Drinking Buddies: Swanberg & Livingston

By Meredith Alloway · August 20, 2013

Making a Movie with a Lot of Beer and Without a Script

What’s the common consensus for Drinking Buddies? You’ll have as much fun watching it as they did making it. To that, I will toast. It’s true. Joe Swanberg’s laid back, relaxed and still ridiculously touching, yes, touching, film has been a hit since SXSW. He put together a story about four friends living in the world of craft beer and how sometimes the line between pal and lover can become blurred, especially with booze.

Swanberg assembled Ron Livingston, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick to play the foursome. Not only does Swanberg orchestrate each of their unique comedic and dramatic skill sets, he does so without a script. In classic mumblecore fashion, where Swanberg first made a name for himself with films like Hannah Takes the Stairs, he works with outlines rather than screenplays.

In LA, along with a few other journalists, I got to spend some time hanging with the Drinking Buddies gang. Swanberg and Livingston openly discuss their drinking on set, education on craft beer and how they pulled off a hilarious film where nothing was planned.

Joe, what brought you to this? Everyone likes to joke you do a thousand movies a day.

S: Early in my career I had created a false dichotomy between good, interesting cinema that had to exist in the art house and then brainless, commercial cinema that could play in the multiplexes. Then I re-watched some older movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and The Heartbreak Kid and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have to choose one or the other. It may be possible to make a smart adult movie that was also entertaining.

Ron, I’m curious what it was like for you working with Joe where there is no script?

L: I liken it to a road trip. Everyone says ‘ I just want to get in a car and drive!’ Then you look at a map like ‘where the hell are we?’ There’s a real delicate balance towards keeping that spontaneity but then at the end of the day hitting those gas stations and finding a place to sleep at night. Everything that you’re doing has to contribute towards a whole and that you may not have shot yet or don’t know what it’s going to be. That’s the mysterious part where I don’t understand how he manages to pull it off!

Was it challenging in the editing room to get consistent tone?

S: Certainly! But it’s also where the directing and the editing are one job. The auteur theory applies for me during the cut. That’s where my fingerprint gets put on it. On set, I feel like I’m a pretty quiet, hands-off director. I want people to try different things. I want it to feel loose.

L: It feels more like being in a documentary! Joe shoots like a documentarian. Maybe one who cheats; he’ll nudge you this way (Laughing).

Were the actors really drinking beer?

L: Yes.

You guys must have been pissed every day at work!

L: I don’t know how Anna did it!

S: On a day-to-day basis the actors only have a glass of beer in their hands for a minute and a half. And then in the editing room I was like Oh my God they’re drinking in every scene!

L: The key is not to drink in between takes.

S: (Laughs) That’s right. I don’t think anyone was ever drunk. Some of that’s practical. It’s notoriously hard to fake the look of beer.

Since you guys were drinking the whole time-how was the beer?

L: Joe’s a connoisseur.

S: I take great pride. It was important for me that everyone leave knowing more about beer than when they came in. For Jake and Olivia, they needed to talk about it and get fluent in the language of beer. The first couple days I put them through brewing boot camp! The first day of shooting everything was ‘hoppy!’ By the end of the three weeks their fluency was a little greater. 

Both of you guys have worked on bigger studio films and then done indie stuff like this. What do you prefer?

L: I love them both. If you got stuck with one or the other, you’d probably get sick of it. There’s so much autonomy on independent film just by the fact that you have to go fast. There may be people standing over your shoulder, but there’s no time for them to change what you did. On a studio movie there’s so much money at stake so you can shoot a scene… for two and a half weeks! The trick with that is how you keep it spontaneous and fresh and new.

Drinking Buddies is currently out on VOD/Digital Platforms and will open in NYC August 23rd and LA on the 30th!