Joe and Kris Swanberg met early in their freshman year in an English class at Southern Illinois University. As Kris recalls affectionately, “I had a big crush on Joe because he didn’t care about me, probably, and was really smart and vocal in class and always wore a bandana in his back pocket, which I found really attractive.”
“I don’t even remember that,” Joe responds.
“You always had a bandana in your back pocket — that was, like your thing,” she playfully reminds him. “The only reason he did that was to look cool. But at the time, I was totally buying into it.”
Everything changed when he visited Kris’s dorm room one day, discovering her VHS copy of Raising Arizona, and quickly realizing that the zany 1987 comedy was also her favorite film. “The Coen Brothers brought us together,” he says.
They haven’t been apart since. They got married in 2007 and had a son, Jude, who has appeared in several of their films (he steals 2014’s Happy Christmas from even Anna Kendrick), in 2011. Career-wise, last year was quite possibly their best. He debuted Digging for Fire, a prickly comedy about a married couple (Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt) who venture out on their own during separate weekends; while she unveiled Unexpected, a character piece inspired by her own experiences, about a Chicago teacher (Cobie Smulders) coping with an unexpected pregnancy and a marriage that might not be as solid as she thought.
On the subject of pregnancy, when we spoke a few months ago, Kris was about to give birth to the couple’s second child, a girl. Talking by speakerphone from their Chicago home, she and Joe also discussed how their shared love of producing semi-autobiographical work on shoestring budgets jived with their shared love for each other.
How much do you share with each other what you’re working on?
Joe: It depends. Now that we have a kid, when one of us is working, the other person has a concrete role, which is to keep the home running smoothly and focus on Jude. He has a lot of his own things going on that one or the other of us needs to stay on top of. What one of us can do for the other is to give that person undivided time to focus on the work — whatever the work may be, like writing or production. Kris always ends up being one of the first people to watch a cut of my movies. But even during the early formation stuff, I’ll say, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking about doing. Does this idea sound exciting or interesting to you?”
Kris: We’re very sensitive to each other’s feedback and can be cautious about sharing something. With Unexpected, I didn’t even show him the first draft. I wasn’t ready for honest feedback from him because I didn’t want to feel any criticism until I was really sure about it. And I know Joe has felt like that with his projects: He’s shown other people cuts before he shows it to me because he’s still feeling sensitive about it.
Joe: Definitely. I feel like when you’re finishing up any artistic project, you have people whose opinion you can trust—that it’s gonna be coming from an honest and helpful place. So you have to sort of “save” those people: You can’t show the same cut of a movie to all those people at once or else who’s gonna watch the next cut? As I work on movies, I’m choosing when Kris’s feedback is going to be the most helpful to the project. I know she’s gonna have good ideas, but I want those good ideas when I’m ready for them.
Kris: Unlike a friend in the industry, we’re less likely to candy-coat our feedback for each other. You might show a draft or a rough cut to someone else, and they want to make you feel good about it. With me and Joe, we’re just very blunt with each other about what needs to improve. And sometimes that can be not the right moment in the process for that kind of feedback.
Was that feedback process a skill you two had to learn?
Joe: We’ve always been able to be honest. We’re better now at being able to say to the other person what we’re looking for.
Kris: Sometimes, I don’t even want notes from Joe. I just want him to see a part of what I’m doing and know what I’m doing and be excited for me. I think we’re getting better at saying what we need, because the other person might not know that.
Joe: There’s just a lot of talk around the house about what we’re working on. Sometimes that’s artistic talk, and a lot of times that’s business talk. “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this project. Here’s what it’s gonna mean for us: I’m out of town for seven weeks, and I’m gonna make this much money, so we can afford some extra childcare while I’m doing it.” It’s the nuts and bolts of both being freelance artists and needing to make a living — but it’s also about having projects that we want to do. That’s the always-ongoing conversation.
With Digging for Fire, Joe, when did you start talking to Kris about the idea for the movie?
Joe: The film started as text conversations with [cowriter] Jake [Johnson] that were going on for several weeks before I engaged Kris. Early on in our relationship, I was telling Kris every single idea I had. But eventually, you realize it’s not worth it for she and I to have a conversation unless I really think it’s a good idea that I’m actually gonna make. It just so happened that Kris was casting Unexpected around the time we wanted to start Digging For Fire, so I didn’t get a proper pre-production because I was out in L.A. with Jude while Kris was taking meetings and starting to gear up for Unexpected. My cinematographer would come over and we would have pre-production meetings while Jude was taking a nap.
Then, there’s the actual reality that, like, one of those two movies — either Digging for Fire or Unexpected — needs to make money so that we can live. It’s having to figure out how we’re gonna pay the mortgage and put food on the table — and also what that means in terms of the jobs we can take and how much time we can devote to them.
Are you both drawn to films about families because that’s a big part of your lives together?
Joe: Filmmaking for me has always been an attempt to be helpful and useful to people. It’s an attempt to make work about things that I don’t think people are talking about — and that may make them happier and help them feel better-adjusted. With Digging for Fire, that’s a movie that’s specifically talking about escaping certain levels of codependence in a relationship. This married couple’s figuring out how to have their own times separate from each other and feeling bogged down by the realities of money and childrearing and stuff like that. It’s about needing a little break from each other and that being okay.
Kris: Especially if you look at my previous feature, Empire Builder [about a young mother who flees Chicago for Montana], and Unexpected, they’re both dealing with motherhood and the identity of being a mother.
Are your movies a way to talk to each other about your relationship?
Kris: Sometimes I feel like we almost make these things instead of talking to each other. When I made Empire Builder, I feel like we didn’t really talk about it until way after the fact — I was still processing those things, and I don’t think I was ready to even vocalize it until later.
Joe: I think we’re talking through it as it’s happening. My personal opinion is that I don’t need Kris’s permission to make artistic work about our relationship. I view it as a chance to be honest with myself. It’s a shared relationship, but it’s also my life and I have the right to discuss my life. I’m sensitive, but in our relationship we’ve always had to push each other toward honest places.
So is art imitating life, or vice versa?
Joe: It all feels very muddled to me — there’s no clear dividing line, and we sort of made it that way from the very beginning. Kris’s experience of making Unexpected — and now, having that movie get out into the world — will inform our life. It will inform how we change as people, how our relationship changes. And then that will wind up being subject matter for another movie, you know?
In Digging for Fire, the married characters discover the importance of having time on their own. Is making movies a way for the two of you to take a break from the relationship?
Joe: I would say that we strive more to have that individuality in our normal life when we’re not working on movies. We both really like to do stuff and are both really comfortable doing that stuff independently — and then, a couple nights a week, we’re just home together. Making movies also allows us to miss each other and have these independent experiences.
Kris: We trade off.
Joe: A stable relationship can be a thing that can liberate you to be more yourself and because you feel so comfortable that there’s structure in your life. I just spent these past three weeks making this movie — I was free to engage physically and intellectually with the movie 100 percent because I was so positive that Kris was taking care of shit at home. And, hopefully, when she made her movie, she felt the same way about me, that I wasn’t gonna let the ball drop. When she finished with the movie, she would come home to find that things were good — they hadn’t fallen apart.
Your second child is due any day now. How are you two doing?
Joe: Well, we’re both just working. Both Kris and I have potentially major projects on the horizon that don’t quite exist yet. So right now, we’re just pushing forward with these projects, and then we’ll figure out what the reality is in a couple months in terms of work and home life. But now that I’ve wrapped this movie, we’re both just home until the baby comes.
Kris: We’re both on our laptops in different rooms and then going out running errands and doing things that we need to do. But I think with this new baby, we’ve done it before, and so we’re a little less naïve about how difficult it’s going to be. At least for me and my career, I’m ready to very much play it by ear. I’ve been home full-time for two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks — I’m ready to get back into the grind. I’m sort of waiting to see how it feels and what it means for our family, especially since we have a four-year-old, too. So, I’m trying not to put any assumptions on what it’s gonna be like and sort of just be willing to kind of go with it and figure out how we can manage it.
Speaking of Jude, did you ever worry about putting him in your movies at such a young age?
Kris: It’s always felt very natural to me. I mean, if I was gonna make a movie about pedophilia or something that could potentially be traumatic… [Laughs]. After Happy Christmas, there was a lot of talk of, “Oh, are you gonna get him an agent? Are you gonna do commercials?” We’re definitely not interested in that. We definitely don’t want him to have a child-acting career. But film is like a family business: if we owned a restaurant, he’d be helping in the kitchen.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.