Sundance 2015 Interview: DIGGING FOR FIRE With Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg has never looked to filmmaking as a means of escapism. With an eye attuned to realism, Swanberg has a great talent for exploring and working through themes of relationships and ageing and the correlation between the two.
Swanberg's 2013 film, Drinking Buddies, found him working through the constraints of freedom within the precarious post collegial period of the serious relationship, prior to commitment. His new film, Digging For Fire, is an observationally meditative allegory that finds him at odds with marriage, fatherhood, and what becomes of one's identity when these forces overwhelm a person's concept of his/her personality.
Both Drinking Buddies and Digging For Fire are exceptional behavioral studies that thoroughly dig at the implications and weight of sexual tension. But now that Swanberg is a husband with child, with the newfound safety net of commitment, Digging For Fire continues the conversation in a way that suggests that even more important than attempting to overcoming these relationship obstacles, is merely the acknowledgment of the elephant itself.
With comedic wisdom, Digging For Fire not only constructively sheds light on Swanberg's own insecurities, but, in doing so, is perhaps able to help out with yours as well. After all, as Swanberg considers during our Sundance discussion, what is the function of cinema, if not to make its viewers feel a little less alone in their struggles?
Would you mind talking a little bit about the genesis of the project and the instigating text message?
Joe Swanberg: Yeah, sure. No sweat. Well, Jake (M. Johnson) and I did a movie called Drinking Buddies together and since we had a fun time working together, we were just trying to figure out if we could make another movie. Then he called me and told me this story... As he and his wife were trying to put a garden in their backyard, they found a bone that he thought could be a human bone. He wasn't sure. Maybe it's a human bone. Maybe it's an animal bone. He also found a gun, and it was like, maybe it's a real gun. Maybe it's a fake gun.
Being intriguing enough to him, he had some friends over and they started thinking. He found enough stuff that he called the LAPD and said, 'hey, I think I may have stumbled across a crime scene. Do you guys want to check this out?' The LAPD said, it's not our job to come dig out somebody else's garbage. If you find the body, call us, but if you don't find the body, it's not our problem. They took that as impetus to dig deeper and really go for it. One of the guys there was a filmmaker, Jeff Baena, who had a movie called Life After Beth here last year.
I was getting to know Jeff too and so Jeff sent me pictures of Jake in a hole in the backyard. It was crazy. That became, for me, like a really fun starting place for a movie. I was like, 'it would be really interesting to open a movie with a guy finding a bone and a gun - that being like, the inciting incident, and especially if we can tie that into a fertile relationship story'.
Did his wife encourage the digging?
I think that we hung pretty close to how it went down. I think in Digging for Fire, Rosemarie's character is really immediately discouraging but we also chose to put them in a house-sitting situation rather than at their own house, which changes it up. Her concerns were more out of protecting the house. We went back and forth on that of how much the wife should or shouldn't want to push that, but really, I wanted to talk about money and I wanted to talk about Los Angeles.
As a Chicagoan, my experience is - of being in LA and being often in the proximity of wealth, but it not being my wealth - it's being around rich people, being in nice houses, but not owning those houses and not actually having any money myself. Taking a couple that doesn't have a lot of money and putting them in this really nice place felt better to me in terms of some of the stuff I was interested in.
I hope financially that's changing, not that I'm looking to talk about your financial situation...
I'm happy to talk about it and the answer is - kind of but in a much slower way than I think anybody would think. When I was in high school and I was like, I think I want to be a filmmaker and I went to film school, the success stories you hear are the ones where somebody takes the movie to Sundance and gets a studio job. After that he's a big famous director. In the intervening years, I think the industry really changed.
I like the discussion in DIGGING FOR FIRE about the statistic that people who are wealthier are only marginally happier.
What's interesting about that survey, which I definitely paid attention to when it came out, was that the happiest money can make you is when you have enough to cover all of your expenses plus a little bit more. That's the peak of the corollary between money and happiness. Once you have that, once your expenses are covered plus a little bit more, no amount of money beyond that makes you any happier. The lesson that a lot of people should take away from that is you do not need to be a billionaire. It won't make you happier.
You're chasing after something that's not ever going to exist for you. In a way, that survey sounds really discouraging and it's like people with money are happier than people without. To me, what that survey was really saying is you can get yourself to a place where you've maxed out what that thing can do for you and then you can relax. You don't need to keep chasing that in a straight line for the rest of your life.
You should just stop stressing over it and relax.
Yeah. Exactly, exactly. Honestly, I found it to be true. It is very stressful to be broke. I spent a lot of years like that. It takes years off your life. It's hard to not have money. It limits the ways you can be social with people and then also, with my experience, it just caused a lot of fights between my wife and I. That stress sweeps out into every area of your life and so the times when we did have a little bit of money, I felt about as happy as I could feel because I just wasn't constantly under agonizing stress.
Always wondering like, 'shit, am I going to be able to pay the rent next month and if I can't, what does that mean?' I think that's in my own career and now in my wife's career, that's starting to move more in the direction of film because she's actually had a lot of careers. She was a high-school teacher, she owns an ice cream company, she has done a lot of things since film school. Now, she's really focusing on working full time on film again.
I think for both of us, the goal is definitely not money. The goal is what I'm talking about - enough money to pay the mortgage and enough money to put a little bit away. I have a kid. He's going to want to go to college someday, but beyond that, making sure that the stuff that's prioritized is family time and just like chilling out.
DRINKING BUDDIES was largely improv, yes?
Yeah. All the dialog is improvised but based on like a 40 or 50 page like outline treatment.
And this time around I think it was more scripted?
Here's what I'll say... Less was written on paper, it was more figured out. Jake and I had a much bigger lead in time. On Drinking Buddies, all the actors are writers with me and ... On Drinking Buddies, Jake and I had maybe a two month head start before we shot that movie and talked through ideas and built those characters, but on this one, we had a much bigger lead in time. We had probably five months of an ongoing dialog about this. When we got to set, we had a pretty clear idea of how the story went.
As each actor came in, they changed this and that and brought along new stuff. I don't know if the finished movie necessarily resembles perfectly what we thought we were going to do, but I would say, I went in more prepared on this one than I probably ever have.
I'm thinking what the two films have most in common is your infatuation with sexual tension and your skillful exploration of what that looks and feels like.
Yeah, definitely. Temptation and... I mean that, to me, is a thing that I found that never goes away. I mean, it doesn't ... One of the things that I wanted to talk about in Digging for Fire is that, that's okay. I mean I think that Drinking Buddies is a movie about feeling bad about that. It's about people flirting right up on the edge of that line and then that making them feel a little icky. Now that the characters are married and they have a kid and they're deeper into this thing, I actually think that the movie is less judgmental and eases off on that.
Because making out with somebody on a beach doesn't mean you don't love that other person and it doesn't mean you guys don't still have your life together. It's like a one off event. Hopefully that feels bold and exciting to people. That the movie is actually saying like, it's probably good for their marriage that they both had these experiences. It's not something that is driving a wedge between them. It's actually something that is allowing them to play around with that and then feel closer together at the end. I think it's a love story.
You seem to be saying, it's not necessary to go into the specifics of being tempted as a confession, yet, by making this film you're very much acknowledging the whole idea... so what was the dialog with your wife like?
Always ongoing. I mean I think she and I... We met when we were 18. We've been together for a really long time so we've been through a lot of phases together. We went through a college phase together, which was its own thing and then we went to post-collegiate, but not yet married phase, which was its own thing, and then the honeymoon phase and then like, 'successfully married for a little while' phase. Now we're in the like, 'had a kid' phase and throughout each of these, we just continue to try and get better and better in communicating and knowing how to talk to each other about that.
I think what we've discovered is that if you have a crush on somebody, pretending that you don't is not very useful and actually talking about it diffuses it and takes away its power to a pretty healthy degree. We're 15 years into the relationship. We've reached the point where we're not afraid of that. Acknowledging it is like a normal part of being a human who has a functioning sex drive.
It's not forbidden anymore.
It's not forbidden and it's actually like... by making it forbidden it becomes taboo and it becomes more exciting and you can sometimes accidentally turn an innocent situation into something worse than that by being secretive about it.
I almost feel like Sam Rockwell is like a character out of DRINKING BUDDIES, who stumbles into this film to rock the boat.
Yeah, yeah! Who never grew up. Yeah, totally. He's like, one of the guys who worked at the brewery, who didn't get married and didn't have a kid and still likes living that lifestyle.
He's saying that 'I can't deal with not having that freedom that comes with having a kid' and then Jake's character is like, 'yeah but it's a little person'. Can you talk about personally working through that tension in your mind?
Yeah, everything changes. I mean, for me, like, 90% for the better and 10% in a totally terrifying way. I felt this sense of dread of being trapped in this thing that I could never quit. It's like, being a dad is the only job that I couldn't quit if it got too hard. That was really scary.
For the most part, it's totally opened me up and made me so much more loving, so much more vulnerable, so much more available to people, just all really wonderful things that I couldn't have predicted. I'm definitely all the time jealous of my friends who don't have kids. I mean there's a lot of stuff that I miss and I have a very hard time feeling like I'm missing out on fun.
I really relate to Jake's character in this movie. I'm not the person that can say, 'why don't I just go to bed early tonight and get a good night sleep because I'll feel better tomorrow'. I'm like, 'but there's a movie I want to watch and then my friends are meeting up at the bar and I haven't seen them in a while and we have some stuff to catch up on.'
What ends up happening is, I still stay out as late as I used to but then I have to wake up at seven in the morning. I haven't figured out nicely how to balance that. I'm just like, trying to live both lives and so it's exhausting.
Do you equate that freedom with identity at all?
A little bit. I mean it is hard to know who you are when everything is suddenly revolving around the baby. My son is four years old at this point. Life is certainly not all revolving around him, but my main priority is, as a parent, to him more than it is to anything to do with myself anymore. You do ask yourself like, all right who am I now? Now that he's driving the train, in terms of what I care about and love the most, biologically, the most driven to protect and nurture, where is the space for me and does it even matter?
I mean, I think that's the other thing Digging for Fire is asking. Once you've had a kid, did you lose something? Is that thing gone or is that thing dead anyway? Like, what are you looking for? The thing you're maybe looking for might not even be alive anymore. That's the question I ask myself all the time: did I lose a version of myself or was there a natural death to that and does it even matter? Is it a fruitless search regardless? It's like, even if I found the thing, will I gain anything from it?
My time is almost up, but I can't leave this room without bringing up Paul Mazursky...
One of my all time heroes!
For starters, how would you describe what you love about Paul Mazursky?
Well, he made movies for adults that were about adulthood and I think that the film industry is a pretty youth driven industry. I think, especially these days, it's really hard to find stuff for adults. A lot of that has moved on to television and maybe that's a nice logical home for it, but it's frustrating to me. I love the cinema. I believe in movies. I believe in the power of telling like, 80 or 90 minute stories rather than something that may last for 9 years.
Mazursky ... I mean he was an unsung hero. He had a lot of hits and several of these movies were in the Oscar world, but in film school, he was not a director people brought up. He was not somebody who I ever felt was essential viewing. I feel like it's every young filmmaker's job to promote their heroes and try to turn people on to stuff. In a way, Mazursky has been a cause for me in some regard. Because I feel like he's absolutely essential. I feel like, a movie like, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is now the movie that I shouldn't have had to stumble across by myself.
Everybody above me should have been saying, 'you need to watch this, you need to watch this!' When I was a few movies in and people could start to see what I was interested in, I don't know why critics weren't equating the work. Do you know what I mean? Somebody should have shoved me in that direction early in my career. I really didn't tap into Mazursky until like four or five years ago, which is a shame because that stuff could have been motivating me in a different way.
Yeah, he and Elaine May are filmmakers who I feel the most emotional kinship with and am attuned to.
Mazursky basically spent his whole career pulling from his life. Do you feel like that's your trajectory?
I do. I do. I do. I read other people's scripts because I'm not opposed to having an experience to finding a screenplay that I really like that's not connected to my life and just going and making a movie. I think it would be a fun challenge for me and, also, I'm 33 and I feel I'm so very early in my career despite the fact that I made a lot of work. I don't want to limit myself. I don't want to determine for myself what the rest of my career is right now.
I think it's totally unavoidable that I will always be ... Sometimes, the movies will serve the function of a diary and intend to document, but also, I would say that I felt at many points let down by the cinema. If you think of movies and the different functions of movies, for me, one of those functions is a teaching tool and before I ever traveled to Italy, I watch Italian films. They've shown me what Italy was like. They put that language in my ear. They showed me what their countryside looks like, what their human interactions were like.
That's not just through a foreign film. That's through movies about people of your own age too. I have to say that when I got married and when I had a kid, I felt like the cinema had let me down. Until I discovered Mazursky, maybe, Elaine May, and some of these other people, I felt like, 'how come people haven't told the story that it's not all roses?' That there are these hardships and that when you have a kid, you're not just going be like, filled with unending love and everything is going to be perfect.
You're just going to explode with joy but you're also going to have weird nights where you're really frustrated and like, identity crisis and all that stuff. The job of the movie, or my role as a filmmaker, part of it is to tell people, 'hey, here's what to expect, man. This is what I know. I know that you've been sold this one idea but like, check it out, here's an alternative. This has been my experience.' If it's your experience, you don't feel so alone.
Because a lot of times, what happens is like, you go through something and then, if you haven't seen it in a book or a movie or a song or something like that, it's embarrassing or it's hard to talk about, you just don't bring it up. You're like, 'I must be crazy, man!' because I've never seen it reflected back at me. I think that it's a tool of and a function of the movies that you could say 'hey, you're not weird.'
Have you ever participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony?
I haven't, but I want to.