Joe Swanberg, wearing jeans and a red flannel shirt, looks slightly out of place as he sips his beer in a swanky West Hollywood hotel bar on a Wednesday night. Netflix has just hosted a screening of two episodes from his exceptional new anthology series Easy and the writer-director roams the room, making small talk with actors decked out in suits and cocktail dresses.
After years of making relatively little-seen indie films with tiny budgets, Swanberg is about to enter the mainstream. But as he tells me, he is eager to get back home to Chicago, where he has lived and worked for the past decade.
With its loose, interconnected structure that feels more like eight half-hour short films than a traditional television series, Easy has drawn parallels to anthology films like New York, I Love You and Paris, Je T’aime. It’s more along the lines of “Chicago, It’s Complicated.”
The characters in Easy include lifelong Chicagoans along with new arrivals, all sharing a common preoccupation with sex and relationships. Then there are those who are agonizing over potential moves elsewhere, most notably to Los Angeles, in pursuit of bigger and better things.
Swanberg may have felt that draw as well, as films he wrote and directed like early indie darling Hannah Takes the Stairs (starring Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig) and the more recent small-scale hit Drinking Buddies (featuring bigger names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick) caught the eyes of Hollywood producers. But he has stayed true to his Midwestern roots. When Netflix called on him to create his own series, the production came to him.
“I’ve reached a point where I’ve been working for 15 years and I’m really ready to communicate with a bigger audience,” Swanberg tells me by phone from Chicago a few days after the L.A. premiere and just three days before all eight episodes of Easy will start streaming on Netflix.
The most obvious difference between Easy and Swanberg’s films is the format. Whereas many Netflix series — such as this past summer’s big hit Stranger Things, or Judd Apatow’s Love, on which Swanberg directed an episode — are essentially meant to be binged as one long movie, each episode of Easy stands alone as its own short film. In that way, it more closely resembles High Maintenance, the web series-turned-TV show that premiered on HBO last week.
While each episode can be enjoyed fully in isolation, the series takes on greater resonance when viewed in full. Actors and the characters that they play recur throughout the show. The actress Kiersey Clemons pops up in one episode as a babysitter before becoming the focus of a subsequent episode when she experiments with dating a vegan woman. Michael Chernus (Piper’s brother on Orange Is the New Black), who plays a stay-at-home dad in the first episode, later reappears when his character is co-starring in a play with a British transplant played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
The only downside to this new format, according to Swanberg, was that he had never done anything like it before and was “learning on the job.” But “the pros were abundant,” he says. “It was a chance to work with a lot of actors, which I loved. It was a chance to tell a lot of different stories in a short amount of time, which was really exciting.”
Swanberg says he was able to capitalize on everything he loves about television without being “forced” to choose one set of lead characters. “It felt wide open to me, the show could and still can become anything it wants to be,” he says.
With a new cast coming through Chicago for each episode, Swanberg says he has “never felt as constantly invigorated throughout a production” as he did while working on Easy. He and his crew managed to shoot one episode per week over eight weeks, a breakneck pace for this type of visual storytelling. The actors would arrive in Chicago on a Sunday, then spend Monday location scouting, costume fitting and talking through the details of that episode. They would then shoot Tuesday through Friday and the actors would fly home Saturday. Swanberg says he knows it’s “hard for actors to commit to a television show” because it typically takes up so much of their year. But in this case all he was asking of movie stars like Orlando Bloom and Dave Franco is that they spend a week “hanging out” with him in Chicago.
“It really did feel like doing short films, in the best way,” he says, with the type of “open-ended” conclusions to each episode than most TV shows, especially the binge-able Netflix variety, can’t always have. “It opened up the world of film actors to us. A lot of people who would be hesitant or nervous about committing to a TV schedule, didn’t have to worry about that,” Swanberg adds, saying he was able to cast “exactly the people I wanted for these roles.”
And getting the right actors is especially important on a Joe Swanberg production, because, as he says, “I’m leaning on them very heavily.” Each episode ends with the words “Written and Directed by Joe Swanberg,” which is true on the directing side of things, but less so when it comes to the writing. “We’re not starting with much,” he says of the rough outlines he brought to the actors before they started shooting. As with each of his films, all of the dialogue in Easy is completely improvised.
Swanberg initially pitched 15 episode ideas to Netflix, which were ultimately whittled down to eight brief paragraph summaries. “The writing process doesn’t start in full until I have a cast,” Swanberg says. “And then it’s a process I’m going through with the actors. In a dream scenario, they connect very strongly with the character and they’re willing to bring a lot of their own life and experience to the character.” That was certainly the case when it came to the episode that stars comedian Marc Maron.
“That character was in my head for a long time,” Swanberg says of the graphic novelist who Maron plays in the show’s hilarious and emotionally-wrenching fifth episode. Once he thought of Maron for it, he “couldn’t imagine anybody else doing it.” When it looked like the podcast host and occasional actor might not be able to make it work in his schedule, Swanberg had a “crisis moment” because he didn’t think anyone else could be as “perfect” for the part.
He lucked out, as Maron brought not only his most raw on-screen performance to date but also fed details of his own life into the character, including the character’s backstory, the titles of his three books and the names of his ex-wives. “What he brought to it in terms of who that character was, was just so smart and so rich,” he says. “He really was a writer on that episode,” and a “really good writer” at that.
Similarly, Maron’s co-star, the actress and model Emily Ratajkowski formed a strong connection to her character, a graduate student photographer whose work consists of provocative selfies, something with which she too has personal experience. “It couldn’t have been a nicer crossover of two people whose personalities outside of the show informed the characters,” Swanberg says.
Speaking about the show on his WTF podcast this past week, Maron told listeners, “I’d never done anything like what I did with Joe, really,” adding that he’s “very proud” of the work he did in the episode. “I know that I can improvise, on a stand-up stage or in conversation or whatnot,” he added, “but on the set, you just go with very basic information and you lock your own emotional choices into the thing.” When he finally watched the finished product, Maron said he was “surprised” at how simultaneously “funny” and “deep” it was. “I don’t know how the hell he pulls all this stuff together as a director,” he said of Swanberg. “You really have to have a unique way of thinking.”
Another episode was improvised entirely in Spanish, despite the fact that Swanberg says he does not speak that language particularly well. The process presented the same challenges that Woody Allen encountered when he directed Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem as warring ex-lovers in Vicky Christina Barcelona.
“When I did Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Javier Bardem and Penelope were ad-libbing all over the place. I didn’t understand anything they were saying,” Allen famously told reporters at the time. “To this day I have no idea what they were saying in those scenes.”
“I was able to very roughly follow along,” Swanberg says of the scenes between Looking’s Raúl Castillo and Aislinn Derbez, who plays his unsatisfied wife. He didn’t truly grasp what they were saying until he watched the first cut of the episode with subtitles included. “That experience was amazing, because we were forced to trust each other,” he says, adding that he felt “liberated” to take more chances visually in that episode because he didn’t have to focus on the dialogue as much. “I had a lot of fun playing around with the camera in that episode,” he adds.
Given that the show revolves around sex and features a nearly-naked Orlando Bloom in one episode, I had to ask Swanberg what he thought when he first heard about that actor’s nude paddleboarding photos that briefly broke the internet over the summer. As it turns out, Swanberg was on a digital detox at the time.
“I was on a five-week road trip with my wife and kids where I didn’t have a phone or computer with me,” he says, laughing. It was a few weeks later, while he was hanging out in L.A. with Garfunkel and Oates’ Kate Micucci — one of two actors who engages in a threesome with Bloom on the show — that she casually mentioned the photo to Swanberg, who stared back at her blankly. “You didn’t hear about Orlando?” she asked. “Just Google it.”
“You know, Orlando’s a fun guy, he’s a real free spirit,” Swanberg says now of his most famous cast member. “I’m proud of him for being himself.”
Sex may be the explicit theme of Easy, but on a deeper level, it is about aging and the struggle between freedom and responsibility that has dominated much of Swanberg’s work. The director says he’s “fascinated” by his own generation’s “prolonged adolescence,” in which the expected time to get married has shifted from one’s 20s, to 30s and now even into one’s 40s. In his view, people don’t want to settle down until they feel like they “have their life together.”
But personally, that’s not been Swanberg’s experience at all. He married his wife when he was 25, had his first child at 29 and now has two kids at 35. “As I see this kind of shifting and creeping, I think I’m really interested in it because I have such a different perspective,” he says of our evolving sense of what is normal and expected when it comes to partnership and family. This point of view is mirrored in the characters Bloom and Malin Akerman portray, a married couple who get a taste of Tinder and feel like they’ve missed out on something important.
He may be leading a “traditional” life on the personal side, but his professional career has been anything but linear. “Over the years, there were frustrating periods of time where I felt like it was one step forward, two steps back,” Swanberg says. “I would make something that I felt like got a little bit of attention and then I would make another movie that nobody saw. It was like, there’s no sense of forward momentum here.”
Easy is undeniably a huge step forward, both creatively and commercially. “I have no idea how many people will watch this show,” he says, acknowledging the fact that Netflix doesn’t release ratings, even to its collaborators. “What I’m excited about is that there’s an opportunity for a lot of people to watch this show. It blows my mind to think that 190 countries are going to have access to this show on Thursday.”
Like a lot of indie filmmakers who are now directing big budget studio movies or creating their own successful television shows, Swanberg relishes that fact that he has been able to enter the mainstream with his “sensibility still intact.”
“None of us really had to change in order to find that bigger audience,” he says of his peers. “We just kind of had to wait long enough for the mechanism to include us.”