Joe Swanberg is almost certainly the most prolific director you’ve never really heard of. One of the key directors in the American micro-budget ‘mumblecore’ movement, he’s directed 17 feature films since 2006. With a focus on quick turnaround and improvisation over such niceties as script and production value, many of these films have failed to find a wide audience. They have, however, exerted a remarkable influence on the modern film landscape, helping to launch the careers of Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass to name just two.

Drinking Buddies, which is currently on limited release throughout the UK, marks Swanberg’s first flirtation with some of the aspects of ‘conventional’ filmmaking. It’s also the first time he’s had any real budget to play with. Fittingly, given that the movie was influenced by the American craft brewing movement, I caught up with Swanberg over a couple of pints to discuss how he adapted his style to fit the new constraints, and the new opportunities Drinking Buddies gave him.

“We watched Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and just got really inspired by how complicated and interesting the characters were and the subjects it was brave enough to tackle” he explains, “the thing that was most inspirational, and the thing that got drinking buddies going is that it was really funny.

“It was this movie that to me was about adults, about these really interesting, complicated things, but it was a comedy. In its humour it didn’t sacrifice being complicated and interesting. I had sort of created this false dichotomy where you had to do one or the other. You could make an interesting, complicated movie about adults, but then it had to be a drama, or you could make a comedy, but then it had to be stupid.”

Developing the Movie

Unlike most writers, Swanberg isn’t much of a fan of scripts, preferring to use a two page, bullet point cue sheet that has loose details of each scene in the movie, and simply let the actors improvise around that. Even before that, however; indeed, even before the story exists in any form at all, Swanberg is already in contact with his cast, working with them to get their input as he explains, “I’m outlining whilst I’m also, essentially, interviewing the people I’m working with to pull their stories, things that are important to them, ideas that they have, and so we end up with something”

That said, filmmaking is a fluid process, and Swanberg’s cast changed more than once in the run up to Drinking Buddies, “there were different versions of the cast as we raised money and people’s schedules changed,” he reveals, “but Jake was somebody who was consistently there from the beginning. So there were a lot of emails back and forth from him, trying to shape the movie and figure out what story we wanted to tell, who these characters were.

Shooting the movie

While a two page outline may be OK for the cast and for Swanberg, it doesn’t really work too well for the production department, or indeed any of the other crew departments on the film. For that, Swanberg created a 45 page ‘script’ that allowed the production and AD departments to budget and schedule the movie, and gave the wardrobe and the art departments a guide to what they should be doing. Even still, Swanberg wanted to keep as much flexibility as he could, “It was pretty well figured out ahead of time, and broken down in a traditional way. But I still wanted to leave some room for things to happen, and ideas to develop and then be incorporated into the movie”

One of the ‘beneficiaries’ of that flexibility was actress Anna Kendrick, who recalls her first day on set,  “Ron [Livingstone] and I arrived, and we kind of got thrown into a scene before – we just got brought on to set to have lunch, and there was some whispering, and suddenly we found ourselves getting ready to shoot a scene. But I think that was the way to do it, trial by fire, that way you couldn’t overthink it. That’s the danger when you’re doing a part like this, so it was probably actually for the best.”

For Kendrick, who had never worked on an improvised movie before, it was something of a challenge. “Weirdly the trickiest bit was working out when to be silent. I thought the hardest part would be coming up with things to say, but actually the trickiest bit was actually ‘shut up Anna’.” Although she found herself well-supported by her co-stars, all of whom were also new to improvising a movie.

As it turns out, leaving that environment at the end of the shoot was something of a culture shock for Kendrick, ”We were doing a lot of hand-held, and there were never really any restrictions” she explains,  “We would just trust that the camera would capture what we were doing, and that was the tricky bit about going back into scripted films, it wasn’t remembering your lines, it was remembering that you have to hold up whatever the prop is, you have to make sure it’s just ‘here’ so that it’s not blocking anybody and not casting a shadow, and that was the weird bit about going back.”

This style of shooting also posed challenges for cinematographer Ben Richardson, who was also working with Swanberg for the first time on this movie, “For me the fun thing is, you know you’re going to get great material from the entire cast of a movie like this. Everyone’s going to be on, everyone’s going to be giving you the best things.” He reveals, “The one thing they’re not going to do is repeat it in the way you’d normally expect with the continuity of single-camera shooting. So part of the trick for me is to find ways to frame it, and to move the camera, and find angles and ways for it to feel that it’s a constant conversation, when he cuts the things together.

“I’m constantly reacting, and will see something happen, and there’ll be a brilliant little line from someone, and you’ll be like, ‘that worked great, what if we swing the camera over here now?’ and then we’ll carry on the conversation as if it were coverage from this kind of a thing. It might not be that the conversation as it happens in the movie ever really happened, you’re just getting the impression that it did by piecing together the best bits of the improv.”

The End Result

The ultimate product of this merging of traditional Hollywood with Swanberg’s experimental technique, is a much more accessible movie than his previous work. Swanberg puts this down to two things, “It’s hard for me to factor the mental change that happens when you see famous people in the movie. I suspect, for an audience, that automatically it feels more like a movie when there’s recognisable actors in it.” He reflects, before continuing,

“The desire from my end was big, to just embrace film language, and proper filmmaking techniques and things like that, just to try it. I basically had spent so long rebelling against the way movies were made, trying to reinvent the way movies were made, that it had become a challenge to try to make something the way movies were made. And I’m still interested in that challenge.”

Going back to his traditional style of shooting

In spite of his interest in facing that challenge, Swanberg isn’t prepared to completely forgo his previous way of working just yet. Immediately after wrapping on Drinking Buddies, Swanberg reteamed with Kendrick and Richardson to shoot another film. This time on a much smaller scale,

“Happy Christmas, the movie I shot after Drinking Buddies, has a crew of five people, and there’s just a level of intimacy that you achieve that way that you’re not going to get with a crew of thirty people. At least, I’m not a skilled enough director yet to get it. So I’ll probably be working on dual fronts for the next several years on super-tiny things with my friends, and then much bigger things.”

Looking to the Future

Recently Hollywood has come calling for the stars of the mumblecore scene. Greta Gerwig has worked with Ben Stiller and Woody Allen, while Mark Duplass featured prominently in Zero Dark Thirty, so is there any chance of Swanberg following their lead, and perhaps taking on an action movie?

“I’m not a technical director, and I can’t imagine conceiving that. I watched Gravity. I can’t imagine spending time visualising this stuff, working with effects people, building new pieces of technology. It’s just all so diametrically opposed to what I find exciting about filmmaking, which is being in a location working with actors. So there’s no real strong desire on my part to do that, other than as a learning experience.”


Drinking buddies is out in cinemas now, and you can read our review here.