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Flavorwire Interview: ‘Drinking Buddies’ Director Joe Swanberg on Improv, Craft Beer, and the Real Chicago

The Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg is an incredibly prolific man; in the last eight years, he’s directed a whopping 13 feature films, and even more impressive is that he’s just a week shy of turning 32 years old. Known as one of the major players in the mumblecore genre of the mid- to late-’00s with LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends, Swanberg embraces a completely improvisational approach to his films, typically centered around the relationships between urban dwellers in their post-grad years. His newest film, Drinking Buddies, is his most accomplished to date, and features a stellar cast including Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.

Centered around two best friends and co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery, Kate and Luke (Wilde and Johnson, respectively), the film follows the pairs as they struggle with their own obvious, yet repressed, feelings for each other, as well as their romantic relationships. It’s a subdued romantic comedy, one that places more importance on complicated relationships and interactions than on a formulaic, cinematic ending. I sat down with Swanberg this week to talk about why he wanted to tell a story within the craft beer scene, the improvisational method of filmmaking, and shooting the film in what he called “a real Chicago.”

FLAVORWIRE: What I immediately loved about the movie was that it was set in Chicago, yet not the Chicago typically seen on film — the West Side, rather than the tourist attractions. Also, is the brewery Revolution? I lived near there when I was in Chicago.

SWANBERG: Yeah, it is. They had the brewpub, and this [was shot in] their production facility, which is on Kedzie between, like, Belmont and Addison, and they just opened it last year — like, three months before we shot there — and now it’s really up and running. We got lucky, timing-wise. If we were trying to shoot the movie right now, they would say no, but we caught them just as they were getting their stuff going.

In terms of your inspiration for setting it in this sort of world, what came first? Chicago, or the beer?

What came first was me being a home brewer and very into the Chicago craft beer scene. From the very beginning of this project, I knew that the brewery was the backdrop for the movie and where the characters would work. But that’s come out of a gradual process of just having friends that work in the industry there and seeing the craft beer scene really explode in Chicago. It’s one of the more exciting things going on right now.

That also felt very homey. I know most of this wasn’t scripted, so how did that work? Would you just set up a scene and let things happen?

Always, yes. There was a really heavily plotted outline that we pretty much stuck to almost completely. We maybe added some things, but we didn’t mess with it too much. But then all the dialogue was improvised. I basically talked through with the actors before we shot: why the scene’s in there, what I initially imagined for it, and tonally what I’m hoping, like, “Okay, it’s coming between this and this. I need a short comedic scene that sort of introduces this idea.” Then we’d try it and work it out from there.

I’m interested in how you cast a movie like this. You have some pretty big names who aren’t really known for improvisation, and Chicago’s a big city for improve — with iO, Second City, and The Annoyance right there. How do you approach auditions and casting? How do you know not just who can be funny in a comedic scene, but also who can come up with something that feels serious and true?

Well, I worked with Mark Bennett as a casting director, who had cast The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, so he’s got great relationships with actors and with agents, and so he was the first big advocate for the movie in terms of reaching out with potential contacts, and he always works on good movies, so people sort of trusted that this was going to be of some level of quality. And then it’s a conversational casting process. There were a few themes I had going in, in terms of the relationship stuff and also the world of craft beer. But then, first of all, I have to get a sense from the actor that we communicate well with each other, and I also have to get a sense of a rich life outside of movies. That’s the important thing, because the way that I’m going to ask them to interact is going to involve a lot of conversations and a lot of different emotions, none of which have to do with acting or the film industry. So as I was talking to people, I just had to see whether everything sort of related back to themselves and acting or whether they were into other things, and I found there’s actually a ton of actors in Hollywood that I could and would love to work with. It was heartening in that sense, that there’s an industry full of really cool, smart people that want to do good work and want to challenge themselves and aren’t often afforded the opportunity to, so now I feel like there’s a giant talent pool of people to work with.

It seems like in directing those scenes, you just kind of watch them develop and put them together afterward. I would think that you’d need someone who can be a theatre actor — someone who’s comfortable having something ephemeral.

Yeah, and I got very lucky, too. Basically, if any of the four main actors had been different, then the movie would be different, so it’s hard to talk about, because there’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg thing there. We basically made the only movie the four of them and I could make together. But additionally, they’re just all really smart, good storytellers, so I had help every step of the way because they have been in a lot of movies, and they’ve also watched a lot of movies. We’re not reinventing the wheel in terms of romantic comedies and relationship stories, but I had all these other people looking out us, who would say, “Ah, we shouldn’t do this because it’s in [this movie], so-and-so did this in this other movie and it’s a little lame, what if we did this?” And the producers were sort of kicking in in the same way, so it’s really fun to not have this script there that’s sort of the bible of what we’re doing that day. It’s just a sense of like, “OK, cool, we’re taking a scene that we’ve seen before in other movies. What’s our spin on it? And also, what’s you guys’ experience with it? How do we bring it back to your life or my real life, or how do we ground this in something that we actually went through, rather than an amalgam of comedy ideas?”

I think that’s a very Chicago sensibility, that a lot of this is rooted in the improv scene there, and there have been a lot of recent plays coming out of Chicago where the actors have a hand in crafting the characters themselves because it feels more natural for them to take ownership of what they’re saying and doing, and it creates more realistic characters.

Yeah. I have gotten texts from a couple of the actors about the next movie they went to, about how weird it was not to improvise and to not be totally in control of your character.

I imagine it’s pretty rare for a director to tell you to be totally creative with a role.

From my end of the equation, these people — and this carries over to everybody that I’ve worked with, even if they aren’t famous actors — they have an inherent quality that’s already really exciting and watchable. I mean, they’re movie stars, you know? So it’s interesting to me that we take these people and we sort of fit them into all of these other roles that take their natural movie-star essence and bury it under different clothes or different haircuts or all of these different things. My process has always been about trying to uncover that as much as possible — like, how do you be the most yourself, your amazing self that the whole world responds to? It’s not just that we like these people because they’re good actors in the movies we see; we’re fascinated by their personal lives as well. We’re fascinated by who they are. We’re drawn to them when we’re in a room. If you’re at a party and Olivia Wilde walks in, I feel like everybody’s curious, like, “What’s she up to? What is she laughing at? What does she think is cool?” So the idea is to try and take Olivia and put her in the movie, rather than take Olivia and be like, “OK, I wrote this other character that’s a mousy secretary…“ Not that she can’t do that! But it seems counter-intuitive to me not to try and fully use what Olivia has going on.

I was wondering if working with more recognizable actors has been scary in that way. I interviewed Andrew Bujalski recently, and he talked about how his favorite performances are always the first or second performance of an actor’s career, because they are still fresh and don’t have the movie-star persona.

Totally. Totally. And I would say that of everybody that I’ve worked with, even people that are not professional actors, that have only done one movie with me and never acted again. Even they have some quality when they walk into a room. It’s not just the movie-star thing — it’s just about whatever that thing is that we all see all the time. You’re drawn to somebody — who is that person? Why do they have such great energy? That’s always fun for me to uncover, and the films are a chance to explore that. It provides access to people’s greatness in a way. You point a camera at it and you try to catch some tiny sliver of it.

To talk about Chicago again: This feels like such a Chicago movie, but not in an obvious way. It’s not like Vince Vaughn and shots of Wrigley Field, but the characters go to the Empty Bottle and one has a tattoo of the Chicago flag. There were a lot of really small Chicago moments throughout the movie. Was that intentional?

It was. Here was the cool thing about working in Chicago: I got to be specific. I know these characters. They’re my friends. I know what kinds of apartments they live in, I know which neighborhoods they live in, I know where they drink, I know where they eat. So when I go to another city that I don’t live in, I have to take somebody else’s word for it, like, “Where do the hipsters hang out?” And somebody’s like, “Oh, this place and this place,” but I don’t really get to know. I just have to trust that their idea of these characters is the same as mine. So it was really great to be at home and to really locate these characters in a real Chicago. And then, beyond that, I’m sort of allergic to big, establishing shots of the skyline and those classic Chicago sights, but I’m like that [about] anywhere. I want people who don’t live in Chicago to watch the movie and feel the Chicago-ness of it but also feel how it’s like anywhere else you could live. When you go too overboard with the signifiers, you run the risk of pushing people away in terms of like, “Oh, you just wouldn’t get it. It’s a Chicago thing,” or something, and I never want the movies to feel that way.

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