Set in the hip universe of craft beer and fixed-gear bikes, Drinking Beers is the relationship study of two work friends, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), whose bonding challenges the concept of a platonic pairing. This relationship is witnessed by their own respective dating partners, like Kate’s shady boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke’s uncertain longtime girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick). The film is written, edited, and directed by Chicago’s Joe Swanberg.
Swanberg has 17 feature film credits as a director on his IMDb page, and he hasn’t even been directing for a decade. While he helmed cult favorites like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends (both of which starred Greta Gerwig), his biggest project yet is Drinking Buddies, a film that uses his trademark “mumblecore” storytelling style of heavy dialogue and natural settings but with marquee stars like Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston. The writer/editor/director is currently in post-production on Happy Christmas, which stars Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Mark Webber.
In an exclusive interview, I sat down with Swanberg at Chicago’s own Revolution Brewing Company (located at 2323 Milwaukee Ave) where Drinking Buddies was filmed. As Swanberg snacked on bacon fat popcorn, we discussed his newest film, the amount of time he spends editing, his love for Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, and more.
Drinking Buddies opens in Chicago on August 23 and is currently available on VOD.
There is a scene in this film that prominently features Chicago’s devil liquid, Malört. How necessary was it to you that this drink be featured in the film?
It was actually [Innkeepers director] Ti West who insisted on the Malört. I probably would have let it slip past because there is more focus on the beer, bu Ti insisted. I’m glad it’s in there, it fits perfectly.
How many free drinks have you accumulated over time with this project? That includes drinks from press people, general schmoozers, brew companies, and fans.
It’s been a year … we shot for 18 days and I am sure I drank a beer a day at lunch, sometimes more. I don’t know, 200 maybe? In the past year? Pretty good, right?
How much is the existence of ‘Drinking Buddies’ a scam to get free drinks?
It is not a scam, though that is a side effect that I am happy to take. It would not be a very successful scam because the movie is not worth 200 free drinks considering how much we have spent on it.
Considering the specific locations of this film, did you have to show your stars around the neighborhood of Logan Square?
I didn’t. Jake grew up around here, and I think Ron lived here for two years. Olivia has been here with Sudeikis, and they’ve done some Second City stuff. Or maybe she hadn’t been to Chicago? I am not sure Anna had either, maybe only on press stops. I had to spend all of their free time teaching them about beer, not about Chicago.
Worst moving experience? Did you know before shooting you were going to play the part of Angry Moving Guy?
I didn’t know I was going to have the cameo. And my worst moving experience was this recent move form my apartment to my house in Lincoln Square. Not just because it was so terrible, but because I naively suspected we would be done with it so quickly, that we would get everything in the truck, get up there and be unpacked in time for lunch and go out to eat. My brother Michael and I and my friend Dean, who deserve medal of honor, because really it was too much work for the three of us, and it was rough. I moved a lot as a kid but I was not the one doing the moving.
So Johnson’s horrific moving moment isn’t inspired by a direct experience.
Moving sucks. I don’t know anyone who has had a good moving experience unless they’ve paid people to do it. I have never paid people to do it, but I suspect so. If I ever move again, I’ll splurge.
You said on Twitter that ‘Pain & Gain’ is your favorite movie that you’ve seen this year. Interests you about that filmmaking, or the other side of what you’re doing?
What I like about Pain & Gain is that it is a 25 million dollar action movie, not a 125 million dollar action movie; I love that. It looked to me to be almost practical effects. When Mark Wahlberg gets hit by a car and flies into the air, you can see the ribbing on his chest. It’s so cool. When someone is on fire and gets out of a car, you can see it’s a stuntman. I love that! Rather than going crazy with special effects and CGI and stuff, which always takes me out of the movie, I am much more invested – even if something looks sort of fake – I’m much more invested if I can tell a real person is doing it than if it looks like Mark Wahlberg, but it’s CGI Mark Wahlberg. That’s way worse. I also think that it’s just an amazing film about America and the American Dream, and these characters who think they are owed the American Dream. I really legitimately liked it.
The other two movies that I’ve seen this year that I really liked as much are Short Term 12 and The Conjuring. [The Conjuring] was scary as hell, and I was really nervous the entire movie. But I also just think it’s really well made.
James Wan, director of ‘The Conjuring’, is taking over the ‘Fast & Furious’ movies. He’ll be helming ‘Fast & Furious 7’. Given what you said about ‘Pain & Gain’, what did you think about ‘Fast & Furious 6’?
I liked it. I was less aware of the practical filmmaking in this one, it seemed more digital to me.
There seems to be a progressive gap growing between independent projects and the films that are considered to be more mainstream. Do you think a film like ‘Drinking Buddies’, which is low budget and more dialogue-based, could become more popular especially if it receives the boost of bigger stars?
This summer has been very weird for Hollywood. A lot of huge movies have bombed big time, and a lot of small movies have done very well. I suspect going into next year we will be seeing moderately budgeted movies that are promoted in a smart way; I think we’re going to have to. I don’t think [studios] can take too many 150 million dollar hits every summer. It’s really not good for the bottom line. It’ll be cyclical, but then the budgets will start inflating again. I think they’ll learn a few lessons.
Given your interest in presenting intimate conversations as face-to-face like in this film, do you feel lucky to have been born before the age of social media?
I appreciate the perspective on it. I find it helpful to know that we used to be able to do things different ways. I also feel lucky that I was young enough that such technology didn’t freak me out and completely alienate me. I think I have the personality that could have been incredibly resistant to that stuff, if I were five years older. In terms of film, the filmmakers who I see have the toughest time are the ones who are three or four years older than me, who really were film-only, and then resisted video for a long enough time that they missed the wave a little bit. But they’re not old enough to be curmudgeons, so they end up in this no man’s land where they have to make peace with shooting video, and learning to shoot video and edit and all that stuff. Everyone is over it now, I think.
You think so?
Yeah. I think now that the top cinematographers are all happy to shoot with the Alexa, there are very few holdouts who are going to only shoot on film.
Did your own heart sink when digital out-popularized film?
It’s alright. I shot a film in December on film, and it is a pain in the ass. A lot of things can go wrong. Things change. I hope that people have the option if they want to shoot film, and that it doesn’t go away to the point where you can’t get it anymore. But I’m alright with it being a specialty kind of ting. The thing that really bums me out is that they’re not projecting film anymore, that to me is really sad. The capture format matters, but the projection format, like digital projection just looks like a big laptop to me. It’s missing the texture, even a really shitty print of film is alive when it is just passing for celluloid. I will miss that.
Did you see ‘Pacific Rim?’ Did that look like a laptop to you as well?
It all does. Even stuff that is shot on film but projected digitally looks like a laptop to me. You can see the pixels if you look close enough.
Do you spend more time writing, or editing?
I spend a hundred hours editing more than writing. I have always loved editing. When I got out of film school, I thought I would be an editor. That was the thing that I had latched onto that I really liked doing. Though I don’t know if you count writing in my head, which I spend an awful lot of time doing. If that counts then I have probably spent thousands more hours writing than editing because I am always thinking of things. There are two movies that I am sort of thinking about right now. Every waking moment I am just looking around for material. If that counts as writing, I am doing a lot of writing. if we’re talking about actually sitting down at a computer and writing, I do way more editing.
Are you writing your films for the edit, basically?
Not really. I don’t shoot a ton of footage. Editing is purely practical for me. I am making the movies on set, but a lot happens in the editing room. The writing does not happen in the editing room, the essence of the movie happens in the editing room. Because I have multiple takes to choose from, it could go one way or it go the other. It could be a funny movie, it could be a more melancholic movie.
Did you have that choice with ‘Drinking Buddies’?
Sure. You always do. If I was interested in jokes, I could have put a ton of jokes in this movie. But I wouldn’t have liked the movie. Basically what happens in the editing room is that it becomes my movie, rather than a movie.
Before film, what obsessions did you have?
I was obsessed with sports growing up. I liked playing them, I liked watching them, especially basketball. I reached a point towards the end of junior high or the beginning of high school that I was investing all of this emotional energy into these professional teams that I have no influence over, my mood is being affected by whether someone wins or loses a game, and the athletes that I were hanging out with weren’t very exciting people; I didn’t like them very much. And so my friend groups changed, and my interests changed, and movies were something that I really loved. It was sort of a natural shift.
You have three directorial projects set to be released in total in 2013. How do you stay so focused?
I don’t know how I stay focused. I have a son who is almost three now, who is incredibly focused, so a lot of is probably genetic. I have the kind of brain that is able to focus. There’s probably some spite in there, or some willingness to prove people wrong; I couldn’t boil it down to one particular thing. I don’t take Adderall or anything like that. I know that I have several friends who focus that way. I practice, you have to practice. I have days that are entirely lost to the internet, where I am a frazzled crazy person all day. It didn’t used to be, it wasn’t an option before. And then I have to practice focusing, and will have days where I sit there and read a novel for eight straight hours without a break. I think you have to work your brain out, and keep that muscle strong.
If you were to write a book on dating, how successful would it be?
Completely unsuccessful because I have only dated one person. I think a book like that can’t be successful if the people reading it don’t take the advice. Does that make sense? I could give my perspective but it won’t mean anything unless people follow it. People who are buying dating books are already experiencing issues. 3,000 if we’re lucky; a real low seller.
Quick Questions with Joe Swanberg
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Shot of Malört and some beer. I’m eating my breakfast (bacon and popcorn). That was for an earlier interview.
What is your favorite fruit?
If you could be someone else for 24 hours, who would you be?
Oh, shit … my wife. I would like an inside peek. I get to hear that person’s thoughts, right? It would be really useful to understand her better.
Counting Crows, Bruce Springsteen, or Van Morrison.
Age of first kiss?
18. Late bloomer. And it was my wife.