] didn't. And I was really talking to her on the phone. So I would just call her up in the middle of her day and she'd start talking to me and I would know where the scene was going to go and she wouldn't, but it would have to go in a different direction because I was reacting to her lack of knowledge. So what I thought the scene would be would end up being something completely different than what I expected.
Joe: But she always knew we were filming. Otherwise, that's exploitation, and that's not what I'm interested in. I want everybody to be aware of the process and aware that it's happening, but unaware of certain crucial information.
Kevin: The other important thing is that Joe's whole style as a director is to be completely invisible. He gives NO direction. His direction is either "Yes it was fine" or "No, do it again." No other direction at all of any kind. Not "do this in this way." Or "More feeling." Or "Slower." Or anything. It's either working or it's not working, and if it's not working we continue to do it. And if it is, then it's fine. And that's why, for some people, it's awful.
Joe: Well, for professionals, it is.
Kevin: And that's why you can't use professional actors. Because unless they're being told what to do they don't know how to feel, they don't know what to do. Because they have all these little tricks and techniques in this little bag of tricks that they've learned. I mean I have great respect for actors, but with non-professionals you can't tell them what to do because then they'll be acting, and then they'll be bad actors. If you have non-professionals and you tell them nothing, then they won't be acting.
Joe: I like professional actors, just not in my movies.
Does it not strike you as unusual that you've found people that are willing to work so hard for you? Joe: No, because it's a backwards process. I cast people who... I found the people and then we found the movie. I didn't have the movie in my head and then I found the people. So really, had I been working with Chris and had he not been in that relationship with Greta that was like that, then the movie would be different because his character would be different. To me it seems perfectly natural that the movie ends up the way it is because I cast the people first and then we all make the movies together. LOL is the only way LOL could end up being. It's these specific people, at these specific points in their life, and this specific point in time, with this technology. There's no vision before it starts.
But on a bigger level, you found people that for six months are saying, "I'm coming along for the ride. And I don't know where it's going. And I'm going to do this." That is what is amazing. This is not something to take for granted. Joe: I don't know. I'm lucky I guess. I can't answer because I have no technique or method other than saying, "Please help me" and then people help me.
Chris: Joe's movies are all so fun for because he's making them out of your own pocket, with his own money.
Joe: I think that is a nice level to it. I'm losing money [making films]. I'm not making money on it. There's a different vibe to everything that happens.
Kevin: People know that Joe is not profiting, that Joe's not just using us. No one feels used because everyone knows that Joe isn't like some Hollywood dude saying, "Hey want to make me a million dollars and be in my movie for free, Trix?"
Chris: There's a huge level of comfort of working for someone who knows he's going to lose money -- he's taking the hit for it -- and just wants to do it because he really, really wants to do it.
It almost has this sort of innocence of those movies from the Thirties where the characters are like, "Hey, let's put on a show!" Because you're all going to do this, you're doing it because you want to tell a story. And you don't even know which story.
Chris: We all start out with friendships I think. Joe knew Kevin from high school. Joe and I have known each other for the last couple of years, and while Joe didn't know Tipper that well, everyone becomes friends through the process of making the movie.
Kevin: I thought LOL would suck. Even until I saw the rough cut. I thought LOL would be terrible. I still did it just because it would be fun to do. I'd get to hang out with these other people. It was like a sport, almost. Like hunting.
Joe: And if your team loses at the end of the day then.
Kevin: . it's a fun game. I didn't feel like I had that much to lose. And being skeptical in the whole thing from the beginning, felt like, if it was bad, well, I was skeptical all along. so I was right. (laughs)
Chris: The movie was made almost like [writing a] paper. There were a lot of different drafts of it. It wasn't like a traditional movie where to go back and to do re-shoots is a big deal, or costs a lot of money or is really difficult. Because for Joe it's no more difficult than anything else he ever shot.
Joe: I was editing as we went anyway.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. I got a copy of the movie in November and I watched it through as it was, and I was like, "Well, my character needs a scene here and here and here, and this is what these scenes need to be." And then we could go back and weave that into the story and just make sure the continuity matches, and then its like we intended that from the beginning.
Joe, one thing you mentioned at the Q+A at the Philadelphia premiere was that while shooting the film is a collaborative process, ultimately the process ends with you, in your bedroom, editing alone.
Joe: That's the one aspect where I'm not really looking for collaboration. I show the movie to Kevin and Chris along the way so that they can tell me what's working and what's not.... I'll always do the first pass without showing it or asking anything like that. And I feel like that's where the director credit comes in. Technically, LOL will always say a film by the three of us, but I think my editing is where I'm doing my directing. Not on set.... Editing is really fun for me. It's the part of the process that I'm most passionate about.
Talk about the technology you used to make the movie.
Joe: We made the movie with one camera and two microphones.
Kevin: And the microphone was hooked up to a pole by a rubber band.
Joe: We didn't have a boom operator. We just had a 3-legged music stand with a rubber band holding a shotgun mic and a 25-foot XLR cable.
Chris: And you ended up buying a new wireless mic, which was one one-sixth of our budget.
Joe: The most in the budget was the wireless microphone. I bought the wireless microphone, I have a Sony PD-150, and there's 30 DVCAM tapes, and there's a 25-foot XLR cable, and there's the shotgun mic that comes with the PD150.
Kevin: And [we weren't even] shooting progressive. Just shooting interlaced.
Joe: Standard 30 frame interlaced. That's the entire package. And then I have a single clamp light with a dimmer switch, just in case, that I usually carry with me. In two hands I can hold everything use to make both my feature films. But that's the way that allows me to walk to somebody's house and shoot and then walk back home and edit that footage 5 minutes later. I don't need to mobilize the troops to shoot a scene. I just need to take my camera case, take my mic pole, and walk somewhere and shoot. I need to be mobile because as soon as it takes two people to transport my stuff somewhere then I need to plan it a day beforehand, and as soon as I need to plan it a day beforehand I'm thinking too much about it. It's not going to happen spontaneously anymore.
So the stuff with Tipper, where Kevin's playing the music at her house, I said, " I know this girl Ann Wells, and I want this girl to play Tipper's roommate, because I know what she looks like and I kind of know how she acts and aesthetically I want that. So I called this girl, Ann Wells -- and it's such a throwaway role, but I knew I wanted that girl to be that throwaway role -- so I called her and she was like, "I don't know if I can do it." and so I said, "Tell me an hour that you have free, and she said "Ok, if we can do it between four o'clock and five o'clock then we can do it." So I said to Kevin, be at Tipper's house at four o'clock. I'm going to be there at 4. We got there at 4:00. We shot from to 4:00 to 4:45.
Kevin: I held out my t-shirt and he white balanced on it. And then we started shooting.
Joe: As soon as we got there. I was rolling as Kevin was unpacking. And then at 4:45 I drove Ann to where she needed to be. And that was the scene. We even shot two scenes.
Kevin: That's another way, going back to maximizing accidents: If you have that kind of restriction on time. Joe could have said, "I want to take my time. Let's not use Ann Wells. We'll use someone else, and take our time and shoot it." Instead, Joe was like, "If we just go and shoot it, then maybe some things will happen.
And if it doesn't work out, you've only lost 45 minutes.
Kevin: That's the whole philosophy of the movie. Instead of investing $100,000 to do it you invest $3000.
Joe: If I''m funding something with my own money, like, even when it started to climb up to multiple thousands I was feeling like "Ok, it's time to wrap it up." The financial aspect is becoming too large. The failure rate is so high: No movies get distribution anymore, so many are made, and stuff like that. If I spend $3000 hopefully it can make some money and I can split it with everybody. But if it doesn't, then I've only lost $3000. As soon as the money gets into $10,000 and $15,000" then you're playing the lottery and your odds get less and less with each $5000 increment.
Chris: Especially when you can make [the film] for $3000!
Joe: But that goes back to what you were saying earlier: I need to find people like Kevin and Chris to make it for $3000.
Kevin: The only reason that I did it was because I knew that his last film was in a festival and I was thinking that if this did get into festivals, that I'd get to go for free, and stay at hotels and chill out and drink.
And you're living the dream now.
Kevin: And that's what I'm doing.