This was a dense conversation place with the two leads of DIGGING FOR FIRE Jake Johnson and Rosemarie Dewitt; we found ourselves just sliding right into the conversation. The duo have an articulate way of explaining what it’s like to work with such a loose structure and knowing how to trust their own talents and instincts.
DIGGING FOR FIRE marks Jake Johnson’s second collaboration, the first being DRINKING BUDDIES, with the ever prolific “king of independent cinema” Joe Swanberg. With this project they shared writing duties, but at times had different perspectives on the film’s progression. As we started discussing his theories on filmmaking he quickly said that the writing process was really more of just an outlining of story.
Jake Johnson: “We didn’t have a script on this. We just had it outlined. Then once we realized we were going to be telling two stories, his story and her story, we needed an actor who was strong enough, who could not only execute the wife’s story but help write it. That’s how we got Rosemarie.”
You helped write it, too?
Rosemarie DeWitt: “Yeah. He’s being crazy generous. It’s really hard to break a story. It’s really hard to come up with all the beats, the beginning and the middle and the end. I was never doing any kind of mental gymnastics to figure out what comes next. You really get to go into the scene and you know what it’s about. The words are yours, or your character’s, but beneath it all I think the hard work. Then they surrounded us with phenomenal actors, all of whom could be the lead of this movie and lent very generous support to the movie. I think Jenny Slate came in for two hours to take a yoga class with me. “
I knew that Joe Swanberg shot this movie last summer and with all the star status in the film. Does he just call people up, essentially?
Johnson: “On this movie? Yeah. Ron, myself, you. It’s like you still get the fun of seeing all these faces. Orlando was the one for Joe and I. When he agreed to come on, we’re like, ‘Orlando Bloom is doing this movie?’ He really shines in it.”
DeWitt: “Yeah. And this was a big character role for Orlando. He did really well in the film. He just showed up and was incredibly charming.”
Every scene there’s somebody else. It’s almost like a summer camp, if you will.
Johnson: “The way this one was cast was we knew we wanted to do this movie. Joe wanted it to feel like an LA movie. Part of feeling like an LA movie is celebrity faces. Joe and I are both guys from Chicago. Even though I’m on TV, it still weirds me out when I go to an event and I see someone’s face where I’m like, ‘Oh. There’s that dude from that thing.’ When we were talking about an LA movie, it’s everywhere you go there’s another face that you kind of know from somewhere. Most of his movies take place in Chicago and it’s a different thing. When we realized we wanted to make that kind of movie, it became about just texting people or calling people and saying, ‘We only need you for a day and a half or two days. You’ll have a lot of freedom in character, but this is the arch and this is what we need you to do.’ We were very fortunate. A lot of people were around. We shot it over the summer when there’s not as much work. A lot of people where able to jump out and come and play with us.
Did the back story develop based upon the items you personally were digging up? Note: Jake actually found items in his back yard that eluded to a dead body.
Johnson: “A lot of the pieces I found in the backyard were the real stuff I found, but we had props. All that stuff I had found a version of that. All that was real.”
Since it’s based on a story that actually happened and you were a co-writer in this movie, does that help your acting?
Johnson: “I would say actually this one was trickier for me just to be an actor on because there were so many actors. I talked to Joe about it after. I felt myself being more reactionary at times because we would paint this story and we would have these general strokes that we needed to do. Then I’d look around and there would be so much talent that rather than driving a scene forward, which is how we had imagined it, I would sit there and be like, ‘Wow. There’s Mike Birbiglia talking with Sam Rockwell. Anna Kendrick is there, and Brie Larson is running down.’ I would just find myself watching. Joe would be like, ‘The scene is working.’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah. It’s great.’ At times I would forget like, ‘Hey, buddy. I’m in the scene. I’m the one who has to drive this.’ If anything, I think it actually made it a little bit harder to act in it. I like it more when I know a little bit, but it’s then my job just to get on the field and play and let other people think about it.”
DeWitt: “Yeah, because you kept saying to me, ‘Are you really going to do it that way?'”
Johnson: “You. Only you. I thought you’re choices were so odd and peculiar and terrible. I never said that to her.”
It sounds like you and Joe were collaborative to the point of each one had veto powers. How do you decide what to ultimately go with?
Johnson: “Funny you say that. I think I misinterpreted.”
DeWitt: “Joe wins. Because he is in the editing room.”
Johnson: “It’s Joe’s decision. In terms of the writing of this, all we had was an outline. In terms of shooting both ways, we don’t shoot it both ways. We just had different instincts while we were shooting it. We’ll shoot it one way but, in terms of the back story of the guy back there, I know who I thought was back there. He knows who he thinks is back there. It’s not like we’re editing it together. If I say, ‘You must do this.’ There’s no studio. This is a small movie. He’ll just say like, ‘No. I’m doing this. I’m editing in Chicago. There’s nothing you can do about it because you’re back to work on NEW GIRL. You’ll see the movie when it’s done.'”
Were there any moments of improv that either of you were sad to see on the cutting room floor?
DeWitt: “That was one of the rare scenes where I think Joe Swanberg did old school Joe Swanberg. Orlando and I… He cooks me the steak and we sat and did longer takes, talked about a lot of different things. I think we couldn’t let the audience go too far down the rabbit hole with those two characters because we had to come back around to these two characters. A lot of the Orlando stuff was honestly just too winning to end up in the movie. That was the only place. Everywhere else was in. We went back and did a couple extra days when we needed more.”
Johnson: “No, because it’s not like an improvised studio movie, or even NEW GIRL where you shoot so much and then you whittle it down. We shot this movie on film. With our budget, which was not a lot, all that money went to the film. You can’t shoot a scene five or six times just to do it. Mostly what was shot is in it.”
What do you think came out dramatically in terms of what the film is saying about modern relationships?
Johnson: “I personally think what Joe and I were both interested in saying is that it’s not the being in a relationship and having kids, it’s not always the fairy tale, and it’s not always the easiest– Sometimes things happen that you’re not always the most proud of, but you can take something from those experiences and bring them home. It actually can make you guys stronger. You hear stories about people who take time off and then re-find each other. I think that’s something we both found strong rather than a sign of weakness. It’s hard, but if you stick together you can make it work.”
DeWitt: “A lot of people like to say monogamy is not natural, and yet so many people want to get married and really want to be married to the people that they’re married to. They just need a minute to oxygenate their relationship or try and bring some novelty to it. I think that we made a movie about that for people who really want to be married to who they’re married to. It’s not easy over the long haul to keep everybody feeling alive.”
Rosemarie, do you think the scene on the beach is what made her realize she had what she wanted all along?
Johnson: “No. That was working on the Joe Swanberg movie. When they were doing those scenes on the beach, we had not written in that they kiss. That was just something…”
DeWitt: “Orlando just really fought for it. Orlando insisted on it. That was something that when they got to the beach that night, Joe really wanted to see that scene happen. He pushed for it. That was something that Joe, in the moment, just felt was really right. No, it wasn’t a planned out thing. It wasn’t a big strategy. It was more of a moment for him.”
We heard why Jake loves working with Joe, I neglected to ask what is it about the Swanberg way that attracts you to such a project?
DeWitt: “I think that Joe makes movies that are really personal to him. He’s not afraid to tell the actors why it’s so personal to him. We’ll sit down and he’ll say like, “For example, last night Chris and I had a conversation about such-and-such regarding parenting or marriage.” I think his hope and my hope is always that somebody goes, ‘Oh. That movie was made for me.’ ‘Yeah, that movie is a lot like my life or a lot like what I’m aspiring to do or aspiring not to do.’ It’s not made for everybody.”
Johnson: “I think you just said it. When you make a movie this size, you’re not trying with the net to catch every fish but the fish you catch you really hope love this. We really hope the people who like this movie can really connect to it. That would feel like a big win.”
I want to say as well that it’s really refreshing to see it being a character that wasn’t being the typical nagging wife. Was that something that attracted you to the role?
DeWitt: “Yeah. It’s interesting. There was a moment where we did a scene with Jude Swanberg, who is really Joe’s darling little son in real life, who plays our son in the movie. Long story short, I made him cry in the scene because I told him not to say ‘poopie’ at the table. Then he started crying. I felt like a mean monster. In that moment, it’s that moment that I think a lot of women relate to where I look at Jake and I say, ‘See, you make me be the bad guy.’ Women don’t want to nag. They know that stuff needs to get done.”
You and Rosemarie have such great on-screen chemistry together. How involved were you with the casting of her and with the other characters as well?
Johnson: “For Roe I was involved a lot because, in terms of the male/female dynamics, Joe and I – it’s really Joe’s theory that I’ve jumped onto – it’s really hard to write a female character honestly as a dude. Joe and I are both kind of dudes, so we needed somebody who could come in who would have a lot of input and wasn’t just going to be saying what should I say now? What should I do here? We needed somebody who was going to be strong enough and have a lot of ideas.”
DeWitt: “I was like, ‘F*ck you guys. That’s bullsh*t.”
DIGGING FOR FIRE is open in select theaters. It opens in Dallas next week.