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Joe Swanberg Talks Craft Brewery-Set 'Drinking Buddies,' Taking on Bigger Films, Cinematographer Ben Richardson and More

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood August 20, 2013 at 7:01PM

Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" is a great example of a film that deals with one chief problem (here, temptation) and then explores the hell of out it. It's hilarious, sad and confusing -- in a good way. Any film that's relatable should be confusing.
Joe Swanberg
Clayton Hauck/Chicago Magazine Joe Swanberg

Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" is a great example of a film that deals with one chief problem (here, temptation) and then explores the hell of out it. It's hilarious, sad and confusing -- in a good way. Any film that's relatable should be confusing.

In "Drinking Buddies" (TOH! review here), Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play co-workers and best friends at a Chicago brewery. They're both seeing other people (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, respectively), but the chemistry between them is so strong that it's only a matter of time before these clearly delineated couples become muddled. It doesn't help that Livingston and Kendrick's characters take a shine to each other -- or that everyone is drinking copious amounts of beer.

TOH! talked with Swanberg about his first foray into "a bigger film," working with the actors and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" cinematographer Ben Richardson, craft breweries and more, below. "Drinking Buddies" is already on VOD, and hits theaters August 23.

Beth Hanna: I saw “Drinking Buddies” when it premiered at SXSW. The crowd really ate it up; it was the best way to see the film.

Joe Swanberg: That screening was so fun. I’d never been that nervous before showing a movie.

Why nervous?

There’s a lot of personal stuff in the movie for me. And also it was just a chance to make a bigger film with a good chance of connecting with people, and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity. I loved the movie. I was so proud of it, and I wanted that to translate to people.

While the film is still low-budget, it has a much bigger budget than a number of your other projects. What was it like working in that larger capacity?

It was a blast. What it meant was that I just had so many more tools at my disposal, and it also meant that I had so many more collaborators. So many great people doing each and every job that typically I’ve been doing myself, on a lot of the really small [films]. Working with the art department was great, working with the wardrobe department was great, having producers who budgeted and scheduled the film was amazing. It was just so fun to feel like my only job was being a director!

A key part of “Drinking Buddies” is how naturally the characters behave around each other. Talk about how you worked with the actors before and during the shoot to establish that sense of comfortable rapport.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in "Drinking Buddies"
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in "Drinking Buddies"

In a sense you always have to get lucky. On a really big budget movie you do chemistry reads, and you sort of hedge your bets a little bit more and make sure that these people get along. But on the low budget side of things, I have to trust my gut that when I cast these people the various elements are going to play together. Or that they’re going to inhabit the same movie and be on the same page.

Jake and Olivia just got along famously. It’s really just a pleasure for me to see them act together. They hit on something really early on and maintained it throughout the shoot. It’s my own movie, so it’s tough to be objective about it, but they have as good of chemistry as I’ve seen in a long time between two romantic actors in a movie together.

The actors give such good performances that there’s no clear-cut idea of which character should be with which character, romantically speaking.

I just always want to complicate the picture. It’s as annoying to me as it probably is to everybody else to see the “bitchy girlfriend”/shrew character that you know within the first five minutes is a terrible match for [the lead male]. Movies feel like they have to do that because they don’t want any ambiguity for the audience. They want the audience to be rooting for Guy A and Girl A to get together. And what that means is, for people to not feel conflicted about Girl B, Girl B has to be awful. She has to be such a terrible person that not a single person in the audience is going, “Aw, but what about her? She got her feelings hurt.”

I really wanted all four of these characters to have good and bad aspects to their personalities, which presents themselves at different times. We’re riding a little bit on the romantic comedy formula at the beginning of the movie, just as the set-up, to introduce these four characters. But as it goes along, Anna’s character [the “Girl B” character], who seems a little bit like a stick in the mud at the beginning, hopefully over the course of the movie you realize that she’s really cool and mature and complex.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Joe Swanberg, Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.