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Jake Johnson on ‘Drinking Buddies,’ Screenwriting 101, & Acting With a Buzz

Featured

Jake Johnson on ‘Drinking Buddies,’ Screenwriting 101, & Acting With a Buzz

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In his new movie Drinking Buddies, Jake Johnson does little to dispel his growing rep as Hollywood’s best on-screen drinker, one he’s carefully cultivated as the charming boozehound Nick Miller, on Fox’s enormous hit New Girl. This time around, Johnson plays another functioning alchie, who must sort through his feelings for his co-worker (Olivia Wilde), and his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), with the help of a whole lotta suds. And because director Joe Swanberg cut his teeth in the ultra-low budget world of so-called Mumblecore, nothing on set went to waste. Especially not the beer. Here’s Johnson—who also happens to be a prolific screenwriter—on figuring out Hollywood, the mechanics of a good drinking buddy, and what it was like to shoot an entire movie with a buzz.

Homer Simpson once said that alcohol is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Do you agree with that?
Yes, 100 percent. Alcohol is a true gift to us earthlings.

What makes a good drinking buddy?
I’ve got two of them in real life. One of them is an actor named Steve Berg, and what makes Steve Berg a great drinking buddy is he can drink about a million drinks and he’s always got a great attitude, and he’s not sensitive and he’s a super funny guy. I got another great drinking buddy, he’s a standup comedian named Brian Farrell, and what makes Brian Farrell such a great drinking buddy is he says yes to almost anything when you’re partying, and it’s so crazy. His nickname is “Beans” and we call him “All-in Beans,” because he’ll go all-in on almost anything.

What’s the worst thing you’ve done while wasted?
I can’t put that in a magazine. I have a career over here!

I heard you got to drink real beer on set. Does that mean you shot the whole film with a buzz?
Yes it does. Part of the pitch from Joe (Swanberg) was that everything was going to be real. He wanted us to be drinking on set and everything to be cool, and we were. So yeah, we drank a bunch of beer and hung out a bunch, and really tried to enjoy ourselves on this one.

So what do actors drink in a scene when they’re not drinking real beer?
Probably a carbonated apple juice.

I know most of the film was improvised. How much of that was aided by booze?
There was no script, so it had to be improvised or else we’d have nothing to do all day. We had a page and a half outline, so going into it we knew that this was going to be an improvised movie where we were going to see what was going to happen. I think the booze definitely helped to loosen up some of the scenes, and help define who the characters were.

When I interview actors they often say that their co-star was “generous.” What does that mean exactly?
Here’s what it means. You can be in a scene with somebody and the audience can watch and think that it was a good scene, but the whole time all that other actor’s doing is thinking about how something’s going to come out of their mouth, and if they’re going to sound funny or whatever. Someone who’s generous is more concerned with whether or not a scene’s going to work, and what’s actually happening, and actually being present. So if an actor calls another actor “generous,” it means they respect them and like working with them, but it’s a really vague word, so the other side is you’ve done 45 interviews in a day, and you don’t know how to describe the person, so you just say “generous.”

As a screenwriter first, was it an odd process for you to embark on a project with no script?
No, because there was a very detailed outline of what happens in the movie, so even though there was no dialogue, we knew what was happening in the scenes, and I’ve done a couple scenes in Nick Stoller movies, and even though there’s dialogue, we improvise so much. I’m used to being in scenes where you know what happens, but what you say is allowed to change, and that’s the kind of acting I like to do.

I’ve read that directing is hard, but screenwriting is the most difficult craft in the world. Agree or disagree?
Are you nuts? I think there’s way harder crafts in the world. I think brain surgery is a more difficult craft.

Tell that to all my out-of-work filmmaker friends.
Oh. Screenwriting is really hard.

What do you say to the screenwriter who is alone in a room and faced with the dreadful blank page?
I’m by no means a very good screenwriter at this point, but one of the things I do is I like to think of the ending first. A lot of people have an idea for a movie and they know how to start it, but I don’t think you have a movie unless you know how you’re going to end the story. So one of the things that makes starting easier is if you know the end point, and then it’s your job as a writer to get the characters to that point. I feel like if you don’t know that ending, you can feel like you’re about to run a marathon and you’re not trained.

Are there techniques that you need to master? Do you need to train in the same way that you need to train if you want to become a lawyer a doctor?
You don’t. You just have to write a good story. Here’s what I really think, and why I have a little frustration towards my screenwriting studies. They teach you this three-act formula, and they show you how every great movie uses the same formula. It’s taught at major institutions and all these books that if you do anything outside of that, then it’s a bad screenplay and it won’t work. The problem is when you’re in the business, and I’m now at the point in my career when I’m lucky enough to see scripts that they’re trying to find financing for to see if I want to attach myself, as soon as I see the formula I know how the fuck the movie is going to end. Nothing could be more boring when I’m like, “Oh, it’s the end of act one on page 26. Let’s get our characters into act 2, let’s get them in trouble. Here we go on page 60, let’s turn the story. Let’s re-ask the question in the middle of act 3, let’s have a marriage, a resolution.

How formative of an experience was it attending NYU Tisch?
Truthfully, not that much. I thought NYU was fine, but if anyone’s reading this and they’re thinking about going to college for screenwriting, read some books instead. I’m glad I went, but if I were to do it again, I went to the University of Iowa for two years first, and then transferred to NYU for two years. I would’ve done those two years in Iowa again, because while I was there I was writing a bunch of plays, and I had a great teacher who’s still teaching there that taught me so much about playwriting. I probably would’ve gone straight to Los Angeles and just struggled more when I first moved to L.A.

You’ve sold 4 pilots. What’s the key to a good pitch?
For me specifically, a very clear idea, and very funny characters.

Does it need to be high concept?
No. I think the problem is sometimes ideas can be too high concept. I think there has to be a reason that it’s original. You can’t just walk in there and say “So it’s a story about a couple,” because then the question is “Why would we pay you to write it?” So there has to be a concept, there has to be a hook, but then the sell of the show has to be the characters.

Do you feel like you’ve mastered the business, and all the bullshit that’s involved?
No. I feel like what happens is actually the other side of that. I feel like you get in a groove, and you start figuring it out, and then something happens that flips the script. I currently feel like I’m at a bit of a crossroads. I got in a pretty good groove and I thought I understood the strategy and now I’m like, “I gotta rethink some things.”

What happened?
I did a movie this summer and it looked good, and it wasn’t everything I expected, and now I have to think about what I want to do next summer.

Do you think you’ll ever quit acting and focus on writing?
I don’t think I’ll ever quit acting. I think the day I quit acting is the day I’m done with the whole business of it.

New Girl has a habit of casting every actress that I have a crush on, Zooey, Hanna, Lizzy, and now Eva Amurri. What’s up with that?
I agree with you. Don’t forget Olivia Munn. The list just goes on and on and on.

By the way, why would Nick ever dump a girl that looks like Olivia Munn?
That’s the fantasy of television. He probably  would never get her. That’s why TV is so incredible. That’s why it’s fantasy! But no, the casting on that show is unbelievable. But on the other side of the gate, you have people like Dennis Farina on the show, Rob Reiner’s on the show.

Why do you think so many of these great actors have been attracted to New Girl?
I don’t really know but I’m so happy they do. I think part of it is Justin Long did our show early on in season one, and he’s a bona fide movie star. By him jumping on it broke the seal of our show, that this is a fun place to come. Just come in and be funny and have some fun, and we’ve been really lucky to get some real studs on our show.

Why do you think the Internet has embraced New Girl in such a huge way?
I don’t know. I was forced to get on Twitter because of the show, and I’ve got like 250,000 people following me and sending me what works on an episode and what doesn’t, so the Internet life of the show is one of the things that really keep us going.

The producers actually forced you to join Twitter?
Joe Earley, the head of marketing at Fox asked me, “Do you support the show? Because we believe that you being on Twitter will really help the show. Are you too cool to be in Twitter?” And I was like, “Joe, you son of a bitch!”

And have you become an addict?
I’m definitely not an addict but I like it. I’m not somebody who’s on it all the time, but at least once a day I’ll do a big check, and scroll through it all. I definitely miss a lot, but there’s some really funny stuff on there, Jose Canseco being part of the fun.