By Emily Morris
Kris Swanberg took some time to talk DIY-Film.com about her latest film, Empire Builder, which plays at the Chicago International Film Festival starting October 13.
When director Kris Swanberg (Young American Bodies; It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home) set out to make Empire Builder, she says she didn’t yet know how closely the project would begin to resemble her own life.
The film, which follows a Chicago woman dealing with her complicated journey as a young mother, came about shortly after Swanberg had a son with director Joe Swanberg, her husband and frequent collaborator.
At the time, Swanberg was also busy creating her own organic ice cream brand, Nice Cream, and becoming something of a local name for it. When her business was shut down in the summer of 2011, the once-busy director, actress and ice cream maker confronted a frightening new existence filled with crying and diaper changing.
“I was really kind of going through an identity crisis,” Swanberg says.
It’s similar to the crisis Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) goes through when faced with her own gurgling baby (played by Swanberg’s son, Jude). Empire Builder is free from the clichés that so often surround ideas of motherhood, banishing the idea that women take to mothering with some kind of magical, natural finesse. If Jenny has some innate mothering instinct to guide her, it’s one that lies dormant.
In fact, it’s her husband who seems to have the innate parent gene going for him, even if he lacks a certain great husband strand of DNA. Though Swanberg is quick to say Joe’s a much better guy than the condescending man we see in the film, she admits he embodies a few of her husband’s qualities.
“He really plays the worst parts of himself,” Swanberg says. “He certainly has all the tendencies as her husband in the film; it’s just sort of about exploiting and exaggerating them.”
As for Sheil, who’s become something of a rising indie star, “She’s basically playing me,” Swanberg says, “This is a super personal role.”
While watching Sheil, Joe and young Jude interact as a natural family, if not perfect one, it’s easy to forget that Swanberg is behind the camera and not the soft-spoken woman we see at the dinner table. Shot with an outline for a script and improvised dialogue, Empire Builder is filled with silent moments and quiet, hyper-realistic conversations.
The film progresses when it’s decided Jenny will take the baby to a family cabin in Montana and wait for her husband to join them. When she arrives to the West, Jenny tackles chopping wood, beating rugs and reverting to a kind of pre-19th century life effortlessly. It’s also at the cabin that she’s free to meet a hunky handyman who challenges her family plans.
The cabin, once owned by Joe’s grandfather, has an otherworldly feel that made it the perfect spot for Jenny to discover something new and frightening about herself, Swanberg says.
“It really feels like anything can sort of happen there because it’s so far removed from reality,” Swanberg says.
As Swanberg tackled life as a full-time mother alongside her fictional character, she says the film itself began to take on a new role.
“I think before the film was really about monogamy and about marriage, and I think afterward it became much more a film about identity,” Swanberg says.
Up next, Swanberg says she’s working on another film drawn from life, this time based on her experiences as a Chicago Public School teacher on the city’s West Side.
Empire Builder premiered at the 2012 Sarasota Film Festival, and readers can see it at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 13, 16 and 23.