Joe Swanberg is no stranger to independent cinema. He may be in the midst of crafting a script for Fox Searchlight, but his sensibilities have grown and been fostered through the soil of indies. Anyone who's attended Sundance Film Festival will know his name, and have a strong opinion about his unconventional filmmaking methods — including the dozens of big name actors he's had the opportunity to work with.
At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the director premiered a film he co-wrote with New Girl star Jake Johnson. "I think about it as a relationship adventure movie," Swanberg says of his film Digging for Fire. "I think anybody who's in a relationship will relate to aspects of these main characters. What we tried to do is rather than make a conventional relationship movie, take those questions and those challenges that we face in relationships, and sort of blow it out into a bigger, more ambitious, wild and crazy movie."
The film centers around a couple who go on separate adventures over the course of a weekend. The husband, Jake Johnson's character, digs up a rusty gun and a bone in their backyard, spiraling his curiosity out of control. I asked Johnson what was the most fun thing he got to do on set, and his answer came back to Joe. "Working with Joe Swanberg, every day," Johnson says without hesitation. "I think he's an awesome director, I think he runs a great set, and he truly makes it fun. He makes you remember why you love acting, and why you started it when you started at some point. He takes the business aspect away from it, and let's you just have fun."
Swanberg's methods are rarely seen in the landscape of successful Hollywood pictures. He doesn't believe in scripts, and instead, crafts a 3-4 page outline and asks each actor attached to the project to bring ideas with them for their characters. "I'm trying to give them a unique opportunity," Swanberg says. "The movie industry provides actors with a lot of different opportunities to act in different kinds of movies. What I've been trying to do is just create an alternative to the other alternatives — a chance to come not just be an actor but be a co-writer, a private partner in the experience. It wouldn't be a movie without those people bringing that energy."
Swanberg's films have a unique, conversational, and organic feel — but with his latest project, an unnamed script for Fox Searchlight, will his radical methods be left behind?
"Each time out the goal is to do something a little more ambitious, hopefully it's an organic progression," he says.