Improv + beer = 'Drinking Buddies'

Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg talks about his romantic comedy starring Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson

Actor Ron Livingston tells a great story about landing in Chicago last summer to film the relationship comedy "Drinking Buddies." In the car from the airport he's informed that director Joe Swanberg is ahead of schedule and wants to shoot Livingston's breakup scene that afternoon.

"And I said, 'OK. I just need to find out who I'm breaking up with and why,'" Livingston deadpanned to an audience at South by Southwest, underscoring just how loose and unscripted the film actually is. As with Swanberg's previous work, every line of dialogue is improvised by the actors.

Set in the world of craft beer — and filmed in Chicago at locations including the Empty Bottle and Revolution Brewing's production facility on Kedzie Avenue — Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson "(New Girl") star as co-workers who mask their attraction to one another under layers of platonic flirtation, presumably never taking things further because each has a significant other. Wilde is with Livingston; Johnson with "Pitch Perfect's" Anna Kendrick.

For Swanberg, who is one of the busiest microbudget filmmakers of the last five years, this was his first time working with a well-regarded cinematographer (Ben Richardson, who shot "Beasts of the Southern Wild") and a cast of seasoned, recognizable actors.

What's striking is the way he allows Wilde to carve out something new. She's not the Maxim girl here. In her jeans and Chuck Taylors, she wears her hair pulled back in a haphazard topknot, as if she were forever on her way to wash her face. "That's totally intentional," Swanberg said when we met at Revolution's brew pub recently. "I think Hollywood messes with people's insecurities about their looks with these unattainable images, and I really push against that." Wilde is attractive in the film but more to the point, she's normal looking — not the typical rom-com lead who is impeccably dressed, spackled and coiffed. In "Drinking Buddies" Wilde looks like a person who exists in life, not "movie life."

That sensibility is something Swanberg brought over from his other films, and it's why he's such a fan of improvisation. He's always looking for the unmannered moment — one lacking the sheen of perfectly crafted dialogue — so it's fitting that Swanberg is based out of Chicago, where improv is considered nothing less than an art. He and his wife, Kris, also a filmmaker, bought a house not long ago in Logan Square, where they live with son Jude, who turns 3 in November.

After steadfastly refusing to embark on a more Hollywood-friendly career, Swanberg signed with an agent last year — a move that led directly to "Drinking Buddies." Though the budget is small by most standards (around half a million dollars), it is considerably more than Swanberg typically has at his disposal. It also meant he had access to Wilde's fiance and former Chicago performer Jason Sudeikis, who shows up in a cameo.

The film opens in theaters this weekend but has been available on VOD since last month and has climbed to No. 25 on iTunes. Swanberg is by far the most prominent independent filmmaker working in Chicago right now, and for many directors at this stage, a move to Los Angeles would be next. Decisions like these are based on practical considerations; agents want you in the town where the deals are getting done. Swanberg, though, has other plans.

Q: So you're this staunchly independent filmmaker in Chicago making movies for sometimes as little as $2,000. A lot of it funded with your own money. And then you decide to get an agent.

A: David Kopple, who's my agent at CAA, first got in touch after "Hannah Takes the Stairs" (previously Swanberg's best known film to date, starring Greta Gerwig) which is five or six years ago now. At the time I was not interested in having an agent. I was already busy on "Nights and Weekends" (another film with Gerwig), and I was at a place where I was able to generate my own work and I just wasn't looking for that.

Q: Was there a part of you that was like, "I don't need no stinking Hollywood agent!'

A: A little bit. I certainly had this punk rock attitude about the whole thing. I was a little bratty about it. And I just wasn't convinced that having an agent would help me make better movies, you know?

And then in the intervening years David Kopple kept checking in on me. I was doing weird stuff at the time, not commercial at all; "Hannah" was the most commercial movie I made, and then I went in the opposite direction making really personal, darker, weirder work. (Swanberg made 10 features after "Hannah Takes the Stairs"). Every six months I would get a call from David saying, "Hey, I'm still following what you're doing, I'm still interested in working with you."

And also I had acted in a movie called "You're Next" (which also opens this weekend) with a friend (director Adam Wingard) who had also gone from $5,000 movies to suddenly doing this much bigger production, and I saw him adapt to that process. And I thought: OK, it's not crazy that (the) little guys can take on this kind of money and do something different with it that isn't going to result in just a boring indie movie.

So I had breakfast with Kopple and I said, "So how does this work?" And he said, "Who do you want to work with? We represent a lot of actors at CAA." So that was the beginning of the process that became "Drinking Buddies."

Q: Your movies are improvised, so was there any kind of script?

A: I wrote about 40 pages, but there was no dialogue. What I discovered was I needed a way to communicate with the art department, the wardrobe department and the producers who need something on paper to help schedule a movie. So I sat down and started writing and it really just walks through the movie, almost in paragraph form: "This scene takes place in Olivia's apartment and they do this."

But the actors never saw that. They got a two-page bullet-pointed list of scenes. We had a lot of conversations about who I was basing the characters on in real life (Wilde's character is based on a friend of Swanberg's who does marketing for a local brewery) and people they knew in their own lives. You need to work with actors who have a rich life outside the movies — who can carry a conversation about something other than themselves, which is not always easy to find.

I'm always looking for people's natural speaking rhythms to come out. I want Jake in my movie to sound like Jake when you hang out with him. And when there's scripted dialogue, Jake is going to be really good at that, but he's going to have time to build somebody who's not Jake. So in "Drinking Buddies" we give him a persona — we give him a fake name and a job that he doesn't have in real life — but then I want to see Jake peek out as much as possible. And the same with the other actors. I wanted it to feel like I was capturing hints of them.

Q: There are two scenes in which Jake tries to teach Olivia and Anna how to play blackjack, and both women are so obviously charmed by this cheesy blackjack dealer character he's suddenly become. Their reactions to him seem entirely real — like he's entertaining the hell out of them as real people in that moment.