Indie insurgent Joe Swanberg sees video on demand as a godsend for smaller films, such as his new “Happy Christmas.”
Trading on the spectacle of “Pitch Perfect” sweetie-pie Anna Kendrick as a wayward party girl swilling and smoking up a storm, the micro-budget “Happy Christmas” won’t appear in a local theater until August, and not on DVD until the holidays. But actor/director Joe Swanberg’s equally soused and sober follow-up to “Drinking Buddies” can be streamed starting Friday via video on demand, which the indie auteur sees as more than just a viewing convenience.
“Without VOD, we wouldn’t be talking right now,” said Swanberg by phone from his home in Chicago, where “Happy Christmas” is set. “VOD has allowed me the career that I want to have. It has enabled many smaller movies to gain distribution and reach a lot of people at relatively little cost. I’m all for it.”
Swanberg, whose slurred digital rom-com “Kissing on the Mouth” helped establish the so-called mumblecore string of twentysomething manifestos, can be considered a wizened veteran at age 32, with 16 features under his belt. “Happy Christmas,” in which Kendrick’s careless Jenny blows into the Windy City to crash indefinitely on her brother’s couch at Yuletide, resembles the hyper-prolific filmmaker’s earliest work for being semiautobiographical and largely improvised.
“The movie is based on stuff that my wife and I were trying to figure out as new parents,” said Swanberg, whose younger brother’s extended visit two years ago, when Swanberg’s son was a toddler, proved both welcome and not.
Kendrick, whom Swanberg had directed in “Drinking Buddies,” came immediately to mind for the role of a freeloading sibling under the influence.
“Nothing about Anna led me to think she was reckless or immature,” Swanberg insisted. “I just thought she was incredible in ‘Drinking Buddies.’ She’s one of those actors who have a really good sense of what feels right in the moment — how long a scene should be, what the vital information is, the text and the subtext. She’s very smart.”
Swanberg’s interest in improvisational filmmaking derives not from repeated screenings of movies by Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, but from having worked with nonprofessional actors from the start of his career.
“I didn’t want to write dialogue for my friends, especially not for the women I was working with,” he said. “I didn’t want to write female characters from a guy’s point of view. I wanted them to speak for themselves.
“Then, as I transitioned into working with professional actors, I kept the same method, because it still appealed to me. If you’re lucky enough to work with intelligent actors, they’re going to say things that are more interesting than what you could write.”
That the cast of “Happy Christmas” includes Swanberg himself, along with fellow writer-directors Mark Webber (“The End of Love”) and Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture,” HBO’s “Girls”), adds to the sense of a film made for filmmakers, including future ones watching at home.
“Whenever the subject of VOD comes up, I always think of my teenage self,” Swanberg said. “When I was growing up in the suburbs, reading Filmmaker magazine, the video store was where I went to see a lot of important stuff that would have been lost to me otherwise. These days, if you live outside one of the major film markets, you can still be part of the cinema community online, and VOD is a big part of that.”
Swanberg shot “Happy Christmas” on celluloid, but said he doesn’t mind if viewers discover his work on the Internet.
“Seeing a movie in a theater is always better, but it’s not always possible. If the choice for me as a filmmaker is between being a purist and being a practical realist, I definitely choose the latter. I want to make movies, and I want people to see them.”