'Easy' Creator Joe Swanberg On His Improvised Dialogue And 'Mumblecore' The creator of the Netflix anthology show, who is known for a naturalistic style of filmmaking often called mumblecore, says he envisions characters who are kind and generous — and beset by troubles.
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'Easy': How Director Joe Swanberg Improvised A TV Show

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'Easy': How Director Joe Swanberg Improvised A TV Show

'Easy': How Director Joe Swanberg Improvised A TV Show

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The Netflix anthology show "Easy" deals with topics that are anything but easy - searching for love, navigating relationships, seeking knowledge of ourselves and sometimes looking for it in other people. The show's third and final season is out now on Netflix. Its writer, director and creator, Joe Swanberg, told me that he had to translate his indie filmmaking style into something that fit with television.

JOE SWANBERG: TV, in some senses, drives me crazy because you're stuck in this loop with the same characters. So the vibe and sort of anthology nature of "Easy" - you know, pretty much everything about the show came from things I didn't want to do and then doing things that were left.

GREENE: Now, one thing he did do was to create characters you don't know as well, since they recur only occasionally. But they truly feel like people you might meet at a bar or cafe in Chicago.

SWANBERG: All my characters, to me, feel like they are doing their best to be kind, interesting, generous people. And yet, they still run into all of these troubles. And I think I've spent my entire career fascinated by relationships - how we navigate them, the kind of ways in which we're programmed by our parents and our upbringing, the ways that we rebel. All of these things kind of filter into the show as these characters really, you know, try their best but still just run into all of these issues. And to me, those issues are funny. You know, I mean, I think you have to laugh at them.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you about the style of writing and directing this because, you know, people point to this as a big part of the mumblecore genre of filmmaking. For people who have never heard that word before, what is it?

SWANBERG: (Laughter) You know, it kind of describes a lo-fi sort of, you know, kind of punky aesthetic. And a lot of filmmakers like the Duplass brothers, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig - you know, a lot of people that are big directors now - at the time, we were all in our 20s and making these kind of loose, rambling relationship movies. And mumblecore kind of was the catchall idea behind this kind of affiliation. The word itself - I mean, if I heard mumblecore, I would roll my eyes and want nothing to do with it. But it did end up kind of defining us and being a big part of those years and that kind of collection of filmmakers.

GREENE: You just don't like the term, but you like the genre. Right?

SWANBERG: I think the word itself is silly. But yes, of course.

GREENE: You say lo-fi, and you say rambling. Like, what does that mean as you're directing a scene? Like, how much of it is scripted? Do you let the actors just ramble a little bit, and you might use something spontaneous? Like, what's the balance?

SWANBERG: It is very improvised on my end. That's not true of everyone who's affiliated with the mumblecore genre. But for me, the films and "Easy," the television show, are entirely improvised. So with "Easy," I usually write a three or four-page outline describing a scene but no written dialogue or anything like that. And then my actors and I will talk through it. And then they'll improvise takes, and we'll kind of figure it out from there.

I started working that way because I didn't want to put words in characters' mouths. I always felt, wow, it'd be really interesting if these characters just spoke for themselves. And with something like "Easy," now, it's much more of a anthologized television show. And we only have four days to shoot each episode. So...

GREENE: Oh, wow.

SWANBERG: ...They're a little more scripted in the sense that I have to know what's coming. But the dialogue is all still improvised. And I create as much space in the schedule as possible for the actors to discover things on set and for us to shift and adjust to those discoveries.

GREENE: I want a little case study. I have a clip from the show to play for us. This is a married couple. They are trying an open marriage, seeing other people. And this is them talking in their counselor's office about some of the problems that they're having with each other.


MICHAEL CHERNUS: (As Kyle) I do think when you love someone, and you see them come home, and they're excited, that you could be excited that I'm excited about life.

ELIZABETH REASER: (As Andi) You're right. You're right. You're right.

CHERNUS: (As Kyle) It doesn't...

REASER: (As Andi) You're right.

CHERNUS: (As Kyle) You don't have to see the cartoon art.

REASER: (As Andi) But when you work - I'm sorry, but when you work, I have so little free time.

CHERNUS: (As Kyle) It's not about them. I'm enjoying these...

REASER: (As Andi) Excuse me. I have so little free time. I'm working my [expletive] off for not enough, frankly. And it's not going well right now. So maybe when I get home, I don't really want to hear about what exciting, you know - this evolution, this journey that you're on.

GREENE: Wow. OK. So trying out open marriage, not exactly easy...

SWANBERG: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...For this couple. So what would you have said? Like, how much of that would you have established in that scene, and how much is just let them talk?

SWANBERG: Yeah. Well, I've had the benefit of working - that's Michael Chernus and Elizabeth Reaser in that scene. They have been in all three seasons. So that's from the latest season. And we have the advantage of two years of already being - you know, knowing these characters and being in this open conversation.

And then, this time around, I bet we ran that take for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, something like that. And I'm in another room. And you know, they're in the room with the actor who's playing a therapist and, you know, the sound guy and the camera guy. So the set itself is very minimal and quiet. And they have a lot of space to basically have a therapy session.

GREENE: But they're just acting like they're in a therapy session. That's not scripted at all.

SWANBERG: Absolutely.

GREENE: That's all improvised.

SWANBERG: Absolutely.

GREENE: So the mumblecore - I'm sorry if you hate the word - but the mumblecore style...

SWANBERG: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...I mean, does it make uncomfortable moments work better and seem more authentic than if you'd scripted them out?

SWANBERG: I ask myself that all the time. You know, coming up with the limitations that I had, where we were making extremely low-budget movies - I mean, when I started out, my movies cost $5,000, $10,000 for a feature film, so I didn't have the resources to hire incredible, trained actors. I was mostly working with friends and people who didn't have much on-camera experience.

And so we were really learning to make movies together. And I always felt that that improvised, kind of low-key process allowed those non-actors to give really amazing performances. And we created the right balance of realism and then also a little bit of an escape hatch for people to change things and still feel like they were playing a character.

GREENE: This is the final season now. Are you going to stick with television, or what's coming next?

SWANBERG: I don't know. I had an incredible experience making "Easy." So if I could do something like that, I would absolutely dive right back into television. But a part of me feels like I struck gold. You know, I really found an idea that was a perfect fit for how I like to make things. Netflix was just incredible. They gave us a ton of freedom. I mean, this show is improvised. They gave me money and did not know what we were going to do each episode.

GREENE: (Laughter).

SWANBERG: It really was a dreamy scenario. So I don't know that I'll get that lucky again right away. So I may go back to the movie world for a little bit and then see if I can find another TV idea that is this inspiring to me.


GREENE: He makes it sound so easy, doesn't he? Joe Swanberg is the creator, writer and director of the series "Easy." Season Three is out right now on Netflix.

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