Better late than never, right? Drinking Buddies hit iTunes on July 25th, made a go at its theatrical run on August 23rd, and played the festival circuit for months before either of those dates, but Joe Swanberg’s latest only opened up in Boston this past Friday, so I’m not as far behind the eight ball as you might think.
I spoke with Swanberg over the phone back in August, touching on matters both obvious — such as how he adapted to working with a larger ensemble than he has in the past — and perhaps less so — like the ways in which his passion for beer influenced the film. Swanberg is congenial, well-spoken, and thoughtful, and he’s one of the few people I’ve interviewed who bothers to pause and consider his words. He offered a lot of great insights into what he put into the film, what he got out of it, the experience of working with actors like Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde, the pleasure of seeing his friends succeed, the obstacles facing modern independent filmmakers, and why the craft brewing movement is so important to him. Read on and see what he had to say about Drinking Buddies:
(Special thanks to Liz Owens at Allied for coordinating the whole thing and, of course, to Joe for taking the time to speak with me.)
Crump: You began your career making movies that are based around relationships, and in the last couple of years you’ve taken a turn toward horror with V/H/S, and other movies like You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die. Now, Drinking Buddies brings you back to your roots, so to speak. I was curious, why the change, why the transition?
Swanberg: Well, Adam Wingard and Ti West and some of the horror directors that I’ve been working with happen to be friends of mine, but I also happen to think that they’re really good filmmakers. So, it was fun to get to spend some time in their world, and as an actor it’s a really nice opportunity to be on somebody else’s set and be part of the action without having the responsibility of directing a movie, you know? It was a really nice learning experience for me, and in a way I feel off the hook, like it’s a working vacation. I think I had probably reached sort of a burn-out point at the rate that I was making movies and the subject matter that I was dealing with, so it was a nice change of pace and a way to step away and reflect a little bit, so that coming to Drinking Buddies I was refreshed and excited to dive back into that territory having been out of it for a little bit.
Were there any specific inspirations that you turned to that helped shape the film at the writing and shooting stages?
Yeah, definitely. You know, before the wheels really got turning on making the movie, there were two big inspirations for me, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Paul Mazursky’s movie, and The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May’s original movie. Those two movies were just so exciting to me because they were both big box office hits, but I also felt that they were really interesting, complicated comedies aimed at adults. They didn’t feel like they were dumbed down for a romantic comedy audience or that they were compromised in any way. They felt cool and challenging, and it’s exciting for me to think that audiences didn’t reject that, and embrace these movies with unlikable behavior and complicated characters that don’t always make good decisions. So as Drinking Buddies geared up and we got into it, I went back to those movies several times and continued to draw inspiration from them.
If I recall, there’s a special thanks to Ms. Mays at the end of the film – I’m not making that up, am I?
No, you’re not making that up!
She’s a hero of mine. Not just The Heartbreak Kid. Mikey and Nicky, I think, is amazing, and the first twenty minutes of Ishtar…I like Ishtar, but the first twenty minutes of Ishtar, I think, are some of the best filmmaking of the 80’s. I think she’s so cool. Her editing and her eye towards performances are hugely influential and inspirational to me.
In the past, you’ve made films with crews consisting, if I’m not mistaken, basically of just yourself and a sound guy. You can correct me if I’m wrong on that.
That’s correct. And sometimes not even a sound guy!
So they’re very much like solo acts. With Drinking Buddies, you’re collaborating with, comparatively, a much larger group of people. How did you balance out those additional production elements with this film?
Well, I was nervous about it! I had kind of gotten used to work by myself, and I liked working that way because the environment on set was so intimate. We could move very quickly, there weren’t a lot of personalities around to have to deal with, and we could tell a certain kind of story that way. And so the idea of taking all that freedom and flexibility and caging it in with a lot of infrastructure was a little nerve-wracking leading up to it, but I discovered that I was totally liberated by all those people. Every job I’d take on myself, every responsibility that I had to deal with on the production of the film, suddenly there was somebody else to do that and all I had to do was wake up every day and go work with actors, which is the thing I like to do most!
Every hurdle I expected to run into because of the size of the production actually ended up being an additional thing that freed me to focus on what I wanted to be focusing on, so I was thrilled. It was an incredibly pleasant, exciting experience for me, and the other thing is, performance is a thing that I’m focused on. That was always my main concern, and things like wardrobe, production design, and crafts services, all that other stuff was the stuff I would do with my time that was left over when I wasn’t focusing on performance. It’s not like I’m bad-mouthing the other films that I’ve made, but that’s sort of the trade-off of working that way, and the benefit of working that way was that there are performances in some of my really small movies that I’m really proud of, that are super intimate and absolutely influenced by the fact that people were wearing their real clothes and we were shooting in real apartments and things like that.
With Drinking Buddies, to have people on set who care passionately about wardrobe, or care passionately about production design, who care passionately about cinematography, was really exciting because there was no hierarchy of what was important to us on set. Every aspect of the filmmaking got its own special attention to detail by the person who was in charge of that job, you know? So, it was really fun.
So, it’s interesting that you talk about performance being the thing that’s most important to you. I think there’s a lot to recommend about Drinking Buddies, but I think when general audiences see this movie, they’re going to be talking about Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, the central characters and their performances.
Yeah, definitely. I really love those actors, and it was such a treat to work with them and also just to see them work. It was really fun every day on set to not know what they were going to say next, and to be witness to how smart, funny, and sharp they all were, and I would love to work with them again. You know, because of this way of working, there’s no script, and we’re kind of feeling each other out and working together on shaping this thing, and now that we’ve been through it once, if I could do another with them–well, I did do another movie with Anna Kendrick, I’ve already shot another one with her, but with Jake, Olivia, and Ron as well, I feel like the more we work together, the deeper we could go. Now that we’ve gotten through the initial meeting and sniffing each other out phase, we could jump into the next movie really ready to work, which would be exciting.
So, I’m trying to think of a way to phrase this question without sounding like a back-handed dick…so, these are all professional, name actors, and when I think of Joe Swanberg movies, I usually think of you starring in them, or Greta Gerwig, people who are less recognizably mainstream. Was that kind of a challenge to acclimate to?
You know, it wasn’t. I wasn’t sure what it would be like, but within five minutes it was very clear to me that we were doing the same thing and that the only difference was that these people have more experience doing it. But no, there was no movie star vibe on set or anything like that. They need me and I need them, so we very quickly snapped into how we could help each other, and that’s always what it’s been as a director. I just need to be there to be useful, to answer questions, to be clear and concise with what I’m looking for so they can give that to me, you know? It’s a communication problem to solve, that’s all that it is, and it was the same communicating with them as it always has been.
It’s kind of exciting, though, because the people that I worked with on the other movies, nobody knew who they were, but now I think that’s really changing. Greta is certainly very recognizable now, and Mark Duplass, who was in Hannah Takes the Stairs, and now I feel like Amy Seimetz and Kate Sheil are now really starting to get some momentum. It’s actually really funny to see that happen. With Drinking Buddies, these people are already famous before I meet them, but it’s actually been bizarre to see my friends, who sometimes my movies were the first movies they’d been in early on in their careers. To see them get famous is kind of a trip.
Crump: It must be pretty rewarding.
Swanberg: Yeah, it’s cool! It’s one of those things were, like with Greta especially, while we were making Hannah Takes the Stairs, I just assumed that it would be only a few months before she was a huge movie star, she seemed that good to me, and it’s been interesting to see it take a while. It’s been a nice lesson to realize that you have to be patient, you have to keep working, and this kind of overnight success thing is a bit of a myth. The people who seem like they came out of nowhere, if you look a little deeper, they’ve usually been grinding it out for years and years, getting their practice hours in and waiting for that break, so it’s fun to see people starting to recognize Amy and Kate and some of the other people I’ve worked with.
Well put! So, Drinking Buddies – and I mean this in the best way possible – it’s the sort of movie that makes you kind of want to drink. I definitely found myself craving a beer while I was watching it.
Oh, yeah. If I hadn’t watched it on my lunch break, I would have cracked myself a brew. Do you consider yourself a beer aficionado, and is that something that’s important to you?
Yeah, it is. I’m a home brewer, and I’m very well-versed in the craft beer scene in America right now. It’s something I’m passionate about. I’m just excited about it. I think craft beer is the most exciting thing happening in America right now, and as an independent filmmaker I really relate to the movement and what these guys are up against as independent breweries. In my industry, there’s the big studios and you have all the independent people fighting for a tiny slice of the pie. In the beer world, you have companies like MillerCoors controlling 90% of the market, and the other 10% is every craft brewery in the country duking it out. But they’re making in-roads. I feel like with craft beer, it’s really exciting to see that people are waking up to it, realizing that there’s a broad, big exciting world out there.
I wanted to set something in that world. I wanted to make a movie that gave me a chance to live in that universe a little bit and explore that, and then additionally it was exciting for me to make a movie about a woman who lives in this guy’s world. Craft beer, for better or worse, is very much a guy’s thing at the moment. I see that changing, and I’m optimistic that that will continue to change, but at least last summer when we shot the movie, there were not that many women in the Chicago craft beer scene. So it’s an interesting character and relationship thing for me, to have this woman who’s like one of the guys but who isn’t one of the guys, you know?
Definitely, and that kind of leads into my next question – how important was it to you to accurately and truthfully capture the energy and the reality of the brewery operation and the craft beer movement?
I was so nervous about that. That would be my nightmare scenario of Drinking Buddies, that regardless of how good the rest of the movie turned out, if it was the kind of movie that someone who worked at a brewery came in and saw it and said, “Oh, that’s bullshit.” So I was hyper-sensitive to it, probably overly-sensitive to it, but I wanted to make something that people within that universe recognized. I think specificity always helps. I don’t believe in painting broad strokes that everybody can relate to. I actually think it becomes more relatable if you’re specific to your characters.
But yeah, it was really fun. The guys who work at Revolution Brewery, where we shot, were incredibly helpful. They really got into the production and took Jake under their wing, and taught him a lot about brewing. They were actually up and brewing. They didn’t shut down while we were shooting, they were actively brewing, so anything you see Jake doing in the movie, if he’s pouring a bucket of hops into a boiler or hauling a bag of grain up the stairs or crushing grain or something, he’s actually putting that into a real beer that then went out into the market.
Yeah, it was really nice to include him in that way!
Not that I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve taken tours through the Magic Hat and Long Trailer breweries, and the film definitely rang of the time I spent checking them out, so I appreciated that. Though, again, take that with a grain of salt because I don’t totally know what the hell I’m talking about. So, it’s really cool that the passion for beer is present here, but the film still always comes back to its interactions between its human characters, whether it’s Kate and Luke having their bonding moments or Luke going sick-house on Angry Car Guy. I like that it never lost sight of what was important.
I can’t help it! That’s the stuff that I’m fascinated by, so I think I’ll always end up there.
One final question. Just speaking as independent filmmaker, there’s been such an increased access to affordable, pro-grade equipment recently, and it’s become easier than ever for people to break into filmmaking, but that aside, what challenges do you think independent filmmakers face despite those advances?
It’s a double-edged sword, because the easier and cheaper it gets to make really good-looking movies, the harder it gets to find an audience of those movies because everybody’s taking advantage of the equipment. So I feel like the challenge used to be raising enough money to actually make the thing. I’m talking about, you know, the mid-80s in American independent filmmaking. If you could raise the capital to buy the film stock and actually get the movie in the can, once you completed it you weren’t competing with a ton of independent films. There weren’t that many released every year. Now, Sundance gets twelve or thirteen thousand submissions every year, and the modern independent filmmaker faces the really complicated challenge of how you get even five people to come to see your movie. Outside of your friend circles, how does anybody even know that this thing exists?
What it means, for better or worse, is that filmmakers are having to become marketing people. Those two worlds are now tied together. I suspect even in film school at this point, you’re not going to be a pure artist who just focuses on film, and once your film is finished, it’s magically out in the world. You have to simultaneously think about how people will get to see the thing.
Drinking Buddies is now available on VOD, iTunes on demand, and in theaters.