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This summer, New Girl's Jake Johnson has the unique distinction of appearing in the year's biggest blockbuster — that would be the gargantuan-grosser Jurassic World — as well as one of the summer's most quintessentially indie offerings.
In Digging for Fire, out now in select cities, Johnson reunites with his Drinking Buddies writer-director, microcinema trailblazer Joe Swanberg, for the story of Tim (Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose unexcitable, long-term marriage comes soberingly into question after the former finds a gun and bone in the backyard of a luxury L.A. home that they're occupying for the summer with their toddler son. Intent on discovering what lies beneath the surface, Tim stays home to dig and party while Lee takes the kid and heads off on her own, each embarking on a personal odyssey in the passing company of an extensive ensemble that features everyone from Orlando Bloom and Anna Kendrick to Jane Adams and Judith Light.
We spoke to Swanberg and Johnson, who also devised and co-wrote this unscripted feature, about the unique freedoms of making movies far afield of the studio system, the moment-to-moment surprises of improvisation, and the lasting influence of a late, great, undervalued American director on this moving, miniature study of marital unease.
Tribeca: What was the genesis of Digging for Fire’s story? Was the film always intended as a collaboration between the two of you?
Joe Swanberg: Definitely, yeah. Its origin came out of Jake and I wanting to work together on something again after Drinking Buddies. And that just kind of naturally took about a year of kicking around ideas until something felt like it stuck, and then once we kind of had it, we spent a couple months honing in. And then I just remembered at some point talking to [Jake], and we were like, “Alright, it’s time to pick a date. Like, if we’re gonna do it, we’ve got to block out schedules and get serious about it.” What's really interesting about movies is, like, until there’s a date, it’s super theoretical. Once there’s a date, it’s weird how…
Jake Johnson: …much it just becomes real.
JS: Yeah! Things lock in, actors are suddenly around…
JJ: …and it happens. Well, Joe offers a really attractive alternative to Hollywood and studios because, like, we just did a third one [the upcoming Win it All] this past summer while we were developing a studio project together, rather than doing any of the writing or any of the actual work on this studio script. It was taking months to finalize arbitrary contracts of what we would get paid if this script was completed to the likings of this studio and waiting for the points we would receive on this fictional backend of a movie that was not ready. In that meantime, we came up with a movie, wrote it, put it together, cast it, and then by the time the studio said, “We will not have time to make this movie this summer. We must wait.” We go, “Fantastic!” And we said, “Now, let’s not get it done…”
JJ: In terms of Drinking Buddies, that summer Colin Trevorrow called and told me he had a part for me in Jurassic. So I knew I had that job. And I’m not a workaholic, so I like taking time off. But I knew I had an open period and Joe and I were talking about making a movie in L.A., which was attractive to me, since I live in L.A. And so, it was just one of those things, that alternative of, We could actually just do it. We don’t need a studio. We don’t need ten “yes”-es. We don’t need to pitch it. We can just make a movie.
Tribeca: Joe, you famously work with only an outline as opposed to an actual script. How much of this film is improvised, compared to, say, Drinking Buddies, or any of your prior work?
JS: It's interesting because, technically, it’s all improvised in terms of the dialogue but the story is not improvised. And something happens with the dialogue, but it’s hard to figure out what to call it, or what the name for it is. But, you know, by take three of something, it’s not really improvised anymore. You know, it’s like when we did Drinking Buddies, [Jake] talked about, or maybe I read that [he] was saying this, but he said, “It’s almost like take one is the ‘writing take,’ take two is the 'rewriting take,' and then take three is, like, 'the first draft'…”
JJ: Then you’re shooting. That’s right. Then you’re ready…
JS: That’s sort of true of the process. It’s improvised but not. I will use first takes sometimes and we’ll just kind of naturally arrive at something nice, but, more likely than not, we’re sort of building off of the improv and attempting to land at something that feels written but maintains the spontaneity of the improv.
Tribeca: Joe, in terms of story, Digging for Fire feels like your most ambitious and populated film yet. Did the mere size of it change the filmmaking experience for you?
JS: Not on a day-to-day level, but it definitely did in the editing. I had a lot of iterations of the movie over the months I was editing because, with all of these characters, there’s a lot of different ways that that can go. Especially once Jake and Rosemary’s characters split, there are a lot of different ways that their stories can then intertwine. And Jake was really helpful during the editing and Alicia Van Couvering, the other producer, also helped to look at what we had and say, “Cool, it feels right up until minute 25 and now we could either go here, and stick with Jake’s side of the story. Or maybe we go to Ro here, do ten minutes with Ro and then come back. Maybe we go to Ro here and do three minutes with Ro and then jump back to this thing.” And that’s different than it has been before. Typically there’s just a clear through-line and with Digging for Fire, there was a process of finding which one we liked better of the fifteen potential ways that the second act could function.
Tribeca: I read an interview with Rosemarie DeWitt where she talked about initially being startled by the way in which that beach scene with Orlando Bloom develops, solely because she wasn’t prepared for how romantic it becomes. Were there any moments like that for you, Jake, where you were surprised by something you weren’t anticipating?
JJ: There’s a scene with Brie Larson and Sam Rockwell and myself towards the end of the movie, where Sam ends up getting angry and Brie leaves and Sam yells at me. But that is not how we had blocked out that scene. We saw that scene as a different emotional arc for Brie’s character and my character. And we saw Sam’s character as more on the outside of it, almost looking in as that devil on my shoulder, but as more of like a feeling rather than as such a huge presence. And because we didn’t have a script, when we did our process that [Joe and I] both love to do so much, where we do the first take and then we make changes, we all couldn’t get on the same page with it. And that was one moment where we couldn’t all find exactly what it was.
It was like a band where everyone was playing something but we couldn’t exactly find the song even though everyone’s playing their instrument. And it ended up being one of those things where it was just a wildly different version of a scene. Our process is we come up with something and outline it so we know what we want in most scenes. And usually they end up pretty close to the thought in your head. And this was one where it was not what I expected and it didn’t feel the way I expected. The twists and turns of it were just fully happening in the moment.
Tribeca: How do you, Jake, as an actor, keep a grip on your character when a film is largely improvised and, presumably, anything can happen?
JJ: Drinking Buddies was easy for me to keep in touch with the character because I had clean lines that I wanted to do. I told myself that Anna [Kendrick]’s character was my rock and my love and my foundation, but I also told myself, deep down, that Olivia [Wilde]’s character was the person I was fantasizing about and the person I really wanted to be with and wanted to be my rock. So I knew in every scene with Olivia that I had to want her to want me and that I wanted to be with her and I wanted to believe that that worked. And with Anna, I knew that it just worked. And so even though you’re improvising and moving around, I knew that core.
And then, in Digging, I knew that, deep down, I believed Tim loves his wife. And I believe this movie is pro-marriage and pro-these two, specifically. But no matter what was happening with everybody else, his biggest desire is, despite what anybody says, I’ve got to find out if there’s a dead body, because somehow that feels relevant to [him] as a character, that somehow being right is more important than making the right decision or making anybody else happy. So, in spite of anything that happened, I knew I could stay on that line.
Tribeca: I’m a big Rosemarie DeWitt fan…
JS: She’s amazing.
JJ: She’s excellent.
Tribeca: She’s one of those underappreciated actresses whom I always see in a movie and instantly imagine all the roles I’d like to watch her play.
JJ: We both agree.
Tribeca: How did she become involved with the project?
JS: Well, she’s one of my favorite actors. There’s probably interviews from a couple of years ago where I’m asked, “Who would you work with if you could work with anyone?” And her name is probably in there. She’s married to Ron Livingston, who was in Drinking Buddies, and so I had been over their house to show Ron a cut of Drinking Buddies. And I was pretty starstruck by her. I was excited to show Ron the movie but I was also, like, Oh cool, I get to hang out with Rosemarie, that’s amazing! And then she watched the movie with us and really liked it. So we sort of stayed in touch. And I told her, I was really straightforward — I was like, “I think you’re really good. I love the work that you’ve done. If you’re interested in doing something like this, I’d love to do that one of these days.” And so, I think [Jake and I] kicked around a lot of ideas because it was a big challenge to figure out who was gonna come in…
JJ: …and carry that story.
JS: We were looking for a lot of stuff. It was a hard role to cast. And when her name came up, I think it just landed and stuck with us because we were looking for somebody who has a kind of searching quality, who’s kind of not ready to accept life as it it is, who’s looking for more than that. But also somebody who’s also maternal, who’s gonna be the mom of a three-year-old and is somebody who’s been in a long-term relationship and knows how that feels. And so Rosemary met all the real-life qualities that we were looking for and is an amazing actor. So, I feel lucky. I’m really glad she wanted to do it.
Tribeca: Digging for Fire is dedicated to Paul Mazursky and the film really feels like a spiritual successor to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (below)…
JS: It’s my favorite movie.
Tribeca: Was Mazursky a conscious influence on the film as you were developing it, or was it a similarity you only discovered along the way?
JS: What’s really cool is that when I got to L.A. for pre-production for Digging for Fire, the silent movie theater let me do a screening of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, with Paul Mazursky there, followed by Drinking Buddies. And I got to interview him after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. This was four months before he died. So he really loomed large over the production because it was so fresh in my mind, that experience of getting to meet him and watch that movie again on the big screen and talk to him afterwards.
He’s a hero of mine for a lot of reasons, but in terms of Digging for Fire and its class-consciousness, [Mazursky] made movies about himself, which often meant movies about wealthy white people in Beverly Hills. As somebody who lives in Chicago, my experience with Los Angeles is that of an outsider and somebody who is around wealth, but it’s not my wealth. And I’m around fame, but it’s not my fame. There’s this really interesting feeling of being conscious of that experience but also going back home to Chicago. I’m a visitor in that life.
And I wanted to explore this idea of a couple who's working-class — he's a gym teacher in a public school, she teaches yoga — and who is offered the opportunity to live a nicer life than their life. I wanted to explore what kind of stress that this would put on their relationship, as Jake’s character looks at his wife and realizes she likes it, that she might not mind it for them, and sort of taking that personally. He knows that maybe his salary will never be able to afford that for her but he can see that she wants it, which makes him feel inferior. And then there’s her feeling of guilt about wanting it but still being honest with herself that she does. These kinds of things — they're all Paul Mazursky territory. He was just the best at honing in on those particular stresses.