The last time I saw Joe Swanberg was at IFC Center in the winter of 2009. I was talking a class with filmmaker Caveh Zahedi who brought in guests to screen their films each week, and instead of presenting Hannah Takes the Stairs or Nights and Weekends, Swanberg chose to show us a rough-cut first hour of a very low-budget movie he was working on. In his Q&A afterwards, he expressed the challenges of making the film and the independent film world in general, seeming to have hit a point in his career that was dying for a shakeup. “I eventually finished that movie,” he told me earlier this week when we sat down to discuss his wildly enjoyable new feature Drinking Buddies. It’s been four years since he showed my class what would go on to be the Kate Lyn Sheil and Amy Seimetz-led Silver Bullets, but for the director who garnered acclaim for years as a leader in “mumblecore” cinema, his latest effort proves he’s not only crafted a film that has mass appeal but shows the work of a more matured director who has truly honed his own style of filmmaking.
Well, it was a couple things. I brew beer and I really pay attention to the craft beer scene—especially in Chicago. I have friends that work in the industry so that was really an early inspiration, just to do something set in a brewery. Then also, the movie Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, and the idea of making a movie about these two couples and mixing up that. And Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid was an inspiration—her stuff general is an inspiration—that movie specifically, I just loved how complex and squirmy the relationships are in that.
Pretty much. On Drinking Buddies, it was much more solid than it’s ever been before. On something like Silver Bullets there was literally no direction, we just started shooting scenes and then over the course of two and a half years sort of came together. But with Drinking Buddies there was an outline that was very solidly in place that we were working from.
I didn’t write it with people in mind but because of the way that I work, it’s always so dependent on the people that I work with. If you were to sub out any of those four actors with somebody else, it would be a totally different movie. It’s one of the reasons why I love working that way, I feel like I’m best taking advantage of the talent that I’m working with and really shaping the movie around their strengths and what I find exciting about them. Jason Sudeikis knew my work and sort of encouraged Olivia to check it out and nudged her towards doing something like this, and Jake was recommended by Lizzy Caplan who had done a couple episodes of New Girl and thought he was really great. So she encouraged me to meet him.
They’re amazing. I’m so spoiled, it’s really an incredible cast to get to work with.
We couldn’t spend much time, yeah. It was crazy. Olivia was coming back from China because she had just finished Spike Jonze’s movie, so she got in like two days before we started shooting. Ron and Anna didn’t come in until a week into when we started shooting, so it was really kind of nuts in terms of how they had to get to know each other. But that’s what makes them professionals, they’re good at faking it until they don’t have to fake it.
Definitely. All the dialogue is them coming up with that. Jake described it as, like, the first take is the writing take, and then we kind of go from there and use that as a sort of baseline to do multiple takes. It’s shot pretty conventionally even though the film’s improvised—there’s a lot of over the shoulder cross-cutting and things like that—but it’s one camera and so we get a take that we like, riff on that a couple times, and then hone it from there.
I think it’s because it’s not a line. It’s not like I’m a screenwriter whose like, “I’m going to write an Instagram line to make my movie hip!” When that stuff comes out naturally in conversation, you can feel the difference between something that you feel like is trying to convince you that it’s cool and something that’s just two young people talking to each other.
It was conscious in the sense that I was attempting to connect with a bigger group of people. That sort of goes back to what Madeline said—if you can make a comedy, it’s immoral night to. That fell in line with also the idea of wanting to reach the broadest audience possible with that movie.
A lot. I tried to limit my beer consumption to one beer at lunch but then after we would finish each day—especially the days we were shooting in the brewery—I would often pester the brewers because I’m a home-brewer. I had so many questions for them, which naturally led to us having to drink beer so they could explain certain things to me. But it was great, I would love to make more movies set in the world of craft beer.
I keep waiting for the backlash to start. Whenever anybody likes anything of mine, there’s always this sort of this immediate push back, so we’ll see how that goes, but it’s been great. I love the movie, I’m very proud of the movie, and I want people to like it so it’s exciting that people are watching it. And because it’s Magnolia, we’re doing the ultra VOD, so it’s already been on iTunes and VOD now for a couple weeks and there’s hard evidence that people are watching it, which is really exciting—but the theatrical side of that is still a big question mark. But from my point of view, just because of the actors involved and how good they are in it, there’s nothing not to like. When people don’t like the movie I completely understand, but even in those instances I feel like you’re still afforded the opportunity to see four really good actors doing good work, which for me, just as a film viewer, is exciting.
I just think about them a lot. It’s fascinating to me the way people—just in the relationships that I get to witness through friends of mine—it’s so interesting to think about, to meet and get to know two discreet people who have decided to make a go of it together. And from an outside perspective, you get to see who they are and why they click or don’t, and it’s just endlessly fascinating and there’s a million variables.