Can men and women be friends? That eternal question, perhaps best asked by Nora Ephron in "When Harry Met Sally," takes center stage in Joe Swanberg's new film "Drinking Buddies," which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on Saturday night.
Swanberg's latest focuses on two couples, Luke and Jill (Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick) and Kate and Chris (Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston), and the too-close-for-comfort relationship between drinking buddies Luke and Kate, who are co-workers at a Chicago brewery. As the title and that description indicate, "Drinking Buddies" features beer drinking, more beer drinking, even more beer drinking and lots of intriguing drama about what is worse for a relationship: physical affairs or emotional ones. As is Swanberg's style, "Drinking Buddies" is unscripted; instead of writing a screenplay, Swanberg discussed the characters and story with his talented cast and filled in the blanks during the editing process.
"Typically, if you're working from a script you've written a joke or moment on the page, and it's really hard to tell if it's landed." Swanberg, best known for making films that fit into the indie sub-genre of mumblecore, said during a post-screening press conference. "You have to rely on the fact that you knew it was a funny joke when you wrote it and then, in the context of the movie, that it will land. This way, I'm watching it as a viewer; I'm watching it unfold. Then I know what's working and not working."
Which isn't to say Swanberg made "Drinking Buddies" by the seat of his pants.
"The point I want to make clear is that this movie is called an improvised movie a lot, but our director was the captain of the ship," Johnson, who gives an exceptional performance as Luke in the film, said at the press conference. "It was a really nice thing. We would all talk things out, but it wasn't a situation where we'd show up on set and we'd say, 'Luke's going to do this today!' There was a clear vision from start to finish."
That clear vision -- plus the film's cast -- make "Drinking Buddies," by far, the most ambitious feature Swanberg has directed to date. (Also, the best looking: Ben Richardson, who shot recent Best Picture nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild," was cinematographer on "Drinking Buddies.") "I certainly didn't think, 'Here I come, I'm going to add legitimacy,'" Wilde said about her involvement in the film. "I thought, 'Will he take me? I want to be part of your cool crew of actors and artists you've worked with before.'"
The danger of acting without a script, however, was that the actors took some of the film's more difficult scenes home.
"The process was so weird in such a good way. I'm not a 40-year veteran, but nothing feels like a Joe Swanberg movie," Johnson said, before relaying a story about shooting a particularly emotional fight scene with Wilde. "I'm hanging out with my brother and my nephew in real life and I'm like, 'I have to go in the other room [to text Olivia and see if she's okay].' 'Why?' 'Because this movie is weird. It's fucking with my head!'"
Not that Johnson wouldn't work with Swanberg again: "I really hope someone has the courage to give Swanberg $20 million," Johnson said. "Whatever that movie is, I want to be in it and I want to see it."