Bringing new meaning to home movies


By Rania Richardson

A conversation with ‘mumblecore’ multitalent Kevin Bewersdorf

In town last week, Austin-based film composer Kevin Bewersdorf explained the motivation behind working on a homemade film that has little prospect of commercial success: “You’re making it because you genuinely enjoy communing with the creative spirits of the universe and you want to hang out with other people who have good energy and see what will come. You think this is for each other, or maybe for a few more friends.”

Thanks to “The New Talkies: Generation DIY,” a screening series currently underway at the IFC Center, some modest films have caught the attention of the national media. Half-jokingly referred to as the “mumblecore” movement, these personal films revolve around the day-to-day lives and discussions of youthful drifters. Ordinary moments and unscripted dialogue are hallmarks of the form, with romantic relationships at their center.

Twenty-six-year-old Bewersdorf has been collaborating with his buddy, director Joe Swanberg, since they were high school students in the suburbs of Chicago. He worked on Swanberg’s opening night film, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” as well as “LOL,” the story of love and technology, and the sexually explicit web series, “Young American Bodies.”

On mismatched chairs in the back room of the Botanica bar, the original Knitting Factory space on Houston Street, Bewersdorf discussed the creative process, as a DJ turned records up front. As the evening wore on, more members of the “mumblecore” group, fans and bloggers, meandered in.

“The camera is always sitting in the house we’re sharing with the actors. There is no set up or lights, and there’s one boom, which is my job,” said Bewersdorf. “If a scene starts happening or if we get an idea for something … before two seconds, Joe picks up the camera and I have the microphone and we start shooting. After one 40-minute take, Joe says, ‘I got what I need,’ and then we stop and all eat ice cream or we all just play Atari.”

The playful nature of the process is reflected in the films, which make them fun to watch. In “Hannah,” a mock telephone is fashioned from a slinky, a snorkeling mask is presented as a surprise gift, and two characters spontaneously play a trumpet duet of the “1812 Overture.” The music scene was written into the film when it was discovered that the actors, Greta Gerwig as “Hannah” and Kent Osborne as “Matt,” both play the instrument. Bewersdorf spun off their interpretation of the overture to compose the film’s theme song, “1812 for 2006,” which perfectly captures the romantic fumblings of the characters. “I wanted to take a grand song and knock it down to a flawed and personal level,” he said.

Bewersdorf’s quirky music is showcased in “LOL,” which he also co-wrote and stars in. A tale of interpersonal disconnection in the age of virtual relationships, the film is named for the Internet slang for “laughing out loud.” He composed a full score with commercial software and his significant array of homemade electronic instruments, some of which appear in the film. “When you’re sending signals, my pixels tingle,” are lyrics from the catchy “My Heart Still Beats,” which features the sound of a ringing alarm clock.

Bewersdorf also collected short videos of individuals making sounds, and edited them to create a rhythm. These “Noisehead Videos” appear throughout the film. “I did all the music for ‘LOL’ in Berlin. People were submitting videos of themselves and I was modifying them and sending tracks through the Internet to Joe in Chicago,” said the classically trained musician.

“The Internet is my religion. It’s every day, all day. It’s where I spend all my cultural time,” he continued. “I haven’t paid to see a movie or bought a CD in 5 years — I download stuff. I’d rather give away my music and have more people spread it freely and then just find other ways to make ends meet on my own — live simply, live cheaply,” he said in authentic bohemian fashion. His music can be found through his website, geartekcorporation.com.

Bewersdorf moved to budget-friendly Austin after “LOL” played at the city’s South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in 2006. The previous year, Swanberg’s first film, “Kissing on the Mouth” was programmed along with several others of the same style, giving birth to the so-called movement. The regionally diverse filmmakers who attended, including the directors Andrew Bujalski with “Mutual Appreciation” and Jay and Mark Duplass with “The Puffy Chair,” have since used film festivals to meet up as they work on projects in various cities.

The expanding collective of filmmakers often work on each other’s productions. Bujalski and Mark Duplass are principal performers in “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” Joe Swanberg makes a cameo appearance in “Hohokam,” and “Quiet City,” two other films in the series. The tangled web of associations extends further — Aaron Katz, the director of Brooklyn-based “Quiet City” is a projectionist at the IFC Center and C. Mason Welles, who co-wrote “LOL” with Bewersdorf and Swanberg, is an administrative/programming assistant at the Center.

Bewersdorf contributed to the recently wrapped films of Bujalski and the Duplass brothers. Sometimes his involvement is as casual as the filmmaking process. If he isn’t composing or recording sound, he pitches in with grip work or even feeds the cast and crew with specialties such as chicken Fiorentino or homemade burritos.

Generation DIY: The New Talkies continues through Sept. 4 at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. 3rd St, 212-924-7771, ifccenter.com.