Beloved film and TV actor Jake Johnson is a lot like the characters that he plays on screen, just way more focused. As we sit down at the Four Seasons hotel to talk about his latest film, “Digging For Fire,” he instantly launches into a discussion of romper logistics, informed by his “New Girl” co-star Hannah Simone‘s experiences, as well as a recounting of a dramatic medical emergency at the previous night’s screening. “Digging For Fire,” directed by Joe Swanberg, marks Johnson’s co-writing debut on a feature film, a film in which he also stars. But as we start talking about the process, he quickly explains that writing a Swanberg film is unlike writing any other kind of film. Our conversation covered all aspects of the filmmaking process, from real-life inspiration, to the on-set rehearsal, improvisation, and surprises, to playing across his director’s son, to Johnson’s best tips for playing drunk on screen.
How did you get started with the idea and co-writing with Joe?
Co-writing with Joe is a weird thing to say, even though that’s what the credits read. Because it’s really just an outline. Joe and I came up with the story beats — there’s no dialogue written, there’s no script. It’s a 3-4ish page outline that the actors don’t get, nobody sees it. When we would pitch an actor on it, we would just say to, [Sam] Rockwell, for example, “We just need you for 2 or 3 days, you’re the party friend, we used to party in our early 20s, my character went off and had kids, you’re still the party guy.” That’s all he knows. So when he says, why would my character do? We’re like, we don’t know, figure it out. [Mike] Birbiglia, all we said to him was, “You and I are both teachers together, and we probably double date. Outside of that, it’s up to you.” Now, in each individual scene, we’ll know where the scene needs to end, but how we get there is kind of up to everybody.
The thing that got me excited about making this movie was the story about finding the dead body in the backyard, because the beginning of that story’s a true story. I was digging in my yard, found some stuff, called the police, they told me it wasn’t their job to dig out somebody else’s garbage. So I called Joe and he said, “Let’s use that as the beginning of a movie.”
The film is shot on 35mm. I know Joe comes from a background of shooting on digital, and being improvisational. How did we work in this new format?
We rehearse it. It’s a very weird way to make a movie, in that it’s very different than other movies because there’s no script, but when we get there and we’re talking to the actors, we know what needs to happen. Joe will have a vision in his head, so even though it’s improvised, you can do things wrong. You’ll be rehearsing and Joe will be like, “Don’t talk about that, that’s not important.” And you’re like, “Listen homeboy, there’s no script!” But because we shoot on film, we rehearse it, block it out, and shoot. If you’re going in a direction that he knows he’s not going to use, because he’s the editor, he’ll cut you right away. There’s just no time for it, because he wants to do three or four takes total. And unlike traditional things, he doesn’t always need to get traditional coverage. He likes things moving, he likes a camera moving. The DP, Ben Richardson, who’s wildly talented, he wanted a certain look, he wanted that classic film look, so all that stuff really mattered to them on this one.
Do you have any favorite movies that you were thinking about when you were writing this?
What really fired me up was the “Stand By Me” aspect of the movie. What I wanted to bring to the movie in terms of story beats was, a guy finds a potential mystery in his backyard, his wife says, “It’s not our place, don’t go digging for it.” Then she leaves and he goes deep in the ground, brings friends, gets obsessed, and then finds what he was looking for, only to discover, “Why did I do this? My wife asked me not to, this isn’t our house, the neighbor basically told me not to, so now I could get in real trouble, so even though I’m right, I’m alone on a fucking hill, like an idiot. That was what I wanted to tell. My take on it is “Stand By Me,” and Joe’s take on it is a relationship movie. And then we mushed those together.
I feel like Tim in “Digging For Fire” is a couple years past your character in “Drinking Buddies.”
100%. It’s about five years after what could happen to characters like this. They’re different obviously, but the same type of world. What happens when these people start growing up and having kids?
So what is it about those characters? Is there something that you connect to about their nostalgia for a wilder youth?
I know for me, in my life right now, I’m in my late 30s, I definitely can’t be the person I was in my mid 20s. It’s something I’ve joked with my dad about. We’ve gotten to know each other as adults and he’ll say things like, “I’m 70-years-old but I don’t think I’m 70 until I try to walk or I look in the mirror.”
It’s a really crazy concept to me. The scene where I’m on the hill, talking about hanging out with these kids, that really happened on “New Girl.” There was an episode where it’s a school dance, I’m a parking lot guardian, and I hang out with these two kids, and we just started talking. At first I was like I’m the older man, these are teenage boys, but they were really smart funny guys, we were just doing jokes. I saw our reflections in the bus mirror and I was this old, heavy, weird, sweaty guy next to these fresh, young kids. That is a theme in life that is very troubling to me but is just a fact of life. That’s something that I really relate to and feels very important to me.
Movies like this, these are slice of life movies, these movies aren’t for everybody. Most likely if you’re a 17 year old and you just love “New Girl” you might not love this movie. We are definitely okay with that. We’re making them for ourselves and people who want to see them. The strangest mix of people end up loving these movies. It’s really fascinating to us when people relate to it, cause you’re like “What did you like?” Then they get into it and it becomes a great discussion. They’re a slice of life about this couple — this is just what happened on this weekend.
Do you think you’re going to write more on your own or direct in the future?
I used to think I was interested in directing, and I’ve realized I’m kind of not. I think I’ll write more to an extent. I’ll never confuse myself with Shakespeare. I used to be a playwright, I wanted to be a writer before I was an actor, but I’ve realized that I like when actors put things in their own words, I like the freedom of doing that and I like when I see somebody discover something new. The magic on set when something happens that’s unexpected is why I like acting. I’m not a technical actor. What I love is not hitting a moment perfectly so that in editing it works perfectly. I don’t care about that. I like when you have a scene and something happens and somebody says something accidentally which leads to a perfect moment, so if I write, it’ll be writing things to get more of those moments.
Joe and I did another movie this past summer that we wrote together, and on that one, we had a 70-page outline that’s way more detailed and more story-oriented. When people would come in, we would have the script and we could read it, but then we would still say, this is what needs to happen, it needs to be this length, with that in mind, put it in your own words. But I wanted to give people a little bit more than they had on “Drinking Buddies” and “Digging For Fire,” because that movie just has more story to it.
You have an ongoing relationship and fruitful collaboration with Joe, but are there any other directors you want to work with or any other kinds of roles that you want to do?
I don’t have a dream role. I would love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson in any way possible. I think he is the best of the best and from what I hear about the way he runs sets he’s really great. I’m writing something with Damon Wayans Jr. again, I adore him. So I’d love to do that, but I don’t have a good answer, I don’t have a dream thing I want to do at this point.
There was an article in Vulture talking about how well you play drunk people, do you have any tips on that?
I think the tip is, don’t play drunk because drunks never think they’re drunk. What I hate when I watch people playing drunks or people on drugs, they put on the performance of “Now I’m drunk.” It’s why so many people drunk drive, because people think, “I’m good, trust me, I’m good.” And you’re like, “Homeboy you’re not good you can barely walk in a line.” When I play drunk I always think that I’m sober. It’s all those things where you’re saying to somebody who’s drunk, “Just sit down,” and they always say, “I’m good, I’m good.” You’re never good.
What was it like working with little Jude Swanberg [Joe’s son]?
It’s great, because he’s not an actor, and I say that as a compliment. Some little kids I’ve worked with are definitely actors, they’re like little professionals where they might be 7-years-old but they are technically perfect and they’re terrifying. But they’re no longer kids, they’re now actors, and so they know how to act like a kid, but Jude is a straight-up kid. He does a lot of scenes where in the middle of the take, he and I will be talking and I’ll go, “So should we get some ice cream?” and he’ll look at his dad off camera and go, “Can I have ice cream, Dad?” The one we just shot this summer there’s a scene with him and the first take, he literally just stood up and said to Joe off camera, “I don’t want to do this.” And so he walked off and we wrote the scene without him. There’s that energy of there’s actually just a kid here, which is really exciting.
I love the scene where you ask him, “Did you go poop today?” and he says, sad, “I didn’t.” He couldn’t have done it more perfectly, I had to wonder if it was a written line.
That’s a perfect Joe Swanberg example, because that scene was just about my character not doing the taxes, and my wife’s getting a little annoyed. He’s like, “Look, it can be a 20 second scene is all, I’m going to push in like this, I’m going to land on you guys, that’s it.” Then he whispered to me, “Jude thinks poo poo’s really funny, so ask him about it, if you can get Jude laughing, it’s a plus, otherwise no big deal, but that’s the funniest thing in the world to him.” And then he said to Rosemarie [Dewitt], “This is dinner, you don’t want them messing around, don’t let them get sloppy, I want this to be a very serious scene.” So when the scene starts I say to Jude, “Have you taken a poo poo?” and he starts laughing, then she scolds him and I thought Ro was doing it wrong, so I keep pushing, and then she keeps pushing, thinking, “Why is Jake doing this?” it’s supposed to be serious. Then Jude’s caught in the middle, which led to the crying, but Joe had set all that up knowing what was going to happen. It’s an honest reaction not only from him but from all of us. On a Swanberg movie, everybody will have a job but he doesn’t have to tell everybody else what the other’s jobs are. All you need to do in this scene is this, it’s simple, but he might tell me the opposite. So then that conflict is really what the scene’s about.
“Digging For Fire” is in theaters this weekend.