Joe Swanberg Interview – Writer/Director of Drinking Buddies

It is incredibly refreshing to discover a film that approaches genre in an innovative and unique way. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is one of those. It could conceivably be defined as a romantic-comedy, but placing this film into such a particular box wouldn’t do it justice. This is a director who has been hailed as one of the central figures of the mumble-core movement – the go-to label for small-budget films that reigned in the mid noughties and heavily focused on character interaction and improvisation – and now he’s filming on a larger scale. His budget is higher, the actors are people we already know, and the overall feel is more mainstream (but by no means any less complex or interesting), in contrast with earlier works Lol, Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs.

Swanberg works by allowing his actors to create scenes themselves. He has an outline – an idea – and then watches as that idea flourishes into something new and unexpected. Therefore the strict formulae for a romantic-comedy is completely out of the picture. The audience genuinely doesn’t know how the film is going to pan out, and we certainly have fun speculating along the way. The film is set in a Chicago brewery and charts the romantic tension between colleagues Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) that neither can act on due to having other partners, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick). Front Row Reviews enjoyed catching up with the director during the 57th London Film Festival to discuss the ins and outs of his film-making process.

Where did the idea come from, first of all?

Joe Swanberg From two places. I mean, I wanted to do something about Craft Beer [independent breweries] and set in the Craft Beer world but also I was inspired by Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a Paul Mazursky movie. Just to tell a complicated adult [story] that was funny, that managed to remain funny even though it was getting into serious, interesting things. So I thought of put those two things together, I sort of grafted the Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice complicated relationship thing into the brewery setting.

You rejected the idea of recreating the Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice poster and having the shot of the four of them in bed though?

Joe Swanberg Yeah, but as you can see [indicates poster of four characters sitting together in bar], it’s essentially the same set-up.

So would you call the movie a romcom for film buffs who hate rom-coms?

Joe Swanberg Maybe. I mean I happen to really like romcoms but they’ve been really bad for the last couple of years. I mean, in a sense, we’re just sort of using genre as an entry-point to the movie. It sort of starts like a romcom but hopefully doesn’t go in those directions ultimately. I’m very performance orientated as a filmmaker, so it was useful to steal the set-up of romantic comedy just as a way to get into the characters; just for the first 30 minutes it’s got that kind of set up and then I was happy to break away from it.

Did you see that Quentin Tarantino called Drinking Buddies one of his top movies of 2013?

Joe Swanberg I saw that and my head swelled up to about twice its size. It’s really exciting. It’s probably the best external validation I’ve received as a filmmaker, just because it’s coming from another filmmaker. It’s really cool. I grew up loving that guy’s movies and I still do.

There is a really flirty scene at the end of the film but no definitive conclusion. Why did you decide to end it in that way?

Joe Swanberg Well to me, I felt like Jill and Luke’s relationship has sort of overcome an obstacle, and I felt like Kate and Luke’s characters had sort of walked up to the line of their sexual tension. I mean for me it’s a happy ending. They’ll be able to be friends now. They’ve stared it in the face and hopefully overcome it. I wanted to end on an upbeat note, even though it’s a little ambiguous. I think it will always be challenging for them.

We come in feeling like Kate and Luke have been friends for a long time, and there’s such chemistry between Jake [Johnson] and Olivia [Wilde]. How long did it take to get the chemistry between the two actors?

Joe Swanberg Well, we got lucky because there was a charity event in Kansas City that they were both part of a few weeks before we shot, so we actually got an unauthorised rehearsal period where they just got to drink and make each other laugh. When they arrived in Chicago they already knew each other, which was nice. I mean you’re sort of hanging your hat on these relationships and if the chemistry isn’t there, you’re in trouble, so it was really fun to get to work. I specifically scheduled the movie so that the first few days on shoot was just the two of them in the brewery goofing around and the actors could get to know each other while the characters were having light, fun scenes, rather than during the heavier stuff that comes later. I also specifically didn’t bring Ron Livingston or Anna Kendrick in until about a week into the shoot so that Jake and Olivia could form those bonds. I wanted at least in the first two thirds of the movie for their relationship to seem more viable than Luke and Jill’s relationship, so we could sort of utilize the fact the actors didn’t know each other very well to create an intimacy in this one thing that isn’t a real relationship,  and an aloofness in the one that’s supposed to be the six year long relationship. But the truth is, they are all really good actors and I think that good actors can to some extent fake that chemistry.

But it didn’t come across as fake…

Joe Swanberg Yeah, I agree, I agree. It was really fun to shoot. I mean on set it came across as real too and it’s exciting as a director to see that happening.

How much changed from the original idea because of the actors and how much did they bring to the film?

Joe Swanberg They brought a lot to it. The storyline itself didn’t change very  much, but circumstantially we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot the movie and we had to figure out the storyline ahead of time, but it is so much more complex and interesting than the outline that I wrote. If you were to read it on paper you would understand where the dramatic things would enter, but the actors just bring all the richness to it, all the complexity to it. It’s why I make movies this way. I’m not a writer and so in the creation of the scenario you’re just sort of building a dramatic structure that will be a skeleton to support the weight of the performances and the nuances that the actors bring. The real pleasure for me is being on set with them, watching them work, and then getting in the editing room and shaping that into a movie. With improvised dialogue there is a lot of ways it can go and there are a lot of movies that can be made out of the same footage. It’s almost impossible to separate what I consider directing between what I’m doing on set with the actors and what I’m doing in the editing room. The editing room is where I earn writing credit because that’s really where out of options A B C and D, I choose D and that changes what the movie is.

Jake Johnson said that Kate and Luke would have made a great couple in their twenties but not in their thirties. Do you agree?

Joe Swanberg Yeah! I do agree, I think he’s right. I think that relationship would have always had an expiration date. I think they’re both a little selfish to make it last a really long time. I think they’re a great couple in the time the movie follows them, it’s just that they only make a great couple in a very limited circumstance when they are both having fun, and as soon as anything gets serious they become far less compatible. If they had met in their twenties it would have taken them a lot longer to realise that, but I still think they would have had some kind of crisis moment.

Did you want the viewer to root for Kate and Luke as a couple?

Joe Swanberg Yeah, it’s an ideal relationship if everything is going great all the time. I do think their chemistry is incredible. They make each other laugh and there’s a lot of upsides to that coupling. But ultimately I’m hoping that the audience ends up feeling like Anna [represents] a much better relationship [that] they could be in for the rest of their lives.

That aspect is definitely what sets this film apart as a romantic-comedy because it actually feels real. It doesn’t seem like a romantic-comedy, more of a romance-comedy-drama. The ending was bittersweet because – in reality – you have to choose people who are compatible to you…

Joe Swanberg Yeah, I mean the term romantic-comedy is a little misleading. I wouldn’t stick it on the video store shelf next to Sandra Bullock movies and stuff, but then again to me, to my specific aesthetics it’s more romantic to me than some Katherine Heigl movie where I know exactly what’s going to happen in the first five minutes. In that pretence it is actually a romantic comedy. In 2013 the romantic comedy has been so predictable for so long it means a very specific thing now, typically staring Hugh Grant and somebody else and boxes just get checked. There are times I want to zone out and watch something like that, but as a filmmaker I feel incapable of making it.

Bearing in mind the direction the narrative takes and the choices the characters make, do you personally feel that human beings have a tendency to self-sabotage happiness and contentment?

Joe Swanberg It’s hard, I mean, it’s challenging to be happy and it’s hard to know what makes you happy. I don’t know if it’s self-consciously self-sabotaging, though certainly I have a lot of friends in my life who I’ve witnessed again and again make the same mistakes. So I do feel like we’re a little hard-wired to just follow some circuit. But there’s a desire to be happy and I feel like most of the characters in my films want to be, they just don’t know what that missing piece is or pieces are.

You’re an independent filmmaker but you work with what might be termed big names. How much of a help or hindrance is that?

Joe Swanberg It’s a big help because they’re all really cool and people are interested in them. So it was the best of both worlds for me, because none of them were making any money, so they really wanted to be there. So it was really a pleasure.

Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to see go?

Joe Swanberg I did, there are a few scenes that were really fun but one of my favourite things about editing is really hacking away at it and really chopping that stuff out. I’m a pretty aggressive editor. I think my first cut of the movie was 1 hour 40 mins and the finished version is about 90 minutes. The extra fifteen minutes was all good, I’m very proud of it all, but there was often too much exposition. I always have to remind myself when I’m editing that the audience is smart, they don’t need to see piece A and C get put together with a big long scene of everyone explaining everything in piece B. We’ve seen enough movies, there’s enough of a narrative trajectory to go from A to C, and if there’s any lingering questions those become interesting. They leave space for the audience to bring their own interpretations. That tends to be the stuff that’s the last to get cut out. I’ll keep them in there then at the very end I will pull them out of there.

So they won’t end up on the DVD then?

Joe Swanberg A few things will. I put about 8 or 9 minutes on the DVD of fun stuff but it’s not necessarily scenes. I also put some behind the scenes things that I felt enlightened the working method a bit, sort of how fun and jocular the actors are using this improv technique because they really have to rely on each other, it’s a really cool thing to witness, they are each other’s safety net, so unless all of them are totally engaged all the time those scenes are not going to work.

How much drinking was going on on set?

Joe Swanberg Any time you see them drink in the movie that’s real beer. Also we had a pretty big tab at the end of our brewery days, because not just the cast but the whole crew was typically having a beer with lunch and then we would have one or two before we wrapped for the day. It was great, because the brewery guys were very suspicious of us in the beginning, there was a little territorial thing happened, and I don’t blame them. I mean it’s their job, it’s their office and they are serious about their work, so then suddenly there’s all these filmmakers walking around like they own the place. There was some tension on the first day as we sort of felt each other out, and then they realised that we cared about the beer and we were having fun and making a movie that was going to be cool, and they got really involved. The brewers in the movie aren’t extras, they were just the guys who were there. They also really took Jake in and taught him a lot. Everything you see him doing in the movie was real beer that was going out into the world. It was fun to really incorporate him into the real work.

I read recently that you brew your own beer…

Joe Swanberg I do.

I was just wondering, are there any similarities between the idea of brewing your own beer and independent filmmaking and was that something that attracted you to the project?

Joe Swanberg Yeah, yeah, definitely. I feel very connected, as an independent filmmaker to the micro-brewery or Craft Beer scene, definitely. I think both industries are facing a lot of the same challenges – you have macro-breweries – I mean, in America, there’s essentially two, you’ve got Anheuser-Busch and you’ve got MillerCoors and those two companies control 90% of the beer marketplace and then every Craft Brewery is the other ten per cent. And with independent film it’s about the same equation, you’ve got a few studios and then you’ve got every single independent film competing for whatever little piece of the pie is left and so both industries are constantly trying to figure out, ‘How do we get our product, which we’re passionate about and which was a labour of love, into the marketplace to compete with huge budgets and an entire infrastructure built around showcasing a different kind of thing?’ So much so that if you go to the multiplex and an independent film is showing, you’re a little confused about what it’s even doing there. You’re like, ‘This doesn’t – I’m not supposed to have a big tub of popcorn and be sitting in stadium seating watching this little tiny movie, this should be in 3D and it should be really loud’. And so, in the same way that we’ve created the separation between the mutliplexes and the arthouse, I feel like the beer industry has that too – there’s like sports bars and then there’s sort of Craft Beer pubs where you’re only drinking really good stuff. But it’s exciting – I think the Craft Beer industry, especially in the United States, is really chipping away at the big guys now and they’re scared – the big corporations don’t know how to compete with the authenticity of Craft Beer and so there’s a really exciting thing happening where the growth in the Craft Beer scene is really exponential each year. I’m personally hoping that that continues and I felt that with Drinking Buddies it was a chance for me to spotlight to a different kind of audience what’s happening with Craft Beer.

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