Sundance 2015: How Steven Spielberg Influenced Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire

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Sundance Institute

Sundance Institute

I know what you’re thinking. Steven Spielberg — the guy behind Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Hook — influenced… Joe Swanberg? Any confusion you may have is fair. Swanberg isn’t a director known for his visual flare, but that may change soon. With Digging for Fire, he’s directed his most visually accomplished work to date. While the writer-director behind Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas may not get the call to helm the Indiana Jones reboot anytime soon, when he mentions the Spielberg influence, it makes complete sense.

The camera actually helps tell Digging for Fire’s story, which cannot be said for plenty of indies these days. The roaming camera, which suits the story about a husband (Jake Johnson) and wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their weekend of freedom and temptation, provides a sense of dread over the idea of infidelity. Even Dan Romer’s electric score sounds like music out of a thriller.

Digging for Fire is a familiar but new film from Joe Swanberg. It’s a step forward for the director and, luckily, we had the chance to discuss this change in pace with him at Sundance.

Here’s what Joe Swanberg had to say about his latest film:

Do you feel like you’re growing as a filmmaker?

I hope so. I did feel that way while I was working on Digging for Fire, because the process was an evolution. We really tried to be ambitious in the way we shot the film and with the sound design. Each time out I try to hold onto the loose improvisational process I’ve been working with, but continue to build a more formal structure around it, and, in terms of that, I feel this movie is a success for me. We were trying to make a movie with a capital “M,” one that could play on the big screen. I wanted it to have a different feel compared to what a lot of indies feel like now.

I wasn’t going to say this, because I thought it might sound like a backhanded compliment, but I just wrote in my review this is your most movieish movie to date.

That’s really cool. I think you’re right on the money there, because it’s what we were thinking a lot about, with how Jake and I wanted to tell the story and Ben Richardson and I on how we wanted to shoot it. I had the privilege of working with Martín Hernández on the sound design, and he was just nominated for an Oscar for Birdman. He’s just a really brilliant sound designer and sound supervisor. On the technical process, we really stretched and tried to make something that was a lot richer and deeper than the other movies.

Did this require more prep compared to your past work?

In terms of the writing of it, Jake and I were in conversation since Drinking Buddies about trying to make something else together. We hit upon this story a good six months before we made the movie, so we did have a nice and long period of time to process it. The shoot itself was a really similar vibe to the other films that I’ve done. I worked with actors in the same way and we tried to keep it loose on the set, and, in a sneaky way, Ben and I were trying to formalize that process. I didn’t want the actors to feel conscious or self-conscious about the fact we were shooting on 35mm and being more rigorous about our set-ups and frames. I tried to make the actors still feel comfortable to inhabit a space and do whatever felt right.

Ben and I have done three movies in a row now. He’s just a smart, sophisticated cinematographer and camera operator, so he was doing a lot of that great work quietly in the background. We shot it in a nice, quick and loose way, but the post-production process was a lot more rigorous. I spent a lot more time editing the film than I usually do, especially in thinking about the sound design and what I wanted the movie to feel like.

What about the structure of the movie? Did the story go through any changes in post?

Because of the way I work there’s always finding a lot of the film in post, but similar to the other projects, I’m able to do some of the editing while we’re shooting. Midway through the shoot I took a couple of days off, locked myself in a hotel room, and spent 18 hours cutting a day, just to get a sense of what was there and how the scenes were feeling. Going into the second half of the shoot I had a good idea of how things were looking and working. It all felt pretty similar for me, but the difference between this and Drinking Buddies or Happy Christmas was: I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to evolve and to make something that felt different, and I think that’s coming from a lot of different places. For the most part, I have the desire not to repeat myself, even if I’m dealing with similar subject matter, because I want to find new angles to look at that stuff.

How has working as your own editor impacted you as a writer and director? Does it make you more economical?

I hope it has. It’s impossible for me to link that part of it from the writing and directing. On all the films I’ve done I’ve also been the editor, and 18 or 19 films in, I can’t even imagine not doing that. Editing definitely informs every aspect of it. It does feel like an advantage on the set, because I know which pieces of a take I’m going to use. I’m not just needlessly covering a lot of things, so I can play around with it in the editing room. I’m allowed to be frugal and economical on set. In terms of independent film, the biggest factor other than money is time, so I felt I’ve been able to save myself, the actors, and the crew a lot of time on set when I have something I know that I want to use, because I don’t have to do three more takes that will just sit on a hard drive.

There’s a lot of familiar faces from your past work in Digging for Fire, but it’s nice seeing Sam Elliot and Orlando Bloom in this kind of a film. Was it a departure for them?

I think it was for both of them, yeah. It was funny talking to Sam about it, because I think he was really baffled when we first got on the phone. You know, he’s such a cool guy. It was just crazy to hear his voice on the phone. He was, like, “I’m going to be honest with you, I have no idea who you are. I’ve never seen any of your movies. The people I trust say you’re doing interesting stuff and I should think about this, so I just wanted to get on the phone with you.” I just talked to him like I would’ve with any of the other actors, explaining the process, who I felt the character was, and that I wanted him to feel free to play with the other actors. I’m grateful he thought it sounded fun.

With Orlando, it was even a much more involved and rewarding experience. Orlando really embraced every aspect of it, including writing the character and being involved in the storytelling. When he signed on we spent a lot of time hanging out, just driving around, and talking about the story and who he thought the character was. I think he’s so great in the movie. It’s just not something he’s had the opportunity to do much of. Since the time he was young he just got involved in these massive franchises, and the reality of those movies is that’s your year, because it’s very difficult to get a lot of other work done. It was very cool to feel not only he had new space to play in, but that he was just so personally engaged and involved. You should expect to see him in more of my movies. There’s a lot more room to push forward with him.

Any chance Sam Elliot will become a part of your band?

[Laughs] Because of the way I work and the loose structure, on almost every movie I’ve done there’s pickup shoots, where I get the movie in shape. On this movie, we did two days of pickups, and Sam came back for one of those days. It was the same crew and he knew exactly what to expect. He’s really a fun guy to have on the set. I think he likes it. The sense that I got on the second day of working together is that he was intrigued and interested. I’m definitely going to ask him again in the future and hope that he says yes.

Does inviting actors to be so involved in the storytelling process make them more comfortable on set, knowing they have a hand in telling the story?

I think that’s a big part of it. Nobody on my set is pressured into something they don’t want to do. There’s not a script there demanding certain type of moments, which keeps it loose. I try to talk to people as much as possible before they get there, so they have a sense of who I am and what to expect. I think a lot of nervousness comes out of fear and insecurity, not exactly knowing what you’re going to get. I try to be really clear about how the set is run, how many people are going to be there, how quickly we’re going to move, and all the things I’d suspect an actor to have questions about. Because I’m working with the same people in front of and behind the camera from movie to movie, hopefully they feel like they’re working with family, which tends to relax people. After a couple of takes they get into the flow of it, realizing it’s important to be present and be themselves, rather than give some huge performance.

How did shooting on 35mm impact your process?

It was very similar. We shot Drinking Buddies on the RED and Happy Christmas on Super 16, but I feel Ben and I pretty much work the same way. The ways in which we challenged ourselves had more to do with having the camera almost constantly on the dolly and using a lot of wide and medium frames. Digging for Fire has almost no close-ups in it.

We were actually looking at Spielberg movies, mostly Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We looked at the really elegant way he shot that movie ‐ using widescreen frame. We wanted to see if we could have storytelling happening in a lot of pieces of the frame, not just focusing on one thing. We moved pretty quick, though. Ben is a very economical DP. Since it’s our third movie together, he really knows about the speed I want to move at. We had a really good camera team making sure we always had loaded magazines and ready to move quickly.

Because so few indie films are shooting on film anymore, most people have forgotten it’s not that complicated. I remember having a lot more camera complications on the RED with Drinking Buddies than we did with film on Digging for Fire. We never had the camera jam or have the film comeback messed up. It’s how they’ve made movies for 100 years, so they’ve figured that process out well. Digital is the new guy in town. There’s still plenty of bugs and kinks to work through with digital.

Talking earlier about advancing as a filmmaker, where do you hope to go next? How else do you want to push yourself?

You know, I think it’s just happening naturally. I’m starting to talk to studios. There’s interest in me to direct things I didn’t write, and I’m open to that process. It’s going to be complicated for me to find the right thing, because I’m really particular and having so much fun making my own movies. It seems like a big tradeoff to me not to do that, but I’d rather have that experience, even if it’s a bad experience, because I’ll learn so much from it. I’m 33 years old, so hopefully I have a lot of career left in front of me. I say that now, but then I’m going to get hit by a bus…

[Laughs] This will be your final interview!

[Laughs] Exactly. My final quote: “I have a lot of movies left in me.” You know, in a perfect world, I would be able to make a lot more movies. I just want to try a lot of new things. Early in my career I was resistant to doing anything that wasn’t 100% what I wanted to do, and I think I missed out on some fun or educational experiences. I’m getting interested in reading scripts and seeing if something would be a good fit. In terms of my own work and the future, it’s a priority for me to give my wife space to keep making her own movies. I’m also really liking being a dad and hanging out at home, so I think that’s a big part of every year going forward. I’ll try to keep making a movie every year.

I’m just so driven by the actors, which is always the starting point for me. With the projects moving forward, I think they’re going to continue focusing on families and, especially, motherhood, which is an under-explored topic. Ideally, I want to continue to work with the great actors I’m working with now and bringing new people into the fold. I do hope to continue to work with Ben Richardson, because there’s some interesting visual territory we can get into. It’s fun whenever I have the chance to move a bit away from realism. There’s all kinds of stories to tell, but I’m drawn to tales of everyday life. Every once in a while I do think, though, “Oh right, I could do a horror movie.”

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.