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Indie Film King Joe Swanberg on Acting in Upcoming Horror Movie Offseason

Joe Swanberg has been killed a few times. The great filmmaker is friends with directors who have murdered him repeatedly, be it in the V / H / S films, the Ti West movie The Sacramentor Adam Wingard classics like You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die. Perhaps it’s their way of expressing their own admiration for Swanberg’s incredible directorial career (or a playful way to get back at him for being so darn good).

Swanberg wrote, directed, edited, and produced almost two dozen films in the 15 years between 2005 and 2020, and has written and starred in many more, including the great TV series Easy on Netflix and the recent film The Rental, which he wrote with Dave Franco. Swanberg came of cinematic age at a time when digital film and on-demand streaming were opening the doors to all kinds of new media, and no matter how much the term is hated, he was part of the heralded ‘mumblecore’ group of the era . Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Josephine Decker, Amy Seimetz, and Andrew Bujalski, all now famous directors, starred in his early masterpieces.


Acting in Tension

Nights and Weekends Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig hold a yellow rubber ducky
IFC Films

A large part of the world, though, might know Swanberg for his acting career, where he brings a charming and comic simplicity to some roles (like the excellent Christmas dark comedy White Reindeer), though he’s also essentially very good at dying. He usually transports the tonal naturalism of his great independent films into the heightened terror of horror movies, creating something fun and surprising, even if he believes this is a reflection of his limits, not his abilities. Nonetheless, he’s a memorable standout in the new horror movie Offseason.

Well, first of all, I’m not that good of an actor myself, so I do not know that I even have the skill set to do a type of tonal bigness or non-naturalism. You know, my only acting experience is from acting in my own films or friends’ films, where mostly they’re asking me still to play myself or something. I feel like on Offseason […] we are a little bit in tension over this type of like naturalism and stylization, and I do not think tension in a bad way. It makes sense to me that there is an incongruity there, occasionally.

So, it’s really fun, I just kind of do it hyper-naturalistically, and then try and meet the tone in the middle or something, always with the belief that movies are scarier the more real they feel to me. So I’m always trying to ground them in a place, in the hopes that it’s helpful for the movie, or kind of provides a character to connect with on some realism level.

It’s true – Swanberg uses his skills (or limitations, if you’d ask him) to ground the horror movies he’s in. He somehow turns his horror characters into relatable people, which is often a very difficult feat for the genre. This is probably thanks to the years he spent acting in his own films and giving disarmingly vulnerable performances.

“I am a Pawn in Your Larger Game”

VHS - Joe Swanberg in bed in one of the short horror films
Magnet Releasing

The realism he brings to something like You’re Next is funny in contrast to the horrific gore of that wonderful home invasion movieand the naturalism he brings in Offseason (as someone accompanying his on-again-off-again partner to her haunted hometown) makes the atmospheric dread all the more believable, even in an often allegorical setting. Ultimately, though, the extremely down-to-earth Swanberg has a humorous take on his acting career.

There’s a much more realistic version of why these directors cast me. They know they can completely abuse me! I’m friends with them. They can make you do all kinds of horrible things, cover me in fake blood, knowing I will not be too much of a baby about it. They can make me work long hours, they can pay me less. I’m just an easy punching bag and easy to cast, plus I’m a ham, so they know I’ll say yes […] Whenever I’m acting in someone else’s film. My attitude is usually like, you tell me what to do. Like, I’m here for you, I’m a pawn in your larger game, tell me exactly what you want. I’ll just do it for you.

As a filmmaker himself, Swanberg’s respect for a director’s vision is always present in his performances. This is a man who loves film, who is deeply embedded in the independent film community, and who genuinely goes out of his way to help both friends and up-and-comers. Offseason director Mickey Keating has a very specific vision, something seen in his excellent Darling and Carnage parkand Swanberg honored it as much as possible.

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The two filmmakers used the classic indie horror film Carnival of Souls as a reference point for Keating’s vision, watching it together as part of the process. Keating and Swanberg are alike in their shared love of cinema (and horror), and Swanberg says that one of the greatest things about acting in other people’s films is the ability to see and pick up on new directorial skills and techniques.

It’s the first time I’ve worked with Mickey [Keating, Offseason director], I love him. I think he’s a great director and I had such a good time making the movie. Mickey’s attitude is completely infectious, like being on the set was such a fun experience. He’s so funny. He’s so sharp, and so anytime things were difficult or tension arose, and we had to change plans at the last second, which you always have to do all the time on independent films, he was such a good problem solver. You know, he never lost his cool, he always had a good idea. He always had a backup good idea! So, I was so inspired. Yeah, I definitely will be stealing and trying to copy his onset attitude as much as possible.

Directing You Can Do It Too

Joe Swanberg looking down at an open computer screen with a woman over his shoulder
Factory 25

Swanberg may have been inspired by Keating, but he’s been inspirational to many himself. He was one of the directors who proved that a good film could be made in very cheap ways (his LOL and Kissing on the Mouth each cost less than $ 3,000), and his prolific output and refusal to stay down almost makes him the ‘Rocky’ of independent cinema. He does not accredit this to genius or some inherent ability, which in itself has taught budding filmmakers a thing or two.

They basically learned from me that any idiot can be a director, so they might as well go and do it too. I think throughout my career, that has been one of the main messages I have had to offer people. Like, you do not need money, you do not need famous actors, you do not need any of these things. You do not have any excuses. Just go make the movie. And so all those actors who worked with me early in their career just got to see that I did not have any magic tricks. I did not have any special connections. You know, I’m not the child of an uber-famous actor or director. You know, I just am a guy from Chicago who decided to keep doing it, and you know, sometimes that’s a basic but important lesson.

Coincidentally, horror seems to be the genre most conducive to breaking out in the film industry; it can be done on a low budget and does not need big names. Some of the greatest cinematic debuts of recent years have been horror films (Hereditary, The Witch, The Babadook, Get Out), so it makes sense that this king of independent cinema would have a bloody toe in the horror world.

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I always loved horror movies, since high school, basically. I love that they’ve indie films that can launch people’s careers. You know, you can use the horror genre to do political commentary, you can use it to address social issues. I just think it’s a great, great multipurpose genre and one of the only areas where, continually, you can have a hit movie with not a lot of money or actors people know.

Why I have not made one? I think I do not excel in technical genres. You know, the thing that gets me excited about filmmaking has nothing to do with technicalities. I love performance. I love working with actors. I love complicated emotional situations and things like that. And there’s just something about the horror genre that requires technicality, and timing, and all that kind of stuff. I would say it’s the same reason why I have not explicitly made a comedy [because] comedy requires the same type of technical expertise often. Delivering a laugh and delivering the jump scare both require precision. And I’m a ‘messy emotional’ director, not a ‘precision technical’ director, so I think I’ve always been intimidated by both genres, it’s just not my zone.

Working on his Offseason

Mickey Keating and Swanberg have a lot in common, even if the former excels at the ‘precision technical’ side and the latter is best with ‘messy emotions.’ They both spent chunks of their childhood in Florida, right around where Offseason was filmed, and the two could talk cinema together for hours. The production brought these two forces of film together, creating a wonderful experience for both in the process.

I finished eighth grade in Rockledge, Florida, right where we filmed Offseason. So I knew that area well, living there for nine months at the end of eighth grade, so it was really fun to be back. A lot of the time, I live in Illinois, and we shot Offseason in January, so I left a very snowy cold place and arrived in, like, beautiful Florida. So I think I was blissed out for most of the shoot, and also, I would just go on long night walks along the beach. They put me up at a place that was right on the beach and the moon would be out. I would look at miles in each direction and not see another person, and just kind of roamed along the beach.

Also, Mickey was staying down the road, so often, after we wrapped, I’d go home, take a shower, eat a little bit, and then, almost like we were little kids, I’d walk down the beach and knock on his door, and then try and bully him into showing me footage or something like that. It was just a blast. I mean, really. I’ve been making movies for a really long time, but that was definitely one of the funnest and most memorable acting experiences.

You’ll have to watch the creepy, atmospheric Offseasonalso starring Jocelin Donahue from The House of the Devil and Doctor Sleep, to find out if Joe Swanberg is memorably murdered here, too. Hopefully it will not be the last time.

Offseason will be released in theaters, on VOD, and streaming on Shudder on March 11.

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