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Joe Swanberg Talks Craft Brewery-Set ‘Drinking Buddies,’ Taking on Bigger Films, Cinematographer Ben Richardson and More

Joe Swanberg Talks Craft Brewery-Set 'Drinking Buddies,' Taking on Bigger Films, Cinematographer Ben Richardson and More

Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” is a great example of a film that deals with one chief problem (here, temptation) and then explores the hell of out it. It’s hilarious, sad and confusing — in a good way. Any film that’s relatable should be confusing.

In “Drinking Buddies” (TOH! review here), Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play co-workers and best friends at a Chicago brewery. They’re both seeing other people (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, respectively), but the chemistry between them is so strong that it’s only a matter of time before these clearly delineated couples become muddled. It doesn’t help that Livingston and Kendrick’s characters take a shine to each other — or that everyone is drinking copious amounts of beer.

TOH! talked with Swanberg about his first foray into “a bigger film,” working with the actors and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson, craft breweries and more, below. “Drinking Buddies” is already on VOD, and hits theaters August 23.

Beth Hanna: I saw “Drinking
Buddies” when it premiered at SXSW. The crowd really ate it up; it was the best
way to see the film.

Joe Swanberg: That screening was so fun. I’d never been that
nervous before showing a movie.

Why nervous?

There’s a lot of personal stuff in the movie for me. And
also it was just a chance to make a bigger film with a good chance of
connecting with people, and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity. I loved
the movie. I was so proud of it, and I wanted that to translate to people.

While the film is
still low-budget, it has a much bigger budget than a number of your other
projects. What was it like working in that larger capacity?

It was a blast. What it meant was that I just had so many
more tools at my disposal, and it also meant that I had so many more
collaborators. So many great people doing each and every job that typically
I’ve been doing myself, on a lot of the really small [films]. Working with the
art department was great, working with the wardrobe department was great,
having producers who budgeted and scheduled the film was amazing. It was just
so fun to feel like my only job was being a director!

A key part of “Drinking
Buddies” is how naturally the characters behave around each other. Talk about
how you worked with the actors before and during the shoot to establish that
sense of comfortable rapport.

In a sense you always have to get lucky. On a really big
budget movie you do chemistry reads, and you sort of hedge your bets a little
bit more and make sure that these people get along. But on the low budget side
of things, I have to trust my gut that when I cast these people the various
elements are going to play together. Or that they’re going to inhabit the same
movie and be on the same page.

Jake and Olivia just got along famously. It’s really just a
pleasure for me to see them act together. They hit on something really early on
and maintained it throughout the shoot. It’s my own movie, so it’s tough to be
objective about it, but they have as good of chemistry as I’ve seen in a long
time between two romantic actors in a movie together.

The actors give such
good performances that there’s no clear-cut idea of which character should be
with which character, romantically speaking.

I just always want to complicate the picture. It’s as
annoying to me as it probably is to everybody else to see the “bitchy
girlfriend”/shrew character that you know within the first five minutes is a terrible
match for [the lead male]. Movies feel like they have to do that because they
don’t want any ambiguity for the audience. They want the audience to be rooting
for Guy A and Girl A to get together. And what that means is, for people to not
feel conflicted about Girl B, Girl B has to be awful. She has to be such a
terrible person that not a single person in the audience is going, “Aw, but
what about her? She got her feelings hurt.”

I really wanted all four of these characters to have good
and bad aspects to their personalities, which presents themselves at different
times. We’re riding a little bit on the romantic comedy formula at the
beginning of the movie, just as the set-up, to introduce these four characters.
But as it goes along, Anna’s character [the “Girl B” character], who seems a
little bit like a stick in the mud at the beginning, hopefully over the course
of the movie you realize that she’s really cool and mature and complex.

Let’s talk about
cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”). I was surprised
to find out that “Drinking Buddies” is only his second feature film.

Quite an illustrious career he’s had thus far. I actually
hadn’t seen “Beasts of the Southern Wild” when I hired him to shoot “Drinking
Buddies.” It was really just based on his personality, and he and I saw eye to
eye on how we wanted the film to look, and how quickly we wanted to move. It’s
such a pleasure to connect with somebody who felt the same way I did about lighting
based on an organic-lighting look, and then really emphasizing that. [We went]
through quite a bit of lighting to make it look like it’s not really lit, and
how effective that can be in terms of the finished product. To make it feel
real and natural, but also deliberate.

On set, he’s such an emotional cinematographer. He’s really
present while he’s shooting. He operates the camera himself, or at least he did
on “Drinking Buddies.” The actors describe working with him as if he’s another
cast member. They felt his presence and movement in a very organic way. He’s so
sensitive and attuned to the performances. He’s not a perfectionist, in terms
of the image, which I really love about him. If the performances were good from
the actors, there was never a moment where he was like, “I want to do it again
because it didn’t look perfect.”

He’s obviously very in-demand at the moment, and I suspect
will remain so for the rest of his career. But I hope we get to work together a
lot more. I’m always going to offer him the first chance to shoot my movies,
and hopefully we’re able to keep that relationship up.

Why the craft brewery

It’s a world that I’m a big part of. I’m a home brewer, and also
I love craft beer, especially Mid-Western craft beer. It’s also a
non-conventional workplace environment. It’s a very different movie than
sticking the same characters in an office with cubicles. And it’s visual. I
love the way a brewery looks. All those big steel tanks. I like that the people
look very small compared to these big tanks. On a selfish level, films are a
chance to explore worlds. They provide the filmmakers access, and the world of
craft breweries was something that I wanted to know more about.

Did shooting in an
actual brewery (Chicago’s Revolution Brewery) pose any technical challenges?

It was difficult. We definitely had to scour Chicago for
every single brewery and find a place that fit. I was a pain in the ass for my
producers because I made it very clear at the beginning of our search that I
would not shoot the movie in a brewery with beer I didn’t like. So I limited
our options.

Talk about what’s
coming next. You’ve got “Happy Christmas,” again starring Anna Kendrick, as
well as Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey.

I’m editing [“Happy Christmas”] right now. We shot it in
December. It was a chance to keep up the working relationship with Anna Kendrick
and with Ben Richardson, who also shot “Happy Christmas.” It was a chance to
shoot on film as well. We shot it on Super 16, basically the same set-up Ben
used on “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Coming off the fun experience of “Drinking Buddies,” I just
wanted to dive back in on something that was even more free-form and
improvised. To see if I could basically take the same level of acting talent
and camera talent, and strip away more of the script and infrastructure. At
least on the technical side, we were back to working with a crew of only about
five people, as opposed to 35 people. I think I’ll keep experimenting and
bouncing back and forth between bigger, more structured films and really small,
intimate productions. Hopefully at both ends of the spectrum I can make stuff
that’s commercial and finding an audience.

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