Interview: DIY Filmmaker Joe Swanberg on Working with Others


For many years, filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s DIY films were somewhat of an acquired taste as he rode along with the wave of “Mumblecore” filmmakers that made mostly improvised low budget films, often with the same ensemble of actors.

A lot has changed for Swanberg this year, first with the release of Drinking Buddies, a huge step in a new direction for the director as he started bringing more established name actors into his way of working. In this case, he cast Jake Johnson from Fox’s “New Girl” and Olivia Wilde to play co-workers at a Chicago brewery who have a close, tight friendship that mainly revolves around imbibing in alcoholic beverages, something that eventually leads to problems with their significant others, played by Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, respectively.

At the same time, Swanberg has been branching into genre films, first with a segment in last year’s V/H/S and then with a serial killer thriller called 24 Exposures, which just premiered at the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal and is currently looking for distribution. That one stars You’re Next director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, playing a photographer with a penchant for having his models posing as dead bodies in various states of undress and a detective investigating the real murders of a number of women. got on the phone with Swanberg last week to talk about both movies, how his process has changed since being labeled as part of the “Mumblecore” movement as well as the new wave of indie genre filmmakers he’s joined with the likes of Wingard, Barrett and Ti West—the latter who appears in Drinking Buddies and You’re Next and cast Swanberg in his next movie as well. Hey Joe. How are you doing?
Joe Swanberg:
Good. How are you doing?

CS: Good. I first saw “Drinking Buddies” at South by Southwest and loved it and I got to see it again more recently and still loved it. I also got to see “24 Exposures” a little more recently.
Oh good.

CS: It was a very different movie, I’ve got to say.
(Laughs) Yeah.

CS: All of your movies are different, and especially lately, they’re getting more different with each one.
For sure, yeah. I mean, I’m at a place right now where I’m really trying to explore different things and just branch out a little bit and see what I like.

CS: “Drinking Buddies” is definitely an interesting change of pace, because you’ve been working with your friends and some of the same people for a while. It’s kind of like when the Duplass brothers did “Cyrus,” you’re working with known actors but still working in a very similar style in which you’ve been working. When you were writing it, did you know that that was going to be the way you were heading with this one?
Yeah, it was always conceived to be something a little bigger and more accessible. But you know, it did grow in an organic way once we started working on it and also as actors came onto the project. Because of the way that I work, the actors influence the thing, so it was cool. It ended up feeling very much like the way all of my movies come together, which was nice. It was sort of a natural process.

CS: Since we haven’t spoken before, I don’t really know your process and the way you work. I’ve seen scattered movies of yours—”LOL,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Nights and Weekends” and “Uncle Kent,” and I don’t really know much about how you work. Do you write a treatment? Do you work with the actors and then just kind of develop things with them and then do your writing? What’s your process?
I do write—yeah, so it’s a little bit of both. I mean, in the pre-production process, I am emailing with the actors or jumping on the phone and we’re sort of figuring out who the characters are and trying to build the relationship dynamic and things like that. Then, also, I am outlining. Before we go into the shoot, I’m trying to sort of put together a sense of the support so that we have a structure to work from. Once we get on set, all the dialogue is improvised and in the past, I’ve made movies where the structure was very loose and then the movie’s sort of veer off in another direction and then turn into other things. With “Drinking Buddies,” because of the sort of size and scope of it, the storyline was very much written out ahead of time and we stuck with it. So the improv process was really rooted in the performances and in the dialogue and in sort of trying to craft scenes that felt organic and real and that they moved the story along. In the grand scheme of things, the movie looks very much like the outline if you were to just sort of describe the things that happen, but on a scene to scene basis, it’s just much more rich and interesting than what I imagined and that’s what the actors bring to it.

CS: The brewery location is really interesting, because it’s not one we see in a lot of movies. Was that something you found early on? Did you have a connection there that you knew would allow you to go in with Jake and he could learn the process?
Yeah, that was a story element that I wanted to bring in. I didn’t know where we would shoot, but I did know that I wanted him to work at a craft brewery. I mean, that comes out of me being a home brewer and a craft beer geek and just sort of selfishly wanting to set something in that world as an excuse to sort of gain some more knowledge of brewing and all the sort of side benefits that come along in shooting in a brewery. But then, we had to actually go find the place, you know? It’s easy to write that on paper, but we really looked at every single brewery in Chicago and really were fortunate to find Revolution and to catch them at a place in their business lifetime that where they could be open to us shooting there, because they’d just been in that space for about three months at the time, and they were still getting things up and running. So, it’s very fortunate. If we were trying to shoot the movie this summer, I don’t think we’d be able to shoot there. They’re a lot busier now than they were this time last year. So, we got lucky.

CS: Now I think Jake’s done improv before and he’s really good at it, but Olivia Wilde’s really funny and I liked her in “Butter” a lot, but that was a very different kind of role. More scripted. In this, she’s not wearing a lot of makeup and she’s definitely loosed up a bit, dressing almost tomboyish at times. What made you think of her for this?
Well, I saw her first in a movie called “Alpha Dog,” like six or seven years ago. She was really good in that. So she’s always been on my radar as somebody who I hoped to work with. When I had the chance to talk to her, we just got along real well and we were into the same things and had a lot of the same reference points in movies we liked and sort of how we wanted the thing to feel. It was a really easy decision for me to want to cast her in this. She was great. I mean, she was really down for the process and excited to do something different, and because of the way that I work, it’s really important for me to have the actors want to be there, to have them be excited about the process and you can kind of dive into the deep end with it.

CS: I’m curious, did Jake spend a lot of time training at the brewery to kind of make himself look like he knew what he was doing? Obviously him and Ti were kind of getting involved with that.
We didn’t have like a ton of time to do that kind of training. I wish I could have given them two weeks to just go work at a brewery, but so my friend Andrew Mason brews at 3 Floyds, which is just outside of Chicago. So I took Jake and Olivia to 3 Floyds when they first got to town so that he could kind of give them a tour and walk them through brewing on a production level. I also home brewed with Jake and Olivia—we just did it in my basement-so that they could see on a very small scale how beer is made and what the ingredients are and how that stuff works. It was mostly while we were shooting. The brewers at Revolution were really great and they really took Jake under their wing and taught him a lot and not only allowed him into their actual brewing process, but they allowed us as filmmakers in as well. They sort of let us film them and a lot of the guys who actually worked there are in the movie and it was really great. I think that a couple of days into it, Jake really had the hang of it. He really got comfortable with it.

CS: Did anyone else get the home brewing bug after making this movie? Did anyone else say, “Hey, I’m going to give this a try myself?”
That’s a good question. I know that our sound guy started home brewing since the movie. I don’t think any of the actors did, but definitely some of the crew got into it.

CS: That’s cool. What’s interesting about this movie is that you’ve done a lot of movies about relationships, but they always get into the sexual aspect of it with quite a bit of nudity, and I feel this is somewhat of a departure from that. This is fairly innocent compared to your other movies, so can you talk about that and whether you think it’s a departure in that respect?
You know, honestly, it never seemed like part of this story and I sort of fought those battles already, and I have a lot of philosophical reasons why it was important for me to show realistic sex scenes and real peoples’ bodies and things like that. It goes through waves of being interesting or not interesting for me, and with “Drinking Buddies,” there are never any moments where that seemed like it would advance the story at all or help clarify who the characters are or anything like that. So it was never even in any of the outlines.

CS: You’ve made a lot of movies that had some sort of online or VOD element to it, but this one has been on VOD for a month before a theatrical release, so how has that been working out? Do you generally feel that that’s the way things are going these days and that’s the way a movie like this is more likely to get seen?
Yeah, it’s been going great. I mean, yeah, a lot of people have seen the movie that way, and I mean, with a film that doesn’t have a huge marketing budget and Magnolia’s theory is that the VOD really helps sort of generate word of mouth and almost sort of use advertising, but rather than paying for your advertising, you’re actually making money getting your film out there. It’s one of those cases right now that makes a lot of sense for independent films. I think because the studios are wary to jump into that game at this point, there’s even more room for good quality lower budget films to find their audience that way. So, I’m excited for the theatrical release on the 23rd and I’m also very curious to see who chooses to sort of come out and have that theatrical experience versus the VOD experience.

CS: Besides having that great cast, you also have a great title, which is such a great selling point to get people to see it in theaters. Yeah, we see “Drinking Buddies,” everyone knows someone or has someone like that of the opposite sex and there’s that issue, which is kind of funny. Yeah, it’s a great title.
Yeah, thank you.

CS: A movie’s title makes a huge difference these days. I also wanted to talk about your relationship with Simon (Barrett) and Adam (Wingard) and Ti (West). I’m amazed that Simon and Adam are the actual stars of your next movie “24 Exposures.” You’re in their upcoming film “You’re Next” and you also appear in Ti’s next movie as well. It’s really interesting to me that all these filmmakers from pretty much all over the country kind of met and are integrating and doing different roles in each other’s movies. Can you speak about that?
Yeah, it’s very exciting. I mean, it really speaks to the sort of fluidity of modern filmmakers. We’re not specialists in a sense that like one person’s the director, there’s one person who’s just the cinematographer, somebody’s just a writer. I think our generation really approaches it from the point of everybody knowing how to do every different job and kind of be willing to help sort of work with their friends in different capacities. Also, I think that there’s not big genre divides. I don’t think anybody’s like, “Oh, he’s a horror movie and I do comedies, so we can’t work together.” We’re all sort of coming from the same, just a low budget place, so as people start to make bigger work and sort of move onto bigger projects, I think it’s natural that we’re all kind of growing at the same rate and continuing to help each other out and be present in each others’ movies.

CS: I was surprised you have time to even act in other peoples’ movies because I feel you’re very prolific. A couple of years ago you made something like five or six movies in a year. I amazed you have the time to fly out and appear in other movies as an actor. How has that been? You haven’t slowed down, either. You have “24 Exposures” done and you’re working on another movie that I believe is in post. How are you able to do all that stuff?
Yeah, I don’t know. You just make time for it. I mean, essentially it means that I am sort of always doing something. I’m always involved in one part of the process or the other, but I try and treat filmmaking like a nine to five job. I really feel like I want to be doing it five days a week and all day long. So, if you have an acting job and you’re shooting down in Columbia, Missouri (like for “You’re Next”), I just brought my hard drives with me, and then whenever I had downtime, I was editing or sort of working to get the next movie up and running. So, you’re kind of doing all the different things at once just because of the nature of how films work.

CS: You and Adam seem to be going for some sort of record on IMDb on how many categories you have your names listed under. There are a lot of people listed under writer, actor, director and a couple of things, but you guys really have your name in pretty much every category possible on IMDb. I don’t know what’s left for you guys to do. That’s a pretty amazing thing.
Yeah, totally, totally. I think he’ll probably beat me, yeah. (Laughs)

CS: Before you go, I also wanted to talk about was the music in both of these movies, both “24 Exposures” and “Drinking Buddies.” I was really impressed because the music is so good, but it’s not like, obvious choices and some of the acts were fairly esoteric. Can you talk about how you went about finding the music and was this stuff that you knew beforehand or if you knew some of these acts?
Yeah, so with “Drinking Buddies,” it was really great because I worked with a music supervisor for the first time. It’s this guy Chris Swanson, who he runs a record label called Secretly Canadian, so he was actually involved very early on. Even before we shot the movie, he was sending me Spotify playlists and just trying to get a feel for tonally what I felt the music should sound like. Then, he’d be watching cuts of the movie as it was coming together and recommending stuff. It was a really fun process. I’ve done a lot of movies that don’t have any music in them and I’ve always sort of had a kind of wary attitude about music because it can be so manipulative and also because with pop music, I feel like everybody kind of has their own relationship to songs. “I am putting it in my movie because I want you to feel it this way, but maybe that song makes you feel happy rather than sad.” So for the times I have used music, it’s almost always an original score, so this is the first big use of pop music that working with Chris and having him recommend all this great stuff. Also, I got into hearing a lot of new stuff that Secretly Canadian was going to put out, but it hadn’t come out yet. It was sort of the best of both worlds because I felt like I could use pop songs, but they also were so new that they didn’t have any attachments. They weren’t going to bring back memories or anything like that.

Then with “24 Exposures,” I worked with this musician Jasper Lee–he’s done a lot of the music for Adam Wingard’s movies, some of his earlier stuff. So, that’s how I knew him and I really liked his style and tone. What I sent him, the inspiration, was a lot of music from the ’90s, like police TV shows and things like that, then like ’90s rock thrillers and things. I really wanted to have this kind of late night Cinemax Showtime erotic thriller kind of music mixed with the sort of hard edge of like police procedural opening theme music from shows like “NYPD Blue” and things like that. So we worked on a hodge-podge of mixing those inspirations into something.

CS: Very cool. Listen, it was great talking to you. I loved “Drinking Buddies” and I’m looking forward to your next one. Do you think that might be at Sundance or South by Southwest or do you have to wait to finish that up?
I hope so, yeah. I’m editing now and yeah, that’s the plan, that I’ll hopefully have it premiere somewhere early next year.

Drinking Buddies will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on December 3.