As a director, Joe Swanberg is best known for his micro-budget films about relationships in his trademark mumblecore style. His newest film Drinking Buddies follows that formula, but it has a bigger budget than he’s had in the past, and a cast filled with much bigger names such as Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston. It’s a romantic story that deviates from the typical, overplayed formula, and makes its mark in the small, intimate moments between the characters.
Recently, I had the chance to discuss the film with Swanberg in an exclusive 1 on 1 interview. We talked about his inspiration for the story, the process of improv-ing, his love for horror, and much more.
Check out the full interview below.
WGTC: Who drank more, Jake Johnson when you were filming or you while writing the movie?
Swanberg: (Laughs) That’s a really good question. The answer’s probably Jake and I both tied while shooting. But I had a head start on him. He likes beer but he wasn’t really a huge craft beer geek the way that I was. So I had to catch him up during the making of the movie.
WGTC: How did you come up with the story?
Swanberg: I wanted to do something set in the world of craft beer, it’s something I was really interested in. It’s kind of a continuation of the complicated relationship movies that I’ve been making for most of my career. So I really was interested in trying to tell a romantic comedy from the point of view of two couples and the intricacies of managing the stuff we’re used to seeing. The fun, flirty stuff from romantic comedies, with the reality that there are other people who are possibly being hurt by these situations.
WGTC: Obviously a great cast, can you talk about getting all them involved?
Swanberg: I met with everybody but Jake, Jake I actually got to meet with for the first time in person, but the other actors I met with all on Skype for the first time, which is very futuristic. It’s cool because there was no script, so instead of auditioning or something like that, I got to meet them and just have conversations with them. I told them some of the themes I was interested in exploring, and how I wanted to shoot the movie. The ways I use improvisation and things like that. So it was really fun. A fun casting process. Thankfully I found actors who were excited by that and wanted to try to have a different kind of experience.
WGTC: Now I know improvisation is really big in all your movies, but could you expand on how that went in Drinking Buddies in particular?
Swanberg: The way it works is for the first take we’ll loop it and that’s sort of the writing take. Then we’ll kind of hone in on it from there. But I wanted to shoot it like a movie. That involves coverage and cross-shooting. We were only using one camera so if we landed on something, additional takes were just honing that idea. Keeping the dialogue fresh, but going through a scene again if we were reversing angles or something like that. It landed somewhere in an interesting place between totally improvised and scripted. Somewhere that I feel is a nice, happy medium where it feels natural, but they aren’t so totally loose that it has no shape.
WGTC: When I was watching the movie, what stood out the most was the chemistry between Johnson and Wilde. How was it working with them?
Swanberg: Yeah, I was amazed by it too. One of the cool things about improv is I don’t know what they’re going to say. So I kind of get to watch it the same way you do. They were just great together. It felt like there were real sparks flying. I just tried to stay out of the way and let that natural chemistry be there.
The funny part is, I did talk to Jake a little bit about it, and he said it was really exciting for him because at the end of the day they would both go home and then come back the next day and do the movie. There was no real chemistry outside of that. And he really enjoyed that experience of turning it on. We got lucky because they were able to hang out a few days in Kansas City before we shot. This was sort of randomly. I think Jason Sudeikis and some other guys from Kansas City do a charity event and they invited Jake down there. So it was a really lucky thing for the movie, because we didn’t have a lot of time before we started shooting, so Jake and Olivia were able to get a head start and hang out in Kansas City before the movie.
WGTC: What inspired those characters?
Swanberg: Jake and Anna’s characters are based on my wife and I seven years ago or so before we got married. At least for the things they’re dealing with in the movie. Olivia’s character, at least her job in the movie, is modeled off my friend Kate who works at Half Acre Brewery and sort of has the same position. Also Aimee Quinkert who works at Revolution Brewery. Ron’s character is sort of the outlier there. I pictured him, I pictured that character a little bit, but it wasn’t until I cast Ron that we really shaped him into this older and more successful record producer.
WGTC: A very different movie than some of the horror stuff you do. Why such a strong focus in two vastly different genres?
Swanberg: My horror affiliations are through acting and being friends with horror filmmakers. I don’t know how I ended up acting in those things. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett sort of took a liking to me and cast me in some stuff and that led to other parts. After a while I sort of became a horror actor. I really like those movies, I’ve always liked horror, and I learn a lot from the directors of other stuff. It’s truly an exciting opportunity for me to be able to act in them. Horror films are so technical so it’s always a nice experience to see other people deal with those challenges.
WGTC: Do you have anything exciting coming up that you can tell us about?
Swanberg: I directed a new movie called Happy Christmas that I’m editing right now. It stars Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey. You’re Next is coming out. I acted in Ti West’s movie, The Sacrament. It’ll be out in late August.
WGTC: Back to Drinking Buddies, if someone is still on the fence about seeing it, what would be your quick, 30-second pitch?
Swanberg: I tried to take the idea of a romantic comedy and make something that wasn’t as predictable and terrible as most romantic comedies. I don’t know. I’m not into the hard sell. I’d just say that I think it’s a chance to see four really good actors do some of their best work and getting the chance to have the space to explore a lot of characters. I would also say the chance to watch Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde together is something people shouldn’t miss.
Well that concludes our interview, but I’d like to thank Joe for taking the time to talk. Be sure to check out Drinking Buddies available through VOD now!