Q&A: ‘DIGGING FOR FIRE’ Writer-Director Joe Swanberg Talks About His Ever-Changing Filmmaking Style

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digging-for-fireCole Clay // Film Critic

One of these days film scholars will use the word “Swanbergian” to describe films that resemble the ever changing style of DIY filmmaker Joe Swanberg. One of the founders of the mumblecore movement has found the Chicago-based filmmaker developing new approaches of filmmaking from one project to the next without ever sacrificing the free-form authenticity that allowed him to be prolific over the years.

He has contributed to the work of filmmakers such as Adam Wingaard (YOU’RE NEXT) and Ti West (THE SACRAMENT) as an actor, producer and writer. I have no clue how Swanberg has the time to work on all these projects, but his demeanor during our conversation eluded to confidence and efficiency, specifically.

He hit big two years ago with DRINKING BUDDIES— the standard romantic comedy form allowed more mainstream filmgoers access to his work. But, when it comes to Swanberg’s films he wants to always challenge the viewer. Make no mistake, he’s always going to put his stamp on each and every camera cut.

His latest, DIGGING FOR FIRE, is an adventurous film about a married couple who find themselves on separate adventures while they are house-sitting at a rural cabin for the weekend. Swanberg mixes his standard cast of independent players with some of Hollywood’s finest, including co-writer Jake Johnson (NEW GIRL), Rosemarie DeWitt (YOUR SISTER’S SISTER), Brie Larson (TRAINWRECK), Sam Rockwell, (THE WAY WAY BACK), and Orlando Bloom himself (THE LORD OF THE RINGS and HOBBIT films).

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with Swanberg recently about several of his past projects and his ever-evolving style.

Digging For Fire director/co-writer Joe Swanberg. Photo courtesy of ChicagoMag.com.

Digging For Fire director/co-writer Joe Swanberg. Photo courtesy of ChicagoMag.com.

Lately, I would say probably the past six months, I’ve been to getting into your deep cuts.

Joe Swanberg: “Oh, cool.”

Yeah, I was looking for SILVER BULLETS the other day and it’s nowhere to be found, at least to my knowledge. I was trying to get it off of iTunes and get some of my friends into watching some of your films. What would you say would be a good starter pack?

Swanberg:You know, it’s interesting. I always tell people DRINKING BUDDIES is the easiest, best place to start, but it’s not necessarily representative of the earlier ones. HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS is also one, in terms of the earlier movies that feels like kind of a logical starting point, or at least an easier way in than something like SILVER BULLETS.”

With this one, I kind of responded differently. I’ve seen DIGGING FOR FIRE twice now and I responded differently each time. The first time I was a little anxious. I just was like, “OK, so what are they going to do? What decisions are they going to make?” Then, last night when I was re-watching it, I was super excited for Lee and Tim (Jake and Rosemarie’s characters), but I responded to it differently and I was trying to think about it: why is the reason, but, I think it was because you shot this one on film. Right?

Swanberg: “Yeah, on 35 millimeter.”

That’s so cool! I responded emotionally to it in different ways, and after seeing it – I’m sure you’ve seen it dozen of times – have you responded to it differently each time? Have you taken different things from it?

Swanberg: “Yeah, yeah, definitely. I really am excited about how this movie kind of evolves for me and changed as I was working on it. It’s a pretty dense movie for its short running-time, and there’s a lot of ideas that we’re trying to fit in there, and so, a lot of this stuff was kind of occurring to me as I was cutting it and, so it just kind of felt like it kept enriching itself. Also, I had the chance to go back and do some additional shooting, which I do a lot in my movies, but it sort of allows me to really write a little bit more, and make sure that certain things are fitting together in a specific way. Yeah, I hope that that’s the case.”

I remember talking to Jake [Johnson] about the movie and telling him I believed that it would linger with people after they saw it. That there would be kind of a sense of mystery to the movie that would be still interesting, or kind of like create this after-taste with it where it kind of just sticks around in your head for a couple weeks. It’s fun to hear you say that you’re experiencing it in different ways.”

Digging For Fire Cast from left to right Kent Osbourne, Sam Rockwell, Jake Johnson, Mike Birbiglia and Steve Berg (Photo Courtesy of Orchard)

Digging For Fire cast from left to right: Kent Osbourne, Sam Rockwell, Jake Johnson, Mike Birbiglia and Steve Berg. Photo Courtesy of The Orchard.

I heard you say, I think it was on WTF with Marc Maron, you were going to create situations where accidents happen, but this one has more form, but yet, those accidents still happened and they even have call-backs. For example, I was thinking about the scene where Jake is cleaning off the table from the night before and Phil (Mike Birbiglia’s character) walks up, and I was just thinking what I would do for myself? I would not stop cleaning off this table. I would be so OCD to get it cleaned up. Then, there’s another shot where he says to Phil, “I really need to clean that.” With that kind of stuff, was that something that was just in the moment. It seemed kind of calculated because that is totally something most males would really do, you know?

Swanberg: “It’s a combination of stuff. We’re definitely writing as we’re working, but also sort of especially with the score, and with the cinematography. Ben Richardson shot this movie, and he shot the two before it as well: DRINKING BUDDIES and HAPPY CHRISTMAS. We’re always looking for ways to push that collaboration, and one of the things we really talked about with DIGGING FOR FIRE was creating a kind of formalist look for the movie, and being really deliberate about how we move the camera. We kind of had this hunch that even if everything was really loose in terms of the improv, that it would give the movie this really specific and purposeful feeling if we made these deliberate camera choices.

It really feels written in a different kind of way, and a lot of that is just, formally Ben and I playing around, and Ben kind of making these very– like when there’s dolly move, I’m really excited about, they’re not following the actors, they’re just kind of making their move, and then letting it land where it lands. Even if it lands in a strange place it still feels like we meant it to land in that strange place. Usually we did mean it to land in that strange place, but sometimes that comes out of doing something two or three takes and playing with what we think is going to happen and where that’s going to go. Then with the score, I really think Dan Romer did an amazing job. I think the score is so cool in this movie. That also was like a really conscious choice to have a film score. Not do something atypical, but really make it feel like a movie and maybe tonally feel almost like a thriller or something that was playing with audience expectations. All that stuff definitely was purposeful, but you never know quite how it’s going to work out, you know?”

What I liked about it, too: how it not only worked viscerally, because of your aesthetic choices to shoot on film, but also the music in it developed a really cool rhythmic feel for me. That Pisces song that you put in there, I had to look it up: Molly Mary Ann.

Swanberg: “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.”

A lot of stuff like that really kind of takes you into different places. I like being taken into those different places, because I can take nuggets of it from my own life, or whatever. For example, whenever Lee is at her parent’s house– Sam Elliott her (Dewitt’s) step-dad? Right?

Swanberg: “Yeah, that’s right.”

She’s talking to him, and it seemed natural, but it was so perfect that it had to be scripted. He said something along the lines of, “Being in love, getting what you want, or is it giving somebody else what they want?” I thought about that, “How am I ever going to …?” It really stuck with me. I don’t know why it stuck with me, but a lot of stuff like that in the movie really resonated, but in a way that I’m not really sure how it resonated with me for the long haul.

Jake Johnson (Left) and Rosemarie Dewitt (Right) play married couple Tim and Lee (photo courtesy of the orchard)

Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt play married couple Tim and Lee. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Swanberg: “Yeah, yeah.”

It still wrestles with me, and I thought it was really interesting just kind of how you played with that, and how you collaborated with the other film makers, and whatnot, on it. Just those small moments is what I like to take, and although this one still has the cinematic quality to it, I still wasn’t taken out of it. For example, if I was watching ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY, I feel like I’m in this little condo with her, through this weekend, doing that, but still it had that feel and it worked really well for me. Was that a mash-up of ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY on the beach whenever she walked up to Jane Adams in that moment?

Swanberg: “Yeah, there’s two references to ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY. She runs into Jane on the beach and also one of her Uber drivers is the solar engineer from ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY: The guy who was talking about divorce.

ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY is one of the only other LA movies that I made, and so I really liked the idea that these LA characters were still floating around in the world of DIGGING FOR FIRE that there’s some interesting crossover over there. I didn’t want to be too specific about it, but I’m happy that you picked up on that.”

I really dug that movie a lot as well. I mentioned to you, hearing about certain films that you enjoyed, once again a reference to Maron, that you were talking about THE CONJURING on that. People would probably say by first glance, that is completely different about something that you would do, but I know you delved into horror and. Any smaller, or larger movies that have stuck out to you?

Swanberg: “You know, my consumption of movies right now, is at an almost all-time low, because I’ve been working non-stop this year.The stuff that I’m really into right now, in terms of smaller stuff, are movies that I’m producing for other people. There’s this movie called QUEEN OF EARTH, that this guy Alex Ross Perry directed.

It’s coming out soon, actually. It’s coming out at the end of August. I produced a movie that’s sort of a horror film. It’s like new horrors; relationship horror stuff. It’s called LACE CRATER, and it’s going to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s directed by a guy named Harrison Atkins. I’ve been in my, not really time off, but as part of what I’m up to these days, trying to produce more stuff for other people, and often that is taking the form of horror films, or at least stuff that’s formally playing with horror elements.”

I really like that I don’t know what I’m going to get from your films, and the people you work with. Once you grasp on, for me at least when I was in college, I started watching, I think I watched NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS, or something like that, and kind of just going from there and going like, “OK, so now I have an association for Greta. Or now I would have an association for Mark [Duplass], or Kent Osborne or somebody like that, or even Larry Fessenden after seeing ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY.

I just really dig, I really neglect to use the word, but for lack of a better word, kind of the branding, in terms of like giving myself as somebody who’s like a, not only a student of film, even though I’m not a film maker, and somebody who’s trying to consume as much as possible, it’s really cool to have that, and I’m glad to hear that you’re producing.

Swanberg: “Absolutely.”

Oh, yeah! LISTEN UP PHILIP was incredible.

Swanberg: “Yeah, that was definitely my favorite film last year. That blew every other independent film out of the water, for me, man. I thought it was so good. Yeah, I mean it’s just like the producing work that I’m doing is really just about trying to in whatever small way I can, enable the film makers whose stuff I love, just keep making movies. A lot of times it’s either hard to raise money right after something, or there’s just various other things that make it difficult to work at the speed that I feel like a lot of people want to work at.

The producing side of what I’m up to, really is just about trying to just give people money and leave them alone to go make their movies. So Alex made QUEEN OF EARTH, which is more like a Roman Polanski horror film, or something. It’s really psychological horror, and coming off of his collaboration with Elisabeth Moss on LISTEN UP PHILIP, just allowing those two artists to dive back in and make something together again, as quickly as possible; and that’s really exciting to me.”

Last question for you. I know that you work at a prolific rate, even though you’re producing, can you tell me about some other ideas, or something that you may having coming up that I can look forward to next year?

Swanberg:Sure. I’ve shot two movies already this year, that I’m editing right now.” I did a another 35 millimeter film, a crazy comedy with Aubrey Plaza that I’m working on. I just wrapped a movie, another one with Jake Johnson, something we wrote together that’s like kind of a comedy about a gambler who winds up with a bag in his possession. So yeah, man, I just love to make movies, so I’m just always working on as much stuff as I can. Those are the two that are occupying me at the moment, and then I’ll probably finish those up, and figure out what I’m doing this fall.”

DIGGING FOR FIRE opens in select theaters this weekend, and opens in Dallas and hits VOD next week.
Dallas: Texas Theatre is screening the film tonight at 8:45 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Swanberg via satellite.