Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is one of those movies that punches you right in the heart, just when you catch yourself thinking you can’t bear to see one more CGI-ed robot, or one more overly romanticized indie. With a unique directorial style that involves a mostly improvised script, Swanberg has managed to refine the heady inelegance of his past films like Nights & Weekends (in which he co-stars with Greta Gerwig), to create something a little more mature and refined, but that still speaks volumes about the human condition and the relationships we allow ourselves to inhabit. With one eye on the often charged best-friendship between Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) and the other eye on their significant others, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick) respectively, Drinking Buddies posits some of the most humble, but sometimes officiously grand questions—what are we looking for in other people? And what do we have to give of ourselves? I recently spoke to Swanberg about the film, honing his unique ability to direct an improvisational work, the dichotomies in his female characters, and all the wonderful grey matter in between the relationships we’re so often overwhelmed by.
It’s clear you have quite a distinct style, but in Drinking Buddies it’s much more refined. I’m interested to know how you went from the raw, inelegant natural thing in Nights & Weekends, to having this tighter format in Drinking Buddies.
You know, it’s about trusting other people to do things. The production of those two movies was quite different, in that for most of Nights & Weekends it was just Greta [Gerwig] and I and a camera person and a sound person. With Drinking Buddies there was producers, the cinematographer with the whole camera team, and a wardrobe person and an art department. It was about trying to do exactly the same thing we did on Nights & Weekends performance-wise, and then surround that with some infrastructure that really took the pressure off of me to have to think about that stuff and to let the movie inhabit more of a specific world that I’d created.
How did you feel about dropping that control and that closeness that you had to every element of producing a film?
I was really nervous about it. It was a big challenge going into Drinking Buddies wondering whether I could make something that felt like my movie, and I think that a lot of that involved having conversations with the producers leading up to the production where I was very clear about the things that were important to me.
When you were writing and conceptualizing Drinking Buddies, did you have that specific cast in mind, or was that something that happened later?
A little bit, yeah, but it took several months to get there. Jake [Johnson] was the first person I was working with, so he and I had quite a bit of lead time to build his character, and he was really helpful with the writing and the shaping of his story. Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick didn’t come on until much closer to the shoot, but I had some real world models that I was basing some of the characters on, and I just sort of saved a lot of the writing until I knew who it was going to be. And then because it’s improvised, the actors are just naturally bringing a lot of themselves to it.
What really floored me was Olivia Wilde; I just didn’t really expect that performance from her. One of my favorite scenes is with her and Jake Johnson having this massive blow out in her new apartment because it felt very real. How did that happen?
It’s one of the nice things about improvising; they don’t have to try and fake the way they would fight and figure out how to put my words into their mouths for that fight—they just get to do it. A lot of my job, that day, as the director, was making sure the space was comfortable for them. They asked me if everybody could leave—we sort of had some producers and other people on set who were sitting at the monitors—and they asked to have the room cleared out. There’s just the aspect of trying to give them space to feel more comfortable to go there. After that I just have to be a good listener. At the end of the take I have to be able to give them specific feedback about what I want to shape and change. It’s being sensitive about what about that scene works for them.
When there’s that realness to what you’re producing, is there an aftermath to that—I mean, personally?
Yes, definitely. You’re certainly feeling these things in a very real way. All throughout all the movies that I’ve made, there’s definitely been an aftermath to all of them in terms of creating these dynamics. It’s why people don’t necessarily work this way. It’s a lot easier if there’s just a script and you can show up for work and do the scene that day and then put it aside. I’m asking a lot more from people to inhabit the characters for longer, and to give me things from their own real lives. I remember Jake saying that he texted Olivia that night just asking “Are we OK?” like you know, are we cool after that scene? So yeah, there’s certainly a lingering sense of conflict.
I imagine that kind of process makes everyone very close.
You sort of have to be. You don’t have to stay close, but there’s this unique thing that happens on all movies and especially working in this unique way, you sort of have to get good at getting close quickly, which is its own unique sort of challenge. Ideally you want to be working from a place where everyone is close, and you only have a few days to get to that place before the cameras start rolling. I think Ron [Livingston] and Anna [Kendrick] both landed in Chicago and we put them on camera later that day. So they had no time to get close and you sort of just have to fake the intimacy until it becomes more real.
I wanted to ask about the role of the women as well. Kate [Olivia Wilde] and Jill [Anna Kendrick] are ostensibly opposites, and for want of a better turn of phrase, there’s almost this Virgin/Whore dichotomy. It definitely sticks out the most when they’re both trying to deal with Luke’s [Jake Johnson] injury. Is this a reflection of something that you see inherent in male and female relationships?
It’s one of the complicating factors of making a movie and I think that it’s much grayer than that. I think when you’re making a movie it becomes easier to lean more towards the stronger dichotomies. Most people that I know in my life are the virgin and the whore, and the five other things. And most guys that I know are jocks and nerds mashed together.
The Kate character is really interesting to me because I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of women portrayed this way in film. I know a lot of women like her. It’s hard to articulate, but I felt like Kate was just so awful but lovely and endearing, and I guess a lot of that was what Oliva brought to the character.
Some of that has to come from the character and the writing and the situation, and a lot of that comes from Olivia. It’s her character and her performance, and I think that she’s really brave that she’s willing to not look good a lot of the time, because that’s hard to do, From the performance standpoint it’s hard to embody that, and from the professional standpoint, we live in such an image conscious culture and Olivia is a famous person whose life is scrutinized. It’s cool and brave to do a role where you’re not going to look good, where you’re going to allow selfish and terrible aspects of this characters personality to shine through. And so I feel really grateful as a filmmaker that she’s willing to bring that to the movie, that she’s willing to go there and have fun with it, and be excited to play a complicated character like that.
So do you think that men and women can be friends?
I do! Absolutely. I think that in order to get there, you sort of have to stare the sexual tension in the face. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist and you can’t go too far in acknowledging it. It’s an interesting line that has to be crossed, but I feel like men and women stand the best chance of being friends when they sort of walk right up to the line and chose not to cross it. My friendships with men are easier than my friendships with women, but I think it’s healthy and I think that it’s necessary for men and women to be friends, and I think our culture functions a lot better when they are.
I know you’ve been working on something with Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, I shot a movie in December called Happy Christmas that Anna stars in, and I’m not saying much about it, but that’s what I’m editing right now. I’m not trying to hide it or anything, but I’m still working on it so I’m not totally sure what to say yet about it. I worked with Ben Richardson again, the same cinematographer as Drinking Buddies, who also shot that movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it was a really fun movie. It’s sort of an indie holiday movie. Hopefully that will start playing around early next year.