Director's Cut: Joe Swanberg ('Drinking Buddies')

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Joe Swanberg is a founding father of the "mumblecore" movement. His early work wore its no-budget aesthetic with pride, were intentionally rough around the edges, and matched the stark visuals with characters and scenarios that were equally grungy. After years of influencing modern American independent cinema, Swanberg is taking an interesting turn (our own Calum Marsh wrote about Swanberg's maturation here). The DIY filmmaker wants to make movies the old fashioned way.

For "Drinking Buddies," Swanberg cuts from a cloth thrown away by Hollywood: the modestly-budgeted character piece. He believes his casual mix of comedy and drama still has a place in the mainstream, that there's room between gargantuan tentpoles and indie dramas. Audiences still want to watch people be people and Swanberg is ready to deliver. "Drinking Buddies" lives up to the ambition, an entertaining, poignant "romantic comedy" that builds off the director's earlier sensibilities with recognizable talent (Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston) and the glow of production value. Just the fact that it exists is quite exhilarating (read our full review here).

I spoke to Swanberg about evolving his voice to match a larger-scaled picture, the hardships of rom coms, and how critical reception and the pigeonholing of mumblecore challenged his work:

FILM.COM: I read in an interview where you described a crossroads you approached early in your career. Agents courted you for bigger projects and — as is evident from your last few years of filmmaking — you declined. I tried to imagine where Joe Swanberg would fit in Hollywood and it was hard to picture. "Drinking Buddies" might be a step in that direction, but it's not a studio-sized movie. When you were weighing options, what did you see down the path you wound up not choosing?

JOE SWANBERG: One of the reasons I didn't follow up on that is because I wasn't sure of the answer, the idea of translating what I had been doing into something bigger. I'm learning now that, some of the power a director has is the ability to get big actors that want to work with them. Every year there are young, new directors whose movies make an impact one way or another. They're brought into the system in the hopes that established actors are excited to try something new.

I think the excitement of "Hannah Takes the Stairs"… I was working in a different kind of way and making different movies and that maybe this would be a good fit to attract some bigger actors. At that point I was halfway into shooting "Nights and Weekends" and I felt like my career and the things I was interested in were heading in a smaller direction rather than a commercial direction. I'm glad I gave myself the time to explore some things. By the time I got to "Drinking Buddies" I was ready to take on a bigger production.

Did you always consider "Drinking Buddies" a bigger production? Did that attract you to making it?

I didn't want to make a bigger movie, I wanted to make a different kind of movie. I wanted to have more control over a movie. The only way to get that control is… you can either build it all yourself and take a long time and have control that way. If you want to work quickly — the way I've always wanted to work — you sort of have to pay for that control.

Jumping in to "Drinking Buddies," I knew I wanted to set it in a brewery — that was going to cost money. I knew I wanted to have more control over the art department and wardrobe — that was going to cost money. We landed at a budget that was about as small as we could do the movie for, but even that was ten times bigger than anything I had done.

I've seen you reference "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "The Heartbreak Kid" as influences on "Drinking Buddies." What fuel did those film provide you with?

At some point, and this may sound a little silly, but I had convinced myself that you couldn't make a smart, complex, interesting movie that was commercially successful and accessible to people. So I spent a lot of time making small movies that were complex and delving into relationship issues that I wasn't seeing other movies dealing with. I was also seeing that they were very small. They would play festivals, some art house theaters. "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "The Heartbreak Kid" were big commercial hits! And they were movies nominated for Oscars and were serious, interesting movies for adults that didn't feel compromised. Seeing those movies was a nice reminder that you didn't have to choose. You could do both. It realigned me. I had a new challenge: To make something that people want to come out and see and doesn't selling itself out along the way.

How did your ideas for the characters change when Olivia, Jake, and the rest of the cast came on board?

I conceive in broad strokes and once I work with people we can fill in details. I created a structure that resembled a romantic comedy, but it wasn't until I had my actors that we could get to work deciding who these people were, what those interactions should be. I had the brewery setting and the places where these people were at in their relationships. But Olivia is her own person and has a point of view. I didn't want to decide those things.

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a romantic comedy that everybody wants to see?

I think that's the problem. Whenever you try and make something enjoyable for everybody, you're in trouble.

I think they have forgotten to be romantic, that's one thing. They have defined romance in the same way over and over again. And they've become terribly predictable. You get your context clues two minutes into the movie and you know exactly what you're going to see unfold. They trick you in the second act that things aren't going to work out, but nobody is fooled. That stuff becomes boring when you start sitting through the manufactured conflict.

With "Drinking Buddies," I didn't want to do that. I wanted to introduce a real sense of people. The complexities of relationships and that there aren't right or wrong answers to these questions. And not focus on two characters, make a movie about four characters, another thing romantic comedies do these days, you follow one lead character on a quest. That's part of the "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" influence. I thought we could make it more interesting if we were invested in two relationships instead of one. Suddenly, there are twice as many repercussions for this behavior.

Your films often include moments of casual nudity and sexual encounters. I was surprised not to see that in "Drinking Buddies." Was that restraint motivated by the story or was it a requirement to make a film that could play to broader audiences?

It never was going to go there. Probably early on I was open to anything, but as the story started to come together, the idea of sticking a sex scene into it didn't feel right. It wasn't what the story was about. A film like "Nights and Weekend" or other films that I have made that have explicit sex scenes in them, the sexual relationships are the focus. In a long-distance relationship, when you're only seeing each other a few days every month, the physicality of that becomes part of what the relationship is. With "Drinking Buddies," it never felt like it was going to add anything.

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I have seen you mention that "Drinking Buddies" was liberating for you as a director because it was one of the first times you only had to be the director. What did you discover when you stripped all other concerns away and honed in on the role of director?

It was a pleasure. It felt different in that sense. I've always had fun making my movies. It's stressful to wake up in the morning and be in charge of remembering to call the person whose house we're shooting in and making sure they're home. Or driving to the grocery store to pick up some food for people to eat that afternoon. Swing by Target and grab a pair of pants you need for an actor. It's mentally labor-intensive to have a checklist every day of 15 different things I have to do. It was a pleasure to have 15 different people to do those jobs. I found that I really loved it and that was the thing I was most nervous about before we started.

Does having a crew make it more difficult to create an intimate atmosphere on camera?

Sure. That became another part of my job. If I hadn't cared so much about it, I think the movie would have had the atmosphere of every other set. When you have Olivia Wilde on set and she's really cool and not being a prima donna, hanging out with the crew and drinking beer, that sets the tone. If she's not going to be a pain the ass, no one else is allowed to be a pain in the ass.

How much actual beer was drank on set?

Quite a lot [laughs]. We did not skimp on the beer.

Over the course of your career, you have taken a substantial amount of criticism. The development of "mumblecore" as a blanket term for your work and other low-budget films of that ilk helped create a conversation and opened the door for backlash. Have the reactions helped you evolve as a filmmaker? Were they challenging? 

As a young filmmaker, it was so exciting that someone would write about the movies. I would read everything. It was cool and new. At some point, it stopped being helpful. I reached a point where I was able to consistently make movies and that was around the height of the backlash. "Hannah Takes the Stairs" got a lot of positive feedback, then "Nights and Weekends" got the brunt of the backlash. It's been back and forth with the movies since then. I just disengaged with it. I learned all that I was going to learn.

It was easy to arrive at that point because the complaints were the same. If people were having different problems with the movie, I would have remained engaged with the criticisms. At one point, it just became, "Oh, these are white people problems," "The movies are naval-gazing," "The movies are an excuse to get actresses naked." It was like, 'If there aren't any new grievances made, I don't have to read these anymore. I've heard all of these ones.' Then, I have to tell you, unplugging from it was really healthy and helpful for me. I realized listening to the same complaints had started to take a lot of the fun out of making the movies. When I stopped Googling my own name, the sense of fun came back into it. It lead right to this wave of hyper-productivity.

"Drinking Buddies" has a particular shine to it. Was the film a different cinematographic experience for you? How did you find the look for this movie?

It was really fun to work with Ben Richardson ["Beasts of the Southern Wild"]. I think part of what I was looking for all this time was a cinematographer who thought the same way about films that I did. We could share a visual language. Working with Ben was a great experience because we didn't have to talk a lot about it. We were at the same place trying to craft a look that was based on natural light. Find beauty in simple compositions and light that looked like it existed in a space. I worked with him on the new film, "Happy Christmas," and hopefully it will be a long, collaborative relationship between the two of us. I would love to spend the rest of my career building that language together.

Do you feel that "Happy Christmas" was born out of your experiences working on "Drinking Buddies"? 

It came out of the desire to work with some of the crew and actors again. Anna Kendrick is in "Happy Christmas," Ben shot it. It's also a chance to go from doing this bigger production with a 40 person crew and jump back into something smaller and see what we could get out of that. I think I'll spend the rest of my career jumping back and forth between those worlds.

"Drinking Buddies" is now available to rent on iTunes. It will be released in theaters on August 23.