The Lure of Mumblecore: A look into the naturalistic DIY styles of this influential sub-genre of independent film.
In what was believed to be a noisy and crowded bar in Austin, Texas, during the 2005 SXSW Film Festival, a sound editor working with independent filmmaker Andrew Bujalski coined a term to describe a new sub-genre of film. That term – "mumblecore" – would fit in with the DIY, naturalistic and authentic styles of Bujalski's film "Mutual Appreciation", which was played along with films like "The Puffy Chair" by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass and "Kissing on the Mouth" by Joe Swanberg premiered.
These characters later became known as some of the key early founders of this burgeoning, independent film genre, known for its realistic portrayals of characters and relationships, low-budget productions, and high-dialogue approaches. Over the years, the mumblecore style has expanded to include new names, big and small, and retrospectively attributed to previous filmmakers of other styles such as observation cinema and French new wave.
But what is mumblecore? How do we define it today? And most importantly, how do filmmakers expect the mid-2000s' sudden rise in independent cinema and film festival communities to where it is now? And finally, for those interested in learning the shape of the subgenre, we'd like to explore how you can use it for future projects of your own.
The origins of Mumblecore cinema
It is important to note that many in the film industry recognize "mumblecore" as a genre and term, but many of the filmmakers who use the term reject it as a comprehensive label for their films. In reality, many of the basic principles of mumblecore can be found throughout the film, dating back to the earliest days of independent cinema. Filmmakers like Woody Allen, Claudia Weill and Jim Jarmusch use elements like low production budgets, dialog-intensive narratives and authentic depictions of real relationships.
Mumblecore can really only be seen as a representation of how the medium of film has evolved over the years to become much more accessible and open to artists to tell stories that are not produced, controlled and marketed by major Hollywood studios have to. While not all Mumblecore movies are made digitally, the rise of the subgenre coincides closely with the rapid rise of affordable digital cameras and the ability of aspiring filmmakers to make movies on a shoestring and starring with their friends – as you can see in the trailer above for Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha, which is considered to be one of the first "Mumblecore" films.
Low budget and DIY productions
From this filmmaking perspective, Mumblecore has always been viewed as a low-budget (or often no-budget) production style. And for those just starting out in the industry or taking first-time film school classes, the appeal is understandable. It really doesn't take a lot of equipment or manufacturing expertise to get started in this sub-genre.
A good example of this DIY production style is the movie The Puffy Chair, one of the Duplass brothers' earliest Mumblecore projects. The Duplass brothers shot the film on a Panasonic AG-DVX100 digital camcorder with minimal use of lights or other professional film equipment.
The interesting thing about the Duplass brothers and their film is that they are following the mostly failed attempt to get into filmmaking with a much more traditional production with a higher budget. Mark Duplass actually talks about how her initial misfire led her to the mumblecore approach in this inspiring speech about his career and the rise of authentic DIY filmmaking from SXSW in 2015 that you can see below.
Naturalistic dialogue and action
In addition to the DIY production and minimal budgets, another key feature of Mumblecore films is their naturalistic approach to acting and dialogue. You could argue that this is part of the need, as a more conversational approach to filmmaking can result in less expertise and cheaper overall production. However, it also means that the acting and storytelling must carry the weight of the film in order for it to be interesting and ultimately successful.
Take Nights and Weekends, for example, co-director, co-writer, co-producer and co-star of Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig. The film was shot in the most minimalist styles, hand-held, with natural light and sometimes out of focus with a subjective camera that struggled to keep up. You will not be drawn into the story visually, but by what you hear and how the characters feel and communicate.
Mumblegore and other subgenres
Along with the growing movement of mumblecore that developed in independent cinema in the early to late 2000s, the style quickly lent itself to other film genres and subgenres such as horror. The DIY aesthetic is nothing new to horror. Perhaps one of the best examples of low-budget filmmaking is the found footage film The Blair Witch Project, which is actually several years older than Mumblecore. However, with mumblecore's tenets of low-budget production and dialogue-intensive narration, it was quickly adopted into its own horror subgenre, which has since been referred to as "mumblegore".
One of the most successful films in this style could be Patrick Brice's Creep, in which he stars together with Mark Duplass, the loyal Mumblecore. This psychological thriller takes up the mumblecore genre, with many of the tropes and jump scares found in found footage films or traditional horror. In addition, the Mumblecore aesthetic also lends itself to use in other genres such as romance, science fiction, or even action.
The future of mumblecore filmmaking
If you're interested in filmmaking and the independent cinema industry, mumblecore certainly means a dramatic shift in the industry from large to medium budgets to a much broader, more naturalistic and authentic style for a new generation of filmmakers. However, this does not mean that all films are shot in exactly the same styles and must examine the same subjects. Filmmakers have found new and creative ways to approach the mumblecore genre in recent years.
In fact, the styles of mumblecore filmmaking are still very much alive today. One of the most recent examples is the SXSW Grand Jury's newest award-winning S #!% House feature. The film was released in 2020 and combines many of the narrative elements of Mumblecore with a more adventurous coming-of-age story and cinematic styles.
Ultimately, I could imagine that while the notion of mumblecore will stick around, the style of DIY filmmaking and heartfelt storytelling will become much more mainstream. Just as the movie scene changed in the 2000s to become more accessible to all, independent cinema will continue to seek out new voices willing to make the most of digital cameras and film technology to tell new and important stories.
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Cover photo of Hannah Takes the Stairs via IFC Films.