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Joe Swanberg Talks About Directing Happy Christmas

The Chicago director was at the Music Box Theatre for the local premiere of his new film. Here’s what he said about working with Lena Dunham, shooting on film, and directing a two-year-old.

Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg in Happy Christmas   Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Thursday night, Andersonville resident and Drinking Buddies director Joe Swanberg stopped by the Music Box to kick off the Chicago premiere of his latest film, Happy Christmas.

Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, the film follows a few weeks in the life of a young couple who take in the husband’s wayward sister. It has all the tropes of a Swanberg vehicle—little in the way of a concrete plot, awkward romantic encounters, and lots of improvised dialogue. It also has a breakout star in Swanberg’s two-year-old son, Jude, whose Cheerio-eating technique is quite impressive.

After the screening, Swanberg hopped onstage to answer a few questions. Here are the highlights: 

On casting Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham:

“Anna was in Drinking Buddies which we shot in July, and I just really had a good time working with her. She’s usually cast as these uptight characters, but my experience of her as a person was she just much more loose and funny—I wanted to let her off the hook a little bit.

Melanie was somebody who I met through the casting process of Drinking Buddies. I didn’t cast her in that movie, but I started talking to her almost right away about something else to do. And Lena is an old friend of mine. I’ve known Lena probably eight years at this point, when she was in film school. My wife and I did a webseries that she was a fan of, and she started e-mailing me.”

On shooting on film:

“It’s really the tail end [of the industry], so I wanted to do it one last time. You hear money going every time the camera rolls, so it made us more deliberate about certain choices. The knowledge that you’re shooting on film makes the actors bring their A-game.”

On directing genre movies:

“I would actually love to do a musical. There’s an HBO show, Looking. I directed an episode, and the star, Jonathan Groff, is an amazing actor and Broadway guy. And of course Anna has a great voice.

“I probably won’t get to do an action movie, but it’s important as a director to know how to stage an action sequence, even if you never do it. Even if you’re using that skill set to stage a comedy scene, it’s important to have as broad a toolbox as possible.”

On directing a two-year-old:

“I didn’t even try to direct him. I asked him if he remembered shooting a movie. He doesn’t know. We took him to Sundance and he saw himself in the movie and he was very critical. During the Cheerio scene he was like, ‘That’s how a baby do it.’ He was so disgusted.”

On what he’s learned over the years:

“I’m trying to figure out how to be a storyteller. I came out of film school wanting to make amateur films and just try to reinvent the whole process of making movies. [But] the more that I’ve done it, the more I’ve gone back to classic film language . . . it was like a lot of people smarter than me spent a hundred years figuring out there’s a reason why you shoot those angles.

“I spent a lot of the year when I was touring for Drinking Buddies talking about how it was my first movie, because to me it felt massive—there was a 30 person crew. So Happy Christmas was almost an unlearning process again.”

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