Chicago Filmmaker Joe Swanberg Is About to Be Famous

Drinking Buddies, the 31-year-old’s 14th feature film, opens this weekend with a mix of big names, strong reviews, and very good taste in beer.

Joe Swanberg

Photography: (Swanberg) Clayton Hauck; (Livingston, Johnson, Kendrick) Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; (Wilde) Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The Drinking Buddies director at Revolution Brewing

At Revolution Brewing’s brightly lit new taproom in Logan Square, everyone gives Joe Swanberg a welcoming nod. If it seems like the local filmmaker is at home among the kegs, that’s because he spent an intense 18 days here last summer shooting his latest movie, Drinking Buddies (in theatres August 23).

Olivia Wilde and New Girl’s Jake Johnson star as Rev Brew coworkers whose workplace flirtations unnerve their significant others (played by Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick). Chicago’s craft brews are central too; beer is a catalyst in nearly every scene.

At 31, with 14 feature films already to his credit, Swanberg is the prince of “mumblecore”—a film genre known for microbudgets, handheld cameras, and amateur actors. But Drinking Buddies signals a change. It’s his first time working with recognizable Hollywood names and, as such, a major test of his mass audience appeal. “I was reaching the end of a point where I was excited and challenged by doing really small movies,” says the Lincoln Square resident, who has so far resisted moving to Los Angeles.

In 2011, Swanberg signed with the influential talent agency CAA, his first official step toward the big leagues. Last year, he told his agent he wanted to make a movie set in the world of artisanal brewing. “There are a lot of corollaries between craft beer and independent filmmaking,” says Swanberg. Both are entreprenurial, to start. In the microbrew era, the idea was an easy sell; the process, however, was trickier.

Ron Livingston, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Olivia Wilde
Clockwise from top left: Ron Livingston, Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, and Anna Kendrick

Swanberg’s method goes something like this: dream up a plot outline, cast the film based on conversations and “instinct,” raise the money, schedule the shoot, and five minutes before the first take, tell the actors what happens in the scene and let them improvise.

Jake Johnson, a Chicago native and Second City alum, signed on first. “Jake comes from an improv background, so he got it,” Swanberg says. The two developed the plot together, eventually settling on a story about coworkers whose office flirtations start to infringe on their home lives. “Everyone connects to being in a relationship and having a crush on somebody who may be a better fit,” Swanberg says.

Olivia Wilde certainly did. It was an unexpected turn when the Tron actress Skyped in from New York to talk with Swanberg at the behest of her fiancé, the SNL alum Jason Sudeikis, a mumblecore fan (and former Chicagoan) who has a cameo in the film. “I loved what I heard about Joe’s process,” Wilde says. “Staying on your toes, listening carefully, and having the freedom to react so naturally to each situation—it made me a better actress.”

With Wilde and Johnson tentatively locked in and Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson onboard, the team started pursuing funds. CAA brought in Alicia Van Couvering, the producer behind Lena Dunham’s 2010 breakout film Tiny Furniture, to handle the pitching process. After just three months, Van Couvering and Swanberg had secured a budget of almost a million dollars from a handful of investors. It wasn’t Man of Steel money (estimated at $225 million), but it was already 1,000 times the funding Swanberg was accustomed to using.

It’s no coincidence that Van Couvering knew how to seal the deal—Dunham became a media darling after Tiny Furniture; her 2012 HBO hit Girls is one of the most-talked-about shows on TV. “Lena’s fighting for a character-based show that’s rough around the edges,” Swanberg says. “My hope is that [her success] will make a mainstream audience much more open to this kind of work.”

So far, it is. Magnolia Pictures (Melancholia, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) scooped up the movie’s distribution rights after its buzzy debut at South by Southwest this year. Early film blog reviews call the movie “delightful” and “disarming.”

Now that the theatrical release is in sight, Swanberg confesses some pride that his little film with the big names actually got made. “Drinking Buddies is, like, the last movie they all did before they were superstars,” Swanberg says.

They may not be the only ones.
 

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