Workplace crush, with beer

Thursday, 15. August 2019

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Kate and Luke work in a Chicago micro-brewery. They both have partners outside its friendly walls, although their respective relationships are at different points on the graph; Kate’s boyfriend, Chris, is resolutely withdrawing from her, while Luke and Anna are skirting around discussing the nitty-gritty of weddings. Like most people, however, they spend most of their time at work. They josh each other and share lunches. They are recognised at work as besties. They go for drinks after work. A lot of drinks.

“Most people in their lives have been through this,” says Swanberg. “You have a crush on someone you work with or someone to whom you’re in close proximity. You have trouble navigating that or you kind of vacillate between wanting that to become something more and feeling bad about the person you’re with, that you’re emotionally cheating.”

Swanberg’s films rely on actors, along with audiences, having been through similar rites of passage: all the dialogue is improvised, with actors called upon to tell stories that may well be their own. “One of the reasons I fell in love with movies is the voyeuristic peek it gives you into other people’s experiences.”

Among aficionados, Joe Swanberg is the leading light of mumblecore, the American school of low-fi film-making that uses digital cameras, tiny crews, free locations and frequently improvised scripts to deliver slices of ordinary 20-something life. As in the real world, improvising actors tend to talk over each other and leave sentences unfinished, hence the “mumblecore” moniker. Being cheap, it is also quick. Swanberg has been remarkably prolific, making 16 features in less than nine years and, at 32, has already been the subject of several retrospectives. Unfortunately, his films to date have been so definitively indie that they have largely been seen at festivals.

Drinking Buddies is his move into the slightly-less-smalltime; instead of his usual two crew and three actors, he had 40 crew and 20 actors, including recognisable faces Olivia Wilde (Kate) and Anna Kendrick (Anna); Luke is played by Jake Johnson, a television actor who was recommended to Swanberg by his friend Lizzie Caplan. “The casting process for my movies is interesting because there are a few things I really want to know about these people,” he says. “One of them is whether they have a rich, interesting life outside their acting work. I am going to be putting them in a lot of situations where they are going to have to talk and I need to make sure that all of their stories don’t circle back to some experience they had on a film set.”

A significant slice of experience he brought along himself was his interest in brewing. “I’m a home brewer and a big beer geek, so partially this was a selfish chance to get to spend a lot of time in a brewery,” he says. “The location is beautiful – all those big silver tanks look great on camera – but to me is also represents a growing scene of a return to craft, artisanal products and locally produced things.” Rather like his own films, in fact – because even with a 40-strong crew and a professed love of romantic comedy, Swanberg is not about to succumb to the cinematic equivalents of Anheuser-Busch. “I have a lot of friends who work in craft breweries,” he says, “This was a chance to show them the right way, rather than a big studio comedy doing a bad job of it.”

Drinking Buddies screens exclusively at Cinema Nova from Boxing Day.

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