The prolific and ever-burgeoning independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg makes warmly lived-in movies, increasingly involving commercially familiar actors. His newest, Digging for Fire, is a love story, and maybe also an oblique thriller, about house-sitting in Hollywood. Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt play Tim and Lee, a husband and wife who spend a weekend apart gaining perspective on partnership and parenthood when, instead of finally getting around to doing the family taxes, Tim unearths a mystery in the backyard. Accommodating by nature, Swanberg called in to talk about it even though his wife, writer-director Kris Swanberg, just recently gave birth to their second child.
Congratulations on the new film, and on the new baby. Brand new, right?
Thank you. Yes, my daughter is a week old.
Will you be making children as frequently as you make films?
I will not. Probably I will have a lot more movies, and no more children.
And, uh, how is it doing press when you have a newborn?
I am pretty tired. But it’s one of those things that my wife and I have both gotten used to. That’s the thing with the film industry: It happens when it happens. We already knew her due date, and you see it coming, and you just sort of do the best you can with with it. As we’re both very aware, these are great problems to have. It all means things are going well.
Meanwhile, are you turning your son Jude, who’s a toddler, into a star?
[Laughs.] I’m very casual about his appearance in these things. It felt natural. He’s around it all the time anyway. I don’t want it to be a foreign world or a mystery to him. I’d like him to have the same comfort level that I had around my parents’ jobs. But I have no desire to parent a child actor. I have a feeling there’ll be a period where he disappears from the movies. Right now it seems like he’s more interested in the craft services, the snacks, than in anything else.
Your ongoing collaboration with Jake Johnson — first Drinking Buddies, now this — seems quite mutually beneficial.
And we just finished shooting another movie that we both were in. It is really nice. It’s become this really great thing, because we’re coming from such different points of view. We got into the business in different ways. He lives in L.A. and I live in Chicago. We’re both kind of mining each other for experience. For me it’s become this nice collaboration of not needing somebody who’s identical to me but who’s agreeable.
You’ve done great work making films from outlines and collaborative improv instead of scripts. With Drinking Buddies, do I have it right that you basically pitched Jake on coming in even before you knew quite what the movie would be?
Yeah. He had done a ton of improv, but going in, we didn’t know each other. So there was a sense of feeling each other out. He told me: It sounds great, but it also sounds like a high likelihood of you not being able to deliver what you’re promising. But his attitude was: If you’re going to follow through, I’ll work with you for the rest of my life. It’s like with any actor. They’re thinking: I’m going to come do your movie, and not make any money — which they definitely don’t — and I’m going to be away from my wife, and why am I doing it? As an indie filmmaker, that’s what you’re up against. You’re almost never offering people any money in exchange for their labor. And the frequency of great movies is pretty low in general. It’s a big gamble. You kind of have to roll the dice and trust people. The real challenge was that Drinking Buddies was a change of pace for me with the size of the crew, and the budget. In a way it sort of kept me honest. I had to manage and maintain the atmosphere I’d had on the smaller ones. Jake helped. He was great from day one.
Digging for Fire looks like a challenge of scale as well. This is a bigger cast, including several people you’ve worked with before, but also several well-established actors who are newcomers to your world. Was it hard to wrangle?
Honestly, that piece of it was helped a lot, in the wake of Drinking Buddies, when Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and Jake really became my advocates to other actors. Ron Livingston, too. They said to people, “This was fun, we got to be actors and work with actors in a great and real way, you definitely should try it.” Because the process had been sort of confusing and mysterious to people. In the conversations going into Drinking Buddies, I was spending most of it trying to explain just what I do — only after about 30 minutes of that did we get into the actual thing. Here, a lot of people got right down to the meat of the thing. And the cast came together in a really nice organic way. What was funky and complicated, though, was having new people on set every day. When you see the same people every day, you have a certain continuity and familiarity. But obviously it changes if you keep bringing in new people. Jake was saying every day he’d have to recalibrate. There’d be a new person on set, a new energy. We spent a lot of time figuring out what the vibe was. And I think that’s great.
I don’t want to give anything away about the movie, but let me ask you this: Have you formed a philosophy about the value in relationships of digging stuff up versus letting it stay buried?
Yes. My feeling — about the movie — is not that they can let things stay buried. My attitude about the mission that Jake’s character is on is that he already knows what he’s looking for. Whether he finds it or not, he already knows what it is. So it’s not a tale of keeping things buried. It’s more about a relationship question where you probably know, and you can go through the long laborious process of proving to yourself what you know, or you can just trust your gut.