Happy Christmas lands on DVD and digital download today and we got to talk exclusively with the writer-director of the film, Joe Swanberg.
Swanberg dishes re-teaming with his Drinking Buddies star, Anna Kendrick, and how he wrote a role for her in Happy Christmas that shows her in a light the likes of which we’ve never seen. Also, the auteur chimes in about why he set this family drama/comedy at Christmas and what that means to a storyteller and the surprising origins of the Happy Christmas story itself.
Movie Fanatic: What was the origins or genesis of writing this movie that you would then direct? Was it personal and something you had to tell?
Joe Swanberg: It’s definitely personal. My wife and I were having a lot of conversations about similar to what they talk about in the movie about the challenges of being a stay at home mom and being an artist and having a career and trying to strike a balance. I didn’t feel I was seeing many movies that talked about that. For me, one of the powers of movies has been the conversations and putting something up on screen that registers with people. It seemed like that was open territory. Then, my younger brother came to live with us when my son was six months old. He was not as extreme as Anna Kendrick’s character, but it was still a challenge and there were aspects of it that were really fun and aspects of it that were really difficult. In my mind, those two things happening simultaneously might be interesting.
Movie Fanatic: You had to pick a time period to tell your story. But, what was the motivation behind picking Christmas?
Joe Swanberg: For me, Christmas amplifies all of the commotions. We’re made to feel like we’re supposed to be having this really great time. A forced specialness that I thought was really good for a project like this, where characters are not necessarily having the best time. Setting it around the holidays, there are all these holiday expectations. Everything gets turned up a little bit. On a practical level as an independent filmmaker, I knew that we were going to be shooting the movie in December and so I wanted to use as much as real Chicago and real December as possible. The lights are going up and the city starts changing, I wanted to capture that.
Movie Fanatic: Something that is striking in both Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies, is the interaction between the characters feels so far. Almost like this is improvised. What kind of rehearsal timeframe to you usually work with? Or do you not at all to keep it truly natural?
Joe Swanberg: I do avoid rehearsal. I want to make sure the cameras are rolling the first time they do it. We’ll often do a lighting and blocking rehearsal. The preparation is often for several months before the shoot. It takes the form of emails, text messages, phone conversations. An attempt to build the world and figure out who the characters are because once we get going, it happens very quickly. The other thing I like to do, is that the actors are playing themselves in a way. There’s a safety net of a fake name and a fake job and fake clothes, other character traits. But, I want to get it as close to the person as possible. I want those interactions to be as real as possible.
Movie Fanatic: Another spoke in this fantastic wheel is how we’re used to seeing Anna Kendrick in a lot of different ways. But, this is something she truly has never done before. She hit it out of the park. One, why was she so perfect and two, what most impressed you?
Joe Swanberg: We did Drinking Buddies together right before Happy Christmas. I have to say it wasn’t until I was in the editing room that I knew how good she was, the kind of multiple levels she’s working on. I had a great experience with Drinking Buddies, but as I was cutting Happy Christmas together, she really started to strike me as somebody who was operating at the top of her game. It was amazing to me. I called her right away. I wanted to see if she was up for coming back to doing another small improvised movie and trying to give her a bigger role. I felt at the time, the most fun thing we could do is give her the opposite character that she’d played in drinking buddies. And the way she’s played her characters throughout her career -- the type A, anxious, well put together kind of busy person. Just getting to know her, I saw not just an actress but a person who could have a lot of playing a mess. It was a chance to see if we could push that as far as we could, within the realm of naturalism. It was a great pleasure. It was fun to give her this big new territory that I don’t think she’s done before.
Movie Fanatic: I feel she is just scratching the surface of what she’s going to give us before she’s done…
Joe Swanberg: Oh, I think so too. It’s has been such a privilege to watch her and I think she is absolutely one of our best. She’s going to have a long, great career.
Watch Happy Christmas online right now!