To commemorate the 20th anniversary of SXSW, every film has been preceded by a festival bumper from the past, including more than a handful of shorts made by Joe Swanberg and the cast and crew of “Hannah Takes the Stairs” in 2005. Even then, there were movie stars in Swanberg’s midst, though the world at large didn’t know it yet in the case of Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass. But with the short, clever interstitials about the shaggy way low-budget movies are made playing in front of the director’s latest film, this became especially poignant because while time has passed and Swanberg now has already established movie stars at his disposal, the director’s sense of humor is as keen as ever and his ability to bring the best out of his actors has only sharpened.
Not that a cast that includes Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston need much assistance, but the foursome are positively radiant in the natural light Swanberg provides them with, setting up Wilde and Johnson as co-workers at a microbrewery who take their significant others (Livingston and Kendrick, respectively) to a weekend on the beach where commitments are tested. Although this is well-worn territory for Swanberg, who has often explored the space between his characters’ selfish desires and their desire to be selfless for their romantic interests, “Drinking Buddies” feels like a spiritual renewal for all involved, the quartet of actors allowing their emotions to flow as freely as the beer in the Chicago-set production with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson onhand to bring elan to the awkwardly entertaining rough patch the two couples go through at two very different points in their relationships.
While in town for SXSW, Kendrick and Livingston spoke about their time shooting the largely-improvised affair, concocted from months of e-mails and Skype conversations over the computer to result in something utterly and beautifully human.
When you’re presented with a story and a filmmaker, but no real script, what made you want to do this?
Ron Livingston: The first thing I responded to was just Joe. I had a Skype meeting with him. He didn’t have much to talk about really, other than to say, “I kind of want to make this story about two couples and there’s a work relationship that gets really flirty.” So I didn’t have a whole lot to [hang on to], but just the way that he seemed really confident, my first thought was that if he doesn’t know more than that, he should be a lot more nervous and he’s not, so I feel like he knows something that I don’t. That’s always attractive.
Anna Kendrick: It was essentially the same thing for me. I think the confidence and just how honest he was. He’s being very open about the things in the story that were inspired from his life and was being a really genuine person. It seemed like he wanted to tell honest stories and that was exciting.
I don’t want to get too pretentious…
RL: Nah, get pretentious. Let’s do it, man.
One of my favorite things about his films is the space between what the characters want and what they should be doing. Was it a really interesting thing for you to play?
RL: A lot of that stuff you don’t know. There’s a lot of that where we’re doing the same thing you’re doing as a critic, coming in and looking at the movie afterwards and going that’s what we made? You’d have to ask Joe how much of that he knows in advance is going to be part of his movie. I suspect it’s more than he lets on because he’s got a lot of thematic ideas going on in his head and continues to discover a lot more while you’re filming it. Some of the way that this works where you don’t have any lines pre-written is you can’t afford to think too much about that stuff because as an actor, you’re just trying to get through the damn scene without dropping the ball. It makes you listen a little better because you don’t know in advance what the other person’s going to say, so you have to actually listen to them, [both laugh] rather than figure out an interesting way to pretend to listen to them.
Olivia described Ben [Richardson, the cinematographer], the other night at the premiere as being another character in the film because of his proximity and movement with the camera and you wouldn’t necessarily know where he would be. Did that change things for you since it sounds like a different relationship with the camera than on other films?
AK: It’s funny. I had a weirdly different experience than Olivia in that regard. What I’m about to say doesn’t sound much like a compliment, but I swear it really, really is. I found that Ben and the way that we were shooting it had such a fly-on-the-wall quality to it that even when the camera crew would be around, one of them would reference a conversation from a couple days earlier and I would literally be like, “I do not remember you being there.” Because I was just so comfortable with them around all the time that I didn’t feel that thing that she felt about them being another character. I felt they weren’t there at all.
RL: Yeah, they really disappeared. Part of that was because they didn’t know what was going to happen. They have a really tough job, A, keeping it framed, B, keeping it in focus. Right there, that’s hard to do when you know where the camera’s going to be and you know where the actor’s going to stand and you’ve measured it before. Then, the third thing they have to do is make sure none of them get in the shot, so they were operating very much so ducking around and it was easy to forget they were there.
There’s an early scene after work where your characters all meet at the bar and the camera circles around and of course, you’re in character, but it would still seem like you’d wonder what expressions the camera was picking up.
RL: You really get used to trying to forget that the camera’s there and eventually, you can get pretty good at actually forgetting the camera’s there. Then it makes you seem like an asshole because you don’t say good morning to the camera people because you’re not paying attention to them. [laughs] But there’s a split thing when you have to hit your mark that you are like okay, I have to think the camera’s not there, but I do have to know where this piece of tape is and I have to go to land on that – that’s hard. Some people are really good at it and I’m not one of them, so the idea I don’t actually have to end up in a specific spot and they’re going to worry about all of that is really good. If I could make the kind of face I wanted to make when I know the camera was there, I’d be a lot better on the red carpet. I wouldn’t look like a jackass in every red carpet picture I’ve ever taken.
AK: [laughs] I cannot wait to go through getting your pictures now.
Ron told a great anecdote about arriving in town a day early and being asked to come to set for one of the film’s more dramatic scenes. How much did you know about the story going in, how much did you help build it yourself and how much did you not want to know?
AK: There was a day at lunch where I was sitting with Joe and Alicia [Van Couvering] and Andrea [Roa], some of the producers and they were having this conversation about moving a location and they were like, “Well, I don’t know if that’d make sense with what we shot in the park.” And I was like, “Oh, what did you guys shoot in the park?” Then I was like, “Oh, you know what? Don’t tell me.” Because I wasn’t there, so I wouldn’t know. And if I find out, it’ll be because Joe tells me.
So that was a fun thing to play around with, to genuinely not know what went on in scenes. For all I knew, Jake and Olivia could’ve consummated their relationship and I wouldn’t know. That was a really fun change of pace, actually. But then at the same time, if you wanted to, you can have long conversations with Joe about your character, so there’s plenty that you can know and plenty you can find out, but then it’s kind of fun not to have everything revealed to you.
RL: In general, I have a tendency to overthink it to death, if allowed, so I actually found it really helpful to not know what the scene was going to be. I wasn’t able to overthink it before we started, which I would’ve tried, and I tried [sometimes] anyway. [laughs] But then you show up and it’s nothing like I thought it was going to be, so all that overthinking I did last night is not going to apply.
Ron also mentioned being sent a bunch of Chicago music by Joe because he plays a music producer and while it’s not a huge part of what wound up in the film, is that kind of information about your character something that’s helpful?
RL: I feel like 90 percent of it is just to get to a place where you can get past feeling like you’re going to shit your pants if somebody asks you a question about Chicago music. So the information and the research I find most of the time doesn’t necessarily come into the movie, but the comfort and relaxation and the “Oh okay, I can be comfortable in my own skin” does. And something that then will find its way into the movie is that I’ll look at a couple guys and none of their actual music made it into the movie, but you find something where somebody would talk about their philosophy of music and like okay, maybe a piece of their philosophy comes in somewhere else.
Did any of that apply to you, Anna?
AK: Yeah, I play a teacher and I think that only really comes up in one scene and very briefly. But Joe’s wife Kris is a teacher and I read all of her blog about it. Also, my sister-in-law is a teacher, so I had already kind of decided to base Jill on her and she does teach Special Ed in a rough school and I bugged her a lot. Part of it was just to feel comfortable enough that if it came up, I would have things to say about teaching. Also, it was just to listen to how she would talk about it. Less like the specific answers than just the way that she sounded when she talks about it. I don’t know exactly how valuable all of it is, but it definitely made me feel better to do it.
I can’t leave here without asking about the drinking. A pint never seems too far from reach and it appears that what’s inside is real. What was it like to have a literally spirited set?
AK: That was so fun. It was fun to be shepherded through the world of craft beer by Joe Swanberg, who’s so passionate about it. I felt like a little education every time somebody handed me a beer on set. I was like, “ooh, what is it? What’s interesting about it?”
RL: Yeah, those are live grenades, so you had to pace yourself a little bit. I don’t do nearly as much of that as everyone else in the movie, so it didn’t apply quite as much. I think all the hard liquor was propped, but beer is just notoriously hard to fake because you’ve got to get the color right and you’ve got to get the head. There’s just not very many things you can substitute for beer.
I’m guessing I know the answer, but since this is a bit of a leap of faith for you both, are you happy with how it turned out?
RL: Oh yeah. Love it. I think the movie’s beautiful and I’m really excited to be a part of it.
AK: Yeah, it’s weird to go into something thinking it’s a scary skydiving experience because I’m not really afraid to fail. If it doesn’t work, it won’t be the end of the world, but to have it actually go great is a really rewarding feeling.
“Drinking Buddies” will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures. It plays once more at SXSW on Saturday, March 16th at 11 a.m. at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.