Swanberg rediscovers his humor in ‘Drinking Buddies’

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First Posted: 9/2/2013

After eight years of shooting no-budget indies like “Nights and Weekends” and “Alexander the Last,” director Joe Swanberg decided, in his words, “to hit the reset button” on his career.

The result is “Drinking Buddies,” easily his best – and most accessible – movie. While his previous 16 features helped kickstart the Mumblecore movement and netted considerable critical acclaim, “Drinking Buddies” is a different brew entirely.

Not only does the film feature Hollywood-based actors like Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, and Anna Kendrick, but the budget was arguably bigger than all of his other films put together.

This time around, Swanberg says he had a deep desire to connect with audiences. “I think it just hit me when I was starting ‘Drinking Buddies’ how big a deal it is for [a movie-goer] to go to a theater and chose my movie over any of the others playing. I just wanted to make sure that I was holding up my end of the bargain.”

Available on VOD and in select theaters, “Drinking Buddies” is an intoxicating slice-of-life tale that focuses on Wilde and Johnson. Both work for a micro-brewery and love to hang out together knocking back cold ones. They’re clearly a match made in heaven, but since they’re both dating others (Livingston, Kendrick), their relationship stays platonic.

But then Wilde’s boyfriend departs, and the stage is set for the drinking buddies to become something more. But if you think you know where this rom com is headed, think again. “Drinking Buddies” zigs when you think it will zag.

“I’m a huge fan of romantic comedies, but I was growing frustrated at how predictable they’d become,” says Swanberg. “I wanted to do something different but still stay within the genre.”

To prepare, Swanberg studied Paul Mazursky’s “Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice” and Elaine May’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” two comedies from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Even though neither film plays by the rom com rules, they were both huge hits. It gave Swanberg hope that he could pull off a similar feat.

“I used to think that if you made a smart and complicated comedy, it would only play to a limited audience. But those movies proved it was possible to do something different and still connect with moviegoers.”

While Swanberg has always incorporated humor in his movies, “Drinking Buddies” is his first flat-out comedy. After a series of dramas, the filmmaker was ready to lighten up.

“I don’t know what happened to me because I started out wanting to make comedies,” says Swanberg, 32. “And I think some of my earlier movies have a sense of humor.

“But then because of issues in my personal life, my movies got dark for a while. But I’m happy to have made something light and to have gotten my sense of humor back.”

On previous features, Swanberg was, as he notes, a “one-man band,” doing anything and everything that was required, including coordinating the craft services table and driving cast members to and from the set.

With “Drinking Buddies,” he hired crew members to do a lot of the same jobs he used to perform. Rather than feeling as if he was losing control, Swanberg enjoyed the freedom of being able to concentrate on simply working with the actors.

“I was nervous at first, but I quickly learned that I wasn’t giving up control on the things I cared about,” he says. “In fact, hiring talented people to be in charge of the different departments allowed me to spend more time dealing with the stuff that I care passionately about.”

Another big change for Swanberg was working with Hollywood vets like Wilde. The actress, who has delivered largely bland performances in films like “Cowboys and Aliens” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” blossoms in “Drinking Buddies.”

“I had seen Olivia in ‘Alpha Dog’ and I have kept track of her ever since,” says Swanberg. “She really hasn’t been given the opportunity to shine.”

Even though Swanberg’s latest is more heavily scripted than his previous features, he still allowed his cast room to improvise.

“I think it was a bit scary for them at first,” he says. “But it was also different for them too, challenging. And the chemistry that Olivia and Jake have; I can’t take credit for that. I really just cast them and then tried to stay out of their way.”

A native of Detroit, Swanberg attended film school at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale before launching his first lo-fi feature, “Kissing on the Mouth,” in 2005. It was around this same time that Mumblecore mainstays Andrew Bujalski made his film debut with “Funny Ha Ha” and the Duplass Brothers turned out “The Puffy Chair.”

Bujalski coined the term “Mumblecore” to describe the films which were not only shot on the cheap but also shared an emphasis on dialogue over action. A number of the films were, as the New York Times noted, “largely made by and about young post grads.”

“I remember the first time I heard Andrew say ‘Mumblecore,’ I hated it and I told him, ‘Never say that again,’” recalls Swanberg with a laugh. “But the name stuck.”

Now, Swanberg is appreciative of being part of a movement that earned him plenty of free publicity.

“It’s a struggle for a filmmaker to get people to see his or her movies, especially movies that don’t have stars. In a way, being part of the Mumblecore [movement] was like having a movie star in the movie. It made people want to see our movies.”

Through the years, the Mumblecore filmmakers have banded together, often co-starring in each other’s movies and using some of the same actors. “We’ve really had each other’s backs,” notes the director.

Since filming “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg has already completed two more features – “24 Exposures” starring buddy Adam Wigand, and “Happy Christmas,” a rom com with Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Philly’s Mark Webber.

Swanberg has also acted in a number of movies, including the 2014 chiller “Proxy” for director Zack Parker and producer Faust Checho (the Stroudsburg-shot “The Fields” with Cloris Leachman). At the moment, Swanberg can be seen in “You’re Next,” a horror thriller that earned rave reviews from critics.

“I’m really proud to be a part of ‘You’re Next,’” says Swanberg of the flick about a family reunion interrupted by a gang of ax-wielding psychos.

“It opens in New York the same day as ‘Drinking Buddies’ and I have to do a Q&A for my movie, but afterwards I’m going to get a bunch of my friends together and see ‘You’re Next’ at midnight. I can’t wait because I love that movie.”