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Chicago’s Joe, Kris Swanberg both bring new films to Sundance

By Patrick Z. McGavin/For the Sun-Times

Fifteen years ago Joe Swanberg met Kris Williams when the two were both undergraduates studying filmmaking at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. They shared some striking affinities, not just a love of film.

Both had lived nomadic childhoods: Williams’ father was in the military and she moved around constantly, as did Swanberg, whose father was an executive with Johnson Controls. The sparks flew instantly, and the two fell in love and got married.

Life and work have always been intertwined. Joe Swanberg’s most recent film, “Happy Christmas,” examined, in part, the need of a young wife and mother (Melanie Lynskey) to break off and have her own creative endeavors as a novelist. “The circumstances were not the same, but it was certainly inspired by our lives,” Kris Swanberg said.

Joe Swanberg made 18 feature films in less than a decade. Of late, his movies such as the 2013 “Drinking Buddies” have gained wider popularity becuase of the greater budgets at his disposal and use of more established actors such as Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde.

Kris Swanberg’s work has existed more in the shadows, especially since the couple’s 4-year-old son, Jude, was born. Now the husband and wife team are preparing to launch an impressive one-two punch as both have new films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, later this month.

This year’s festival runs Jan. 22-Feb. 1, and it is the most important launching pad for independent American films.

Kris Swanberg’s third feature film, “Unexpected,” has been slotted into the coveted U.S. Dramatic Competition. Shot in 20 days last fall around Lindblom High School, in Englewood, the story is about a young science teacher (Cobie Smulders) whose unplanned pregnancy is dramatically contrasted with the experiences of her favorite student (played by newcomer Gail Bean) who is also expecting a child.

“I’’ve known Kris was a good filmmaker for 15 years, and now it’s cool that everybody else is going to find that out,” Joe Swanberg said.

A year after “Happy Christmas” was his first ever film to play the dramatic competition, Joe Swanberg unveils his newest work, “Digging for Fire,” in the festival’s Premiere section. Swanberg wrote the story with Jake Johnson, who stars with Kendrick, Lynskey, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson and Sam Rockwell.

“I’m not going on the record to predict anybody’s response to it, but it’s pretty safe to say it’s one of my movies,” Joe Swanberg said. “I was actively trying to do a lot of things I haven’t done before.”

This is believed to be the first time in the history of the festival a husband and wife are each represented by a film. Less than 1 percent of the typically 10,000-12,000 submitted films are selected for the final program.

“Sundance is far and away the best market for independent American films,” Joe Swanberg said. “It garners the film the most exposure, the audiences are typically more amped up and excited than any other festival.”

Kris Swanberg’s first two features played regional festivals and failed to gain much traction in the marketplace. “Unexpected” is her breakthrough. The movie is very much colored by her own experiences, not only of being a young mother but also shaped by her two years teaching at Orr High School on the West Side. Unlike her first two improvised films, “Unexpected” is fully scripted, by the director and her friend, Megan Mercier.

“I hope that people take this film on their own, and don’t associate it too much with Joe,” Kris Swanberg said. “It’s really my own thing, and we’re a different part of different people.”

Both filmmakers are looking to capitalize on the festival’s exposure and prominence to sell their films. “Hoop Dreams” cinematographer-producer Peter Gilbert produced “Happy Christmas” and is the executive producer of the two new films. Gilbert and former NBA star forward Chris Webber financed both films.

“If you’re a woman in a relationship and you want to have kids, it’s very difficult for both of you to be pushing along making films at the same time,” Gilbert said. “Joe’s career has taken off, but Kris has also always wanted to make films, and what a great story they have been able to work this out.”

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