SXSW: A Cold One With Joe Swanberg and His 'Drinking Buddies'

The festival's oddest and most comfortable press gathering

Whose round is it? Director Joe Swanberg and the cast of "Drinking Buddies" at SXSW (Photo by Gary Miller)

Most times a press event is themed, the result is cloying and dull. But when Joe Swanberg and his cast just sat around drinking microbrews and shooting the breeze, it was somehow perfect for Drinking Buddies.

All in all, Swanberg can probably look back on this SXSW as a good one. On Sunday he finally got to see his performance in You're Next, the long-awaited home invasion thriller from his old friends Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard. On Tuesday, new Yeah! TV picked Swanberg to sit with Richard Linklater and Wes Craven to promote their new streaming curated movie service.

It was all a long way from debuting Silver Bullets to a half-full Rollins Theatre at SXSW 2011. But the high point must be the reception of his latest directorial effort.

Drinking Buddies is a movie about staring into the abyss. It also answers the question, "What would mumblecore's leading light do with a big name cast?" Kate (Olivia Wilde, House, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) is the only woman at a brewery, and best friends with Luke (Jake Johnson, New Girl, Safety Not Guaranteed). There's an easy tension between the two, often fueled by beer, but Kate's going out with Chris (Ron Livingston, Office Space, Band of Brothers), and Luke is engaged to Jill (Anna Kendrick, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Pitch Perfect).

Imagine all the generic ways this could be played out. Drinking Buddies is none of those movies. Swanberg said, "As a filmmaker, I'm almost allergic to making films that I have seen other people make before."

Livingston's analysis was concise. "It's about that moment where two people look at each other and go, 'Are we doing this, or are we pretending we're doing this?'" He added, "Every single permutation of the couples has a different version of this moment, where we say, 'We're doing this, and acting like we're doing this, but let's call a spade a spade and decide if we're going to do it.'"

It's also undeniably, as Wilde noted, an homage to craft beer (and if they had to sample the goods to really appreciate it, then that's just dedication to the art). Swanberg, a beermaker himself, said: "I hate movies that are set in a world, and it seems that they get everything wrong. I know with the improv, early on, a lot of that stuff was about trying to figure out, because you guys aren't brewers and didn't know everything, how to talk about it in a way that was realistic but that wasn't so detailed that you just had to start winging stuff. It was really important to me that, if a brewer watched this movie, nothing would pull them out."

Before SXSW, festival director Janet Pierson called Drinking Buddies everything you'd expect from Joe Swanberg - intense, sketched in micro-strokes, emotional - but more accessible. That was kind of how the presser/drinking session was. Kendrick staring at her shoes as she recounted how nervous she was about being dropped into an all-improv environment. Livingston, leaning on the wall, talking about how emotional continuity is more important than if a bag moves from one shot to another.

That last bit was kind of handy, considering that much of the movie is set and filmed at the brand new facility at Revolution Brewing, a Chicago microbrewery. Swanberg called the location "gorgeous. It's brand new. The company has been brewing for three years, but they just set up this production facility. There was all these whiskey barrels around that they were doing whiskey-aged beers in, and the guys were super-friendly." And, yes, that was real beer. Swanberg said, "I didn't realize until I was editing how much you guys were drinking."

"But that's the first sign of alcoholism," interjected Wilde. "When it seems alright to have it for breakfast."

Kendrick added, "I thought I was drinking fake beer the night we did the drinking game. Mistake."

Strange brewer: Joe Swanberg at the premier of "Drinking Buddies" (Photo by Gary Miller)

Swanberg probably could have done with a stiff drink when moving from his small, intimate films with fellow indie creators to poaching studio talent. However, he knew it was time for a change. He said, "I've made a lot of work, and I've made a lot of specific kind of work." It was working with Adam Wingard on SXSW Midnighter You're Next that lead to an epiphany. Swanberg said, "He was a friend of mine who I had made $5,000 movies with, and suddenly he was making this big thing. I was on set as an actor, and I saw him working his ass off. Certainly as a director, when I act in other people's films, it's like spring break for me. I'm not the boss, I just get to go play, and he's the one stuck with trying to figure the movie out. But for an entire month I was in Columbia, Missouri, acting on the movie, I did not see him. He woke up before everybody else, he went to bed after everybody else, and it was killing him. And what I saw in that film was his best film by a lot. It was because he put the work into it. So I can't give myself excuses any more."

It's also an unusual, industrial background for the film, and two factors attracted Swanberg to craft brewing (OK, three if you count the fact that location scouting was a dream come true). First, there hasn't been a beer movie since Strange Brew. Second, like independent filmmaking, it's a business for the young and experimental. "There's no beer scene in the world like America right now," he said. "It's really cool. It's a young industry. The oldest craft brewers are from the Eighties."

He also knows people in it. In fact, Wilde's character is rooted in a friend of Swanberg's, Kate Thomas of Half Acre Beer Company: "That was one of the first conversations I ever had: 'What is it like to be one of three women in the entire Chicago beer scene?' She told me a lot about it. It's very much a boy's world. She gets a ton of attention because she is the face of her brewery."

Thomas became Wilde's beer expert, as the actress shadowed her and swallowed as much lingo and inside knowledge as possible. That's essential when she had to improvise in some technical scenes. She said, "My first thing I shot, Joe said, 'OK, you're just going to talk to this couple about beer for their wedding, recommend a couple of different items, and tell them about each one. Go, action!'"

Swanberg admitted that Luke is in no small part based on his own experience in the "friendship possessiveness" relationship, but it was important that Kate be the lead part. He said, "I know my side of that story because I've lived it. I really don't know the woman's side, which is why I wanted to make a film about it."

But Wilde and Johnson only make up half this dance: Kendrick and Livingston are the nominal significant others that they leave in their seats. Kendrick said, "I came in about a week late, but it was kind of perfect, because these two were comfortable with each other, comfortable with what the work was, with all the guys at the brewery. We were the boyfriend and girlfriend meeting people, being uncomfortable and not really being sure where to stand and what to say."

That's part of why Drinking Buddies is heavily improvised. Much like Swanberg's debut Kissing on the Mouth, he wanted the cast, especially the actresses, to flesh out their own roles from the bare bones of his plot. He said, "It's not as black and white as a man and woman thing. I don't know anybody else's circumstances. I only know my own." In fact, while he always has a narrative, he's not that comfortable with the idea of a script. "Putting dialogue in somebody else's mouth has always seemed strange to me."

Still, Johnson credited Swanberg for making sure the cast always kept the story in sight. He said, "We would all talk things out, but it wasn't a situation where we would show up on set and say, 'Luke's gonna do this today.' Whatever I wanted to do, there was a very clear vision."

Wilde added, "I could sense very early on that Joe was looking out for us. There was a safety net, and if someone was going way off track he'd be like, 'No no no no no, just get back here. He would yell over us. I'm sure the soundtrack has a lot of, 'Yeah, no, stop making jokes.'"

SXSW presents Drinking Buddies, Saturday, March 16, 11am, Rollins.

Joe Swanberg also appears in front of the camera in You're Next, Friday, March 15, 11:45pm, Topfer, and White Reindeer, Thursday, March 14, 9:15pm, Rollins.

Olivie Wilde appears in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, opening in theatres March 15.

For more images from Drinking Buddies' world premiere, visit our photo gallery.

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