07/29/2013 10:00 am ET

Joe Swanberg, 'Drinking Buddies' Director, Expands His Audience


Joe Swanberg has become a fixture on the indie film scene over the last eight years thanks to mumblecore hallmarks like "LOL," "Hannah Takes The Stairs" and "Alexander The Last." His latest feature, "Drinking Buddies," combines the script-free natural approach of those earlier movies with a Hollywood dream cast: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick all star in the film, which tells the story of two co-workers at a brewery who might be more than just friends.

"The point I want to make clear is that this movie is called an improvised movie a lot, but our director was the captain of the ship," Johnson said after the "Drinking Buddies" premiere at SXSW in March. "It was a really nice thing. We would all talk things out, but it wasn't a situation where we'd show up on set and we'd say, 'My character's going to do this today!' There was a clear vision from start to finish."

"Drinking Buddies" is available now on iTunes and other on-demand services. "The easier it has gotten to make movies, the harder it has become to get anybody to see them," Swanberg told HuffPost Entertainment last week. "So, VOD is just an incredibly useful tool in that way." (Magnolia will release "Drinking Buddies" in theaters on Aug. 23.)

Below, an edited transcript of a conversation with Swanberg about "Drinking Buddies," his most important role as a director and what he really thinks of Hollywood in 2013.

Without a traditional script, casting is so important here: How much went into putting this cast together?
Casting is the most important thing I can do for a film. I value the cast above all other elements, by a lot. If I do a good job casting, then the rest of my life is very easy. I got really lucky here. I ended up not only with incredible actors, but incredible actors who got along very well together. They created a chemistry and a dynamic in this movie that's really exciting.

You get these very natural performances from everyone -- especially Jake and Anna. Is it a case where you just get out of their way and let them perform?
My first job is to sort of set the tone and create an atmosphere. I'm trying to create a safe space for these people to feel really comfortable sharing. I don't want them to feel like there are wrong answers to any of the questions. Even when you're a professional actor who has been doing it for forever, it's still a really vulnerable position to be in. It's a hard job. It's often an embarrassing job -- you're performing in front of people who may or may not appreciate that. You're sort of putting yourself out there. It helps that I act in other peoples' movies, and I'm constantly reminded of that vulnerability. The other thing that I have to do is just reassure them constantly that they're giving me material that's helpful for the movie and that I appreciate them being there. It sounds simple, but it goes a long way to remind someone -- even someone who is a famous movie star -- that they're good at what they do. I'm happy that they're working with me.

How did the cast come together?
It was actually Jake who came on first. He was recommended by Lizzy Caplan who had done a couple of episodes of "New Girl." She sort of told me that he was an exciting actor and that she had a really good time working with him. So I just had breakfast with him -- we happened to be in L.A. at the same time. We started talking and then there was a slow process of emails and a sharing of ideas. In the meantime, we were trying to raise financing and I was meeting with other actors. Skype is sort of the way that a lot of that happens these days. I met Olivia, Anna and Ron all for the first time over Skype. It was really cool because there was no script. We just got to have conversations. I told them, thematically, some of the things I was interested in. I asked them about their lives. I didn't know at the time, but Olivia said it at SXSW, that it was Jason Sudeikis who knew my stuff and sort of encouraged her to watch some of my movies and get in touch. The whole thing felt very nice and fortunate. I ended up with a lot of great people in a very casual way. Not in a calculated, Hollywood-y kind of way.

This film is a leap for you -- the cast is filled with recognizable stars, it looks beautiful thanks to cinematographer Ben Richardson ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"). The New York Times wrote about "Drinking Buddies" and said that "Joe Swanberg grows up." Do you feel that way or is that a backhanded compliment?
Yeah, you know, certainly I'm so used to that kind of compliment at this point that I wouldn't even recognize it anymore. The movie feels different, I think. It was certainly a new challenge for me. It's cool that people are responding to that and that it has a different feel for them. I understand why it does, especially for a lot of people who haven't liked the other movies but do like this one. It's opening its arms to the audience in a different way than the others, and that's something I'm really proud of and excited about. It's something I was trying to do. Without talking down to the other movies, because I love them all and wouldn't change anything about them, but a lot of them were very personal and -- to me -- felt a little bit like a monologue more than a dialogue. With "Drinking Buddies," I really wanted it to be a dialogue with the audience. I wanted to have a different kind of conversation. I think people are recognizing that.

You're very outspoken on Twitter about problems with the film industry. Do you agree with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that the industry is headed toward a cliff?
I don't know about that. I think this industry has proven that it's very good at making money. I'm not sure that I see one summer where everything tanks and the whole business goes under. But it is a little frustrating to have your only options part two of one movie or part four of another movie. It's certainly not the kind of environment that made me fall in love with movies. It's cool if the lesson that they take away that it's a smarter business to get into making things like "Insidious" and "Pain and Gain" -- $20-25 million movies rather than $200 million movies. I think that would be good for everybody

Would you want to direct a studio film?
Sure. I'm open to it. I wouldn't have been. There was certainly a time in my career when I would have been very closed off to that idea, but I'm kind of taking everything that comes and exploring every opportunity. I'm 31 years old, so I'm ready to say exactly what kind of filmmaker I want to be. I'm ready to be open to opportunities right now. It would be nice -- it's all a learning experience. Everything is part of a skill set. It would be nice to know how to direct a car chase sequence or big musical number. I'm interested in that.

'Drinking Buddies' Photos