Interview: Drinking Buddies Writer-Director Joe Swanberg

swanberg drinking buddiesFor almost a decade, Detroit-born, Chicago-based film maker Joe Swanberg has been one of the leading figures in the micro-budget, naturalistic film movement.

The films of the highly prolific Swanberg (15 features in eight years, plus acting in a number his and others’ films, including the horror film You’re Next, also opening today) usually focus on the realistic, complex emotional lives of young people trying to figure out both career and romantic life issues, and his latest, Drinking Buddies, is no exception.

This time the “young people” are heading into their early 30s, their workplace is Chicago’s real-life Revolution Brewery, and the romantic tension is between two co-workers, Kate and Luke. Both are in relationships with other people, but on the job site they’ve fallen together into a comfortable, flirtatious, “work spouse” dynamic.

(And of course everyone consumes a lot of beer. The film is a showcase not just for Rev’s own brews like Anti-Hero, but nearly every mid-western craft brewery’s wares. My personal favorites–Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, and Three Floyds’ Alpha King–all get significant screen time.)

The big difference for Swanberg with Drinking Buddies is that while his past “no professional actors” approach helped launch the acting careers of folks like Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass, this time out he’s working with an actual budget that includes the hiring of more established, and impressively professional actors.

drinking-buddies05That includes a terrific Olivia Wilde as Kate (her nuanced, likable performance is a career-turner) and the always great Jake Johnson (New Girl, Safety Not Guaranteed) as Luke. Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick play Kate and Luke’s respective significant others.

I sat down one-on-one with Swanberg a few weeks ago at Revolution’s Chicago brewpub–he was drinking their signature Anti-Hero IPA, I tried the Little Crazy pale ale. We talked about Drinking Buddies–one of my favorite films of the summer–and how time and bigger budgets and better-known casts have changed his film-making. The resulting chat, short though it was, turned out to be an interesting and illuminating look into Swanberg’s on-set creative process.

Drinking Buddies opens in select cities today.

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Why did you choose to shoot at Revolution Brewing?

Joe Swanberg: I knew [Revolution owner] Josh [Deth] because my wife owned an ice cream company here in Chicago, and she used their beer in some of her ice cream. I was a huge fan of Rev’s beer, so when we started scouting locations and looking for a brewery, I knew they’d opened up a new production facility, and they just had so much space for bringing in a movie crew.

IMG_9663We looked at Half Acre, we looked at Finch and other places, and everybody was supportive and open, but we would have really gummed up the works at those places.

Rev’s set up was so nice, and their big space looked really beautiful on camera, and they’re so supportive of local stuff. They were brewing while we were shooting, so it was very cool of them to let us in while they were working.

You started shooting features eight years ago with films like Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Drinking Buddies is your 15th feature since then. During that crazy prolific time, how has your film making process changed?

Swanberg: It’s gotten refined. It used to be a thrill for me to jump into productions with no idea what exactly we were going to do, and just start shooting scenes and see what came out of that. But a little by necessity and a little by design, it’s more written now. The ideas that I’m going into the films with are a little more sculpted.

But the process of working with actors is pretty similar now as to what it was then. I like for them to bring a lot of themselves to it. I like to create a scenario and then have everybody speak with their own voice and own their own characters, so I almost get to watch what’s happening and see it unfold in front of me. It feels different every time, but there’s a continuity to the process that’s made sense to me from the first film on.

photo_05Did your artistic interests and focus change the way you work, or did the way you’ve had to work as you’ve gotten bigger budgets and productions change how you thought about the art?

Swanberg: It’s a little bit of both. A production like Drinking Buddies, which is considerably larger than anything I’ve done before, by default changed the way the process worked. But I’ve changed too—I don’t think you can make movies for ten years and not have your ideas and approach change at least a little bit.

With Drinking Buddies I was trying to remind myself throughout that it was possible to do two things at once—to entertain an audience and also tell an interesting story about complex characters. Earlier in my career I sort of created a false dichotomy that you could only do one of those two things. You could either make an entertaining movie that was commercial and accessible and had to be dumbed down, or you could make a really smart, interesting movie that nobody was ever gonna see.

I don’t think that’s true now, and I can’t remember why I felt like that was true then. But it’s a tough challenge—it requires faith in the audience and faith in yourself, which are both difficult things to do. You have to earn those things as an artist. You have to do enough work and have enough experience that you get to a point where you trust yourself and your own instincts.

drinking-buddies-movie-poster-10For Drinking Buddies I tried to show up every day with the attitude that if we worked hard enough, we could do both things.

That was a new experience for me, plus the added infrastructure of a bigger, more defined production. I thought that would be a big hurdle, but it actually ended up really liberating me.

With something like Hannah Takes the Stairs I took on all the responsibilities myself. I decorated the apartments we shot in, I was the driver from place to place, I was the craft service person, I was the writer, the director, the editor.

On Drinking Buddies I was just the director during production. Beforehand I was the writer, afterwards I was the editor, but while we were shooting, I had such a good team that I was working with, and it lifted all those other jobs off of my shoulders so I could focus and really tell the story I wanted to tell.

Did having that extra infrastructure and the advance planning it requires change how you approached the film creatively?

Swanberg: A little bit. I ended up really enjoying the fact that I had this prearranged structure to fall back on. In the past it’s been thrilling to show up on set and not exactly know what was going to happen and then together we find it. So that thrill of discovery was gone in that sense—I knew every day what we were doing that day, what scenes we had to shoot, where they’d go in the movie.

anna-kendrick-and-jake-johnson-drinking-buddies-600Maybe I’m getting old or tired, but it was really nice to not have to reinvent the wheel every single day.

For this film, I’d wake up in the morning and say, “Okay, these are my four challenges today, my four scenes, how am I going to tackle them, what ideas do the actors have?” So we were able to be more specific, to do some things we haven’t done before.

And it was helpful for the actors to have a sense of the overall story before we started so they could build character choices into certain scenes and foreshadow things. I’ve hamstrung my actors in the past by creating scenarios where they couldn’t include performance elements that they normally would. I did that on purpose because we were making a different kind of movie. I didn’t want people acting—the whole way of working was built around the idea of non-performance.

Back then for the actors it was, “All you know is what you know right now, you have to be present in this scene, I don’t want you to know how the movie’s going to end, I don’t want you making choices that are going to influence that—I just want you to be alive right now.” That’s also a learning thing and a confidence thing—to trust now that I’m hiring actors who can do both, who can be totally present and alive in the scene and also be making character choices that would factor in later.

So on that creative continuum from Hannah to Drinking Buddies, how has how the actors create and shape the characters changed?

Swanberg: It’s interesting. With Hannah the characters came with no shape, and then the actors provided the shape. With Drinking Buddies the characters came with a lot of shape, and then the actors provided depth—that was the big difference. The actors in Hannah provided depth, too, but back then we were so busy shaping the boundaries of who the people were that it wasn’t the actors’ job to dig super deep. With Drinking Buddies, the walls were clearly defined and then the actors could rise up or dig down.

olivia-wilde-jake-johnson-drinking-buddies-joe-swanbergWe’ve talked a lot about how the film-making process has changed for you and your actors over time, but what about the content? How has that changed over the past decade?

Swanberg: I’ve always hoped the films would grow up with me, that they would always be tackling issues that were relevant to me and my circle of friends, people my age. So when I’m in my 40s I’m making movies about characters in their 40s, and when I’m in my 60s I’ll be making movies about characters in their 60s, so there will be a natural progression.

These days my films certainly seem to be about marriage. As people transition from their 20s into their 30s, that’s what’s going on, what people are thinking about. “Do I commit to this person I’ve been dating for several years, or is there still somebody out there who’s better for me?”

I already have a kid—I got married six years ago and had a kid three years ago, so I’ve already made these decisions in my own life. But thinking more generationally, I think that’s happening later and later, so I think marriage will be the topic of the next couple movies. And then I think it’ll transition into children and those kinds of challenges. And keep changing.

For Drinking Buddies, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick’s characters were loosely inspired by you and your wife, Kris Williams. What then did Jake and Anna bring to those characters?

Swanberg: Anna had some people in her life whom she used as models for her character, Jake had himself and others as examples. We try to just compare notes and find a middle ground of who these characters are. I didn’t want Jake and Anna to be playing Joe and Kris in the movie. I strongly believe that creating some fiction in this world liberates the actors to be more honest than if they were trying to be autobiographical.

drinking-buddies-skip-cropAnd then there’s the question of once we put this screen world together with all four of them, who would their characters be in that situation, too? Because you may have somebody who isn’t jealous at all in general, but one person makes them crazy jealous. So it’s about the specifics of the scenario, not just the characters.

The actors and I start out broad: These are the characters, these are the scenarios and dilemmas they’d be facing. And then we hone in and get specific. The character stuff is all well and good, but how is this person behaving in this moment? Is their behavior true to their usual character or is it an anomaly and something they’re going to have to talk about later? Does it catch others off guard?

All these are the kinds of questions everybody faces in their own relationships, where you’ve known somebody for a very long time and suddenly they behave in a way you’ve never seen them behave before. Why did that happen? What was different about today? What got under your skin? What were you upset about? So then in the film you start fishing for those specific details.

And people don’t just change directions or react differently to situations in the moment; they’re also different people through time. We react differently today to things than we would have five years ago.

Swanberg: That was a big thing my wife and I were dealing with in our relationship right before we decided to get married. We’d been together for a long time and we were different people, but our relationship hadn’t caught up to the fact that we as people had changed. So that was certainly one of the things I wanted Jake and Anna’s characters to be dealing with in the film.

Drinking-Buddies_9At what point in the Drinking Buddies process did you know the whole story and how it ends?

Swanberg: I knew the shape of the story a few days before we started shooting—that’s when I decided on the real shape of the story. In the past when I’ve worked with improv and a loose structure, I thought of it, and still do, like building a jigsaw puzzle, where you have to look for the edge pieces first to provide context for the rest of the puzzle. You can fish those pieces out and start to put the boundaries together.

It’s the same with my on-set improv technique. The scene that is now the final scene in the movie, I didn’t know that was the final scene until we shot it. We were on set shooting, that moment happened on camera, and right away we all looked at each other and said, “That’s how it ends. Now we know. Now we can build backwards from there.” Anything that I’d written in the outline beyond that scene was unnecessary. That was our moment. That’s always exciting.

When you shoot that scene—which we shot on day three—and you know that’s how it ends, then you have some structure, and you can start to say, “If this is how it ends, what comes right before the ending? Or if we find our opening scene, what comes after that? And if this other scene is a cool changing point in the middle…?” And you just start feeling it out and filling those moments in.

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