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Joe Swanberg.

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Joe Swanberg on Drinking Buddies and Embracing the Romantic Comedy and ‘Mumblecore’ Labels

Earlier in the week, we posted a list of eight recent mumblecore movies that double as romantic comedies. It included Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, which stars Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, and Ron Livingston as a pair of mixed-up couples who drink a whole lot of beer. Along with Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers, Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) is one of the directors most associated with mumblecore. He's seen the label go from joke to insult to useful shorthand for any movie that has a minor scope, understated tone, fairly low production value, and improvised, or seemingly improvised, dialogue. We spoke to him ahead of this week's theatrical release of Drinking Buddies (the movie is currently on demand), about embracing his mumblecore roots, the dismal state of the romantic comedy, and Kendricks's "Cups" success.

Do you think of Drinking Buddies as a romantic comedy?
Well, we used the romantic comedy as a template. And I think the first third of the movie really sets up characters that are familiar from the genre. But then the whole idea was to root that kind of movie in reality, make something that feels much richer and more personal and complex than most of the romantic comedies we’re seeing. I’m a huge fan of romantic comedies, but I think they’re so bad these days, that I’m trying desperately to revive that genre.

What do you think is so bad about the current state of them?
They’re so formulaic. I mean, it’s very difficult to have any kind of romantic feelings for a movie where you know exactly what’s going to happen in the first five minutes. [With] any film, dramatic tension arises from not knowing what’s going to happen, and so these films, most of them seem devoid of that. I think the other big problem is that it's so important to the people making the films that the central characters be likable and that the audience be with them. You'll have the woman be engaged to some guy, but fall in love with somebody else. In order to make the audience feel okay about that, they have to make the fiancée seem like such a complete asshole, so that not a single person in the theater feels like, "Oh, that guy got fucked over." They just stack the decks so much that you can’t have any fun. There’s no tension and there’s no complexity to it.

What are a few of your favorite romantic comedies ever?
Two of the movies that were a huge inspiration for Drinking Buddies were Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid. You know, these sort of late-sixties, early-seventies, not cookie-cutter romantic comedies; complex movies about adults in interesting situations. The Graduate, which I would sort of put in my version of the romantic comedy genre, though obviously it’s a very twisted, fucked-up romantic comedy. I really like When Harry Met Sally. I really like The Wedding Singer. I really loved That Thing You Do. But it’s been a while since there was one that I could really latch on to.

Earlier in this week, I did a post on eight recent mumblecore movies that can scratch your rom-com itch. Let's get this out of the way: How do you feel about the term "mumblecore" at this point?
Well, you know, it’s here to stay. I feel like I’m never going to escape the word itself. But it’s shifted meanings. I’ve been associated with it long enough to see it go from being an inside joke to something that was almost like a four-letter word, used very derisively against these movies, to this point of being reclaimed. I feel like any movie Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers, and I ever make — even if it was a hundred-million-dollar action movie — would probably be called a mumblecore action movie. It’s sticking to us. Honestly, I feel very lucky to have been associated with it. The big challenge is getting people to see these movies. The word became a reason for journalists to write about [my movies]. It was a conversation piece for people to talk about. So, I think without the word, I’d still be struggling for anybody to pay attention.

I'd say a few of your films fit in the romantic comedy genre. But there is a definite subversion, especially with how you deal with sex and sexual norms. Do you set out with this goal explicitly or is it just what happens organically while shooting?
I think it happens pretty natural. Going into Drinking Buddies, I wasn’t like "Oh, I can’t wait to fuck with the romantic comedy." I was sort of like, "Oh, I can’t wait to make a romantic comedy." And then very much by default, the movie ended up feeling different because I am focused on different things and because so many of those bigger romantic comedies hinge on totally unrealistic elements. There’s some high concept involved or some huge coincidence that is the driving engine. By avoiding that, by having reality be the motivating force, the movie already subverts the genre.  

How do you feel about happy endings?
I’m into them, but my idea of them is probably different than other people's: I think that Drinking Buddies has a happy ending, even though it’s an ambiguous ending. For me, the characters learn important things, the relationships at the end of the film feel good and healthy, people have gotten over things. So I look at it and I’m like, "Oh, it’s really one of the first things that I’ve made that has what feels like a happy ending." [Laughs.] But I’m very aware that for a lot of the audience, that’s not their idea of a happy ending.

There's humor in a lot of your movies, but with Drinking Buddies, maybe because of the actors, it feels slightly more comedy-forward. Is it hard to find that right tone between funny and real? To determine if a moment is almost too funny to feel like real life?
A lot of that happens in the editing room. I’m a pretty hands-off director. I let people try things, and if it gets over-jokey, then I’ll try and rein it in a little bit. But most of my favorite comedies are movies that either make me cringe because they're so uncomfortable, or they're movies that I feel like I smile throughout them, but I’m not laughing like crazy. The humor comes out of feeling either so comfortable that you’re like, "Oh, I like these people and I’m just enjoying spending time with them," or the opposite of that, which is a level of such discomfort that you laugh at it or pity it.

Like in Drinking Buddies, there’s a scene with Ron and Anna. They’ve gone hiking in the woods and they’re sitting on this picnic blanket. It always gets a big audible laugh out of the audience, and it’s totally a discomfort thing. You’re laughing so that the people around you can’t feel you squirming and cringing. It’s very much a Larry David, Ricky Gervais kind of humor.

Speaking of Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm is an improvised show that predated the movies that you’ve made. Was it a touchstone for you?
That’s a huge influence. That show first started airing when I was in film school and I think it very much taught me that you could break the rules — that you didn’t have to have a script to put something together. That kind of humor and level of heightened naturalism really was completely liberating at that point in my life where I was in a film school environment and being taught the rules. It was shot on cheap video, with handheld video. Basically everything about how you were taught it was supposed to look and feel, Curb did the opposite of that.

Do you have an opinion on the “Cups” phenomenon?
It’s amazing! My wife and I can’t drive anywhere without hearing it. There’s something really fun about just being like, "Oh, that’s my friend Anna on the radio." And also I know that it just happened. It’s not like she's out there promoting it or making it happen, it's just naturally happening. And that’s always fun, when there’s not a machine behind it.

This is the biggest movie you've made, at least in terms of budget and recognizable actors. If you were ever given the opportunity to make a big $70 million movies and were able to stay true to your roots, do you have an idea of what would be the blowout version of a movie you would do?
I don’t know. I’ve trained myself not to think that big, and because I like the work, I’m always conceiving of ideas that I can actually go make, so I don’t really have the $70 million version. But I’ll say that for the first time in my career, I’m open to the idea of doing something like that. I think that there are always additional tools that you add to your arsenal when the budget goes up, so I’m curious. But I’d much rather do something slightly bigger than Drinking Buddies, and then something slightly bigger than that, and let that sort of grow and happen naturally. I don’t have a lot of desire to jump into a $70 million movie next. I’m a big fan of baby steps.

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty