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Interview: Filmmaker Joe Swanberg gets to do some acting in 'The Sacrament'

Joe Swanberg talks about having time to act in "The Sacrament," his own interest in the Jonestown Massacre and why he likes to stay indie.

Filmmaker Joe Swanberg rarely has time for acting these days, but he does put in a performance in the horror film "The Sacrament." Credit: Getty Images Filmmaker Joe Swanberg rarely has time for acting these days, but he does put in a performance in the horror film "The Sacrament."
Credit: Getty Images

Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg ("Hannah Takes the Stairs," "Drinking Buddies") has a habit of turning up as an actor in friends' films like his latest, "The Sacrament," Ti West's found-footage thriller about a Vice reporting crew getting in over their heads at remote Jonestown-like encampment. Of course, Swanberg spends most of the film manning a camera, so it wasn't that much of a stretch.

You're playing a cameraman in this, and it's a "found footage" film. Did you actually do any of the camera work yourself?

I did, yeah. There were just certain situations that required that because the camera was going to have to spin around and just see the whole room. Ti and I basically traded off operating duties. It was an interesting challenge because I was either performing with the camera on my shoulder, or what was even weirder was performing standing behind Ti who had the camera on his shoulder and sort of pretending to be there. It took a little bit to wrap my head around it.

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Had you come across any cultish types of things like this before?

Not really, but I was fascinated with Jonestown. When Ti first called me about the movie, I had already seen a ton of documentaries about Jonestown and read a lot about Peoples Temple, so it was a story that was already really intriguing to me. And then adding the Vice component was really exciting because they're just so active right now, covering different kinds of stories and putting themselves into dangerous situations. I spent some time figuring out that kind of Vice vibe. They have their own way of doing it, so we wanted to try to get that right.

Joe Swanberg (to the left, with A.J. Bowen) plays a cameraman filming a Jonestown-like cult in "The Sacrament." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Joe Swanberg (to the left, with A.J. Bowen) plays a cameraman filming a Jonestown-like cult in "The Sacrament."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

How do you balance acting and pursuing your own filmmaking goals?

I've been pretty busy as a director the last year. There was a period of time when I was doing a lot of acting work, and that's kind of slowed down as I've focused more on my own stuff. But I really like to act, so I hope it's something that I'll be able to keep doing. A lot of the films that I acted in two years ago are just coming out now, so it's been cyclical. I don't know, I think of myself as a director. The acting's always been more something that I really love to do but I haven't invested a lot of my energy into it, so it always comes down to just friends calling me and offering me parts in movies. I'm not out there auditioning stuff. I feel like I only get work when people remember me or think of me.

You have your next film as a director, "Happy Christmas," coming out this summer, which seems like an odd time to release it.

Well, I would describe it as more of a comedy and a family movie than it is a Christmas movie. For an independent film, it's really hard to put a movie out in December. That's when the studios are putting out all of their big Oscar movies, and it's easy to get lost. We talked about it and felt that it was a movie that would stand a better chance of finding its audience in the summer, and then in a perfect world it will be out on DVD around Christmas, and if there's a holiday component to the movie people can catch it on home video around that time.

Given the success of "Drinking Buddies," do feel like people are looking at you as the go-to person for films you can make for less than a million dollars?

I don't know, maybe. I've sort of chosen to work really cheaply, and part of that is just a practical mind-set coming from no-budget indie movies. But also you just have so much more freedom at a lower budget level. The more money you throw under there, the more you have to make that money back, and I think that I've just chosen to occupy this space because I can stretch out and try different things.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick

 
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