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.
Set in the world of a craft beer brewery in Chicago, Drinking Buddies tells the age old tale of intimate platonic love with a question mark. We’ve all been there and we’e all seen the way that underlying desire either fades or ignites into something substantial, but for the characters that populate his laid-back film—played fantastically by Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, and Anna Kendrick—when things get complicated, sometimes a good pint of beer isn’t simply enough to ease the tension. As his largest production to date, the film explores the relationship between best friends Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson) and their significant others Jill (Kendrick) and Chris (Livingston) as they grapple with feelings they cannot quite come to terms with or have forced themselves to repress. But unlike most “romantic comedies” of the same ilk, Drinking Buddies has a natural ease and genuine mix of playfulness and dramatic emotion that resonates in its small gestures and humility. Due in large part to Swanberg’s affinity for improvisation and replying on the personal strength’s of his actors, the film arrives from one honest moment to the next and leaves you feeling wholly satisfied.
I sat down with Swanberg last Monday to talk about his moral duty to comedy, getting lucky with his cast, and just how much beer was consumed on set.
I realy enjoyed the film. It just felt really honest, which is rare these days. But your films always deal with complicated interpersonal relationships, so how did this specific story come to you and what’s your connection to having it set in a brewery?
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.
I realized last night that another big early inspiration was this filmmaker Madeline Olnek—she made this movie Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, which was at Sundance in 2011. I’d known her a long time and we were walking around, and she was saying that she had come to feel like, as a filmmaker, if you have the ability to make comedies, she said that she thinks it’s immoral not to. And I thought that was the most insane piece of film theory I’ve ever heard! But I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what it meant, and at this point, what I consider the noble task of making people laugh. So that really kicked around in my head for a long time and had a lot to do with why I made something like Drinking Buddies after this period of really dark, personal insular stuff like Silver Bullets—to make a comedy or comedy-drama but something that was funny.
Your other films have been heavily improvised with very loosely structured scripts. Did you have more of a structure for this movie but then just let the characters breath and play out their fate?
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 really appreciated the ending—when does life ever have a nice resolve, right? And everyone has been in a relationship like that, either you just stay friends and in time whatever weird romantic longings fade or you fall in love. Had you planned out the ending of the film or did that change as the shooting went along?
I did. I knew how I wanted it to end. The final scene in the movie wasn’t the final scene in the outline, there was one other small scene, which we shot, but when we shot the scene that is the final shot in the movie, I knew even on set that that was how it was going to end. We went through with shooting the other scene just in case, but in the editing room I never even ended up editing it.
In a film like this, so much depends on the idiosyncrasies of its characters and what the actors bring to them. How did you go about finding the leading actors and do you think it would have been a different film if not for them?
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.
Even with Ron and Anna, everyone has a very genuine and exciting chemistry.
They’re amazing. I’m so spoiled, it’s really an incredible cast to get to work with.
I’m sure you didn’t have very much to spend just hanging out before shooting. Did everyone click really fast?
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.
Going back to your affinity for improv and letting the actors take the reigns there, was a lot of dialogue and the playfulness of the film just the actors just riffing and doing what felt right in the moment?
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.
The movie is so much about these close relationships and small moments between the characters and with the tenor of their lives, it really feels like it could be a story that could translate to any period of time. But it was interesting to see the little hints of modernity, like talking about Instagram. I thought I would hate hearing that in a film but it actually felt natural here.
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.
Drinking Buddies was obviously a bigger production than your past work and builds you out into a new audience as well. Was it a conscious decision for you to venture away from what you’d been doing and make something on a larger scale?
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.
And to be able to make people laugh is not an easy feat.
It’s hard! I would argue—I’ll probably catch a lot of shit for this—that making a mainstream comedy is much more difficult than making an art film. That audience, the critical audience and the art house audience, it’s much easier at this point in my career to know exactly what they want and exactly what they would respond to, what kind of camera stuff they consider to be exciting or beautiful or whatever else. In terms of putting a movie in a multiplex and trying to make America laugh, I have no idea what they want. That’s a real challenge for me. But I didn’t know how big Drinking Buddies would be. It was a conscious effort to try and expand that and reach people, but I didn’t know that I would get these actors and that the movie would have the ability to reach so many people.
So how much beer did you actually drink daily?
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.
You mentioned that you were unaware of how big the movie would be—so how does all the positive reception feel?
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.
What do you think attracts you to keep exploring relationship dynamics as a topic for your work?
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.