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Joe Swanberg on Why He Chooses to Shoot on Film and Why He Doesn’t Rehearse

Joe Swanberg on Why He Chooses to Shoot on Film and Why He Doesn't Rehearse

READ MORE: Rosemarie DeWitt on How Joe Swanberg’s ‘Digging for Fire’ Reflected Her Own Life Experience

If you’re not familiar with Joe Swanberg (and if you call yourself an indie film fan, for shame), you should know that his films are largely unscripted and freewheeling explorations into relationships in which — let’s be honest — nothing much happens. Whether you label his films, which include “All the Light in the Sky,” “Drinking Buddies,” “Happy Christmas” and most recently, “Digging for Fire,” mumblecore or not, the fact is they rely on likable, flawed characters who talk…a lot. Over the years, Swanberg has formed an inner core of collaborators who have grown increasingly more established, which may be why his latest film “Digging for Fire” has been pegged as his “most mainstream.”

The film, which premiered at Sundance last January, stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson as a married couple with a toddler (played by Swanberg’s son Jude) whose relationship begins to shift after the discovery of a gun and a bone in their (borrowed) backyard. With a star-studded supporting cast featuring Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick, Judith Light, Sam Elliott, Sam Rockwell among others, the film is a subtle exploration of relationships. 

Indiewire recently chatted by phone with Swanberg about why he decided to shoot the film on 35mm, why he doesn’t work from a script and what it was like working with his young son, Jude.

Congratulations on your latest film, which is being called your most mainstream film, which I find interesting. What are your thoughts about that?

It’s codified language for “the most number of famous people in it.” The definition of mainstream has obviously — if you look at my movies, has eluded me, and really isn’t something that I think about. So, following the premiere at Sundance, for that to kind of be the word on the street was interesting to me. It’s one of the cool things about making movies in the world and I’m kind of a passenger that’s along for the ride. The movie takes on a life of its own. So, that seemed to be the feeling and I think that an accumulation of the actors involved plus the fact that I’ve been around for long enough now that people are getting used to my work and my style so it seems probably less challenging and weird each time out.

We shot on 35mm and Ben Richardson is an amazing DP. Dan Romer did a great score and I think that it’s aware of and using movie language in a way I have historically shied away from. There’s a lot of dolly work in the movie, and to me, I don’t know about mainstream, but when I think about “Digging For Fire” it’s certainly the most movie of all of the movies that I have made and maybe that’s what people are seeing and responding to. 

So why did you decide to shoot on 35mm and how did that change your process? Or did it?

Well, thankfully it didn’t, actually. We just budgeted for enough film that we could shoot what we wanted to shoot. I did a movie called “Happy Christmas” before this one, we shot that on Super 16mm and we kept it to a really nice shooting ratio. I felt emboldened to shoot on film because even the stuff I was making on video, I feel like I was shooting a small enough amount of footage that it wouldn’t break the bank to shoot on film.

So, we tried it on “Happy Christmas” and I just loved how it felt. I personally felt like it focused the actors in a different kind of way, it focused the people on set. There’s this sense that film is rolling through the camera between “action” and “cut,” this real feeling that we’re doing something. And that feels different to me than shooting on video where you sort of turn a machine on and it just rolls and rolls and rolls and these days, nobody feels really serious about that.

They’re just kind of like, “Okay, cool let’s just run it a bunch of times and get a bunch of options.” So, shooting on film for me, is really about making decisions like, “Okay guys, what are we doing here? What do we want to do with this scene?” We’re not going to shoot it 400 times, so let’s really think about and decide how we want it to look, what we want the blocking to be…Then there’s the reality that it’s going to go away. I grew up watching movies shot and film and I just know that it’s a ticking clock on how much longer the medium can last and so it felt like it would be a shame for me not to shoot something on 35mm. I would have missed an opportunity that wasn’t available. So, I did it and I’ve done two movies since “Digging For Fire” and both of those were on film too, so now it’s become a habit. 

Which is interesting because I feel like you were sort of at the forefront of digital filmmaking and now you’ve sort of became this example for indie filmmakers shooting on film.

Absolutely, I know, I really was a big vocal advocate for DV and still am. To me, it feels less like some kind of judgement than an exploration or some kind of connection point with the history of cinema and also even with my own film school education, which was all on film. I went to Southern Illinois University, which is a really old school program where we shot on film. We cut on Steenbecks, I conformed my negative and finished to a film print, it was a really classic film education, and then when I got out of school, and started making movies, just the financial realities – my first couple films, I just made them on credit cards for a few thousand dollars each, and so video became this incredible tool that allowed the work to exist and be made.

But now that I’m at a place where I get to choose, I’m choosing film because I love it. It’s really pretty exceptional, and also – I was in film school from ’99 to 2003 when the sort of video revolution was happening and I was reading about Spike Lee and Richard Linklater and all these guys shooting stuff on video and it was really exciting to me. But in 2015 everything is shot on video now, and so there’s nothing cool or special about it anymore. Even studio movies are shot on video now, so we’ve reached this weird point where shooting on film actually differentiates the movie in a really interesting way. An audience isn’t used to seeing film grain as much anymore, so I know when we did “Happy Christmas,” when those images hit the screen for the first time, it was almost startling to see it again and be like, “Oh my God, this is what every indie film used to look like.” And now it’s such an anomaly. 

Obviously, there’s a lot of improvisation in “Digging for Fire,” but were there any rehearsals?

I don’t do rehearsal. I do a lot of talking. The actors and I will talk in the weeks leading up to the shoot, we’ll talk a lot on set, talk the night after we finish for the day. There’s constant evaluation and reevaluation of the ideas, what we shot that day. It’s always being discussed in workshop, but I’m kind of afraid to rehearse because I don’t want to miss – I end up using a lot of first takes or second takes and there’s a paranoia I have about missing something great. Or rather achieving something great in rehearsal and it not feeling right or feeling fresh on the actual film and the film is what matters. The audience is never going to see a rehearsal. The audience is going to see the film.


So, I’ve always stayed away from it with this kind of – maybe it’s superstition – but with this feeling that I want some kind of magic to happen. I want the actors to not know what each of the others is going to do, and in the midst of the confusion we will occasionally and accidentally create these beautiful moments and then the editing process is about trying to pull all of those moments together into some kind of cohesive form. So that’s a really different attitude than sitting down to tell a story. 

So were you working from a script or more of an outline? 

Definitely an outline. I can’t remember at this point, how long it was but I think it was maybe 18 pages or something like that and it came a lot from conversations that Jake Johnson and I were having in the months leading up to it and Rosemarie DeWitt and Orlando Bloom all sort of became heavy writing collaborators and idea generators and they got involved with the project and then when Brie Larson came into it, she – you know, every actor sort of comes in and takes over their character. And for me that’s the fun of it.

I’m less interested in my ideas and more interested in what happens when all these different individual people with their own voices and their own life experiences get together and trim it into film. Like, how do these people interact and how do we make a movie our of that? And so there’s certainly – in the outline – there’s certainly a story being told and a kind of structure to it, but on set, I’m always happy to throw that away in lieu of what feels like it’s working the best, or what feels the most exciting, and then because I edit my own movies, the editing becomes the writing process in a lot of ways. Taking that footage and shaping it into the best version of the movie it could be.

And then, what inspired the idea for the story initially? Was there sort of a grain of autobiographical truth to it?

Yeah, definitely. The first scene with Jake Johnson telling you a story about an old house that he and his wife were renting where they found the gun – they were digging a garden in the backyard and he found a rusty and a bone and it could have been a toy gun, and maybe it was an animal bone, but maybe it was a human bone and he just wasn’t sure and so he invited some friends over and they drank some beers and took out shovels and started investigating. And I got really attracted to this idea of this group of friends deciding to solve a mystery or potentially inventing a mystery. And then mixing that with autobiographical stuff from my own relationship or things that I’m hearing friends talk about and, in general the kind of ongoing mission that I’m on to sort of document people my age growing up, and the kind of external, cultural factors and the creeping influx of technology. And all these kinds of things I’ve always sort of hoped the movies would just kind of grow up with me and that the characters would kind of always be getting older, and now these days, in my movies, they’re starting to have families and just the way that this kind of stuff happens to everybody. I make a lot of movies and I’ve never been a very good keeper of diaries and journals or anything like that, but the movies are kind of my own ongoing documentation and investigation into what’s happening with me and the people around me. 

How did you explain the filmmaking process to your son Jude [who acts in the film] and at what point will he be allowed to watch the film, or has he?

Yeah, he’s seen it in bits and pieces. We’re pretty open with showing him that stuff, and I don’t think there’s anything in the movie I’m pretty unfiltered with my language around him and stuff, so he’s used to hearing swear words and whatever would be considered R-rated in this movie is not necessarily stuff that I’m too concerned about him seeing. But the process of working with him has changed. When we made “Happy Christmas,” he had just turned two years old, and just existed in that movie. We just made the movie with and around him and he was just so beautifully present in there, and then “Digging For Fire” he was maybe a year and a half older, and much more willful, much more of his own person and so it was challenging to figure out how to incorporate him, but also how to be sensitive of his parents.

My nightmare is to end up in a situation where I’m forcing him to do something that he doesn’t want to do. It’s funny, we meet these challenges in different kinds of ways. Like bribing him with gummy bears was a very good way of getting and holding his attention. He could definitely get into play acting games. He has a scene with Rosemarie in the car where he actually had lines of dialogue he had to deliver and so we just turned it into a game and then he did multiple takes where he said his lines perfectly and it’s because he wasn’t acting, he was just playing a game with Rosemarie.

Also, he’s a pretty rational kid, you definitely can just talk to him and so, there were also several times where I said, “Okay, so were here’s what we’re going to do, Jude. Daddy’s going to need you to go do this and when I say ‘action’, I want you to walk over there, and I want you to pick that up and walk over there,” and so he could just kind of get into it that way. But there were other moments, additional things that we attempted to shoot that were aborted when we either lost his attention or he just straight up didn’t want to do it. I’m always sensitive to giving him that option of saying “No, I’d rather go play with my cars.”

So the takeaway is, the secret to good acting is gummy bears. 

Yes. The takeaway is, the most effective solution is gummy bears. 

“Digging for Fire,” in theaters now, hits VOD August 25, 2015.

READ MORE: Review: Joe Swanberg’s ‘Digging for Fire’ Marks a New Stage in His Career

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