Joe Swanberg (director of Drinking Buddies): Interview
“Ty West directing someone to stab me in the neck 15 takes in a row was not the most pleasant acting experience I’ve ever had.”
In a scene in a forest early on in Drinking Buddies, boyfriend and girlfriend of the main characters Chris and Jill (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, respectively) toast to one another over a cheese plate and burgundy about the future to come with the phrase, “Here’s to not fucking around.” The characters in the film face problems and crises wherein there is no margin for fucking around: marriage, compatibility, long-term plans. The phrase feels appropriate for more than a conversation between two ancillary characters and hangs over Drinking Buddies like your best friend’s wedding invite on the fridge.
Joe Swanberg’s new film sees the genre-defining director heading into territory starkly foreign to the genre he helped define: large-scale budget, recognizable names, release through a major film distributor. Even the subject matter is a serious older brother to the manic pixie fairy dawdling marking his past work like Hannah Takes the Stairs. I talked to Joe on the phone about watching his films grow up, the intersections between life and fiction, and what it feels like getting stabbed in the neck 15 times in a row.
You’ve fielded a lot of questions on a bigger budget and a larger scale for Drinking Buddies. What interested me is what was it like adjusting to actors like Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, actors who weren’t necessarily familiar with “mumblecore” or your style? Did you have to do any “conditioning” to get them prepped for the filming?
We certainly talked about it. Through the casting process that was one of the big things I had with everybody that I met, was about that process, about making sure that people were excited to do that. With the actors that I found, I think it was a big part of why the movie was appealing, to do something different. There was no conditioning process, but with all these things, we have to feel each other out, you know. It takes a few days to really get in the groove and get to a point where we trust each other and get on the same page about the tone and sort of the rhythm of the scenes. But that’s true with any movie, even when I’m working with close friends of mine.
Actually yeah, on the subject of your close friends, I just saw Kent Osborne [actor in Hannah Takes the Stairs, writer for Adventure Time] at iO [Improv Olympics]. He came and did some monologues and had a few herald teams act them out.
Oh yeah he told me about that! I wish I could have been there, it sounds amazing.
On the subject of dealing with actors, one thing I gleaned from the film was a high degree of authenticity in the characters and interactions. How thin is that membrane between your writing and your personal life? It felt like these characters were pulled from some personal experiences and friends.
Yeah definitely. That’s pretty much always been the case, that I’m writing from personal experience or trying to tell stories that are based on things that I’ve gone through or am going through. Jake [Johnson] and Anna [Kendrick]’s characters are modeled on my wife and I at a different point in our relationship when we were still dating and trying to figure out and talk about the idea of getting married. Olivia’s character was inspired by my friend Kate Thomas who works at Half Acre brewery…
By the way, Half Acre must have been devastated [joke] that you decided to film at Revolution instead.
[Laughs] No it was fine. We actually talked to Half Acre, but their space is so small, well it’s not that small, but to try and house a movie crew, we would have been very present there. Rev [Revolution Brewery] has that big, beautiful space, so it just really worked out nicely. The things that Olivia’s character in the movie does aren’t based on my friend Kate, but her job is, and the circumstances of being one of a few women in a very male-dominated profession and navigating the lines between being one of the guys and receiving a lot of sexual attention. It’s all definitely coming out of personal experiences.
The story and the style is an interesting intersection for you. I feel like these names are going to draw the “romcom” set, but then you’ve also got your very loyal following you’ve had for years. I wish at the end of the trailer there would have been the line, “Come for the romcom, stay for the mumblecore.”
[Laughs] Yeah we’ll see about the romcom audience. I was certainly using the romcom as a template for the movie, but it’s interesting because it ends up quite a bit more complicated than most romantic comedies. I’m hoping that we attract that audience and I’m also hoping that they’re excited to see something that’s a little more real than what they’ve been offered in the last couple years.
Yeah, I think one of the main themes, i.e. beer, is going to make the movie very approachable to the designated audience going into it. I know that you do some home brewing, what’s the last batch that you made?
The last thing that I did was a hoppy wheat beer. Three Floyd’s Gumball Head has always been a big favorite of mine.
Also Half Acre does this Akari Shogun [American-style Pale Wheat Ale if you’re interested], so I’ve been emulating that idea of a sort of light, easy-drinking beer with some nice hop aromas.
My wife and I have been married for six years now, so we’ve already been through this and made these decisions, but a lot of our friends are reaching that point where they’re starting to get married and have these conversations. I’m witness to a lot of it.
I had some buddies who just made a sea salt and coriander kolsch.
That sounds amazing.
With what the character Kate’s dealing with and then the themes of your last film [Marriage Material] it seems like you’re parsing through the stuff of thirtysomethings, i.e. long term plans and marriage. Did this come up organically or did you make a conscious decision in your writing to focus in on those ideas?
It’s sort of organic. It’s certainly on the minds of a lot of people I know. My wife and I have been married for six years now, so we’ve already been through this and made these decisions, but a lot of our friends are reaching that point where they’re starting to get married and have these conversations. I’m witness to a lot of it. Additionally, it does feel like it’s time for the movies to grow up a little bit, taking on some higher stakes and some weightier topics.
It feels like Drinking Buddies is going to be the territory of couples on date night who just put a ring on it.
I suspect it’s going to cause as many fights as it is smiles and laughs [laughs]. It’s complicated subject matter; I imagine if you’re a couple that’s dealing with it and then you go see Drinking Buddies, it may be therapeutic or it may be just another thing to instigate an argument [laughs].
It was good seeing you on camera again; I think the last time I saw you in front of the lens you had a switchblade sticking out of your neck. I assume it was a lot more fun brawling with Jake Johnson in the street instead of getting stabbed to death.
At the end of each scene, my neck hurt in both cases [laughs], so it’s hard to say which was more fun. Ty West directing someone to stab me in the neck 15 takes in a row was not the most pleasant acting experience I’ve ever had, but yeah, it was great to jump into Drinking Buddies for that one scene, but I was happy to immediately jump back behind the camera. It was a lot of work; it was a much bigger production than before, so I’m glad I did not try to put myself in a bigger role.
Well, you did some solid work and you’ve got reason to knock a few back.