‘Drinking Buddies’ director thrives on improvisation

Filmmaker Joe Swanberg is the first to admit that not all actors would want to work with him. “I love improvisation and there are some actors who don’t,” he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Swanberg, whose new comedy “Drinking Buddies” opens Aug. 23 at the Nitehawk Cinema http://www.nitehawkcinema.com/ in Williamsburg, is famous in the movie business for his improvised, low budget films. He works without a script, just a basic outline, and asks his actors to improvise their scenes. It’s a process that some actors thrive on and others shy away from.

“There are actors who like to disappear into a role. And I respect that. With improvisation, you can’t hide. You have to bring a lot of yourself into it,” Swanberg said in a phone interview on Aug. 19.

But for those actors who enjoy the process, it can be artistically rewarding. “It is a different challenge and actors like to challenge themselves,” he said. His philosophy is to come to the set with an outline and nothing more. “I like the idea of setting the wheels in motion and then letting the actors own the characters,” he said.

Swanberg, 31, who lives in Chicago, was in New York on Monday to promote “Drinking Buddies.” Produced by Magnolia Pictures, the film stars Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Up in the Air,” opposite George Clooney.

In “Drinking Buddies,” Wilde plays Kate, who works in a craft brewery with Luke, played by Johnson. The two characters are just friends but would like their relationship to be something more. There are complications, however as Kate is involved with Chris, played by Livingston, and Luke has a girlfriend Jill, played by Kendrick. Adding to the complications is that fact that Jill wants to know if Luke is ready to talk about marriage. When Luke and Kate unexpectedly find themselves alone for a weekend, the question of who should be with whom is comically explored.

Swanberg said he loved working with his four leading actors. “I’m hoping to work with them again,” he added.

The idea for the film came out of his interest in craft breweries. “I have never worked in a craft brewery, unfortunately. But I am a home brewer and I am a participant in the craft beer scene Chicago,” he said.

The characters played by Kendrick and Johnson are loosely based Swanberg and his wife, filmmaker Kris Williams, “from an earlier time in our relationship,” he said.

“Drinking Buddies,” like many of Swanberg’s other movies, is about the ups and downs of relationships. The film was shot by cinematographer Ben Richardson, who also shot the Academy Award nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012.

Swanberg directed his first feature, “Kissing on the Mouth,” in 2005. The following year, he made “LOL,” starring Greta Gerwig, an actress he would work with again two more times, in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” (2007) and “Nights and Weekends” (2008).

The year 2010 was an amazingly productive year for the director. He made seven feature films, “Uncle Kent,” “Caitlin Plays Herself,” “The Zone,” ‘Art History,” “Silver Bullets,” “Privacy Setting,” and “Autoerotic,” that year. The latter film was co-directed with Adam Wingard.

“I usually have about four or five ideas for films in my head. My wife gets jealous. She works on one thing at a time and completes it before moving on to the next project,” Swanberg said.

On the set, Swanberg’s working style is steeped in comfort. “My main goal on the set is to make sure the actors are comfortable and that they trust me,” he said. He likes to maintain a fun atmosphere on the set. “We joke around a lot. I do my best work when I know everybody is happy and people can give of themselves,” he said.

The thing he loves most about movie-making is the collaboration and leading a team of talented people all working toward the same goal. "The atmosphere of a film set by its very nature requires collaboration," he said.

Improvisation isn't for the faint-hearted. Actors have to think on their feet. But actors usually have the right instincts, Swanberg said. "If a scene isn't working, it's usually not the actor's fault. There's something wrong with the story line," he said.

Swanberg, who acts as well as directs, pointed to Joaquin Phoenix and Rosemarie DeWitt as actors he admires. He lists Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Paul Mazursky as directors whose work he loves. And he's a friend and fan of Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the hit HBO series "Girls." "I just think what she's doing with 'Girls' is incredible," he said.

What advice would he give to someone starting out in the movie business? “Be weird and specific. Don’t try to emulate other directors. Make something crazy; something only you could make,” he said.