In this lifetime, each new year promises a few certainties: moronic Fox News hosts will continue to be moronic, some people will die, and a new Joe Swanberg movie will come out. His latest movie is entitled Digging For Fire, a shaggy drama that opens with married couple Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) unearthing a bone and a gun in their backyard. Lee urges Tim to put both items down and cease any further investigation. But when the two spend a weekend apart for some alone time, Tim plunges forward to discover what these miscellaneous objects signify. As is typical with Swanberg affairs, the film ambles forward with an almost calculated aimlessness. By the end, the movie proves to be an affecting story about the loss of youth and acceptance of adulthood.
Swanberg talked to The A.V. Club about his current state of mind, the precise moment he grew up, and perhaps, one day, taking a break from directing.
The A.V. Club: How many of these have you had to do today?
Joe Swanberg: Oh, actually, I’m just starting. My daughter was born on Monday. So I’m just at the beginning of my Digging For Fire interview tour.
AVC: Congratulations on that! That’s not your first child, right?
JS: That’s right: I have a son.
AVC: He’s the best part of all your movies. Which is not to say your movies aren’t good. The kid is just so great.
JS: Thank you, he’s fun to work with.
AVC: Does he give you shit on set?
JS: Definitely. We figured out the best way to work with him is to bribe him with gummy bears. Most surefire way to get a performance out of him.
AVC: This film is very much about marriage, monogamy, and growth. How much of this is mined from your own marriage to Kris, who’s also a writer and director?
JS: I think with all the movies, there’s a really strong personal element. The way that I like to work is to bring these actors into it and let them bring as much of their personal feelings into it as possible. In a way, I think we stir it into a pot and then reassign it. It’s not always coming out of the mouth of the person who is bringing that biography, but a lot of the shooting days are spent in conversation, kicking around ideas, talking about scenes and things like that. During improvisations, I’ll hear people bringing back up details from something I heard about at breakfast or something somebody was saying that they were thinking about, and it informs a rewriting of a scene. I’m interested in taking things from my relationship that I don’t see on screen—or that I feel like that could be useful or helpful if it were out in the open—and trying to put that in the movies as much as possible.
AVC: Everyone brings their own baggage to the game, essentially.
JS: I want them to. It’s an integral part of the process that we’re all open and honest with each other. I don’t want to force somebody to talk about sensitive subjects if they’re not into it, but at the very least, even if that’s happening off camera, it’s allowing everybody to be on the same level, and creates an atmosphere on set that engenders trust and the right kind of feelings about how we’re attacking stuff.
AVC: In attacking the themes of the movie, what specifically were you bringing to the table?
JS: Well, I’m interested in talking about co-dependence and talking about, at least for me, the importance in a relationship of having independent experiences.
AVC: Right, maintaining autonomy.
JS: Yeah, just because you married doesn’t mean you’re not an individual person with your own wants and desires and needs. Rather than look at a marriage as two people morphing into one thing, you could see two individuals who are choosing to form a partnership. So I think the couple in the movie is struggling with that. Both of them have these questions about whether they are still their former selves or whether they have permanently changed into this new together self. I think that spending this weekend apart from each other and having these independent experiences is good for them. It sort of brings them back together where they feel not only connected to each other, but reconnected to themselves.
AVC: That “morphing of two people into one” seems to be a common outcome in relationships.
JS: In our relationship, it’s really nice because we’re working independent of each other, and traveling a lot, and there’s something really nice about missing the person you’re with. To have someone be apart enough to force independence and to also look forward to seeing that person. But for a lot of people, you get cramped making decisions together and living together and every other thing that starts to happen. I just think you have to be vigilant in the relationship to carve out space for yourself. And a lot of that requires knowing what you need and communicating that to your partner, which is hard.
AVC: Do you think you’re better at communicating now?
JS: Yes, I’ve been married for eight years now, and we’ve been together for like 15 years. I’m definitely better at it. I’m certainly a lot better at it with Kris, but I’m better at it with everybody now. I’ve just had so much experience with miscommunication, fights, and every other thing that you could go through that you learn from and then you toy and not repeat those mistakes. And I think in general I personally have a tendency to protect other people’s feelings, and I’ve noticed that becomes a major hindrance to communication. It’s better to just be honest, even if it’s painful.
AVC: As it often is.
JS: And then work from there. Yeah, and so that’s something I’ve really had to work on, but it’s been very helpful.
AVC: The concept of aging and maturation is very ingrained into this film. When did that moment—where you felt adulthood creeping in—happen to you?
JS: There is a definitive moment that I can remember that’s funny and pop culture-y. I was watching the movie Reality Bites, which Ben Stiller directed. When I saw it as a kid, I obviously sided with Ethan Hawke and thought that he was the hero of that movie and that Ben Stiller was a corporate sellout. And it was interesting to watch that movie again. I think I was in college and it was on TV and I was watching it, and it occurred to me that Ben Stiller’s character was a full, complicated human being, with an actual conflict of interest there, and that Ethan Hawke was a fucking form of arrested development. And it was such a wild moment for me to have grown up and to watch the same movie and feel that my allegiance was shifting in certain ways from the cool charismatic rock star to the more straightlaced corporate middle man. To be like, “Ugh, that guy’s not as bad as I thought he was, and that guy’s not as cool as I thought he was.”
AVC: It’s always strange when the tables turn like that with a movie you thought you previously understood.
JS: Yeah, it’d probably been about 10 years between viewings of the movie, which was enough time to fundamentally understand that there were not good and bad guys, and that Ben Stiller’s character was making complicated decisions and sacrifices because he lived in the real world, and not because he was a jerk.
AVC: What do you attribute your work ethic to? You have a new movie out every six or seven months. Do you agree with Woody Allen, who says he would go mad if he didn’t make something every year?
JS: I definitely relate to that. It certainly is in some parts, and also, I really like to do it. And so often while I’m shooting one, we’re already talking about and generating ideas for the next one. Because of the way I work, I don’t have this writing period where I’m taking time to formulate these ideas into a script. It’s really easy to finish a movie and sort of immediately dive into the next one, because I love working with actors so much and being on set, my inclination is to try to get back to that as soon as possible. There’s just never much of a gap.
AVC: Can you imagine what a break would look like?
JS: Yeah, you know, these days, I can kind of imagine what it would like, and there’s a part of me that’s dreaming of that. But it’s so fun and also I learn so much from each movie, and I feel like—and obviously this is subjective and up for debate—I’m getting better the more practice I have, and the more of these things that I make. So there’s a hunger and a desire to get better as quickly as possible by making as much stuff as possible. So, even if it’s not a straight upward line where the quality is improving noticeably from movie to movie, I’m learning something new and attempting to apply that to the next one. It’s this real search for the knowledge that comes with each production. What’s nice about already having made so many is that I’m not precious with that. I don’t feel the need for each one to be this perfectly composed masterpiece. Each one is like a chapter in a book, you know? They’re all together forming a body of work that feels bigger and more important to me than any of the individual movies. I’m just really enjoying it, and happy to dive in head first with each one.