Joe Swanberg needs a beer. Since 2005, the 31-year-old jack-of-all-trades has acted in 41 titles, directed 21, and written 19. Nevermind the fact that he’s also the editor and cinematographer of about half of everything he’s had a hand in. To list them all would be as overwhelming as it is to think about someone even working that much, so here's a pared down roster of the works he wrote, directed, acted in, edited, and served as cinematographer for: Kissing on the Mouth (2005), LOL (2005), Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), Uncle Kent (2011), Silver Bullets (2011), Art History (2011), The Zone (2011). Notable exceptions include Nights and Weekends (2008) and Alexander the Last (2009), the first of which he didn’t serve as cinematographer, and the second of which he didn’t act in. Slacker.
The craft brew world and the independent film world are at similar places in terms of what we are trying to do. Both industries involve people that are passionate about it not because they're trying to make a ton of money.
It looks like all of those man hours finally afforded him a big break, as his newest independent film, Drinking Buddies, is being talked about by everyone from Entertainment Weekly to David Letterman.
A hit at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, Drinking Buddies is Swanberg’s biggest production to date. Starring recognizable talent like Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston, the film is a look at a best friendship teetering on the edge of something more.
The story follows Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson), Chicago brewery workers who've known each other for years. It’s never explicitly stated, but their chemistry—the embodiment of completing each other’s sentences—makes their deep connection undeniable. They're perfect for each other; however, there's one small issue: They’re both in serious relationships (with Livingston's Chris and Kendrick's Jill, respectively).
It’s a romantic comedy for movie lovers who hate romantic comedies. It’s funny, it’s natural, but most poignant of all, it explores a topic that makes the film wholly original: emotional infidelity versus physical infidelity. Whereas the average rom-com will hinge on the trauma of a trangressive kiss, Drinking Buddies forces you to consider the implication of feelings and a connection that doesn't necessarily involve bodily fluids. As it turns out, this kind of exchange is messier.
“The idea of complicating the romantic comedy and making something that felt a little more real and adult and complex excited me,” says Swanberg.
True to his signature naturalistic style, Swanberg’s latest story was inspired by his own life. Kate's position at the brewery is taken directly from his friend, while Luke and Jill’s relationship is based on Swanberg and his wife’s during the time they were deciding to get married. A self-professed homebrewer, Swanberg geeked out at being able to shoot on location at Revolution Brewery in Chicago, where the cast and crew were embraced by the employees. In the film, Jake Johnson is actually pouring hops into boiling wort.
The warm reception to his film hasn’t only been extended by craft brewers seeking the director out for a special screening of the movie at their location, but also film festivals around the country, including New York City’s Rooftop Films.
“Something [Rooftop Films] has always championed is film and performances that show real people and how they live,” said Dan Nuxoll, the programming director of the non-profit organization, which screened Drinking Buddies as part of their Summer Series earlier this month. “And Joe's stuff is not showy. It’s not false and fake.”
The most beautiful part about Swanberg's success is that he's achieving it on his own terms. Swanberg's still doing the same exact thing he’s always done. Along with directors Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, 2002) and the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair, 2004), Swanberg is credited with starting the "mumblecore" movement, a lo-fi method of moviemaking focused around roughhewn realism. In addition to working with a relatively small crew, he asks that his actors adjust to his style of shooting: All of the dialogue is improvised by the actors within a treatment that Swanburg's outlined, to fit a story that he's written. And he always writes what he knows.
But these practices haven't always made critics want to buy him a drink. In fact, one critic in particular wouldn’t ever want to make room for Swanberg at the bar. His most infamous criticism came from Badass Digest’s editor-in-chief, Devin Faraci, who called Swanberg’s work “self-indulgent bullshit, aimed only at the narcissists who make it” to his face at last year’s Fantastic Fest. Swanberg's response? "Why do you seem to have seen so many of my movies?"
Despite his urge to please everyone as a freshman in the film industry—Swanberg skipped the P.A. gigs after college at Southern Illinois University and went straight to making his own movies—he’s realized that’s an impossible task.
“Once you have the experience of having your own films reviewed and meeting a lot of film critics and festival programmers you realize that they’re people like everyone else and they just have their own opinions that are informed by everything from their intelligent readings of film history to their own experience to how they were feeling that day,” he says. "At this point, I am in it for the audiences, the people that are paying money to come see the movie.”
And the weekend of August 23rd is the perfect time for Swanberg to get introduced to mainstream audiences. In a summer fraught by epic American failures, namely The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D., films that wasted millions of dollars, Drinking Buddies will cap off the season in theaters alongside two other low-budgeted indies—Destin Cretton's group home drama Short Term 12, and director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett's You're Next, a small horror flick gone big thanks to Lionsgate—and a British sci-fi comedy, Edgar Wright's The World's End. How they'll perform in the box office remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: They're three thoughtful, critically acclaimed films that indicate a different, hopeful path for the movies to take. Hope that other impressive indies that've premiered this summer, such as Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, have already made a case for.
It's no secret that Hollywood's been watching returns dwindle on expensive tentpole features and 3D sequels designed to capitalize on the success of previous blockbusters, but these films are proving that it's time for major studios to make a change, try something different. Like letting indie filmmakers do their thing. There's less risk involved for studios, as these high quality movies can be made with significantly smaller budgets than the next comic-book-inspired franchise, thus making it easier to turn a profit. These movies prove that superior filmmaking doesn't necessitate money you can't even imagine. All it takes is talent.
And it seems like the studios get this. Thanks to the success of Drinking Buddies, Swanberg's been tapped by Fox Searchlight to helm a yet-to-be-titled film that continues his nuanced exploration of relationships, while Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have been employed by Warner Bros. to take on an adaptation of Jon Stock's Dead Spy Running. Smaller studios have signed David Lowery to adapt the much-anticipated Brian Michael Bendis' novel Torso for the big screen and James Ponsoldt to direct the Hillary Clinton biopic Rodham.
Even Olivia Wilde, an A-list actress who's experienced the struggle of failed blockbusters, namely Tron: Legacy and Cowboys and Aliens, can attest to the power of indie filmmakers. Her tweet about Drinking Buddies is proof:
Even more encouraging is the fact these filmmakers are all supportive of each other. Before starring in You're Next, Swanberg collaborated with director Adam Wingard, writer Simon Barrett, and actress Amy Seimetz in A Horrible Way to Die. Sans Seimetz (whose directorial debut, Sun Don't Shine, was released earlier this year), the trio also worked together on V/H/S, along with Ti West, who also stars in Drinking Buddies and You're Next. Ti West is returning the favor later this month, with Swanberg and Seimetz taking on starring roles in West's next film The Sacrament, which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. As for Frances Ha's Greta Gerwig, not only has she starred in West's The House of The Devil, but she's also one of Swanberg's earliest partners, starring in Young American Bodies, LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends.
Adding Lowery into the mix, he's worked with West and Seimetz on Swanberg's Silver Bullets and Alexander the Last. Not to mention, Swanberg considers Ponsoldt, who's connected to Destin Cretton via actresses Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever (both of whom co-starred in The Spectacular Now), as his longtime friend. And that's only the abridged version.
"It’s cool to see that the people who worked the hardest are having the most success right now, but also that nicest people I know are having the most success right now," says Swanberg. "David Lowery, James Ponsoldt, Amy Seimetz—these are warm, generous people who never say no to helping on people's projects."
And Swanberg's not done for the year. He's got his erotic thriller 24 Exposures waiting to settle on a release date, and Happy Christmas, a family holiday comedy starring himself, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, and Mark Webber, in post-production.
Now about that beer...
Raise your glass and toast to this exciting new generation of filmmakers. But most of all, to Joe Swanberg, the hardest working man in the movies.
Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
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