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Joe Swanberg has directed 13 films in eight years, plus two shorts, but it’s understandable if you haven’t seen many of them. As a filmmaker who came of age during the era of “mumblecore,” his earlier works won critical acclaim, but few found mainstream audiences. He’s hoping to change that with his latest, Drinking Buddies, about two longtime friends who begin to question their potential as lovers. Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, the film’s unforced drama and recognizable character types evoke the naturalism of his previous work while giving the finished product a slightly more commercial sheen.
Swanberg recently sat down with Spinoff Online Los Angeles to discuss the making of Drinking Buddies. In addition to detailing his remarkably thorough and yet spontaneous creative process, he compared his own interpretations of the characters with those of his actors, and reflected on the odd and unexpected jealousy that develops between platonic friends, which helped inspire Swanberg to tell this particular story.
Spinoff Online: Talk about the process of creating a dramatic framework for an idea like this that needs conflict, but you don’t want it to be an over-the-top romantic comedy.
Joe Swanberg: Well, my producer, Alicia Van Couvering, is a really good writer and was really helpful in terms of that – helping me shape it on the page to the extent that it was pitchable to people but also left a lot of ambiguity and space to have the improv process be a part of it. But the other thing we did was just sort of use the romantic comedy framework that already exists, and then focus on a scene-by-scene basis of making that more real than a romantic comedy is typically allowed to be or wants to be. So I felt like we had a nice structure in place; I felt like every day we showed up with a good idea of what the scene was and where it fit in terms of storytelling. But we were still making discoveries all of the time, and it sort of had the looseness that I was hoping for.
There’s a great little moment where Kate comes home from the brewery and Chris, her boyfriend, is drinking bourbon. How consciously do you include things like that as foreshadowing?
We’re very conscious of it. I mean, we sort of earmarked that guy as a bourbon guy from the very beginning – these were nice little noticeable but subtle differences that we could draw between the two of them. But we wanted to play around with that character’s age a little bit, just in the ways that he wanted to very freely hang out with Olivia and her group of people, but he’s done a lot of that already. He’s not so interested, and maybe he was a big beer drinker when he was younger, but now he feels more refined, and whiskey and bourbon are a little more expensive. His tastes are a little more expensive than hers. So most of that stuff is there in the outline process before we get to set.
How carefully did you have to negotiate the moments where Olivia and Jake sort of cross a line beyond friendship to make sure that it wasn’t completely obvious, to them or to us, that they were attracted to one another?
That to me is the interesting thing – that’s the movie to me, the two of them having to set up their own boundaries. Nobody’s there to do it for them. And I’m fascinated by this gray zone of what’s cheating and what isn’t cheating – and that’s the space I’ve always wanted to be playing in, something that’s not so clear-cut. And also, the audience has their own boundaries – each person in the audience has their own line that they draw where, “OK, this seems fine to me but I would never do that.” So I’ve heard reactions that range from “they didn’t do anything, and it was totally platonic and fine,” and “whoa, I was totally anxious the entire time because they were like so totally in that like bad zone.” And as a filmmaker, I have my own boundaries, and so that has to be my guiding light in terms of what feels a little more dangerous, what feels safe. And hopefully it’s a thing everybody’s gone through, it’s a position everybody’s been in, where the sort of fun flirtatious relationship, where eye contact is held too long or somebody says something, or there’s a touch or some moment where you’re like, oh, whoa, what is happening here? And the other thing I was really excited about is the question of by the time we get into it in the movie, Olivia is single and Jake isn’t, so there’s this other interesting question of how much does she owe him and his relationship once she’s single. Is it her responsibility to draw the line for him? And are two people crossing the line, or is only one person crossing the line there? And from Jake’s point of view, how guilty is he – how implicated is he in this? Is he stringing her along just as much as she’s sort of goading the thing. And I want to make a movie that people can talk about when they come out of the theater, that sparks conversations between boyfriends and girlfriends, between platonic male and female friends. That’s what’s always appealed to me about making movies: it’s the beginning of the conversation, but the successful ones leave a ton of room for that to carry on.
It really does underscore how unexpectedly jealous we become when a friend we might be attracted to starts dating someone.
Yeah. I really find myself guilty of that in my own friendships with women, where I’m like, why is she with that guy? And then I’m like, why do I care? What am I doing right now? Partially it’s because you want the best for them, but there is this seedy underbelly to these thoughts, like, what am I suggesting? Why do I know what’s better for them than they know for themselves? And it does get into this very complicated, possessive territory.
That’s all them. I set the scene and we sort of know where in the narrative arc it’s going to fall. But they really went for it. They’re drawing upon arguments they’ve had with other people — and that scene felt really nice. I mean, it’s not nice, it’s not pleasant, but doing it was really exciting because I felt like they’d really committed to their two different sides of that argument. They staked out their territories and went at it.
How deliberate was it to reverse some of our expectations about male and female characters – he’s happily in a relationship while she’s noncommittal about staying the night?
I think I probably wrote in the outline that she would go home, that she wouldn’t sleep with him. But it really comes down to how Ron is playing it as she’s getting up. Again, I can sort of set the scene, but he could play it aloof and not care that she was leaving, he could get angry, and the way he plays it is kind of painful, where he sort of asks her to stay and gives her three different reasons why it would be easier if she were there. And then in the end, he tells her, “at least let me pay for a cab” – he wants to take care of her, and it was interesting to me that she doesn’t want to be taken care of. She’s not interested in having him support her in that way. She doesn’t need it. And you suspect that at that point in his life, when he’s in maybe his early 40s, and still dating women in their 20s, he wants to have this sort of mentor-role model-protector role in the relationship – and when she’s so resistant to that, I think it becomes clear to him that it’s not going to work.
Because there’s so much discovery in the improvisational process, when and where do you feel like you discover cohesive characters for your stories?
Um, it’s a little my job and it’s a little the actors’ job in terms of, like these four actors have so much experience, and have played so many different roles and built so many different characters, that when I hand them a two-page outline and they can sort of see the shape of the story, they get to work building that cohesive arc for those characters. So at any given point, even though we were improvising, they knew where they were in the story, and had specific ideas about how they were going to play certain things. It’s nice – it takes a lot of the load off of me, but in the editing room is where I have to pick and choose takes that feel consistent with each other.
How much do you interpret or think about what their choices mean, and how much do you try not to think about at all?
I think about all of them. That’s the fun of it for me; I’m fascinated by relationships, and that’s why I keep making movies about them. So every sort of intricacy of that, at least to the extent that I am capable of recognizing and thinking of them, I’ve investigated. But I don’t want to tell Ron how to play it, and I want to let him be excited about the things he’s excited about in the scenario. But we did talk about the fact that he is kind of grasping at straws with these younger women. It kind of took him an extra 15 years to figure out what he wanted, and so now that he feels like he knows, he’s sort of trying to go back and find the girl that he would have been with 15 years ago if he knew what he knew now – but it’s a bit of a lost cause. So it was a fun thing to play around with, and fun to think about Anna’s perspective on that too. The same illusions, probably, of “this guy’s so much more mature,” but in fact there’s something sort of inherently immature about the way he’s jumping into these relationships.
Drinking Buddies is playing now in theaters.