Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg has been something of an icon and champion of no-budget filmmaking ever since having a hand in the creation of the so-called mumblecore movement, along with filmmakers such as Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers, with films like 2005's "Kissing on the Mouth" and 2007's "Hannah Takes the Stairs."
Since then his prolific filmography has remained remarkably committed to the DIY aesthetic with which he made his name, so it was certainly understandable when heads turned at the announcement that his latest film would star an Oscar nominated actress (Anna Kendrick), a principal cast member of a hit FOX comedy (Jake Johnson of "New Girl") and a venerable movie star (Olivia Wilde). Equally surprising was the fact that it would be shot by up and coming "Beasts of the Southern Wild" DP Ben Richardson, a film with a lush and colorful style that would seem to be at odds with the comparative stark realism of Swanberg's oeuvre; usually chronicles of relationship dysfunction among young Chicagoans, starring Swanberg and his friends.
When it premiered at SXSW to a warm reception (go HERE for Indiewire's glowing review), "Drinking Buddies" proved to be a natural extension of Swanberg's work instead of a "sell out," but it's still managed to burn up the VOD and iTunes charts, and will have a sizable release by Magnolia starting August 23rd.
We sat down with the filmmaker in New York to talk about the film, upcoming projects such as his new horror film "24 Exposures" and the comedy "Happy Christmas" (starring Kendrick, Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey), the ethical importance of making comedies, and beer.
I just overheard you saying that this will be playing at the Nitehawk [culinary theater In Brooklyn], which is awesome. It can be an interactive drinking experience.
Yeah, there and Landmark Sunshine. I'm really excited. I've never been there; I'm going tonight.
I saw this back to back with "The World's End," and I couldn't help looking around like, why don't we all have pints?
I can't wait to see "The World's End." Edgar Wright tweeted at me like, "my movie could also be called 'Drinking Buddies.'" I'm looking forward to it.
A lot of Chicagoans that I know were curious as to why, among the legion of Chicago craft beers featured in the movie, Goose Island wasn't featured. Not being from Chicago I have a pretty limited idea of what that actually means, but I was told I needed to ask.
It's because Goose Island is from the Anheuser-Busch family of beers, which is owned by InBev, which is like a European megaconglomerate beverage owner. So that was political on my part not to include them. They don't need to be supported or advertised with my money.
Really tempting to just do an interview about beer, but we should probably talk about the movie. Was the decision to cast big name actors more of a practical one, to get the movie financed and seen, or a creative one? You've been talking a lot about Paul Mazursky, and I feel like that genre of movie, that kind of relationship comedy, almost kind of requires familiar faces.
It helps. "Drinking Buddies" is a tough sell anyway because it's about complicated relationship issues and doesn't cut a super easy trailer, it's a not a super easy one line pitch kind of movie, so that stuff does help… First of all it's kind of hard to remember how that happened, how we decided to start looking for bigger actors, and whether it was my idea or someone else's. Beyond that, I'm just a fan of these people. I didn't want to spend my entire career working with unknown actors and friends. So this seemed like the right project to branch out and incorporate other actors that I had seen in other stuff and really liked. I was only meeting with actors whose work I already admired; it wasn't a broad, open casting call of "let's see how famous we can get." It was, "these are thirty actors whose work I really like. Let's see if any of them are interested."
Was the decision to have this project be your first slightly bigger budget, Steadicam-enabled movie yours?
That sort of grew naturally. I think we knew by default that it was going to be bigger than my biggest movie, which was "Hannah Takes the Stairs," which was only $60,000. We knew it was going to be bigger than that. I was working with Alicia [Van Couvering, the producer] to budget it out and she did the math so that it sort of naturally grew to the size that it is now, which is still basically the smallest that we could've possibly done the movie. It's still as low budget as it could be. Mostly because it's hard to find investors when you don't have a script.
How did the actors react to not having any semblance of a script?
They were all doing the movie because of that, almost. The experience of doing that. So that wasn't really a roadblock, that was more the way in, if anything. That came along with the invitation. And then on set, on a day to day basis, they did great. They really owned the process. It felt the same way it's always felt. Working with them didn't feel different than working with anybody else.
The process in this movie is kind of fascinating to me because Jake Johnson and Jason Sudeikis obviously have a background in improv comedy, but I would consider that a completely different and removed type of improv than what you usually do. Were you worried if those sensibilities would gel?
I thought about it, certainly. That conversation with Jake happened around the idea that we were only going to shoot with one camera. I think he understood that it wasn't going to be that kind of jokey improv where you have two or three cameras so that you're covered from every angle so that you can take a live take and cut it. He understood that it was more dramatic than that and that the placement of the camera was important and that we would do multiple takes. With Sudeikis we were working so quickly, he was only there for two days, and he just had to dive into it. He was doing us a favor, basically. But he's so smart and observant that he could just sort of see what was happening and go along with it.
But it's interesting when I talk to people about the movie as an improvised movie because I would say even my connotations about what improv means-- if somebody says, "Hey! we're going to go to Second City and see some improv," I'm like "aghh!" I think of big, jokey improv which is not necessarily my cup of tea. Though there are, like, TJ and Dave, who are two Chicago guys who do improv, and they're doing improv that's much closer to the improv that I'm doing, which is long form and more dramatic. They're essentially using improvisation as a tool to tell a story and it's not about jokes and it's not about quick, witty comebacks. It's about listening to the other person and sort of telling a story. They're sort of generating there's live for an audience so there are different demands on them.
For me it's really-- I sense that anybody could do improv in one of my movies as long as they're the kind of person who could have a conversation with someone else. That's really all I'm asking. And that's not to take any credit away from the actors I've worked with, it's just to say that I'm asking them to do a different thing. I'm asking them to be storytellers and just conversationalists. I'm not asking them to be entertainers with a capital "E." And then the smallness of the scene by scene thing hopefully accumulates into a movie rather than a series of jokes.