Writer/director Joe Swanberg has been a major figure in the Mumblecore film movement, a subgenre of American independent film which is characterized by low budget production values and naturalistic dialogue. Among his movies is “Hannah Takes the Stairs” which stars Greta Gerwig and was actually shot without a script. The way Swanberg works, he gives his actors an outline of the plot of what he wants to film, and they improvise their scenes from there. This way of filmmaking offers actors the opportunities to take a lot of risks and to make the kind of movie that Hollywood studios don’t bother with right now.
Swanberg’s latest film, “Drinking Buddies,” stars Olivia Wilde as Kate, an employee at a Chicago craft brewery who spends her days flirting with her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson). They would make the perfect couple, but Kate is already going out with Chris (Ron Livingston) while Luke is seeing Jill (Anna Kendrick). But when their significant others are out of town one weekend, both Luke and Kate begin to wondering if the feelings they have for one another will eventually come to the surface.
As with “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Drinking Buddies” was shot without a script and the actors improvised all their scenes. Swanberg took the time to talk with us about the experience of making the movie while at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California as well as the fascinating world of craft beers.
What would you say is the difference between a microbrew and craft beer?
Joe Swanberg: Same thing, different terminology. The way that the world is sussed out is basically in terms of how many barrels a year that places are outputting between micro-breweries and macro breweries. I would argue that you’re either there because you’re passionate about it or you’re there because it’s a job, and that’s the difference between the two.
You mentioned “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” as one of your influences on this film, and that was a studio comedy with an adult point of view. Your films always have that great point of view and you keep going back to that well time and time again. What keeps you going back there, and what was your motivation to do this film?
Joe Swanberg: Well a lot of it has to do with operating in a space where I can carve out a little area for myself to play in. Sadly complex contemporary adult movies, there aren’t many of them. I’ve always been allergic to just doing what everybody else was doing, so it’s kind of just remained a place where there aren’t that many other things happening. I don’t have to be nervous that we’re sort of recycling the zeitgeist or anything like that. Then it’s also just one I’m fascinated by. I think if you were to catch me most days of the week and asked me what I was thinking about, it would be a conversation my wife and I had about making time for each other to both be able to do our creative things or some friend of mine who’s going through a breakup or something. I’m interested in people in that way, how we interact with each other. It’s very easy for me to continue to generate stories that are based around that because it’s kind of always on my mind anyway.
What would you say was your favorite scene in “Drinking Buddies?”
Joe Swanberg: My favorite sequence in the movie is Jake and Olivia playing cards, he’s playing blackjack with her, and Ron and Anna are hiking in the woods. Just the start of the back-and-forth of seeing these two couples we’ve established in terms of each other sort of swapping a little bit and feeling out how to flirt with someone else. I feel like I have this experience in my own life within the context of my relationship with my wife where I’ll just be with another woman and you just sort of get to play make-believe for 45 minutes or something of “oh this is what it would be like if we were together and we went to get lunch or something. This is how we would relate to each other,” and it’s different than the relationship you’re in. These little daydream scenarios, that scene in particular is really fun to me to see play out.
I also love listening to Jake and Olivia on the porch. Anna has fallen asleep and they sneak out. I’ve had a lot of those nights in my life where the floodgates open and you just start being really honest and it starts feeding into the other person’s honesty. Before you know it, you’re just talking about things you’ve never told anybody with someone you hardly know. It was fun to try get something like that into the movie and to let them share stories with each other, and I just get to bear witness to it.
Did you have this great cast in mind from the beginning?
Joe Swanberg: No. Usually I’m working with friends of mine so I do know exactly who is going to play the parts before I gear the thing up, but this was one where I just sort of had broad stroke ideas about who the characters were. It’s the first time I’ve ever done a casting process where I met with a lot of actors and try to think about chemistry and placing different people in different roles.
Why did you film in Chicago? Why not Boulder, Colorado?
Joe Swanberg: Well I live in Chicago, so that’s a big reason. Also there’s a specificity that I can give the movie because I know what kinds of apartments these people live in and what bars they would drink at. So every choice gets be a real choice because I know them and I’m friends with them. I’ve been to places I’ve never been to before and done the same process, but then I either have to take somebody else’s word for it like where the hipsters drink, or where it’s just not specific at all. I’m just like choosing places that look nicer something.
It was fun to do something at home where I could use the city is an indicator of certain things. Also I have a kid now so traveling is way less appealing than it used to be. Going to sleep in my bed every night was a huge bonus.
Was the backpack scene in the woods between Ron and Anna when they have that awkward moment completely improvised?
Joe Swanberg: Yeah. It’s the first film that I’ve done where I had an art department and a props master and all these people, so it was really fun as a director to show up to the production office every day and have somebody bring in four different backpacks that I could choose from. It was just too funny to pass up. It says a lot about her (Anna Kendrick). It’s a really great use of a prop.
Beer wise, what are you drinking now especially after you’ve had this little bit of education?
Joe Swanberg: I’m still leaning on the hoppy IPA side of things, but it’s interesting because I didn’t drink at all until I was 25. On my honeymoon I had a beer. I guess I must’ve felt like “alright, I’m here,” so it’s new to me. It’s really been something that I’ve just gotten into in the last five years. It’s interesting because I remember drinking a really hoppy beer early on and just thinking it tasted disgusting, and now I really like the flavor so I’m really curious as to where my taste buds will lead me in terms of the stuff. I find that I go through cycles with it. There was a period of time where I just wanted to drink stouts and dark beers, and then I got into Belgian stuff and then went to the hoppy stuff so I don’t know what the next wave will be.
Any brands you like?
Joe Swanberg: Sure but too many to even name. I’ll stick to the Midwest: Revolution Bar where we shot, Three Floyds, and Half Acre. We are very spoiled in Chicago. I think twelve new breweries opened this year. It’s a nice time to be in Chicago right now.