Joe Swanberg on keeping his voice down and ‘Drinking Buddies’

"Drinking Buddies" Brooklyn Screening
Joe Swanberg wrote and directed “Drinking Buddies.”
Credit: Getty

For some actors, director Joe Swanberg’s mostly improvised method can be daunting. But others — like his “Drinking Buddies” cast of Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson — find it exhilarating.

Swanberg gives us some insight into his writing and editing process and his stringent “no yelling” policy for himself on set.

How much of this was improvised and how much did you plot out?

The plot was pretty heavily figured out before we shot anything. The size of the movie and the infrastructure involved meant that we had to schedule it, we had to lock down locations. We had to know what the story was going to be and even what the scenes were going to be in a vague way. Being my own editor allows me to be a little more open as a director. Editing becomes a lot of the writing process.

How do you go about pitching this sort of process to actors?

It’s a very conversational pitch. I talk about where the themes came from, how I relate to the story, what I’m pulling from my own life, and I feel like that’s a nice lead-in to discussing how their own stories can enter into the picture. The goal ultimately is to have it be a kind of collaborative performing and writing process, so I’m looking for people who are open to sharing and talking about those kinds of things — relationship things.

Did you find some actors just didn’t quite go for that?
Sure. I met a lot of great actors, people whose work I admire, who just either weren’t excited by the improv process or for one reason or another thematically this wasn’t a story they were interested in telling right now. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why somebody would or wouldn’t want to do this movie, but I think people were all curious.

Do you think your being an actor helped with that conversation?
A little bit, maybe. Hopefully it helps me as a director. I certainly feel like it makes me a better communicator and it makes me more empathetic to that experience so that I at least don’t leave somebody totally stranded, you know?

Have you seen any examples as an actor of directors’ behavior you’re careful to avoid?
I don’t think there are any circumstances in which yelling at somebody or losing your temper is going to help a situation. A set is a living organism that’s responsive to stimuli. If somebody at the top is stressed out, everybody feels it. You don’t need to say it out loud. Some people thrive on conflict, though. I think there are a lot of directors that like having intense, conflict-filled sets, and they feel like that produces some kind of liveliness, but I really want everybody to be having a good time.


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