Joe Swanberg’s latest is, above all, a showcase for Jake Johnson’s affable qualities as an actor. Co-written by this captivating star on the rise, Digging for Fire is a chronicle of self-discovery spurred by the discovery of a mysterious bone buried in a backyard. As described by Slant’s Chuck Bowen, it’s a “film about people on the margins of a burned-out dream factory that captures how the energies of a small crowd shift and expand or compress with the arrival and departure of each participant.” Johnson stars as a public school teacher, Tim, whose nuclear-familial bliss is tested by the comings and goings of a motley crew of friends and strangers who come to chill out, and more, at the luxe home he and his yoga-instructor wife, Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), have been asked to stay at. Throughout, Johnson exhibits not only his typically easygoing rapport with his fellow castmates (among them Brie Larson and Orlando Bloom, playing potential hookups for the main characters), but his unique gift for revealing the prickly insecurities of the cool-dude types he’s prone to playing in projects as disparate as New Girl and Jurassic World. We recently spoke to Johnson about the nature of his collaboration with Swanberg and his myriad thoughts on the happiness that his character in the film goes digging for.
You’ve worked with Joe Swanberg before, on Drinking Buddies, but what it like collaborating with him on a screenplay?
Working with Joe is really great because he’s very loose and open. So, for something like Digging for Fire, and even though I have a writing credit, all we did was a story outline. Joe is an incredibly talented director who loves actors. He gives you a performance piece, letting the actors come in and improvise. And he works fast. There’s no outside studio. He came up with this idea and two months later we were shooting it.
Both Tim and Lee go on journeys of self-discovery. In what ways did this story resonate with you?
Actually, what was more important to me was getting obsessed with an adventure. I can get distracted by the idea of potentially a dead body in the backyard, or when something that’s not a priority that becomes a main focus. The thrust of the film that I was excited about was this guy being told not to pursue the mystery, and he does it anyhow.
How did you develop Tim’s friends and their rapport with one another given the film’s lose structure?
The ensemble is crazy talented, and we were so lucky everyone came aboard. We wanted people to bring themselves to the roles. It was an open experience. They were able to do whatever they wanted to do, and the chemistry is there because we knew each other. The line between the film feeling like a party and shooting a party was very blurred on this one.
Tim also spends some time alone, where he’s more self-reflective. How do you find those introspective moments?
In a film like this, which is a character study, we’re not afraid to take moments and take our time. The audience for Digging for Fire isn’t in any big hurry. Joe likes to show characters in scenes where they’re alone and without words. I think in terms of my own personal life: I’m outgoing in terms of my job and career, but introspective in my life. That was easy to relate to. It wasn’t hard for me to step into this. Tim’s story, and what he would want to do, was very clear to me. Shooting those scenes, it was easy to step into the excitement of that adventure.
The characters all have desires: Tim wanting to dig in the backyard, Lee wanting an expensive leather jacket. They flirt with temptation too. Are you celebrating or satirizing the characters and their behavior?
I think it’s a fine line. There are moments of both. The parties are fun, but there are other moments where the characters aren’t connecting or listening to each other. My character tries to dress like Sam Rockwell’s character and act cooler and Mike Birbiglia’s character calls him out on it. Is this cool or lame? Should these characters be doing this? There’s no hardline answer. There are moments of playing the game. Rockwell shows up all super-cool and my character wants to talk about a baby and Sam just wants to sleep. Or when Max and I go out, and I look ridiculous in a leather jacket and knit cap.
How did you work Tim finding a balance between being responsible or reckless?
Tim goes through that moment where his wife and kid are gone. He smokes a joint and has a beer, and thinks he’ll have the weekend he wants. But he quickly decides it’s not. Tim likes partying, but he doesn’t want to do cocaine. He doesn’t want to party that hard. The title Digging for Fire is because he’s looking for something, but he doesn’t want to find it. He flirts with Max [Larson], because he wants a rest from his life, to revisit other things, and then step back into his life. He hits a low point. He’s more responsible than he wants to fully admit. The character knows, deep down, that it’s time to be more responsible. But what happens with his finding the bone is that he thinks there’s a dead body back there, and he needs to find it. Lee says it’s not their house and not their business and they call the police. The responsible thing isn’t to dig this up, but he thinks it’s the right thing. He’s still wrong because he wasn’t supposed to do it.
Aging, parenting, and maturity is very much on the film’s mind. How do you, personally, think about those things?
I think about that stuff a lot. Our generation is entering this stage. I’m in my late 30s, and things are changing, rapidly. There’s the constant asking: “Am I doing everything I need to do?” It’s a philosophical question of self: “Is what I’m doing making me happy?” That’s what this film is about, in the end. These people are comfortable, and this weekend has them asking themselves if they’re happy.