August 16, 2007

Matt Dentler and Andrew Bujalski.

Hannah Takes the Stairs In the chapter on the 00s, future histories of American independent film are going to be highlighting the role of SXSW Film Conference and Festival Producer Matt Dentler. Not simply because he sensed early on that something was going on that would eventually get labeled "mumblecore" or an "Ultra-Indie Movement" and who knows what all else and has given these restless filmmakers a platform, an audience and a vibrant venue for an annual reunion - but also because his support for films SXSW invites, launches and/or takes under its wing extends far, far beyond the festival's official closing day.

At All these wonderful things, Matt talks with Greta Gerwig about being Hannah in the film that won many a heart at this year's SXSW, my own included, Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs. At Movie City Indie, he talks with co-star and The Guatemalan Handshake director Todd Rohal. At A Director's Log, it's the irresistible Kent Osborne. And at Boredom at Its Boredest, it's Orphans director Ry Russo-Young. Here, Matt's unprecedented campaign rolls on. The man even writes his own introductions:

On the eve of the theatrical debut of Joe Swanberg's SXSW 2007 hit, Hannah Takes the Stairs, I wanted to check in with each of the film's principal collaborators. The film has been documented as a successful collaboration between acclaimed film artists from around the nation, each one offering their own trademark influence on the final film. Hannah Takes the Stairs will open at the IFC Center in New York, on August 22, as well as be available on IFC VOD the same day. As part of an ongoing series you can find throughout the film blogosphere, here is an interview with Hannah co-star (and Mutual Appreciation director) Andrew Bujalski:

Updated through 8/23 (J Hoberman, Dennis Lim, Karina Longworth; Hannah reviews).

Dentler: How did you first get connected to Hannah Takes the Stairs?

Bujalski: I seem to recall Joey telling me a little about his idea for the film - which originally, somehow, was quasi-sci-fi - when I was in Chicago in the fall of 2005. Not too many months later he asked me seriously about doing it and, having roped many of my reluctant friends into acting for me in the past, I felt like I was in no karmic position to say no.

Dentler: What do you remember most about the shoot in Chicago?

Bujalski: Atari Breakout and Michael McDonald.

Dentler: How did the production process differ from your own other projects, or projects you've acted in before or since?

Bujalski: My productions, which everyone keeps telling me are tiny, feel positively bloated in comparison to the Hannah shoot. Though there are stresses and insecurities that come with any kind of performance, it's certainly difficult to imagine a more relaxed production day to day. It was also not entirely unlike what I imagine living in a cult compound to be like.

Dentler: What are your thoughts on the issues of sex and relationships that come to the forefront of the film?

Bujalski: Which issues? I am pro-sex and pro-relationship, both.

Dentler: Ever been in a love triangle?

Bujalski: I have played the outlast/outmaneuver game where I and another dude stay up late into the night trying to charm the same girl; generally speaking, this is a game where stamina and zoned-in focus triumph; I rarely win. Has been several years since I found myself in one of these.

Dentler: Did you ever work with "the stairs"? Any thoughts on why they didn't make the cut?

Bujalski: I was supposed to work with them, but Hannah took them. Has everybody made that same joke?

Earlier: A video Q&A with Joe Swanberg, Tipper Newton, Kevin Bewersdorf and C Mason Wells.

Andrew Grant (whom you may know as Filmbrain) spoke with Joe almost exactly a year ago. Andrew's since launched a DVD distribution company, Benten Films, which will be releasing Joe's LOL on August 28.

Updates, 8/17: Matt talks with Kris Williams Swanberg at Cinephiliac, virtual address of Aaron Hillis, also of Benten Films.

As Karina notes below, the SpoutBlog's running Matt's interview with Mark Duplass.

Updates, 8/18: And for Filmmaker, Matt talks with Joe. That question, "Ever been in a love triangle?" Joe: "I am currently involved in a love triangle with my wife and the Internet."

The New Talkies: Generation DIY, opening Wednesday and running through September 4, has prompted pieces by J Hoberman in the Voice and Dennis Lim in the International Herald Tribune, where he writes, "mumblecore is the sole significant American indie film wave of the last 20 years to have emerged outside the ecosystem of the Sundance Film Festival."

Significant indeed, though neither critic seems particularly enthusiastic about the films themselves. Fair enough; this is one widely disparate batch of movies. Still, I'd be surprised to find a single film mentioned in both pieces on either critic's top ten at the end of the year.

Turn to Dennis Lim's piece for a who's-who and what-happened-when and to J Hoberman's for more critical assessment: "Typically running a compact 80 minutes, these movies are disarmingly pragmatic, full of abrupt cuts and choppy inserts. Acting is mainly a coping mechanism. The characters in Hannah alternate between unconscious and self-conscious and that's the charm.... Mumblecore is demographically self-contained. Straight, white, middle class. The movies suggest college, without the course load.... It's impossible to predict how the Mumblecorps will mature but, given their immersion in the moment, I suspect that the films they've made will age very well."

I guess that's something between approval and endorsement, but miles away from evangelism, which, again, is a perfectly understandable response to such a mixed bag.

It's the mixed messages in Dennis Lim's piece, though, that some may find confusing. On the one hand, "Jay and Mark Duplass's Puffy Chair was released jointly by Netflix and the distributor Roadside Attractions and, thanks to aggressive promotion to Netflix subscribers, did well in theaters and even better on DVD. Andrew Bujalski, whose Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation are the best reviewed of the crop, is to write and direct an adaptation of Indecision, a novel by Benjamin Kunkel, for the producer Scott Rudin." On the other, "the mumblecore crew has approached not just production but also distribution with a do-it-yourself mind-set."

How many of the mumblecorps have to deviate from the DIY route before we let the air out of that one? After all, Benton Films will be releasing not only LOL but also Aaron Katz's Dance Party USA and Quiet City and Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake.

Well, speaking of Benten, at the SpoutBlog, Karina Longworth talks with Andrew and Aaron about the origins of the company, mumblecore and, of course, desert island media.

Updates, 8/19: A "lack of pretense, partly the byproduct of Swanberg's reliance on scene-to-scene and structural improvisation - which is itself an outgrowth of his no-budget, DIY techniques - is also its Achilles' heel, as it lends the director's latest a vapidity not easily disregarded," writes Nick Schager, reviewing Hannah for Slant. "Swanberg, within individual scenes, captures reasonably perceptive truths about communication and love. Overall, though, he seems a bit lost on how exactly to answer Bujalski's question, 'How do you make drama out of abstract ideas?'"

"Progressing beyond the earlier fumblings of Kissing on the Mouth and the more subtly developed LOL, the director harnesses in Hannah the fleeting emotional frequencies of everyday interaction for which he's been striving," writes Kristi Mitsuda at indieWIRE.

At Self-Reliant Filmmaking, Matt talks with Kevin Bewersdorf, and at his own blog, Matt talks with Hannah producer Anish Savjani.

Updates, 8/20: For Filmmaker, Nick Dawson talks with Joe "about directing directors, his continuing quest to make 'the one,' and his desire to make a PG-13 romantic comedy."

"'Mumblecore' is a myth, and the term has sort of taken on a life of its own." It's Matt Dentler again, this time at indieWIRE: "The one thing this term does address, however, is the fact the films lumped into it, are all about communication or a lack thereof. As a whole, these films speak volumes about what post-college or pre-marriage life means to an entire generation who were promised flying cars, and instead got reality TV, after the year 2000. And, around this time, a unique kind of American independent film began to emerge out of the late-1990s cacophony of Tarantino/Rodriguez rip-offs. We wanted something different."

Updates, 8/21: IndieWIRE interviews Joe.

Online viewing tips. Sujewa Ekanayake gathers clips and trailers from the features screening in the Generation DIY series.

Updates, 8/22: "As played by the actress-writer Greta Gerwig, Hannah is neurotic, sweet and mildly sarcastic, in a Gen Y-Diane Keaton sort of way, and her small-stakes odyssey through three relationships is wryly observed," writes Matt Zoller Seitz in the New York Times. Yes, I was reminded of Keaton, too. Anyway:

For devotees of recent DIY moviemaking, Hannah will evoke melancholy feelings, and not just because the heroine finds (probably temporary) bliss without seriously examining her preconceptions. Mr Bujalski is writing a movie for Paramount; Mr Duplass and his brother and filmmaking partner, Jay Duplass, are writing and directing features for Universal and Fox Searchlight and have sold a television series to NBC; Mr Swanberg and Ms Gerwig are already finishing a new movie, and are so talented that they may not have to scrounge for financing for the next one.

In light of all this, Hannah plays like an incidental swan song, a signpost marking the point when mumblecore became a nostalgic label rather than a present-tense cultural force, and its most acclaimed practitioners moved on to bigger things. Mr Swanberg's third movie is a graduation photo in motion: DIY, class of '07.

Even so: "I'm not exaggerating when I say that it might very well be the finest depiction of early 20s confusion that I've ever seen," blogs Michael Tully.

Mumblecore is "for the most part, not an ethnically diverse movement/group," admits Sujewa Ekanayake, but "they have, using easily doable techniques... overcome limitations and obstacles that keep people (including minorities) from making & distributing movies."

Marcy Dermansky on Hannah: "The unexpected appeal of this seeming non-story is cumulative; what begins as a maddening portrait of a microcosm of liberal, well-educated white kids (with the occasional ethnic friend) steadily grows on you. Much credit has to be given to Gerwig's understated and lovely performance; Hannah's 'chronic dissatisfaction' is easy to recognize and emphasize with, especially when she is at her worst: selfish, manipulative, and self-pitying."

"If these films are hyped, they may be doomed," writes Anthony Kaufman. "One of the joys of stumbling upon a charming or sophisticated or funny low-budget 'mumblecore' film is just that, stumbling upon it, whether given to you on DVD by a friend or the filmmaker himself or walking into one of them unknowingly at a film festival. They are so lo-fi, so seemingly slapdash, and many of them so crude in appearance compared to what else people are expecting to see in a movie theater, I'd think they need to come at the average viewer like a pleasant surprise, with as little forethought or anticipation as possible."

At the Reeler, ST VanAirsdale fills in a few of the gaps in the mumblecore story so far, adds more projects to the fast-growing list of what's in store for these filmmakers and gets some good quotage from all involved; I particularly like this one from Andrew Bujalski: "I guess that what bugs me about this idea of a movement is that I feel like the things that these films all have in common are the least interesting things about them. It's the differences that make them interesting. You read the synopses - 'These are films made cheaply about young white people talking to each other.' And of course it sounds excruciating. And there are plenty of films that fit that description that are excruciating. The things that make the films good are not that."

Updates, 8/23: "Whatever you make of [mumblecore], it's pretty much the opposite of the 'Napoleon Sunshine' indie formula, in which quirky characters and story lines are painstakingly packaged in familiar narrative structures aimed at a semi-elite, not-quite-mass audience," writes Andrew O'Hehir in Salon. "For whatever it's worth, I'd rate Mutual Appreciation as clearly the best film produced by this nascent movement (which surely won't contain Bujalski for long). Swanberg's LOL, Katz's Dance Party USA and the Duplass brothers' Puffy Chair are other good starting points. Hannah Takes the Stairs is a denser, talkier and more challenging film; it's the second-semester course, if you like." And you can download a conversation with Joe Swanberg to listen to as well.

He also points to Chuck Klosterman's profile of Andrew Bujalski for Esquire.

"The go-to description in the case of mumblecore is 'naturalism,' a close cousin of documentary realism and the rebellious younger brother of [Judd] Apatow's classical message-based creations," writes Eric Kohn in the New York Press. "The furthest thing from escapism, mumblecore cinema (to use the moniker loosely) focuses on the struggle to escape - from mundanity."

AJ Schnack's been following this crowd since 2002 and digs up some observations from those long gone halcyon days.

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Posted by dwhudson at August 16, 2007 3:32 PM


We posted Matt's interview with Mark Duplass yesterday, too:

Posted by: Karina at August 17, 2007 4:24 AM

Many thanks, Karina - and he's terrific in the film as well.

Posted by: David Hudson at August 17, 2007 12:23 PM