Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

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.
Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston in Joe Swanberg's 'Drinking Buddies'
Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston in Joe Swanberg's 'Drinking Buddies'

Let’s talk about cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”). I was surprised to find out that “Drinking Buddies” is only his second feature film.

Quite an illustrious career he’s had thus far. I actually hadn’t seen “Beasts of the Southern Wild” when I hired him to shoot “Drinking Buddies.” It was really just based on his personality, and he and I saw eye to eye on how we wanted the film to look, and how quickly we wanted to move. It’s such a pleasure to connect with somebody who felt the same way I did about lighting based on an organic-lighting look, and then really emphasizing that. [We went] through quite a bit of lighting to make it look like it’s not really lit, and how effective that can be in terms of the finished product. To make it feel real and natural, but also deliberate.

On set, he’s such an emotional cinematographer. He’s really present while he’s shooting. He operates the camera himself, or at least he did on “Drinking Buddies.” The actors describe working with him as if he’s another cast member. They felt his presence and movement in a very organic way. He’s so sensitive and attuned to the performances. He’s not a perfectionist, in terms of the image, which I really love about him. If the performances were good from the actors, there was never a moment where he was like, “I want to do it again because it didn’t look perfect.”

He’s obviously very in-demand at the moment, and I suspect will remain so for the rest of his career. But I hope we get to work together a lot more. I’m always going to offer him the first chance to shoot my movies, and hopefully we’re able to keep that relationship up.

Why the craft brewery setting?

It’s a world that I’m a big part of. I’m a home brewer, and also I love craft beer, especially Mid-Western craft beer. It’s also a non-conventional workplace environment. It’s a very different movie than sticking the same characters in an office with cubicles. And it’s visual. I love the way a brewery looks. All those big steel tanks. I like that the people look very small compared to these big tanks. On a selfish level, films are a chance to explore worlds. They provide the filmmakers access, and the world of craft breweries was something that I wanted to know more about.

Did shooting in an actual brewery (Chicago’s Revolution Brewery) pose any technical challenges?

It was difficult. We definitely had to scour Chicago for every single brewery and find a place that fit. I was a pain in the ass for my producers because I made it very clear at the beginning of our search that I would not shoot the movie in a brewery with beer I didn’t like. So I limited our options.

Talk about what’s coming next. You’ve got “Happy Christmas,” again starring Anna Kendrick, as well as Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey.

I’m editing [“Happy Christmas”] right now. We shot it in December. It was a chance to keep up the working relationship with Anna Kendrick and with Ben Richardson, who also shot “Happy Christmas.” It was a chance to shoot on film as well. We shot it on Super 16, basically the same set-up Ben used on “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Coming off the fun experience of “Drinking Buddies,” I just wanted to dive back in on something that was even more free-form and improvised. To see if I could basically take the same level of acting talent and camera talent, and strip away more of the script and infrastructure. At least on the technical side, we were back to working with a crew of only about five people, as opposed to 35 people. I think I’ll keep experimenting and bouncing back and forth between bigger, more structured films and really small, intimate productions. Hopefully at both ends of the spectrum I can make stuff that’s commercial and finding an audience.

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

E-Mail Updates

Festivals on TOH

Thompson on Hollywood

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.