When Joe Swanberg tried to convince Jake Johnson to star in his movie “Drinking Buddies,” he assured him he wouldn’t have to work too hard and that the movie wouldn’t make much money.
“A lot of directors do this fake talk about how it will be the biggest movie of the year and will make you a huge star – all the bullshit,” Johnson told TheWrap. “Joe just said we’ll drink a lot of IPAs and have a lot of fun.”
Johnson, who plays Zooey Deschanel‘s roommate Nick Miller on Fox’s “New Girl,” was looking for an undemanding gig during his three-month-hiatus from the show. His brother’s wife had just given birth to their first son, and Johnson wanted to spend time with them in Chicago.
That city happens to be Swanberg’s home — and the location of most of his movies — so Swanberg promised he’d have plenty of time to spend with his infant nephew.
Throw in some free beer … and Johnson was in.
“Before I got ‘New Girl’ I was an incredibly lazy guy,” Johnson mused. “I spent a lot of time hanging around and drinking and messing around with friends. When ‘New Girl’ started that was taken away and part of the allure of ‘Drinking Buddies’ was to have the set be a really fun place.”
Johnson is one of four prominent actors who signed up to get a buzz while shooting the movie, which depicts two close friends who work together at a brewery. At first each one is happily committed to someone else, but soon they begin to wonder whether they’d be better off with one another instead.
Made for less than $1 million dollars and without a script, “Drinking Buddies” is a tiny movie for each of its actors, all of whom have appeared in the kind of major studio movies Swanberg has long disdained.
“Sometimes in the indie film world it’s easy to dismiss the audience when they don’t come to see your small personal art film,” Swanberg told TheWrap. “You’re like ‘Fuck them. Thy are a bunch of idiots.'”
Yet after he watched his friends Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett make “You’re Next,” a horror movie opening nationwide this weekend, he wanted to experiment.
“Drinking Buddies” is not a studio movie. It has been available on iTunes and other digital platforms for a month and will only open in one city this weekend.
Yet it’s still the most commercial movie he’s ever made. Swanberg has directed more than a dozen movies in the past decade, many of them introspective ruminations on relationships. They have been very well-received and made Swanberg a hero to many indie filmmakers, but they weren’t made for mass consumption.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made a film I wanted people to like as much as ‘Drinking Buddies,'” he told TheWrap. It’s hard to talk about it because it’s so much bigger than anything I’ve done before. Because of the actors involved it feels like such a different project.”
Swanberg said he was still pinching himself a little bit over the cast he got to work with, but he clearly did something right. Kendrick signed on to make his next movie, “Happy Christmas,” which also stars Lena Dunham. Production on that micorbudget film has already wrapped.
Johnson said part of the appeal of working with Swanberg was the ability to improvise. The director does not write scripts for his movies — just loose outlines of where the story is going.
“Joe has a movie in his head figured out, but he doesn’t have the characters figured out,” Johnson said. Swanberg considers his actors co-writers, and gives them as much control over their characters’ behavior as anyone.
In one scene, Wilde and Johnson build a bonfire at the beach and fall asleep there. Johnson suggested they incorporate that because that’s precisely what the cast and crew had been doing after shooting. Then Wilde suggested she up the ante and go skinnydipping.
In another scene, Johnson and Wilde were supposed to have a big fight.
“Swanberg wrote Olivia and Jake’s character – huge fight. Relationship at all-time low. Jake leaves. That’s all we had,” Johnson recalled.
Viewers have been eating it up. Swanberg found out Wednesday morning that the movie had already made all it’s money back through video-on-demand sales. So in the ultimate irony, Swanberg’s most commercial movie doesn’t need to be a hit in theaters.
“I really want it to do well theatrically, but in a beautiful way I’ve been relieved of the pressure of the opening weekend have to be a huge smash or anything,” Swanberg. “The times are changing.”