By Ray Pride
In less than a year-and-a-half, Forager Film, with filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Peter Gilbert and trader Eddie Linker as partners, has produced six feature films, with four of them—Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” and “Digging for Fire,” his wife Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth”—already in distribution. As we scheduled our meeting for a sunny afternoon last week, Swanberg joked about their lack of offices or any other amenity producers sometimes lavish on themselves. Swanberg, Linker and I got coffee, pulled up three stumps under a tree on a Ravenswood side street, with the intermittent hum of low-flying planes overhead and the rumble of Metra trains across the street. Truly, a no-budget business meeting.
What does the company name mean?
Swanberg: I consider us like a hunter-gatherer company in the sense that we don’t have any sort of mission, we’re just on the lookout for good movies. Foraging through the excess of stuff around projects looking for money, and unlike a lot of financiers of independent film, we’re not waiting for projects to come in. We’re actively seeking out the filmmakers we want to work with and pitch them a type of model. So, Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” came about that way. Alex was coming off what I consider the best film to have been made that year, “Listen Up Philip,” which had a tremendous struggle securing distribution and then even in its release had a lot of trouble finding an audience. I was baffled by that, but one thing I knew for sure is that guy ought to get back to work right away rather than sit around in the wake of a bizarre success-slash-failure. I also felt with that film that Elisabeth Moss had not… she’s really good in it, but she hadn’t been fully utilized. So I encouraged Alex in a similar way to how I’d worked with Anna Kendrick. She came in in a supporting role in “Drinking Buddies,” then we developed a project especially for her to be in the lead. I said to Alex, ‘You know, you have this relationship with this amazing actress who came in in the utility role in this film, why don’t you investigate with her a part where she would be able to fully shine. You guys have built that trust, go for it, dig deeper.’ Similar to the way where “Happy Christmas” came together, I talked to her first and then we built that thing. Alex followed that up with Elisabeth, born out of ideas that were swirling in his head, but with Elisabeth as a collaborator the entire time.
Alex told me recently that there’s also a very specific choice on how much money, how many shooting days you can have.
Swanberg: The model we originally talked about was doing $300,000 movies, that was the space we wanted to occupy. What I realized was the difference between a $300,000 movies and a $150,000 movie is you have just enough money to be dangerous with $300,000, but then you are placed into this uncomfortable position where you don’t have enough money to really pay everyone what they’re worth and do it the right way, but you have too much money to claim that you have no money. The $150,000 movie, it’s actually easier to get your creative team paid in the success of the film than it would be to pay them not what they’re worth and call it a day. It’s worked out now with “Happy Christmas” and “Digging for Fire,” where my collaborative partners on that movie ended up making more money by doing the movie cheaply with me and participating in the back-end than any of them would have made going a union-minimum route, and not paying them what they’re worth up front. We’re looking for people who’ve made features for $25,000, who know how to maximize $150,000. That was the other reason [we worked with] Alex, my wife Kris’ film, “Unexpected” and Harrison Atkins’ film, “Lace Crater,” which was just at Toronto, in all those instances, they were filmmakers who had done no-budget, true no-budget movies and then supplying them with an amount of money that feels cushier than no budget and allows them… If mentally, everyone feels like they’re still making a no-budget movie, then that $150,000 gets spent wisely. As opposed to, “Cool! We have so much money! Let’s go crazy, let’s get another truck!”
What connected the three of you?
Swanberg: Peter was the connecting link. Eddie’s known Peter for a long time, I’ve known Peter for a long time, and Eddie and I met in the summer of 2012. I met Peter through Steve James at the time of “At The Death House Door,” we were both at South by Southwest whatever year that was, 2008. I got coffee with Peter back in Chicago, and it’s interesting, he pitched me what has become Forager all the way back then. I was at a place where I was still in the middle of making $15-$20,000 movies and I was like, yeah, that sounds nice, Peter, I don’t even want $150,000 right now.
Linker: My background’s in trading, right? Electronic trading came and the introduction of computers made trading way cheaper and markets more accessible, more difficult for some, easier for others. I saw that revolution, and Peter’s my neighbor, and I was like, “Peter!” There were articles in the paper then, the early 2000s, about USC’s film school was being outdistanced because Columbia went all digital, as they couldn’t afford to do film anymore. I was like, “Peter, technology’s making it really cheap! I’ve seen this before! We gotta do some quality movies at low budget and really clean up on this while we can. And Peter’s like, ‘Yeah, don’t tell me about my business!’” But I’m kinda persistent so I kept harassing him. He says, go watch some of Joe’s movies. I watched ’em all. I was, “yeah, they’re good. I couldn’t hear them all the time…” So I knew Joe, not personally, but we all watched his IFC show, “Young American Bodies.” I finally beat Peter down and he says, “Okay, I’ve got a movie we can make,” and that went to South by Southwest. And that’s really where I met Joe and Kris because there was an after-party and I didn’t know anybody. I was like, I’m never going to do this again. I recruited a lot of friends for this not-a-big-budget movie and that time “Entourage” was really popular, and these guys all thought, that’s what it’s going to be like, and I’m, no, it’s not. Flash-forward, and Peter’s like, “Let’s do another movie.” I say, “No one [with money is] going to want to do it,” and he’s like, “It’s one of Joe’s.” I was like, “Bring him over!” I swear, I don’t know if it’s true, but the first thing out of his mouth was, “Technology’s made it so much easier to make films and people want to work with me!” And I was like, “Yeahhhhh, preachin’ to the choir. Let’s get some money and make this movie.”
Swanberg: We were in the position of doing a film together but at the last minute, “Drinking Buddies” found financing. But in the immediate aftermath of it, we geared up the summer of that year, before it had even premiered, I had already made “Happy Christmas” with these guys. “Happy Christmas” was pre-Forager, but it proved the model for all of us.
Linker: Peter did say from the beginning, we gotta get a fund together at some point. He was adamant about that.
Swanberg: Jeff Deutchman had moved to Paramount from IFC when we finished “Happy Christmas,” we had a long relationship of him buying my movies, he said, “Hey, I’m in this new position, I think your new movie fits our home video space,” so we sold that to Paramount. We came off a typical experience of slowly making your money back to this experience, which was an incredibly quick turnaround where we made this movie, then eight months later, sold it at a profit. All the investors were like, “Cool!” So being smart about how this moment works, Eddie, Peter and I were like, this is the moment before everyone wakes up from the fantasy, this is the moment to pull this fund together, because everybody is coming off this really good experience. This will allow us to spread our risk around, and to finance riskier films and cover that by financing less-risky films. And then what’s been really amazing is that we’ve only financed really risky films and even those are finding a way to make money. I don’t know about you, but I feel emboldened with Forager to push right on in this direction, choosing filmmakers we like, projects we like at a budget that makes sense, and once those things line up? Give the filmmaker total creative control.
Linker: Giving them creative control, for me, is easy, because that’s not my business. I’ll always laugh that when Joe called about “Lace Crater,” he’s like “Yeah, we gotta do this movie with Harrison Atkins!” He’s so passionate about it! I’m sitting in the car, stuck in traffic and I’m like, “This makes no sense!” He said the script was very weird and short. I think the script was fifty-two pages or something.
And the story is, woman has a one-night stand with a ghost, then things turn weird.
Linker: It was interesting, but Joe was so passionate about it, by the time the phone call was over, and my sixteen-year-old daughter was in the car with me, I was, “how can we not make that movie?” And she’s like, “Yeah, right!” [They both laugh.]
Swanberg: I think you got me on that call to let me down gently, that this was not a project we should be financially involved with! The movie’s doing great, it went to Toronto, a very happy end to that story. It sold in Canada and South America so far, and domestic is taking shape. There are several European territories in negotiation, and we’re going to end up making money on it.
Are there variations in contracts on how long distributors get the movies? No one’s doing in perpetuity on this scale?
Swanberg: Mine will start to come back to me in 2020 and then they’ll keep coming back to me, each release year will correlate to coming back to me in that same wave [of having made one or more films a year]. In my ten years, I’ve seen it go from fifteen years feeling pretty standard, to almost thirty years, but now it’s moving back. I think distributors are understanding that they’re going to make most of their money in the first two years anyway, and that shortening that term is incentivizing to filmmakers. So, knowing that the difference between ten years and fifty years isn’t going to be financially different to them, and that the odds of actually acquiring the movies they want, the shorter terms will work. I expect ten or fifteen years to be the norm.
You three live in Chicago, are the investors also a Chicago bunch?
Swanberg: There’s a very homey feeling to the company as far as investors. The whole fundraising aspect of the company has been really relaxed. They trust us. While I would say that we are financing some of the weirdest movies out there, we have Zach Clark’s next film and Dustin Guy Defa’s next film, yet we have a very conservative approach to our business model. We’re sitting in this really happy space with everybody who’s involved in Forager, on the filmmaker side and the financial, that we’re never going to put ourselves in a position where we suddenly lose all of our money on some wild bet. It’s been important to the three of us to finance a lot of movies, because we can be most useful to the cinematic culture that way. Putting all of our eggs in one basket is ultimately less fun and less useful than helping seven filmmakers make cool movies.
Linker: We’re all invested in it, Forager loses money, we all lose money. Everybody who invests in this, [we say], we’ll let you know what the movies are, and hopefully we do well over the long run, but for the most part, maybe you’ll get a credit at the end of the movie. We have their faith.
Swanberg: They’ve been great about holding to that. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing not to be pestered with emails every week about what’s going on. Everybody’s been relaxed, Eddie’s been good about keeping everyone up to date with emails. For the filmmakers, it’s a nice situation, where the movie goes into a bank account, they get to make their movie, and we see it when we’re finished. And we’re helpful in any way we can be in the middle.
Tell me more about your approach to overhead, you say your meetings are Skype or at a cafe.
Swanberg: And here we are sitting under a tree sitting on three stumps! Part of our pitch to all of our investors was, we’re not going to be stupid with your money. It’s only going to be going toward financing films, not toward first-class flights to film festivals, or any of the other business expenses that tend to lead to creative accounting. We have no office, we have no business cellphones. Travel is not going on the company card, we’re paying for it ourselves.
Linker: Berlin! We were like, Joe, you’re going to Berlin for the movie [“Queen of Earth”], we’ll pay for that, and Joe’s, no, I don’t want there to be any confusion.
Swanberg: Any money that I’m spending on stuff like that is money we don’t have to help somebody make a movie. “Sorry man, remember that nice hotel room I was staying at in Berlin? I wish I could help you, but…” So the no-overhead, not even low overhead, the no-overhead model of Forager is all about making sure that the money is always on screen. We can support as many filmmakers as possible. Right now, we’re in the sort of mushy middle of having financed our first slate of movies, and then being in the midst of some of those returning their investment, while we’re starting to look toward the future. And I’m really happy that we didn’t spend a bunch of money in stupid ways, because as we’re running the numbers, it’s occasionally tight in the sense that we [may have] sold a movie at Sundance, but we don’t know when the actual money is going to hit the bank account, and So-and-So needs to start production in November, and we’re jockeying that stuff. We’ve made a lot, and we’re really using every penny that has been invested in order to make sure we continue to make a lot. There’s been no annoying downtime simply because we don’t have the money.
When we met just before talking and got our coffee in a side street shop, Swanberg was greeted by a friend of a friend, who asked how the movies were coming. As we walk away under the blue sky and another Metra train rackets past, a clean-cut thirtyish stranger in a pressed Polo shirt starts, then grins, asking, “Are you Joe Swanberg? I love your movies!” The man called the movie “Catching Fire” rather than “Digging for Fire,” but the point is made: Swanberg is now a recognizable quantity, at least in Chicago, or this moment in Chicago. “Isn’t ‘Catching Fire’ a ‘Hunger Games’ movie?” Eddie asks. “We could make a ‘Hunger Games’ movie,” Joe says.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.