Two attractive couples, their difficulties in life, work, and romance, a sly glance toward the other person’s partner as a possible solution… It may seem like the rote set-up for your standard romantic comedy but filmmaker Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes The Stairs,” “All The Light In The Sky”) knows this. His latest film, “Drinking Buddies,” succeeds not by the prolific indie director’s shift up in budget and crowd appeal but by just how adeptly he tweaks that framework for a surprisingly observant and honest result — in our SXSW review, we called it “a film that feels loose without ever being ponderous or phony.”
Alongside fellow cast members Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston, “New Girl” star Jake Johnson adds tremendously to that tone; he supplies his proven comedic chops to the role of Luke, a Chicago brewer toeing the line of friendship and something more with co-worker Kate (Wilde). Films like “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “21 Jump Street” have featured Johnson’s talents, alongside upcoming efforts like “Let’s Be Cops” and director Jenée LaMarque‘s Tribeca entry “The Pretty One”. We sat down with Johnson in LA recently to discuss his improv background, Swanberg’s intuitive directorial sense and his new production company with actor/director Max Winkler, which he says will soon announce their first effort directed by an acclaimed documentary filmmaker.
I’m sure going throughout this press tour there’s been a wave of Midwestern affection toward this film; it nails the geography and environments of Chicago’s North Side so well, and it’s really refreshing to see.
Definitely, and that’s one of the main reasons I did the film. I had just finished Season One of “New Girl,” my brother just had a kid in Chicago, and I wanted to find a way to spend time with both of them. And Swanberg’s such a Chicago guy — he really wanted that intimate feeling — so it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
You’ve been out in Los Angeles for a number of years now.
I’ve been out in LA for around ten years, yeah.
Coming originally from the Midwest, did you find the character of Luke an extremely comfortable fit, or were you surprised at how your perspective differed from Swanberg’s vision of city life?
No, actually — it was a really smooth transition. I go back to Chicago as often as I can, but Joe and I see the city kind of the same way. You know, if we went back and we were on the South Side, it would be a Chicago I don’t know, but we were in North Side bars, the Wrigleyville area, Revolution [Brewing Co.], and hanging out in Andersonville. So immediately I thought, “I know this.”
Did you take any Second City or iO [formerly ImprovOlympic] classes while you lived in Chicago?
I did iO, yeah, and then I moved out to New York when I was 18, where I did UCB (Upright Citizens’ Brigade) in 2000 before it became this institution. And then I did iO and UCB out here in LA.
So going into “Drinking Buddies” and Swanberg’s improv-heavy approach, there was a feeling of comfort that perhaps some of the other cast members didn’t have?
Kind of, yeah. I’m not one of those actors who — my training didn’t come from Juilliard, or Lee Strasberg, or the Actors Studio. I think all those guys are cool, but that wasn’t the school of acting I came from. I came from comedy. We did shows, and looked up to guys like Jim Belushi, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Tina Fey. From basically the time I was 18 until age 27 I was — at least two to three nights a week — on some sort of stage trying to find some way to make people laugh and engage them. We never had scripts so you would sometimes jump up twice in one night. So doing a movie with improvisation at its center was very natural.
And I’d think especially so with a director like Swanberg, who has that process down to a science.
That didn’t mean we didn’t have rules in this, though. They were actually very similar to the guidelines you would have in live improv, where you’re playing certain games: you know the framework, but the only thing you don’t have is the dialogue. For “Drinking Buddies,” we knew basically what had to happen in terms of story and length of time.
Like the scene where Anna and I are in the bathroom, and she tells me [SPOILER REDACTED]. We knew: my character comes into the house, camera follows me. You hear her, camera pans to her. They then go into the bathroom because she sees the bloody cut on my hand. And in a two-shot in the bathroom, they have this out. Whatever we say is fine; we have to hit those beats, though. So we’ll do it, and Joe’ll say, “It needs to be faster, more emotional, you need to be angrier.” But you know all the rules the whole time.
And Swanberg’s the editor as well, so he’ll know when he’s got it.
Exactly. He would do really nice things like film a take, and simply say, “I got it.” A lot of directors say that, but a lot of directors are phonies. They just really are. They’re playing this shit [forms a frame with his hands and waves it around] I was working with a director recently who was doing that so much with his hands that one of our camera operators got really annoyed and said to him, “Cameras don’t move that way.” [laughs] “That’s cool, but cameras don’t do that.” And what’s nice about Joe is he’s no attitude, no bullshit, he’s not showing up to set with a little tie on to show his class… there’s no game with him. So because he’s editing it, he’ll say, “I got it, we don’t need to do any more, because that take’s going in the movie.” And also because the movie’s so low-budget, Joe had final cut. He edited this movie in three weeks.
Would he show you guys edited segments of the film during production?
No, because there was too much he had to do each day. I think he was making mental notes, but I don’t think we saw anything. Certain scenes he would show us playback, so we could see what could be different. And we would see the DP, Ben Richardson [“Beasts of the Southern Wild“], who’s truly a brilliant dude — there are very few people I’ve met who you just feel are a bit special. He’ll just do certain things, and you’ll just think, “Oh, you’re an artist. You see things differently than the normal man.”
So the movie was looking really good, and it was as if the camera was a part of the scene. We only had one camera — there was no thinking in terms of “here’s my coverage and then here’s her coverage.” So Ben would start thinking of rhythms, and so if Olivia was talking in the scene, he’d think he wouldn’t need that last line and pan to me to get my reaction. So you would see him out of the corner of your eye and it would change your performance.
I know you and Olivia had a few days before production started to get comfortable with one another’s characters; how did you break down the dynamic so quickly for the three week-long shooting schedule?
We didn’t talk about it. Not one bit. She and I met at The Big Slick, this charity event outside Kansas City. There’s a bunch of actors involved and we go out there, get drunk, have an auction and raise a bunch of money for this hospital. We met there a few weeks before starting, and basically said, “No matter what, I have your back.” So that was it, we just knew we’d back each other up once we started. And then we got there and Joe happened to be such an awesome talented, wonderful guy, that we just sort of enjoyed it.
But we never had any discussions about where she saw the scenes going — I can’t talk process too much, and I can’t hear people’s desires and motivations too much because it makes me want to punch myself in the face when I do. You know, I’m just okay looking enough to make it; if my nose gets any larger or crooked, I’m done. I’m so close. If I get hit in the face again, career’s over. Then I gotta gain 40 lbs. and be a full on character actor. So Olivia and didn’t have a lot of big talks, we hung out a lot and just shot.
In terms of starting your own projects; your new production shingle at Fox with Max Winkler comes after a slew of film projects with both of you involved. Are certain film ideas now being reconfigured into TV ideas?
The idea behind the production company stems from the fact that I’ve sold four different TV shows that have been developed to death and then killed, and it pisses me off to such an extreme level. I’ve met so many people who don’t want to do television because of its development process. One of the aspects that Max and I pitched with this production company was: “We don’t need a lot of money, but let us handpick extremely talented writers and directors, and let us present to their works that aren’t overdeveloped.”
This company is called Walcott, based off a character in the first thing Max and I ever did, “P.O.W.” — to this day the craziest thing we’ve ever done. We had the people who did “Breaking Bonaduce” come on to co-produce; it was a fake prisoner of war reality show with me and Henry Winkler, where he plays an old producer and I play a guy having a nervous breakdown. I wrote a 95-page bible for this show, we pitched it across town and everybody passed — we were essentially laughed out of rooms. But my character, whose name is Paul Oswald Walcott, is crazy and maybe not the smartest guy, but he’s very idealistic and his ideas aren’t bad. And that’s the idea behind our company: this could be a failed experiment and it could blow up in our face in two years, but we just want to create really great television. Like I think you could do a cool multi-cam sitcom. I really do. So that — apart from “New Girl” and acting — really is where my passions lie right now. I want to see if this shit works, and if these ideals can make something happen.
“Drinking Buddies” is out now on iTunes and VOD, and hits theatres August 23rd.