Sundance: Joe Swanberg, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jake Johnson on Digging for Fire

Photo: Tiffany Rose/Getty Images

If you’ve heard of Digging for Fire, it’s likely that you’re aware that Chris Messina’s penis makes an appearance in the film, during a scene when the actor goes skinny-dipping. How did that magical moment happen? It’s all by the grace of director Joe Swanberg’s improvised movie-making style, wherein the performers worked to fill in the dialogue and action suggested by a ten-page outline written by Swanberg and New Girl’s Jake Johnson. (The latter starred in Swanberg’s 2013 Drinking Buddies.) This time around, Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt play Tim and Lee, parents to a 3-year-old boy (played by Swanberg’s own son, Jude), who find a rusted gun and a bone in the hillside of a fancy L.A. place they’re housesitting. Soon they’re off on different adventures: Lee’s involves a chance encounter with Orlando Bloom, while Tim invites his buddies — Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia — over to dig up the hillside. Vulture talked to Swanberg, Johnson, and DeWitt about the movie’s real-life inspiration, dance parties, Messina’s junk, and what Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy means for New Girl.

So one thing I’ve learned at this festival: Joe Swanberg is a dancing machine. Every time I turned around at your premiere party, you were dancing. I heard you went until 4 a.m., and had an 8:30 a.m. screening the next day.
Joe Swanberg: I don’t like to go home, I like to keep the party groovin’. It’s good to dance, it’s actually important for my mental health.
Jake Johnson: You and I are a perfect premiere-party duo, because I’m a big Irish-good-bye kinda guy. I like small [parties]. Whenever everyone gets together I’m like, “Why don’t we just go to our cabin?” So if there’s dancing and the party’s a hit, I can leave easily and be like, “The torch is being carried.”
J.S.: Yeah, I’ll hold down the home front. Jake aside, I think the ability to hold it together at the dance party is a big prerequisite to be on the crew. I need all my camera and sound departments to also be on the dance floor with me.

What caught you off-guard most working without a script, besides Messina getting naked?
Rosemarie DeWitt: Every woman who’s seen the movie asks me what it was like making out with Orlando Bloom [laughs] and I’ll tell them it was like cheating on my husband! Because in every other movie there’s a script and you prepare yourself psychologically and you prepare your partner for like, “Oh, I’m going to get naked.” For this movie, I met Orlando, we did some acting together, we went [for a walk on the beach], and Joe looked at us and this was the direction: “And now, you know, I just want you guys to get into it.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “You know, just get in there. Just get into it.” And Orlando was so game that he just grabbed me and started making out! I was so not prepared for it and I felt like I had to go home and tell Ron [Livingston, her husband].
J.S.: Life’s short man, everyone ought to get the chance to make out with Orlando on a beach.
J.J.: I was really mad at the scene where his and my kiss got cut. It was in Costa Rica and there was a waterfall. It doesn’t matter — it’s just a really cute scene. I thought it was a mistake, but I’m not going to fight with you in front of Vulture. I’m not doing that.

The movie is based on Jake’s own experience. How much of the stuff did you actually find in your yard?
J.J.: Almost all of it. I did not find a shoe. That we put in for a story thing. But everything else was based off how my wife and I rented a house and were putting a garden in the back. We went pretty deep in the ground and I found a gun and a bone, and I called the police, and the police said what they said in the movie: “Have you found a body?” I said, “No.” And they were like, “What would you like us to do?” I said, “Don’t you have some weird machine that comes out and takes the body out?” And they said, “It’s not our job to clean out your garbage. If you find a body, call us.” So I called a bunch of friends, we had a very similar moment to that moment [in the movie], where everybody came feeling cool to do some physical labor, and we spent the next couple of weeks, whenever people had time — I was off of work at the time — digging in that backyard.

Did you find a body?
J.J.: No, the mystery gets weird. We found a carpet that was buried vertically about five-and-a-half feet in the ground, and the ground at that point had gotten really hard to dig. And like in the movie, the dudes just leave. Because in real life the dudes just left. Somebody’s in there for three hours and then they’re like, “I have a callus on my hand. Bye.” And then there’s one guy, Jeff Baena in real life, the director of Life After Beth, was like, “Then we’ll get gloves, because we’re in.” But we couldn’t get to where we needed to get on the rug. So we had a long conversation deep down in our hearts, What did we think? And we both thought it was probably garbage. We basically said, “This is going to be the next month of our lives … or we bury it up and not talk about it for a year,” [laughs] which we did. And then three years later I talked to Joe and we made a movie about it.

A theme of this movie is parents who feel like they’ve lost their identities while taking care of their kids. Is that your experience?
J.S.: It was important to me to talk about. When I had a kid, I felt woefully underprepared by the movies in a way that I almost felt abandoned by them. Then suddenly my kid was born and I was like, “Is there something wrong with me? Am I having a totally unique experience that I’m being crushed by this, that I feel like I’m under, like, military-grade torture right now? Where were the movies to give me a five-year head start on what it was going to be like?” I think movies have an incredible ability to start conversations. There are things that are not just beautiful and sweet and perfect about [parenthood]. And it’s okay to bitch a little bit. It’s okay to not be having this magical experience.
R.D.: I’ll be honest, that’s not my experience. If anything, I wish I would like to just be mom. You know, I love to go to work, but right now the work has to be with, like, these guys [Joe and Jake] or I don’t want to leave her, you know what I mean? It’s too delicious.

Joe’s actual kid plays your characters’ kid, and you made him cry by telling him not to say the word “poopy” at the dinner table.
J.J.: That was brutal.
R.D.: It really was brutal. Because he was not acting.
J.S.: And because that is accurate. I’m very sensitive about Jude. I like to put him in movies as a little document for myself and I’m hoping that when I’m 60 years old I put these things on, like, home movies, and it takes me right back there.
J.J.: This is Jude’s baby movie.
J.S.: It’s very special to me, and I don’t want to taint that specialness with anything that feels wrong, but that scene felt so right, I mean it really is accurate to how quickly a 3-year-old’s emotions will swing. You know, how they go from the highest high of having a great time to immediately slammed into the depths of despair.

Jake, I have to ask you about New Girl. How are you guys going to work around Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy? Pillows?
J.J.: It actually shouldn’t be that tricky. There’s going to be a million meetings and then we’re just going to shoot and she’s going to be sitting down more or she’s going to be behind something. If her face looks a little bit bigger, well, good! She’s carrying a baby. And then she’s going to give birth and be a great mom and come back to work. It’s a lot of talk for a very natural thing that’s happening. There’s talk of shooting more episodes to tag onto this year to give her more time, but it’ll look similar to the audience.
Isn’t it about time that Nick and Jess get different apartments? Because it’s a little weird they all still live in that loft.
J.J.: Yes, but I’ve pitched it to Liz [Meriwether, New Girl creator] and she’s told me to stop pitching ideas. [Laughs] I don’t think the characters all need to live in the same loft. I think now it’s kind of a thing where you’ve established this group of people. And the loft is definitely a character, but at this point they’re getting older. How about they build three apartments?

Sundance: A Chat With the Digging for Fire Cast