Last October I programmed a pop-up film festival at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. The inaugural screening was Kris Swanberg’s Empire Builder, a terrific slow-burn drama starring Kate Lyn Sheil as an alienated mother and housewife who travels with her infant son from Chicago to rural Montana for a vacation at her family’s cabin. Imagine a 70-minute microbudget version of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and you’ll have some idea of both the creepiness and impressive formal qualities that Swanberg offers up in her assured second feature. The following interview took place in Oakton’s Footlik Theater in front of a live audience. Because Kris was running late, I literally met her for the first time onstage for our talk.
MGS: And here comes the writer and director of the wonderful movie you just saw. Please give a warm welcome to Kris Swanberg! Hi!
KS: Hi! I tried to call you.
MGS: That’s all right. I don’t get cell phone service in here. The film just ended about 10 minutes ago and I was taking questions. I said I couldn’t presume to answer for you. (To audience) I’ve never met Kris before. (laughs) So have a seat and we’ll chat.
KS: Okay, great. Sorry I’m late, you guys. I got confused on the campus here.
MGS: That’s quite all right. It’s like a labyrinth. It took me a few years to figure out my way around. So you’re editing a new film?
KS: Yeah, I just wrapped a feature (Unexpected). Do you guys know who Cobie Smulders is? You guys know that show How I Met Your Mother? She’s the lead in my new movie. We just shot it for 20 days in Chicago and we just wrapped October 6th, so I’ve just been editing that for a couple weeks now. I’m sort of in the trenches and I’m trying to make that movie good. (laughs)
MGS: Excellent. How close are you to completion?
KS: That is a good question. I do not know the answer to that question. Yeah, I think there’s a couple things, I might want to bring her back out and shoot a couple more things. But it’s looking really good. We definitely have a first cut. But, you know, just trying to make it perfect.
MGS: Picture is not locked, as they say?
KS: Picture is not locked, no, no.
MGS: Well, best of luck to you on that film.
MGS: Before we talk about Empire Builder, I’d like to talk about ice cream. Because I first became aware of you not as a filmmaker but as an ice-cream maker. A few years ago, my wife and I had another couple over to our apartment every week. We’d make them dinner and they’d bring either booze or dessert. And one week they brought over a pint of Nice Cream, which was, of course, your company’s ice cream. It was the best damn ice cream I’ve ever eaten . . .
KS: What flavor did you have?
MGS: Chocolate and jalapeno.
KS: Oh yeah!
MGS: And then I couldn’t buy it anymore. So why can’t I buy it anymore and how did you make the transition from being an ice-cream maker to being a filmmaker?
KS: Well, this is actually very linked to the film so I’ll just give you the whole spiel. Which is that I went to film school — I went to Southern Illinois University for undergrad for film school — and then I moved to Chicago. I worked with my husband, we shot a movie together. And before this film, I shot my first feature called It Was Great But I Was Ready to Come Home. I shot it in 2009. I was working as a filmmaker but I wasn’t making any money, so I actually had to have jobs. The job that I had at the time was that I was a high-school teacher. I was a high school teacher on the west side of Chicago and I was teaching film and video to high-school kids. So I did that for a couple years. I wasn’t trained as a high-school teacher, they just hired me to do it. And it was great. I turned out to be really good at it and I loved the kids, etc. CPS closed a bunch of schools, as you may or may not know, and I got laid off. All the teachers got laid off at that school. And I sort of was putzing around in my apartment and I took out the wedding present that I got when my husband and I got married, which was an ice-cream maker, and I just started drowning my sorrows in ice-cream making. So I got really good at it and started selling it and that just kind of grew and turned into a pretty successful business. And in 2012 or 2011, right before I shot Empire Builder, the ice-cream company that I had got shut down by the state of Illinois — not because it was poison or dirty or anything like that, we had passed all of our health inspections and we had our business license and everything was legit — but the state of Illinois has these regulations that they wrote for dairy that don’t allow for businesses to do hand-crafted small-batch ice cream, which I wasn’t aware of. So, in order to sell ice cream in the state of Illinois, you have to have factory-grade equipment and you have to work in, basically, a factory. So, they have all these regulations that are written for, like, Dean’s and Oberweis and places that are really, really big that make thousands of gallons of ice cream at a time. And so they came to me and they said that in order to continue I would have to purchase that factory equipment, which is just insanely expensive and I wouldn’t have any place to put it. So, the business got shut down. We wrote a bill and brought it to Springfield and tried to pass it in state Congress. We put a real effort into trying to make it work but it didn’t work. And I had at the time a six-month-old baby and I lost my income from the ice-cream company and we had just bought a house and I found myself as a stay-at-home mom. So my husband, who’s also a filmmaker, had to work a lot more and we had very little money. And I was just, you know, home with an infant and it was not what I imagined for myself. So, even though I think staying home with a kid is a really admirable thing to do and an awesome choice, I sort of felt like I had been forced into it. I remember being on my hands and knees and cleaning my bathtub and listening to the baby cry and just being like, “What happened? How did I end up here?” And I got really depressed. It was a real identity conflict for me. I wasn’t sure where I was at: I wasn’t making money as a filmmaker, I wasn’t teaching high school anymore, my ice-cream company got shut down and I found myself at a loss with what to do with myself and who I was and what I was going to be. So, anyway, I made this film to deal a little bit with the things that I was feeling at the time. So it’s interesting that you brought that up.
MGS: Well, that’s a perfect segue into Empire Builder! So, obviously, it’s a very personal film for you and I would imagine making it was a somewhat cathartic experience as well.
KS: Yeah, it was a really personal film. That’s my real baby that’s in the movie. He’s going to be four next week.
MGS: And that’s some good baby acting too!
KS: Yeah, he’s really very good at acting like a baby.
MGS: Did he take direction well or did he just do whatever he wanted?
KS: No, he did whatever he wanted. We would just put him in the place where he needed to be. He was 10-months-old when we shot the movie so he was super-happy to just sit at a table and eat Cheerios for as long as we needed him to. It was a little stressful and I was conflicted as a mother and a filmmaker. It was a little stressful at the end when he’s naked and she grabs him and is running. We had to shoot that a few times and I think he got stressed out and cried and stuff because why was this person grabbing him, naked, and running? She was, of course, acting as if she was filled with stress, and running, and I think that was stressful for him as a baby. But he’s fine now, he wasn’t traumatized.
MGS: And that’s the kind of thing where it probably helped that it was your own baby, right? You probably wouldn’t want to use somebody else’s baby.
KS: No, because in the film that I just shot, we had a birth scene where we had to have a newborn baby and make it look like he was being born, and I hated it. It turned out really well but it’s really stressful because they literally don’t know what’s going on and they’re crying. You know, if you have a grown adult you can be like, “Well, they signed up for this.” Like, you know, if this is stressing them out, this is their chosen career path. If they want to act or whatever, they have to deal with this. But with an infant, it’s like you’re using that infant. Yeah, it was easier with my own kid, I think, than with another one.
MGS: I’d like to ask you about the character of Jenny, around whom the narrative revolves. There were a few questions earlier about what exactly is wrong her. She seems very depressed at the beginning of the film and I said one of the things that makes the film so daring is that you show what’s wrong with her rather than have her talk about it. The cinematography in the film is so precise, especially in the early scenes, there are great static shots where the camera is at a distance from the subjects and it has a kind of voyeuristic feeling . . .
MGS: And the sound design is also amazing. I think my favorite shot is when she’s looking out the window and you can hear the traffic outside and it gets louder and louder. There’s something very disturbing about that. How did you work with your cinematographer and also your sound designer to use sound and image to convey her subjective psychological state?
KS: Thank you. Yeah, it really is a really cinematic film. Not to, like, give myself a compliment but the film I just shot, I think, is different in a way and I almost miss what I did in this film because there’s a lot of talking. There’s a lot of people explaining what they’re feeling to other people. And I always liked this film because it’s very quiet and it’s purposefully so and it really makes you pay attention. I always feel about Empire Builder: either you fall asleep or you pay attention. And, you know, some people fall asleep, which is fine. But you never know exactly what she’s feeling or what is going on. So you’re always watching and you’re picking at anything that is said or anything you do see, you’re building together clues to kind of figure out what is the story. And I think that’s (what’s) really interesting about this movie and something I’m really proud of. But, yeah, I think she’s depressed about her situation. In the beginning of the movie, she’s in Chicago, she’s not happy about where she’s ended up in her world. Some of that we learn in retrospect throughout the rest of the film when she does get to Montana, which is where the movie was shot. When she does get to Montana she does seem like maybe she’s putting a life together for herself. She’s cleaning and setting things up and making things and she does seem a little bit happier than she was. But then when she meets Kyle, she sort of gets back into the same situation that she was almost in. And her husband in the beginning of the film, he’s not beating her, he’s not violently a bad person, but I think he’s a little bit of an asshole and he’s a little bit oppressive. You know, I hate melodrama. In my films I’m always struggling to show something without it being over the top. I think she feels a little bit trapped in her situation, just the way the husband’s like, “Oh, you should cut up his meat smaller.” And the way he goes on about his idea for buying a new place. So when she meets Kyle she finds herself in a similar situation where, I think, he’s really attractive. And it’s always kind of a fantasy to go to the middle of nowhere and find a guy who’s like a worker-guy . . .
MGS: (laughs) I called him the “sexy handyman” right before you showed up.
KS: Yeah, I think that’s totally what he is. You know, and he gets a little weird too. He’s, like, forcing her kid to learn to walk before he’s really ready to learn to walk. But he’s not wielding a gun or anything either. It just doesn’t feel safe. It feels a little scary and I think it’s even a little scarier that there’s nothing really intense happening because there’s no sure signs for her to leave. If she came home and he was drinking and practicing shooting a gun, it might be enough of a clue to say, “Oh, let me get the hell out of here.” But I think what’s really scary in life is when you’re faced with a person or a situation and you’re not really sure if they’re bad or not. When you’re walking home from the bus or the train and somebody’s walking 20 feet behind you and you’re like, “Is this guy gonna try and kill me? Should I run? Or will I be ridiculous if I do that?” I think those are some of the more scary moments in life. And that’s sort of what I was trying to portray with that.
MGS: I think you’re absolutely successful. If this were the Hollywood version, he’d be waving the gun around. And if this were the Hollywood version, in the beginning there would be a scene where she would go out to lunch with a friend and she would say, “I’m so dissatisfied with my life. I need to escape from this.”
MGS: But you show it instead of having her talk about it. Okay, I think now would be a good time to open this up to questions from the audience.
You can rent or purchase Empire Builder as a digital download via Kris Swanberg’s vimeo page: