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Interview with Joe Swanberg, Director of ‘Drinking Buddies’

Interview with Joe Swanberg, Director of ‘Drinking Buddies’

"Drinking Buddies" SXSW After Party

I spoke with Joe Swanberg about performance and beer at a Philadelphia sneak peek of his new film Drinking Buddies, starring Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.

Neal Dhand: I really love the performances in this film.  They’re so real and believable.

Joe Swanberg: I’ve always been into performance.  With everything I’ve made, that’s where my loyalties have always been in terms of what’s important in the filmmaking process: performance, number one by a lot, everything else just in second place.  In the movies where I did everything myself, if I made performance number one and everything was in a distant second place, and I was in charge of everything else, it meant it fell in a distant second place, too.  Cinematography, production design, audio mix, I was like, “As long as the performances are good, they’ll carry the movie, and everything else, we’ll just get it as good as we can.”

With Drinking Buddies, I almost consider it my first feature.  I came out of film school and rejected so much of the ways I was taught to make movies, the traditional way of making movies.  I thought, “Maybe I can reinvent the way movies are made.”  With Drinking Buddies, I thought, “Why don’t I try embracing the way movies are made? Why don’t I make my job about performances and hire all these great people who then don’t let those other jobs fall into distant second place, they also make them first place.”

So working with Ben, the cinematographer, meant I had a collaborator who was thinking as intensely about the visuals as I was the performance; working with Brandon Tonner-Connelly, the production designer, he was thinking as passionately about production design as I was the performances; Amanda Ford for wardrobe; Alicia and Andy the producers – it was like, “Cool, now I have this team of people and nothing’s in second place.” I was just finally at a place where I was ready to make movies that way and to embrace that.


ND: Why the change from the way you’ve made movies up until now?

JS: I think I had exhausted what I felt I would be able to do the other way.  I pushed really hard in that direction and I pushed really hard to see how much I could do by myself as a one-man-band producer, director, editor, writer, craft-services person, driver, and I’m really proud of that work.  It’s tough when I talk about Drinking Buddies, because I feel like I’m almost shoving the other stuff under the bus a little bit, but I love those movies and I’m very proud of them.  What we managed to get with a few thousand dollars and very limited resources was really fun and exciting and connective with people.  But I had reached the logical end where thematically and production-wise, I wasn’t challenging myself in the same way. In order to reach a different audience, I was going to have to do something a different way. And I was excited to do something different.  I act in friends’ movies.  I do it more often than I used to.  Being on the sets of friends’ movies that work on a bigger level, it was exciting to see what they were doing, seeing them push themselves in this higher budget range.  I thought, “Maybe now is the time to try it.” I could see they didn’t have to completely change the way they made films.  They just had all these additional people helping them.

ND: Was it difficult to get this cast together?

JS: That certainly wasn’t the hardest part.  The hardest part was trying to make a movie of this size with no script.  The cast actually was excited to try something different.  Also, I relate to actors.  People don’t have to audition for me.  It was a really fun process of finding people who wanted to try and do a movie like this.  I met way more people than are in the movie who I’ll hopefully work with in the future.  There’s a giant talent pool of actors who want to try this, that are ready to do a movie like this.


ND: You mentioned that you don’t hold auditions.  How do you find your cast?

JS: It’s just a conversation.  There’s no script to talk about so I just have to tell them what I’m thinking – the ideas that I’m excited about.  I ask them what they want to do, what kind of movie they’re looking to make.  Somewhere in the middle, we find the thing that it actually becomes.  That casting process on Drinking Buddies was my favorite part.

ND: What was so hard about getting a movie, particularly of this size as you mention, with no script made?

JS: Raising money.  Trying to get investors on board a project with no script proved to be really challenging.  I don’t blame them and I hadn’t made anything like this before so I had no track record.  It’ll be easier next time now that Drinking Buddies exists, but the credit goes to Alicia Van Couvering who really hustled and kicked ass and didn’t give up on it when we were way beyond the date when we thought we had to have the money by.  She kept at it, and CAA – the agency where I’m at – they also did an amazing job finding money at the last minute.

I felt really lucky.  I had sort of given up.  I thought, “OK, we got close.” But they didn’t give up and I’m really glad about that.


ND:  Was the cast always on the same page as to where the narrative was going given that there was no script?

JS: They were basically on the same page.  Jake was the person I’d worked with the longest, so he and I had a different conversation about the shape of the movie before the other people came on. I wouldn’t say that there were disagreements, but certainly he had a major hand in shaping the broad story.  By the time the other actors came on, that story was in pretty good shape and they just focused more on the characters.

ND: You mentioned in your Q&A that you also edit your films.  What’s your approach with the rest of post?

JS: I’m pretty hands-off.  My natural instinct is to hire people that are passionate about it.  For anything that I don’t really, really care about it, I’d rather hire someone that does really, really care about it.  I don’t think in terms of sound design.  I probably will, a couple movies from now, be more accustomed to thinking that way.  But coming into this, I just wanted realism.  So working with the sound designers, I just asked them to go to the brewery and record real sounds, to go to the neighborhoods and record real sounds.   Nothing was psychological sound design.  I was trying to actually put the audience in the soundscape of the situation.  With color correction and all that stuff, Ben really did that.  So with sound design and color correction, I just sort of came into the ends of these processes and gave notes.

ND: So you lock your cut first and then-

JS: Yes.  Definitely, definitely.


ND: You said that when you came out of film school, you rejected the traditional way of making movies.  Why?

JS: I had made too many bad movies myself and worked on too many bad movies to really believe in the process.  I saw directors completely overwhelmed by their crews.  I saw that the emphasis was on – it was like a pissing contest.  Who had the more professional crew?  Who hired this DP from Chicago who had shot on 35 before?  Nobody was thinking about the things that really mattered to me.  I was heavily influenced by the Dogme films, too – Von Trier sort of stripped all that away and said, “Let’s focus on the basics of this.” Those movies were coming out while I was in film school and I found myself really relating to those movies a lot more than these kind of heavily stylized things that I was seeing.

The other thing, now that I think about it, is that the inability to get the crew, and the inability to have a film that matched your vision was an excuse to give up.  So when people wrote these scripts and they had this party scene and they imagined shooting it a specific way and they had this crane shot that came in the door and dollied around the room – if you can’t get that, that’s a really easy reason to say, “I have to put this on hold, I can’t make this movie until I can get this shot the way I want it.”

I didn’t want any excuses to not make stuff.  So if I just focused on characters.  If I put them in the real clothes that people wear, if I put them in the apartments that people live in, then there were no hurdles to jump over, there was no excuse to not make the movie, and that was exciting to me, too.  To say, “You know what, we only have $2,000.  That’s enough money to make a feature film.  I own the camera, I own the laptop with the editing software.  All we need to do is buy food and buy some tape stock.”

ND: Did the idea of setting come before story for Drinking Buddies?

JS: Yeah, early on.  I think craft beer is the most exciting thing happening in America right now.  In terms of a business and an art form, I’m really excited by people’s engagement with it, by the political aspect of it.  It’s taking an industry that’s traditionally been totally dominated by a few major corporations and spreading it around.

And I love it.  I just love beer, and it became a hobby for me that was really liberating – to go from making a film and putting it out in the world and having it immediately judged by people, to brewing a beer, giving it to my friends, having it be something people enjoyed.  There wasn’t this critical infrastructure around it, and there wasn’t this commercial infrastructure around it.  So the hobby of brewing beer saved me from the indie film industry that was driving me crazy.  The more that I was brewing it, the more I was drinking other people’s beer and sort of really getting into it.  I wanted to set something in that world.

Making a film’s a great opportunity to learn things.  I wanted to learn more about brewing.  I wanted to learn more about what these guys were doing everyday, about what the brewery culture is like.  So when you set a film in any world, you’re given an all-access pass to that world in a way that was really fun to me.

— Neal Dhand