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An interview with the director of Hannah Takes the Stairs, Joe Swanberg

At a time when vast sums of cash are being hurled at production companies, all too often for the production of rather dull films, the low-budget Hannah Takes the Stairs is a shining gem of a film by Joe Swanberg. Lauded as an example of the new wave of American indie film-making it is refreshing for its raw visual quality and honestly portrayed subject matter.

Greta Gerwig plays Hannah, an attractive post-graduate who is starting out in the big world. As the heat of summer intensifies, Hannah falls out of love with her newly unemployed boyfriend and into the arms of her colleague Paul. Feeling a general sense of malaise she drifts from this romance to another, this time with Matt, another workmate. Along the way she contemplates her place in the world and is frustrated, as she attempts to make sense of it all.

Swanberg worked closely with Gerwig to develop the storyline and the character of Hannah. Created from an intense series of workshops and the improvised dialogue, Hannah makes a believable and charming story with characters that will resonate with many viewers. Fans of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation: you can watch their director, Andrew Bujalski, in the role of Hannah’s second romancer Paul.

Hannah Takes the Stairs has been identified as part of the new wave of American indie filmmaking. Nowadays, this trend is often referred to as "Mumblecore". What are you thoughts on such terminology and the contemporary American indie film scene?

I'm very excited about the American independent film scene at the moment.  I think the term "mumblecore" is ridiculous, but I am very inspired by some of the films that my friends are making.  I'm happy to be part of this community, and I hope I am providing the same encouragement and stimulation for my fellow filmmakers as they are providing for me.

A large part of your crew belongs to the indie film scene and most of you are friends. How did your paths originally crossed?

I met almost everyone I'm working with at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Matt Dentler, the producer/programmer of the Festival, has shone a spotlight on a particular kind of independent American filmmaking, and he has created an environment where filmmakers can get to know each other, and films can find mainstream exposure and distribution, away from all the hype and pressure of similar size Festivals.

There is a strong sense of immediacy in Hannah and the film may draw comparisons with Dogme and its manifesto. Was this movement an influence on you at all?

I was very excited by the Dogme 95 manifesto when I was in film school. I agreed with their goals of stripping away the traditional baggage of filmmaking and focusing on the performances. I have always been more interested in characters than camerawork or sound design, so it was right up my alley.  Ultimately I find the rules too limiting, so I have no desire to make a Dogme film, but I think they were asking the right questions and they got people thinking in an exciting way.

Hannah is an intimate portrait of a young woman. Where did the idea come from? Greta Gerwig's presence and acting were impressive. Are you planning to work with her again?

My second film, LOL, focused entirely on men and masculinity, so I think I was ready to move back to a story about a woman. I worked very closely with Greta to ensure that the character was real. As a man, I don't feel comfortable writing for women, so I like to work with talented female actors to tell a story together. Greta and I are currently working on another film, Nights and Weekends, where we play a couple in a long distance relationship. We are once again collaborating very closely on the project.

Are there any plans to turn your on-line series Young American Bodies into a big screen version?

The accessibility of Young American Bodies on the internet is precisely what I like so much about the project. Anyone in the world can watch it, whenever they want. Turning it into a big screen feature film would make it more difficult to see, not easier.  My goal is to always have the series be available for free on-line. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen the show, and only a fraction of those people have ever seen or heard of my films. Because there is not mainstream media attention for shows on the internet, this may not seem like the case, but my online work is much more successful than my feature filmmaking.

What films inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Raising Arizona is the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. After that I was very inspired by films like Stop Making Sense, The Endless Summer, Trust, Harold Maude and Breaking the Waves.

Finally about the festival...
Why are public film festivals important?

For filmmakers like myself, public film festivals are often the only chance people will have to see my work on the big screen. The mainstream media is not always able to bring exposure to independent films, so film festivals also bring necessary attention to many deserving films.  Film festivals also offer the audience a chance to interact with the filmmakers and to discuss the films at length after the screenings. These interactions often shed light on the films or the filmmakers and make the experience much more enjoyable than a typical screening.

What films are you planning to see at this year's festival?

I'm very excited about Harmony Korine's new film, Mister Lonely and Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound. But I'm most looking forward to the films that I haven't heard of yet, that are going to send me back to Chicago feeling challenged and excited.

Ilona Cheshire
BA Film Studies
Press Officer, BFI Southbank

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