Jake Johnson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell in "Digging for Fire"

Interview: Joe Swanberg on Slowing Down and “Digging for Fire”

Though our interview was scheduled to be in person, the impending birth of Joe Swanberg’s second child prevented the filmmaker from coming to Los Angeles as originally planned. This didn’t come as a shock – after all, his wife Kris, who had a terrific movie of her own to promote recently, was limiting her travel as early as a month ago. But in Joe’s case, it was oddly fitting as a reflection of his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” which is set outside of his native Chicago in Hollywood, where Tim and Lee (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt, respectively) housesit for one of her Yoga clients, never feeling entirely comfortable in the plush hillside retreat, leading them to go on their own for the weekend to reclaim the individualism that made them fall in love with each other in the first place.

It’s happenstance that Swanberg’s leap from down-and-dirty low budget filmmaking to working with more famous actors beginning with 2013’s “Drinking Buddies” coincided with the birth of his first child Jude, now a regular (and quite welcome one, at that) amongst casts that regularly feature Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. However, the intersection of Swanberg’s professional and personal lives, long the inspiration for the stories he’s told, has now begun to have an effect on how he tells them. For the first time, Swanberg is no longer thinking about the next film until the one he’s done. Once just using a couple scraps of paper for an outline to improvise from, the page count of his “scriptments” have started to increase. (“Digging for Fire” was roughly 20, by his estimate.) And “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson has brought an elegance and literal stability that have elevated the domestic tales Swanberg has specialized in, so there is a visual grandeur to match the emotions the films elicit.

Yet even as this transformation has taken place, Swanberg hasn’t sacrificed any of the exuberance of his earlier movies, still bringing together unexpected ensembles to generate sparks. “Digging for Fire” may be his most overstuffed film to date, with actors such as Jenny Slate and Sam Elliott appearing almost as if to say “hi,” but in following a tip from Johnson, who like his character here really did find a human-sized bone and a gun upon moving into a house with his wife, Swanberg takes a rather simple premise and spins it into something profound as a real sense of adventure takes hold of Tim and Lee on their separate journeys. Shortly before the film’s release Swanberg spoke about how much he’s just along for the ride when it comes to working with actors, how his time away from filmmaking is making him more engaged with it and the influence of the late Paul Mazursky, the “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” filmmaker who passed away just after “Digging for Fire” wrapped shooting.

Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Digging for Fire"After Jake tells you about finding a bone and a gun at his house, what were the cinematic possibilities that you saw from there?

When Jake told me the story, it immediately took on this really symbolic vibe where I thought, what an interesting way to talk about identity and masculinity, and this feeling that I’ve talked about with several friends who are married and have kids where when you have the house to yourself, you instantly revert back to this caveman solitude. It feels really liberating for a short period of time. You’re like excited to just be alone and be able to have dude time. Then you realize that you’ve grown up and changed since you were that guy and you just want your wife and kid to come home.

The idea of having Jake’s character discover this stuff sparked in him this thing that he feels like he’s missing in his life, some of who he used to be and this sense of adventure and mystery. That was really fun for me, and then I wanted to balance that out with Rosemarie’s story too – what she’s missing, and her own identity crisis. So I had to figure out how to talk about this marriage via these two characters as individuals rather than as two people stuck together.

Did that immediately lend itself to the structure you have where you follow the husband and wife separately?

Yeah. It developed over the month that Jake and I were talking about it. Jake and I talked a lot about his side of it and there would also be the wife’s side of it, but the wife’s side of it was a big question mark until Rosemarie said she would do the movie. That’s typical of how I work with actors. The casting comes first, then once I know who I’m going to be working with, we really get into the story, and start to build it up. Suddenly, she and I were having a separate conversation about what was going on there, so really, my collaboration with Jake was one thing, my collaboration with Rosemarie was another and the three of us would also talk because at the top of the movie and the end, we have these characters together.

That structure really appealed to me and it became an interesting editing challenge of how much time to spend [with each of them], how much to link their weekend together, and how much to let them be their own things. I landed on this feeling of Rosemarie’s character leaving the movie, and spending enough time with Jake that we forget that’s going on and [occasionally] shake the audience up.

Rosemarie has actually said you and her actually spoke about the landscapes she would inhabit. How did that inform her story?

That’s a comment on how I feel about men and women right now. I wanted Jake’s story to get smaller, and end up with this guy in a hole and Rosemarie’s story to get more expansive, ending up with her looking at Saturn in the night sky. She’s travelling all around Los Angeles to these big expansive spaces and Jake is just looking for something in the ground that’s already dead. Even if he finds it, it’s something that’s from the past, not from the future and Rosemarie’s looking out into the universe for answers.

Right now, everything that’s exciting that going on has to do with women. That’s just where it’s at. I think guys are really at a complicated, confusing point because the necessity of men seems to be at an all-time low. Guys are trying to figure out what we have to contribute because mostly we don’t need big strong muscles anymore. It’s just not very necessary in modern life.

For hardcore fans of the Joe Swanberg Shared Universe, is it safe to assume when Rosemarie’s character runs into the woman on the beach with a telescope, played by Jane Adams, that it’s the same woman Adams played in “All the Light in the Sky”?

Yeah, that’s safe to assume. There’s another reference in there too – one of the Uber drivers that Rosemarie has, is David Siskind, who played the Solar Engineer in “All the Light in the Sky” and he has a similar conversation with Rosemarie as he did with Jane in the [previous] movie where he’s talking about his divorce. It’s my attempt to show these two characters, four years later, and where they’re at. It’s not specifically them, but for me, it’s certainly tied into that movie.

You dedicate this one to Paul Mazursky, who has been a longtime influence, but passed away recently. If I’ve got my timing right, the tribute at Cinefamily where you and he got to have a conversation happened right before filming “Digging for Fire.” Did that actually have a direct impact on this film?

Oh, yeah. Big time. Mazursky was in my head all through this shoot. Just in the ways that he talked about relationships, wealth and class – it’s very much a movie that’s indebted to Mazursky and his interests and how they overlapped with mine and how I feel connected to him just as a human being. He had this whole life before he made a movie that got recognized and made him money. He was already in his forties and married with kids when he made “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” which became a big hit. I love the fact that he had this long career where he was a performer and a writer, and then, had this second stage, which in a way is how I feel what has happened to me. I made a lot of movies, then I made “Drinking Buddies,” which suddenly a lot of people saw and connected with in a bigger way, so it was as if it were my first feature, even though I was essentially deep into my career.

He talked about that – the time when it shifts from being a family man to suddenly having attention and money and what that stuff meant, especially, in the context of Los Angeles. I live in Chicago, but I go to Los Angeles for work and there’s this aspect of being around money and people with money, but not really having money and the strange currencies that creates. Mazursky’s one of the only filmmakers that’s ever dealt with those issues head-on.

Jake Johnson and Brie Larson in "Digging for Fire"That tension can be felt in this film, particularly this great scene where Jake’s character retreats inside this fancy house in the hills to eat pizza as a group of people he’s friendly with take their partying to the next level with cocaine.

Jake going inside, cooking himself a pizza and doing his own thing is really equivalent to me going to Los Angeles for work, then hightailing it back to Chicago to have my normal life. I really love LA. I actually am into the culture, but it’s worked best for me in small bite-sized pieces. I actually really look forward to being able to go out there and spend time – there’s so many great, smart, amazing, talented artists out there. I’m friends with those people, and I want to see them and spend time with them. All of that stuff’s great. But it’s really nice to come back here and not have a day to day life that’s so heavily influenced and watched over by the industry and have a group of friends who don’t make films. I can just put my head down and get some work done.

You’ve said you’re taking your time these days, which isn’t to say you put less care into your films before, but you’re not working on a new one as the last one is going. Has the process changed for you?

It’s interesting because it’s changed organically, but it’s also changed via external factors. I’m getting older. I’m more tired than I used to be. The pace that I had five years ago, I couldn’t even do it if I wanted to. The energy just isn’t there anymore. Also, I have a son now. My daughter is coming any second. I want to spend time with them. I want to hang out with my wife. I don’t want to always just be making movies. That’s just been a natural slow down.

Then there’s the realities of the industry and the actors that I’m working with. I’ve been having a really good time working with these really talented actors, and it’s not like I’m the only one who’s noticing it. These people are very busy, so it provides a natural rhythm to the year. If I want to work with somebody like Jake, there’s only a narrow window when he’s available. For me, that’s good and it’s working out nicely since I was ready to slow down anyway. But I have a lot of things that I want to talk about, and at any opportunity, I’m definitely ready to dive into projects. The reflection time has been fun. Just a lot of the time I spent in the last couple years not making movies has been more rewarding than the time I’ve spent making movies, so I’m just trying to always keep that balance in mind.

One last silly question – Miguel Arteta shows up for a small cameo as a bartender. How did he end up in this?

The red house with the pool that we shot the movie in [where] Jake and Rosemarie are house sitting – the architect of that house plays the drunk guy who hits on Rosemarie [at the bar] and then gets in a fight with Orlando. He and Miguel happen to be really close friends in real life. Miguel is also really good buddies with my friend Jeff Baena, who directed “Life After Beth.” He’s in the film too as one of Jake’s buddies who’s shooting BB guns with him at the beginning of the movie, so there are all these funny confluences of people. But I was hanging out with Miguel, playing board games with him, and he said, “I’m really curious to see how you work. Would be okay if I came by your set, and just hang out?” And I said, “Well, you’re welcome to hang out, but I’m going to put you in the movie. You don’t get a free ride.” That’s how Miguel ended up playing the bartender. He just got to hang out and talk to Orlando Bloom for like four hours while we shot that stuff. It was really fun.

“Digging for Fire” opens in limited release on August 21st and will be available on VOD and iTunes on August 25th.

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