Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
August 20, 2013
“Drinking Buddies” director Joe Swanberg has been making feature films professionally (eight years) for about twice as long as he has been brewing craft beer at home for fun. Yet to an extent, the Lincoln Square resident follows the same approach with both: pursuing personal explorations and being proud of the experiments, no matter what.
He made a peanut-butter wheat beer that turned out “not bad.” His early, minimalist films like “Kissing on the Mouth,” were bad. He made cherry ale that exploded all over his house. His new movie, “Drinking Buddies,” which opens Friday and was largely filmed at Revolution Brewing’s facility on Kedzie Avenue, is his best onscreen work to date, a semi-improvised exploration of workplace flirtation and the grander question of how/when to know that you’re in love with the right one. Chicago native Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde play the flirty Revolution employees; Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston are their respective significant others.
Over beer at Revolution Brewery on Milwaukee Avenue, Swanberg, 31, talked about the lack of innocence behind skinny-dipping, his personal connection to the “Drinking Buddies” plot and how the movie would be different were it filmed in a distillery.
Is there a fun story about hanging in Chicago with the cast that you haven’t told before?
Shooting in Chicago was great, but we were working. We were doing 12-hour days, and we were pretty exhausted. The three days that were the most memorable to me were actually the ones where we snuck away to Michigan and we were shooting on the beach. It was really lovely. In Chicago, at the end of the day everybody just wants to go home. Nobody lives very far away, so everybody jumps in their car and splits. In Michigan, we were around New Buffalo and when the day ended we would crack open beers and build a bonfire on the beach and go swimming. It was really nice.
And you went skinny-dipping, like in the movie?
No skinny-dipping. Well, maybe. I wasn’t skinny-dipping. I had to be professional.
I thought all directors did that?
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
If there’s one thing I know about Scorsese …
It’s that he loves skinny-dipping. Yeah, absolutely. I’ve heard that. No, it was so nice. It was right in the middle of the shoot, so it was a real nice chance to recharge our batteries and just hang out. And get to know each other a little bit. It’s hard; you work on a movie and you work with all these people. It’s such a transient lifestyle. It’s sort of like nomads. People move from project to project. Crew people get to know each other because they’ll see each other again and again on similar movies, but for me, the best I could hope is to work with those people again maybe in a year or something like that. Directors aren’t jumping from project to project in the same way. It was a chance for me to get to know some of those people better. I really valued that. It’s weird to spend 12 hours a day with somebody for a month and still not really know them at all.
Skinny-dipping comes into play in this movie because you’re dealing with this gray area of when you’re not crossing the line but also sort of crossing the line. Can skinny-dipping ever be innocent?
That is a very good question. I feel like the presence of old people could make skinny-dipping innocent. It needs to be de-sexualized in some way. Now I sound ageist. Not that old people aren’t sexual. Yeah, I feel like if it’s a bunch of people in their 20s skinny-dipping, there’s inherently some sort of sexual vibe going on. Unless you’ve grown up in a nudist colony and that’s just the way you swim.
But if you first find some old people in town and say, “We’re all going skinny-dipping, come with,” that’s not going to take all the sexuality out of it, is it?
No, maybe not. Maybe you’re right. You seem to have a clear-cut feeling that skinny-dipping is always sexual.
I wrote my thesis on skinny-dipping.
[Laughs] Yeah, OK. I’m going to go ahead and go on the record and say that people have probably skinny-dipped in totally asexual, very neutral territories. All of my skinny-dipping practice in real life, there was at least some aspect of a sexual kind going on.
For you being married for so long, it must have been interesting to go back and explore these feelings that cropped up in your relationship. You partially based Anna’s character on your wife. How did she feel about that, based on the way it all turned out?
You know, fine. My wife is also a filmmaker, and so we help each other out on our projects. We both make personal films that are rooted in our relationship and in our friends’ relationships and things that we see around us. Anna and Jake’s relationship is sort of modeled on my wife and I at the point in our relationship right before we got married. And the films that my wife has made are also modeled on things that we were going through in our relationship. It’s a useful way to discuss that stuff. For me making a movie like “Drinking Buddies” is a useful way to reflect on that and also to explore the choices that we made and also to introduce fiction into it, of things that we didn’t do or alternate paths that we could have taken.
Some may take the movie as an answer to a question sent to an advice columnist.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I was traveling around with “Nights and Weekends” and doing Q&As for that movie, I was talking to people about how if you were to go to a Blockbuster or Hollywood video or something and look at the shelves, I almost would like “Nights and Weekends” to be in a section of the video store called Self-Help. I want these movies to be useful to people in terms of seeing situations they’ve been in in their own lives explored on camera. It’s helpful I think to witness your own experience with a level of distance. Certainly Mike Birbiglia’s movie “Sleepwalk with Mee,” I don’t know if you ever saw that movie.
I loved that movie, but I also really related to that movie. His relationship in “Sleepwalk with Me” also very much mirrored my wife and I’s relationship at a different point in our lives. It was amazing and so therapeutic to see his take on it. I can make my take on it, but to see somebody else who also dealt with a similar life situation, A. you don’t feel like you’re crazy and alone in the world. You’re like, “Oh, cool, I’m not the only person that’s ever gone through this.” And also, you’re like, “Oh, cool, this is how he dealt with it. That’s interesting. That’s a different vantage point on it.” So I respond to those movies that other people make, and I’m trying to do that myself.
How do you think this movie would be interesting if it were shot in a distillery?
Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know the distillery culture very well. I bet it would be similar but—it’s interesting, for some reason I picture a distillery being a slightly quieter kind of place. I don’t know why that is. That may be completely off-base. When I think of breweries, I think of heavy metal music playing. When I picture a distillery, I picture older—
Like people with their heads on the bar …
No, not at all. I just mean when I picture a distillery I picture an old tradition of Kentucky gentlemen passing recipes down through their families. When I picture breweries, it’s a much newer thing. Craft beer in American got reignited in the late ‘70s when Jimmy Carter re-legalized home brewing. The oldest craft breweries in America are like late ’70s, early ’80s. Distilleries seem to me like this really old—that’s where my impressions are coming from.
You would have had to do a love story between two old Kentucky gentlemen.
[Laughs] “Drinking Buddies” in a distillery is somebody who looks like Colonel Sanders having a flirtatious workplace relationship with somebody’s great-great-granddaughter from like the Van Winkle family. I’ll stick to beer. It’s stupid that I say that because I know a guy in New York who makes bourbon and whiskey and he’s young and cool and probably listens to heavy metal music, so I don’t know what I’m talking about.
I have a three-part question for you: You’ve made a lot of movies in the amount of time filmmakers usually make far fewer. Do you feel like it’s better to be prolific or consistent? Also, you fought a critic last year; would you ever do that again? As part of that, do you take offense at the note that I’ll admit I’m someone who wasn’t on board with some of your early stuff but the last few movies I’ve really enjoyed more and more and more. Do you feel like you’re getting better? Has it been great to make so many movies to help you do that?
Sure. Are you challenging me to a boxing match right now?
[Laughs] Well, the prolificness has really come out of the fact that I really like making movies. I want to be on set with actors. So I’m doing that as much as possible. I’ve also attempted to treat filmmaking like a 9-to-5 job in some sense. I like to work. I feel good when I’m at work and I want to create things. We live in a culture that’s very much oriented to the first feature. Everybody’s like, “That’s a great first feature.” And, “This person shows a lot of promise.” We do that with albums too and books. We’ve been trained to look at somebody’s first work of art as their big thesis statement, and we can predict everything about their career from it. I’m not interested in approaching it from that way. I’m much more interested in a big body of work. The filmmakers who I admired and who I’ve always admired are very prolific filmmakers who the total of their creative output is more exciting than any of the individual movies.
Woody Allen makes a movie every year, but he’s remarkably inconsistent. Does that defend his lowest points? Why doesn’t he just not make the crap?
It does defend his lowest points. You learn from the crap just as much as the ones that turn out great.
I feel like he has to know the bad ones are bad. He’s made 1,000 movies.
He probably loves them. There are things about them that are as exciting to him as the things about the ones that people like. And you get better because of it. I could probably rank my movies in order of my favorite to least favorite. It might be really different than what your list looks like because they’re doing different things for me than they are for you. But what I couldn’t do is say, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t made that one.” Because there’s not a single one that I regret or that I feel like I didn’t gain valuable experience from. Either life experience or directing experience. Will I box another film critic? Sure, why not. It was a goof. It was a very fun thing to go and do.
You also won, handily. Would it have been as fun if—
It would have been as fun. This is going to sound like I’m insulting Devin [Faraci] again, which I’m really not. He was a good sport to do it, and it was really meant to be fun. But I was hoping he would put up a better fight. And I really don’t mean that to sound like I’m being an asshole.
I know what you mean.
I certainly would have had just as much fun if I had gotten the [bleep] kicked out of me. That would have also been a new experience for me: I’ve never been beat up before. I wouldn’t have minded. If I ever box another film critic, I would hope that I fight somebody bigger and stronger than me so that the tables can be turned a little bit.
What brought him to Chicago about 10 years ago: “I went to film school at Southern Illinois University and I sort of knew that I didn’t want to work as a PA and work my up in the film world. I just wanted to get to work making my own stuff, and I felt like I could do that in Chicago as well as I could do that anywhere. And I love Chicago, so I just came straight here and started making stuff.”
His Chicago favorites: Hopleaf. Revolution. Bite Café. Jerry’s Sandwiches. Map Room. Guthrie’s.
On monogamy: “I’ve been married for six years. I’ve been with my wife for I think 12 years at this point. We were together for a long time before we got married. So I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for a very long time. Certainly both of us have been attracted to people along the way and had to figure out how to navigate that attraction within the context of the relationship. I think that it’s an individual case with each person whether monogamy is outdated. I certainly think that two adult people can decide to have an open relationship. I think that people can decide just not to get married but still be in long-term relationships. I believe that relationships can work however people decide they want them to work. I’ve found that I like being in a monogamous relationship. I sense that my wife and I’s relationship is much stronger now than it was and continues to get stronger. Involving other people in that relationship on a regular basis seems like it would complicate the matter. Or take some sort of scenario where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re married but I think I might love this other person. I’m just going to go explore that for two years. And then I’ll just come back. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just come back.’”
On the beer he makes: “I give it away. I don’t make great beer. I still have quite a bit to learn. I do it for me. I needed a hobby that I could just do for me that there was no sense of competition or critical infrastructure or monetary affect attached to it. It was just something I could start and finish for my own pleasure and my own sake. When I brew a beer, I’m mostly doing it to experiment. I’m not even necessarily brewing styles that I like to drink. I just want to try a lot of everything. I often do these Frankenstein recipes where I just have an idea about something and so I’m throwing different ingredients in and I’m not really following recipes. I’m just trying stuff out.”
On the cherry ale that flew all over his house: “I put too much cherry juice in there so it was way too sugary when I bottled it, and the yeast went nuts. I was finding cherry beer stains a year later in places where—it was like the JFK Magic bullet. I don’t know how it got in that other room. There’s no direct line. It zigzagged or something. It was insane. It shot up and covered the ceiling of the kitchen. Twelve ounces of beer when you’re holding it does not seem like very much; when it has sprayed all over, it’s a lot of beer.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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