Exclusive: Interview with “Drinking Buddies” Director/Writer Joe Swanberg
Drinking Buddies is a film which completely defies the norm and shuns every predictable path that you might expect.
The movie stars Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde as two friends who work at a brewery. They might be perfect for each other, if not for each of their significant others (played by Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, respectively). What could be an extremely trite romantic comedy, however, contorts into a very intense dance that ends in a way that’s extremely real. Instead of watching a Hollywood love story, you’re watching your friends on screen, or yourself, or other people you know.
This latest product of mumblecore film-making has no script and features the kind of awkward moments that you actually experience, not the sugar coated versions you wish you did. Watching the film, it’s hard to differentiate it from real life, which is exactly what writer/director Joe Swanberg wanted.
The Suffolk Voice snagged an exclusive interview with Swanberg to talk about real life, the insecurities of actors, and how he finally knows who Anna Kendrick is.
THE SUFFOLK VOICE: This movie ignores a lot of the common tropes and cliches that you would normally see in a story on relationships. Why did you want to write that kind of story?
JOE SWANBERG: I’m a big fan of romantic comedies. A lot of my favorite movies I would call romantic comedies, though they’re not traditional romantic comedies. So they’ve always been stories that I’ve been excited to tell, but they’re so bad. Romantic comedies are so bad right now. They’re really predictable. Maybe there’s something comforting about the predictability, but you know exactly who the characters are and exactly what’s going to happen. I wanted to make something where the outcome wasn’t as clearly defined in the first five minutes. Additionally, I’m just fascinated by relationships. I think it’s a really meaty subject matter and fun stuff to deal with. And fun for actors! There’s a lot that they can do.
SUFFOLK: Speaking of, normally you tend towards a more unknown cast. Why did you choose more well-known actors for this film and how did they get involved?
SWANBERG: These were all people who I was a fan of. I think it was exciting to make something where the audience could come in already having relationships with the people. I wanted to see what we could do together. Going from working with friends and, a lot of times, non-professional actors.. It was an exciting challenge to me, to see if I was working with more well established people, whether we could hit upon new kinds of things or reach new audiences. The people I ended up working with, they all came on through different ways.
Like Jake [Johnson]. Jake was recommended by Lizzy Caplan. She had been in a few episodes of [the TV show] New Girl and thought that he was really great, so I met up with him.
With Olivia [Wilde]. I didn’t know this at the time, but she said it was actually Jason Sudeikis who had seen my movies and sort of told her that she should try and do something with me. She heard we were putting this project together and she and I Skyped and talked about it. I was already a big fan of hers. I had seen her in Alpha Dog when it came out and I thought she was really good in that. She had been on my radar and I had kind of been paying attention to her over the years. She was always really good, but she wasn’t necessarily in movies where she had a lot to do. It was really fun to work with her and to give her a lot more freedom to be great.
Then Ron [Livingston] I just met through the casting process and got along, had a great conversation with him and thought he was really smart and cool.
I had seen Anna [Kendrick] in 50/50 and.. I feel like an idiot. I know she had already been nominated for an Oscar at that point and was like already a famous actor, but I had never seen her in anything. I didn’t know who she was. So I had a really pure experience. I went to see 50/50 just because I wanted to see it and, you know, the very first scene she’s in, I was like, “Oh my God, who is that? She’s amazing!”
And then, of course, it was like “Oh, that’s Anna Kendrick. She’s like really already really famous.” [Laughs.] I thought I had discovered somebody. Like, ‘Oh my God! Whoever this actual therapist is is incredible!’
So then when C.A.A. [Creative Artists Agency] was like, “We want to set up a call between you and Anna Kendrick,” I was like, “Oh my God, yes, please!” So she and I also Skyped for the first time. I think a lot of these conversations were just about movies we liked and the kind of stories we were interested in telling. It was really fun. There was no script, so I just kept having conversations with people. It was a really, nice, fun way to catch a movie.
SUFFOLK: You just mentioned there was no script. I noticed that the dialogue was very natural in the film. How did that work? Was it all improv completely?
SWANBERG: Yeah. So the way that it worked was there was a really heavily written outline. The sort of action of the movie was preconceived and then all the dialogue was improvised by the actors on set while we were doing it. Similar to the way that I’ve worked before. This was much more planned out than any movie I’ve made, the scenarios more heavily developed. But I’ve always done improvised dialogue.
SUFFOLK: I was reading about the so-called “mumblecore” sub-genre that you’ve been titled a king of. What is it about that naturalistic style that appeals to you?
SWANBERG: I just like the experience of going to movies and seeing human beings that I relate to. I don’t know. It’s a nice experience. It makes me feel less alone in the world if I see people on the screen having conversations that I’ve actually had in my real life, dealing with issues that I may be dealing with. It’s a helpful way to sort of think about them and the other people confronting those challenges. I think I’ve always been drawn to that, even before I was making movies.
SUFFOLK: What was your greatest challenge, as a director, in making this film?
SWANBERG: I mean, the greatest challenge to the film was raising money without a script. [Laughs.] Asking people to give us money to make a movie that they had no idea what it was going to be.
The challenge for me was to have to be a good communicator and to have clear, concise answers to the questions that people have. You sort of find yourself on a film set and, every day, there’s 50 questions that are posed to you. You can’t spend a week thinking about them before you give an answer. You have to have a quick answer to everything and then you’re going with your gut and then hoping that that answer makes sense or that answer works for somebody. So, every day, it’s the same challenge. It’s basically the challenge of problem solving and trying to be a good leader and a good communicator.
SUFFOLK: Obviously you’ve done some of your own acting. Do you think that that helps you in being able to answer questions and to predict what your actors will need?
SWANBERG: It is helpful, yes. Every movie that I’ve acted in has been a very amazing learning experience for me and it’s always really useful. Mostly what it does is remind me how vulnerable it is to be an actor and the kind of insecurities that so easily crop up. It’s nice for me, in between directing projects, to go act in something. It makes me more empathetic to the actors that I work with and, hopefully, allows me to give them the encouragement they need and also be able to answer their questions in a way that’s useful to them.
SUFFOLK: Can you talk more about what you mentioned, about the actors’ insecurities and vulnerabilities?
SWANBERG: Sure! Unless it’s a one person production, you’re there with other actors and, if it’s going right and if people have the right attitude, you’re not looking to make yourself look good in spite of the other people. You’re all working together to make a good movie and it’s hard to know how to do that. It’s not your job, as the actor, to have the vision for the entire project. At least for me, I’ll just speak from my own experiences.
At the end of a take, the thing I most want to know is did I give the director something they wanted and, if not, how can I make it better. Then you always sort of have a feeling. Occasionally, you have a good feeling like, ‘We all did really good that take and that felt really good.’ Most of the time, there’s the reality of the limited time period and limited resources and you just have to do the best you can and cross your fingers that it all works out. But that’s a really nerve-wracking way to work. It’s hard to move on from a scene that you think you could have done better just because you’re out of time. That kind of stuff happens all the time and, over the course of multiple weeks, all that stuff starts to build up and you really start to feel like you’re ruining somebody’s movie, which is a bad feeling.
But a lot of that is paranoia and insecurity. It’s not usually the case. It requires an incredible amount of trust of the director that you’re working with because you’re being vulnerable for them. You’re giving them options, some of which are good and some of which are bad, and you have to trust that they’re going to edit accordingly and use the good ones and not make you look terrible. There are just a million things that could drive you crazy.
SUFFOLK: Did you run into those time constraints on your movie?
SWANBERG: Every once in awhile. It’s kind of unavoidable. We had a pretty good schedule on Drinking Buddies. I never felt overly rushed, but there were a few days where it would have been nice to have an extra hour.
SUFFOLK: So, you’re only in your early 30’s and this is your 16th feature-length film.
SWANBERG: [Laughs.] Yeah.
SUFFOLK: Are you worried about trying to create too many films too quickly?
SWANBERG: Nah, I’m not worried about it. I’ve learned from every single one that I’ve made and I’ve had different great experiences and bad experiences on the various projects. I don’t have any regrets about any of it. It’s what I like to do and I think the only way to get better at it is to practice it. So I’m happy to be practicing as much as possible.
I’m sure that it will go in waves. There will be years where I make a lot of stuff and there will be years where I probably don’t make a single movie. I’m hoping to be doing this for another 50 or 60 years, so I don’t think too much or worry too much about it. If it’s exciting to me and it’s doable, then I try and jump in and do it.
SUFFOLK: Can you tell us a little bit about the couple films you have in post-production right now?
SWANBERG: Sure, yeah. I’m happy to! The next thing that will come out is a movie that I’m really proud of and excited about called All the Light in the Sky. … It’s playing around festivals now, but it will have a theatrical run in the fall and come out on iTunes and stuff. … I’m looking forward to that coming out.
Then I made a movie called 24 Exposures, also in 2011, that I just finished up. … It’s about an erotic photographer and a private detective and sort of has a late night, Cinemax/Showtime, detective vibe. Sort of weird, quasi-comedy slash dark movie. [Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s an oddball. I’m really excited about it and I’m very curious for people to see it.
Then I’m editing a movie called Happy Christmas that Anna Kendrick starred in. I worked with Ben Richardson, the cinematographer from Drinking Buddies, who also shot Beasts of the Southern Wild. We shot it on film; we shot it on Super 16. [Actors] Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, and Lena Dunham are also in that movie. It’s kind of like an indie Christmas family movie. So I’m cutting that now and hopefully it will start premiering at festivals early next year, early 2014.
SUFFOLK: You mentioned shooting on film. Do you have a preference when it comes to film versus digital?
SWANBERG: Uh, no. I mean, yeah, I would say that my preference would be, if I just had complete free control over it, I would probably shoot everything on 70mm. But there are a lot of advantages to shooting digitally that I’ve been able to capitalize on in my career. I’m not like a hardcore Evangelist of one or the other, but it’s nice to shoot on film. It’s gorgeous and very specific.
Really, what I would like – it seems like I missed the boat, I think it’s officially done – would be to strike film print and show it on film. That’s when it really looks beautiful, when it’s coming through a film projector on the big screen. But pretty much every distributor and every theater seems to be done showing 35[mm], so I’m probably two years too late to realize that fantasy. I’ll try and shoot on film more often if it’s a more viable option.
SUFFOLK: And speaking of digital allowances, I read somewhere that you made one of your films available to watch for free online. Is that true?
SWANBERG: Yeah, Marriage Material is just on my Vimeo page.
SUFFOLK: Why do that?
SWANBERG: Because it’s a great way for people to see stuff! I made it for a few thousand dollars. It’s not the kind of movie that’s going to have a big theatrical release or anything. I’m making these movies to engage with people and to have a conversation with the audience and the only way that that’s going to happen is if people can actually see the stuff. So I’m excited to get it out there in whatever way is the most realistic.
SUFFOLK: Absolutely. It makes sense; it just seems a little contrary to the normal mindset.
SWANBERG: Yeah. Well, it makes sense if you think about the fact that most directors maybe have a movie every two or three years. So to work for two or three years on something and then to just put it on the internet for free seems like a much bigger challenge than for me to put one of the five movies that I had that year on the internet for free. [Laughs.] My prolific pace has also allowed me the freedom to not be so precious about these things, which I think is useful.
SUFFOLK: Thank you so much for the interview.
SWANBERG: Yeah, nice to talk to you today!
Drinking Buddies is available on iTunes and Video On Demand. It will be released in Boston theaters on Friday. This interview has been edited.