Interview with Director Joe Swanberg of "Drinking Buddies"

Chicago's craft beer world and its fans has been growing, and as it grows, making further inroads into the wider culture. This month, we have the debut of “Drinking Buddies,” an independent movie centered around people who work at a craft brewery. The movie, written and directed by Joe Swanberg, debuted online July 25, and the following weekend was ranked #7 among movies available on iTunes, and #1 among independent films. "Drinking Buddies" premiered in March as an official selection at the SXSW Film Festival, and makes its way to theatres August 23.

As, I suppose, a member of the Chicago beer media, I was offered an interview with Swanberg on the eve of an advance screening in Chicago. Swanberg has nearly two dozen movies to his credit as a director and actor, including a segment of the horror anthology V/H/S, and the IFC web series “Young American Bodies.” I was able to watch a screener of the movie beforehand. The story follows two friends who work at Revolution Brewing: Kate (Olivia Wilde: “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” “House MDicon”) is an event planner; Luke (Jake Johnson: “New Girl,” “21 Jump Street”) works the brewery floor. They’re described as having “one of those friendships that feels like it could be something more.” But Kate is engaged to Chris (Ron Livingston: “Office Space”), and Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick: “Pitch Perfect,” “The Twilight Saga”). Relationships are examined, and much beer is consumed; Revolution as well as Half Acre and Allagash, plus a shout-out to Three Floyds.

Swanberg is a craft beer fan himself. His Chicago locations are all at “street-level:” there are no establishing shots of downtown or the El; instead we have the brewery, The Empty Bottle, apartments (and therefore, a UHaul) and bicycling through the streets. His movies usually start with a simple plot outline, and he works with the actors to build their characters’ situations through improv.

I got to speak with Swanberg by phone on the eve of the movie’s preview party in Chicago last week.

MM: The movie played with the expectations about how the relationships would be at the end. Reading about your filming style, I wondered if that's the ending you had when you started, or is that how the characters played themselves out?

Joe Swanberg: The final shot of the movie is not necessarily what I wanted it to be, but I did know where I wanted these characters to end up. The improv was used to mainly to make the middle of the movie more complicated, and less predictable that a typical romantic comedy would be.

MM: But it does leave it open as to what might happen to the characters after the movie ends, too?

JS: Yeah, and it's hard for me, knowing how uncertain the world is, to put a certain, definite ending on a movie. I feel like I'm hopefully hinting that there's a resolution without it being cemented down, or hammering you over the head with it.

MM: Reading about your improv style, it kind of suggested to me the way Stan Lee would write Marvel comics, by just saying "here's where the Fantastic Four starts the story, and here's where it ends," and Jack Kirby would fill in 22 pages of art before he even got to the dialog. Especially as the actors get into their characters; don't they sometimes lead the movie in an entirely different direction?

JS: Sure! That's happened a lot more in the other movies. For this one, I had to give it a little more structure, but, yeah, I've made movies where, what I thought was going to happen ended up pretty different in the finished product. And I like working that way; I like having actors be integral to the process. So on "Drinking Buddies," knowing that the structure was already pretty heavily in place, it was about letting the actors own their characters, and have a big say in the clothes that they wore, and in the interactions that they have with each other. It's fun for me, too, to sit back and watch them work, so I can be more of an editor. They can generate the raw material.

MM: The characters are like the Bizarro Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, that is, the opposite of the top-billed stars whom you can’t really care how they end up together because we already knew it was going to happen; after all their scripted cute scenes.

JS: Exactly. We were trying to avoid that stuff at all cost.

MM: I guess I should ask the beer geeky questions, now. How does the story need the craft beer setting. It does hang on Olivia Wilde playing one of the few female employees of a brewery…

JS: Definitely.

MM: So how could this not have been about an office where people are writing phone apps?

JS: There's certainly an aspect to beer serving as a social lubricator and lowering inhibitions throughout the movie. I think Olivia and Jake's characters engage in the most risky flirtatious behavior while they're also drinking together; I think everybody recognizes that from drunken instances of their own. Also, it's a new setting. It's a very different workplace environment than an office or a restaurant, or other places where a romantic comedy has been set before. And it's a world that I'm excited about; I'm a homebrewer, and a beer geek. Every movie is a chance to learn and explore a world, and that was a world that I was really excited to spend more time in.

MM: Your Chicago background shows in the small details of people wearing Old Style caps and doing Malört shots.

JS: (Laughs), yeah, exactly!

MM: Were all the brewery scenes filmed at Revolution?

JS: We shot exclusively at Revolution (and Empty Bottle for a bar scene).

MM: What it was like trying to shoot around a working production brewery?

JS: It was very cool. As a person who loves Revolution beer, I was nervous about getting in their way, I would have felt like a real terrible person if we had deprived people of their beer in any way, so we were on our best behavior. But they were really very cool! The brewers took Jake under their wing and they taught him a lot about brewing, let him into the process. Any time you see him working in the movie; like there's a shot of him pouring hops into a kettle, and milling some grain and stuff; that wasn't just for the movie; he was really pouring hops into a real beer that's actually going to be sold. They really incorporated us into the process in a fun way that I really appreciated, and it lends a lot of realism.

MM: Is there also a class conflict going on? I see a dividing line between Olivia's character in the front office and Jake as the guy on the production line, while Ron as the boyfriend seems to be a guy with money.

JS: Sure, a little bit. I didn't want to hit too heavily on it, but it's there. And along with that class distinction, there's an age thing, too. I think that when Olivia's with guys her own age, they're a little bit impressed and intimidated by her. And there's something about Ron being a little older and successful that levels the power structure in the relationship.

MM: But they're all living the single life, which seems to span a couple of decades nowadays.

JS: That's something that I've commented on, not just in this movie but in a lot of my movies, it's the extended adolescence that Americans are granted these days.

MM: So when was this shot? I had not heard about this production going on (not that I would necessarily know everything going on)?

JS: We did it a year ago, we were shooting all through July. We were very quiet, we kept a low profile.

MM: And do you have a smaller crew when you're working in a tight spot like a brewery?

JS: It was a 30-40 person crew depending on the day.

MM: How's the reception been for the movie so far?

JS: It's been really fun. I'm very thrilled to see that people are liking it. We're going to show it tonight (July 25) for the first time in Chicago, so it'll be good to have an audience respond to it.

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