Arguably his best film to date, prolific, independent filmmaker, Joe Swanberg, says he worked harder on Drinking Buddies than on any other film. Swanberg says it’s a movie he made with “a deep desire to connect with an audience, and that hasn’t been true of a lot of my movies.”
“I’ve had a couple of big changes in the past couple of years in terms of how I make movies and what I want to put out into the world,” says Swanberg. Whose friend and fellow filmmaker, Madeleine Olnek, influenced some of these changes after sharing her philosophy on filmmakers and comedy.
“She said to have the ability to make comedies and not make them was almost morally reprehensible…like if you can make comedies its sort of your human obligation to make them,” says Swanberg.” So I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about that – that making a comedy is almost like a public service, and that it really is an important thing in the world to be able to make people laugh…and if you can do that then it’s a gift, so you sort of have this moral obligation to do use it.”
We talked to Swanberg about this new philosophy, and how it helped to shape his latest film, Drinking Buddies, which opened the 2nd Annual Oak Cliff Film Festival last week.
The film explores themes around relationships and monogamy, what makes you drawn to these kinds of stories?
These are things I’ve sort of been interested in exploring throughout my career, and I think that as my characters are still in their twenties and kind of figuring those things out, they’re facing big questions: whether to get married or not, whose the right person to get married to, once you are in a committed relationship how do you stay faithful; this stuff is all fascinating to me personally…and I wanted to show it in a way that felt right, and real…There’s a tendency in romantic comedies to kind of glass over all of this stuff and then hit on it in a broad way, and I felt like there was a way to make something funny and touching but also treating it more realistically.
Yeah, that whole dynamic between the characters was really fascinating…it definitely wasn’t predictable
It’s really been amazing to hear people say that, and its had a big influence on how I think about the next movies I make, because I didn’t quite realize how predictability was hurting peoples experience when the go to see movies…If you look at the stuff that Hollywood is putting out or that is making a lot of money, you get the sense that predictability was actually profitable and that people wanted to see something that was all tied up and predictable…but I actually don’t think that’s true at all. Drinking Buddies has been a nice reminder of for me as I talk to audiences, that its fun to sit down and see a movie that does something you don’t expect it to do…so I was really inspired by that, and its been really great to see people appreciate that.
That’s good too, because it proves you can be entertaining in that way – because it is still entertaining – but at the same time it doesn’t have to be predictable…
Yeah, I think that is absolutely true. You know I had that sort of revelation with two movies in particular, Paul Mazursky’s movie, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and the original Heartbreak Kid, as I was sort of thinking about Drinking Buddies, and developing the ideas that would eventually become the movie…I watched both of those films, and they kind of taught me a lot of lessons, because they were both really big hits when they came out. They made a lot of money and were nominated for Oscars, so they were really successful movies, but they’re also totally playing by their own rules. They’re not movies that are condescending to their audience; they’re one-hundred percent interesting unique visions of those directors, so it was just kind of exciting to be reminded that was possible…you know I had just sort of stopped considering it as an option. I thought if you want to connect with a mainstream audience then you have to kind of whore yourself out a little bit, or dumb it down. It feels to me like a worthy fight now to try and make movies that do connect with a mainstream audience, but don’t dumb themselves down, and I think the filmmakers each year that successfully do that make great movies, the kind of movies people are still going to be excited by for the next 20 to 30 years.
For someone who is used to making films with a bunch of close friends versus a large team of professionals and “higher profile” actors, how did this effect the filmmaking process for you?
The whole build up was different than it has been before. Usually I’m talking with the actors I want to use right away, and I know I already have the money and that money is not contingent upon the cast at all, it’s just a very small amount of money from an investor….so this was you an attempt to kind of dip my toe in the water of how other kinds of movies are made, just to see what the proess was like, and to see how I sort of functioned within that world. It ended up being really great; I was able to meet with a lot of actors, and I ended up working with people I really connected with and had a good rapport with, and whose work I was really excited by. Essentially my producers really created a space for me to work in as much in the way as I wanted to work as possible.
My previous movies were really loosly structured, and we figured out a lot of the stuff on set, where as this by default had to be much more structured, just because we had a tighter schedule a much bigger crew, and in a sense I was really worried going into that I would be very limited by that, and that it would sort of take over the process and I would end up beholden to all of these people and frustrated that I couldn’t make the movie that I wanted to make – and my experience was the exact opporsite of that.
I had to do a lot of preplanning, but once I actually got to the set I was more free than I’d ever been, because there were a lot of other people to do the jobs that I typically do, so I could just be a director and focus on working with the actors, and it ended up being the best experience I’ve ever had making a movie, and I’m really looking forward to doing again. I found that I liked having that process; I liked having a call sheet and getting up in the moring, and driving to work, putting in a days work, and then going home at the end of the day knowing everything was being taken care of by smart, able and talented people. I have a sense that I’ll probably move back and forth over the next few years between bigger projects, and then some smaller more personal ones.
But you still brought some of your personal style to this bigger project, like with the improvised dialog for example, talk about that a little…
Yeah, I mean the objective was to make it not seem improvised, and to make a move that felt deliberate and written in that way. You know I’ll say from my end, that if you cast smart people in your movie, it’s a piece of cake. You know they’re on the same wave length and it doesn’t take too much conversation to tap into the experiences that, when I’m writing the movie, I hope are universal experiences – at least in the case of Drinking BuddiesI think it turned out that they were, so the actors could bring their own experiences to the role, and then it turns out that this is true for the audience as well, so you’re sort of automatically kind of connecting. I feel like everyone’s been in a relationship, but maybe still had a crush on someone at work, so these are sort of broad universal themes. You’re not having to do crazy exposition to explain some crazy concept the way that other movies are often having to do – you know like when films have these high concept world, and it’s the actors jobs to kind of explain it to the audience in the first place, – In Drinking Buddies this is a very human world these characters are living in, so Ron Livingston just has to make this guy Chris seem like a real guy in the world and Olivia just has to make Kate seem like a real woman existing in this world, and in a way they can do that just by being themselves, or by sharing as much of themselves as they feel like – and then they’re just inherently good at their jobs, and it’s just kind of fascinating to watch.
My theory is it’s not a mistake that these people are movie stars, there’s something about them that is exciting and dynamic. Part of it is what they’re doing and part of it is just the kind of chemistry they exude, and the way that the lens shapes their faces; it’s all kind of crazy and mystical sounding but whatever it is, whatever that thing is, they have it. So I felt very safe and very comfortable just letting them have it, and to kind of own those characters, and then I was just kind of there as a safety net to pick and choose the scenes that I liked and then make sure that they felt comfortable every day to keep giving.
Well they all did a fantastic job…It was especially nice to see Olivia Wilde in a role that she could really own; she totally encompassed the character.
Yeah, she’s really a good actor, and I don’t know that she’s had all that many opportunities to prove it…more than anything she’s just really smart, and throughout my whole working history as a director those are the people I want tot work with, especially with improvisation. They have a whole rich life and thought process to draw from, and so then in the moments where they’re sort of put on the spot they have stuff to talk about…Olivia reads a lot she’s engaged in politics in the world around her, she has opinions about things. That’s all you need for improvisation – to be a person who is able to express yourself. If you’re working with good actors than everybody’s doing that, and you end up with fascinating scenes.
Drinking Buddies premiered at SXSW in March. It’s limited theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures begins August, 23 in New York, with openings in additional cities – including Dallas – the following week on August, 30.