Mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg made his name making micro-budget films like Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Silver Bullets that were embraced by a small but loyal audience. His films are largely intimate chamber dramas about young people in relationships often rocked by jealousy, and while Drinking Buddies is yet another riff on this same subject matter, it marks the first time the DIY filmmaker is working with a full crew and a sizable budget. In this romantic drama, set in a craft micro-brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) fight their obvious attraction to each other as they face a crisis in their respective romantic relationships with Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick). Though the film is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures, rather than by the filmmaker himself, Swanberg remains true to his indie roots, creating an affecting drama out of small, real moments. Swanberg recently met with me to discuss this significant juncture in his career, as well as his love of craft brewery and working with “name” actors.
In 2011, when I spoke with you about Silver Bullets, you’d already directed six films that year. You’ve slowed down considerably to make Drinking Buddies. What accounted for that?
Drinking Buddies occupied my time for six months in a way that I couldn’t easily slip away from and make something else. But I did, as soon as I could. It was time for me to focus on one thing for a little bit. I felt an obligation to the investors and the other people who worked on the movie to make sure that this thing would work. People gave me money to make it, and actors trusted me to do it. It wasn’t an experiment in the way that a lot of my films are, where I’m spending my own money.
Drinking Buddies is probably your widest release, not counting your contribution to the horror anthology V/H/S. Did you approach this film differently because of the actors in it?
A little bit. The way I felt about it while I was doing it was that I was finally making my first feature. My films from Kissing on the Mouth to All the Lights in the Sky were basically like the best grad school anyone could possibly have. It was like a workshop/laboratory environment, and I was totally freely playing with the medium, and unlearning things I was taught in film school at Southern Illinois University. Coming out of film school, I rejected having a crew and big productions. I was pushing the limits of what I could do myself. I’m really proud of that work. With Drinking Buddies I was ready to re-embrace the 115-year history of cinema, and this system that Hollywood invented and that people have been trying to perfect since then.
Did you like it?
I did. I looooved it. I loved it! Everything I’d been doing myself, and all the burdens I was taking on—suddenly, it was someone else’s job. All I had to do is wake up, drive to a location, and work with actors—great actors—for 12 hours. It was heavenly. After all these movies where I was living in apartments with the people I was working with, or working with really close friends of mine, it was kind of a nice break to do a professional movie where we just went to work and went home at the end of our work day.
You have this mischievous grin on your face, like you feel guilty…
I don’t even feel guilty! I liked it. There’s something about coming to it 10 years into my career that’s really exciting. I explored a lot of other possibilities. It allowed me to embrace the normalcy of Drinking Buddies in a way that’s really exciting. There’s nothing about it that I regret. I turned around in December and made another movie in my house with five people. It’s not that those [micro-budget] films aren’t exciting to me anymore…
You tend to let your actors improvise. How much of Drinking Buddies was improvised?
All of the dialogue was improvised. It’s the most “written” thing that I’ve ever done in terms of the story being laid out ahead of time. It was really heavily plotted. We went into production with a 45-page script. The actors never saw that. They got a two-page, bullet-pointed outline that walked them through the story with one-sentence descriptions of each scene. They’re generating the dialogue.
With that process, do you think that people will respond to it and accept it?
It depends. The audience that I hope will be the most excited about it are those that mumblecore hasn’t even reached yet. They haven’t even heard the word. And because they like the actors, they get pulled in to see the movie, and something about it feels different.
Do you think fans of Ron Livingston from Office Space or Anna Kendrick from Pitch Perfect will see Drinking Buddies because they like the actors?
I’m playing toward what I like about the actors when I met with them for the first time. Not necessarily what their strengths have been in other movies, but what I see their strengths are as people. I’ve always assumed since the very beginning that when I’m responding to their energy and do my best to capture it, that other people will respond to it too.
How did you develop the sexual tension between the couples? It’s very effective.
I could never have created it. It was there and we were all feeling it, and it was very exciting. I didn’t feel it off set. I talked to Jake about it, and he also said he didn’t feel it off set. Which leads me to believe that it was Olivia who could turn it on and off when the camera was rolling. They were just great together. I don’t know what to say about it. I attempted to analyze it myself, but Jake said it was the damnedest thing for him. As soon as the day was over, they would go their separate ways, and not see or speak to each other until the next day and then it was just really there, and you could feel it.
What research did you do with craft breweries?
I did a little, but I was already obsessed with that world. I’m a homebrewer, and a huge beer geek. My job was to get the actors up to speed.
What would you teach me, who knows nothing about beer, about homebrew?
I would walk you through the process. The first thing I did when Olivia and Jake were cast was to bring them over to my place and brew a beer together. The thing I would try to express to you is that what’s happening to craft beer in America isn’t at all dissimilar to what’s happening in independent film, or anything that you would take the time and energy to build a taste for. The same way that you would be fed up with the mainstream options, and seek out something else that felt more passionate, or closer to who you are as a person. The same thing with beer. If you spent your whole life drinking Budweiser, there’s a whole world of great stuff out there that you don’t even know about. It’s like when you watch a TV show you really love and a friend says he’s going to watch it, and you’re like, “I’m so jealous you’re going to see it for the first time!” That’s where I’m at with beer now, and that’s the love I’m trying to send out to the world. If you’ve never had craft beer, and spent your life drinking the macro stuff, then I’m so jealous that you have this big beautiful world to explore. If you put the time in, and develop a taste for it, the rewards you will reap will be great.