Interview: Joe Swanberg on Uncle Kent and Internet Dating

February 01, 2011

Chatroulette, like so many other social networking sensations that burned bright before going the way of Geocities, conjures memories of a period in our lives when the whole world seemed a little more open. Random strangers all over the world were conversing, watching the Olympic Winter Games together, finding solid methods of entertainment during the coldest months. And then it was taken over by dicks, literally, and we kept getting "nexted." But what if two random strangers met on Chatroulette and decided to spend a weekend together—one a 40-year-old, bong-toting cartoonist in LA, and the other a confused girl in a relationship with somebody else. And what if these two random strangers had a three-way with another random stranger from the internet? This is the situation that mumblecore veteran Joe Swanberg explores in his latest Sundance-debuted film, Uncle Kent. We got to pick his brain a bit before a screening at Re-Run in Dumbo this past weekend about everything from Grindr to missed connections and other ways of meeting people in the internet age. And if that peaks your interest, the film will be available for viewing outside of the festival circuit courtesy of IFC Films.

How was Sundance? Are you talked out?
It was alright. And nah, making the movies is a very solitary experience so I actually really like talking about them when they're finished. I'm only talked out after the initial push. A lot of times what happens is the movie will premiere at film festivals and I'll burn out on talking about it by the time it's actually in theaters. But I'm in the happy period right now, where I'm like, "Oh we made this thing but I don't quite understand it yet." I'd love to talk about it.

Does that help you figure it out?
It does, definitely. I hope it doesn't sound sloppy that I feel like I don't necessarily know what the movie's about, but I try to make them in as unaware a manner as possible so that they're coming from a real place, and then it's definitely through talking about them and watching them after the fact that I'm like, "Oh, okay, that's what I was going through, and that's why that seemed like the right movie to make at the time." I think with Uncle Kent I was going through a very complicated relationship with the internet, where I was really removing myself from that world. When I first started making movies it was very exciting to see my name places, and then after a couple of movies it became this horrifying thing out there. Like the internet is this really scary monster that wants to hurt me and say mean things about me. My internet habits now don't involve googling myself or reading about anything I've made. I can't do it. I don't want to know. So I think going and making Uncle Kent was the final act of that cleansing ritual, where I wanted to focus on somebody who's very locked into that world.

How do you feel about internet dating?
I don't know…I've been in a relationship for almost twelve years, so I sort of missed the primary boom for internet dating. I imagine that if I was single it's probably something that I would use. I mean, I think Facebook is internet dating. It's not formalized, but people are still using it to scope each other out. It's a casual way to approach somebody, I think. I'm simultaneously amazed by the technology and also wary of losing something that is human about us. The older I get, though, the less judgmental I get of anything anybody does. I'm just like god man the world is so complicated, whatever you can do to figure it out, I'm for it, because it's a tricky place. If people are finding good people, I'm all for it. But I think I take a critical look of that stuff in the movie, at least generally. I think it can be dangerous and unhealthy.

Well, Chatroulette can be—
Chatroulette was the technology that most amazed me at first, and then it was just instantly overtaken by masturbating guys. I mean it was just so fast—somebody told me that you get randomly connected to some stranger in the world, and then instantly people were like, "you can use it to jerk off and hopefully see naked women." I got interested in it as something to maybe fit into a movie, and simultaneously, Kent was going on it and using it as a way to draw people. I liked the idea that characters could meet on Chatroulette and get to know each other outside of it. Because the random aspect of it is sort of what makes it safe, in a way. And then there's nothing to stop you from exchanging info during your one random encounter.

I really liked that conversation they have the first night they meet in person and they're just being completely honest with each other. They can do that because there's not much to lose.
Totally. I think that conversation is the physical embodiment of an internet conversation. You skip all those levels of formality, which is exciting. It probably has a lot to do with why I make movies, because movies are also like that—you get to instantly skip a bunch of formalities and ask real questions and talk about real things. It's the art form that I've found that's the most connective in that way. It appeals to me outside of filmmaking too. I've just made so many friendships that went to deep levels in like six hours. A lot of the time email speeds that up where you're like, "Whelp, I hardly know this person but we're already talking about deep stuff."

You go deep over email?
I have. Lynn Shelton—I met her at the Maryland film festival where we both had movies, and we hung out and ended up talking for like six hours, and then we both flew home the next day and started exchanging emails. I feel like over the course of 24 hours we were both way deep in each others lives, as far as just dropping any pretense and sort of really talking about stuff. It's not face to face so you feel way more comfortable sharing stuff, and I feel like instant messenger has the same thing. You're just able to go for it in a way. Your physical body is a natural protective device against that because you exhibit your awkwardness. But I feel like those kind of conversations are like any drug—there's a hangover from it the next day. If you have one of those experiences where you meet someone and you stay up all night talking, the next day you're just like why was I so free with all that information, I don't know that person. And you sort of feel a little bit strange to yourself. Like, I talked my whole self out and now I don't have any self left. I should be more careful next time. I should save some of myself for myself.

What happens to people like Kent? There's such a desperation there.
In Kent Osborne's specific case, I don't know what happens to him, other than that I think he is an amazing person. The movie is a love letter to him from me. Even though I'm critical of him in some ways, as a director and an editor, I wouldn't make a movie about somebody I didn't totally love, because it's too much of my own time and energy to devote to something. He and I were talking about it a little bit. When the characters in my movies were in their early twenties, I think that critical distance didn't make the audience feel melancholy because everybody's confused in their early twenties. And so people could watch those movies and be like, "oh, I remember that time in my life. It was so complicated but I figured it out and I'm fine now." When the character is forty, there's a little bit less of that feeling and a little bit more of a factor at the end where it's like "oh, that's not pretty." The real Kent Osborne is incredibly successful, he has an amazing job, he's worked with amazing people—you don't see that stuff, though. The Kent Osborne character in the movie is how I see everybody right now turning up at 40.

Yeah I think we're really investing ourselves in this kind of lifestyle where you still have interactions with people, but they're all informed by the connection through the internet. You hang out with your friends but you really get to know them through their Facebook updates. Even I spend so much time on Facebook still—it's like my default when I'm sitting at the computer and I've run out of stuff to do. I'm like, "I'll go back to Facebook. Something's changed there in the last five minutes, I'll just go look at what's new." And that is going to have a huge effect. I don't know what it will be, but nobody walks away from that unscathed.

What about the people who do walk away from it?
They've become extremists in this day and age. I empathize with them, and I feel like I very may well join them soon. It's complicated for me as a filmmaker because I make small movies by myself, so I need as many outlets as I can use to be able to communicate with people who like my work. I still have a Facebook page because it's useful to me as a filmmaker.

I'm so gonna Facebook you after this is over.
You should! But in that sense it's useful for both of us to be able to say "hey" and keep up with what's going on. That's business, but then also you'll be able to see pictures of my babies. These are the fuzzy lines. But I think privacy is a relatively new idea and I think that it could go away as easily as it showed up. I don't know yet whether I would feel happy or sad about that. I don't know whether I'm for or against the idea of privacy. The way families used to live, several generations of a family would live in the same house together. There weren't separate rooms. People would hear each other having sex, people would hear each other crying, people would hear other people's conversation. There wasn't this idea that everybody needs their own bedroom, everybody has their private space—that is new, and it's maybe something that's going to fizzle the way other things fizzle. The internet is certainly chipping away at the idea that we even want privacy. And if young kids grow up in that environment, they won't even know what it means. They won't value it the way I value it. And I'm alright with that. I'm not a nostalgic person. If that changes, then so be it, and I'll adapt.

And so will your baby.
That's right. If I think about my own life, the first time my picture was ever published anywhere was probably in elementary school in some local newspaper. That was the very first time that anybody other than my immediate family would ever have access to me. My son's photos are already available to at least 1,500 strangers on my Facebook page and to anybody else outside of that who would want to copy and paste it somewhere else. He is, at three months old, already more visible than I was at 25 years old. That's just the way it's probably going to keep going. And to do the opposite of that is to be extremism, you know, for my wife and I to say no there's no pictures allowed of him on Facebook and we're going to pull our Facebook pages down or whatever. It's sticking a flag in the ground and saying, "I am standing out here in society." For now, I'm treading water in the internet. I'm staying put. I'm looking at my options. I see an island over there that has no Facebook and an island over there where my whole life is public. I'm just gonna float for a while.

Stay in the warm water.

Posted: February 01, 2011
Interview: Joe Swanberg on Uncle Kent and Internet Dating