The latest film from director/writer/actor Joe Swanberg, Digging for Fire, is a refreshing take on marriage and parenthood. The film explores a weekend in the life of Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), a young couple with a toddler who are housesitting for one of Lee’s clients. Lee expects Tim to finish the family’s taxes, a task he’s been neglecting.
Tim, however, gets distracted by a rusty gun and a bone he finds while gardening in the backyard. The two wind up having different adventures over the weekend as Tim becomes engrossed in the mystery of the backyard and Lee heads with their son to her parents’ place. Both are trying to figure out how to be married parents while still maintaining their individuality. The cast also includes Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Chris Messina, and Sam Rockwell.
During a recent press roundtable, Johnson and DeWitt spoke with reporters about making the film.
Johnson, who starred in Swanberg’s last feature, Drinking Buddies, can be seen on the small screen as Nick Miller on Fox’s “New Girl” and the big screen as Lowery in the summer mega-hit, Jurassic World; he also has a co-writing credit on Digging for Fire. DeWitt recently starred in the re-make of Poltergeist, as well as in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children and as the female lead opposite Jeremy Renner in Kill The Messenger.
“I make movies because I like to entertain people,” Johnson said, “so I would like people to enjoy the journey. This is a smaller movie, it’s a character piece, it’s slower, so I think people who like movies that are more character studies and take their time—really more than anything, rather than a lesson, I want people to have not regretted the hour and a half of their life,” he said, causing DeWitt to laugh.
Throughout the conference with reporters, the two shared a natural chemistry that shines through their performances as Tim and Lee, frequently making each other—and reporters—laugh.
For example, when Johnson was responding to a question about how his acting choices may be different because he’s a co-writer and producer on the film, he was interrupted by DeWitt:
Johnson: “I would forget […] I’m in the scene, you know, I’m the one who has to drive this, so if anything, I think it actually made it a little bit harder to act. I like it more when I know a little bit but it’s then my job just to get on the field and play and let other people think about it.”
DeWitt: “Because you kept saying to me, ‘Are you really going to do it that way?’”
Johnson: “Well you, only you, because I thought your choices were so odd and peculiar and terrible.”
The easy camaraderie between the two is not surprising, as Johnson had a hand in casting DeWitt as his movie wife.
“[O]nce we realized we were going to be telling two stories, his story and her story, we needed an actor who was strong enough, who could not only execute the wife’s story, but help write it, and that’s how we got Rosemarie,” Johnson said.
“I was involved a lot [in casting the film],” he continued, “because in terms of the male/female dynamics, Joe and I—and it’s really Joe’s theory that I’ve jumped onto—but it’s really hard to write a female character honestly as a dude, and Joe and I are both kind of dudes, and so we needed somebody who could come in and would have a lot of input and wasn’t gonna be just saying like, ‘Well, what should I say now?’ and ‘What should I do here?’ So we needed somebody who was gonna be strong enough—“
“I was like, ‘Fuck you guys, that’s bullshit! I would never say that!’” DeWitt interjected, laughing.
Johnson said, “[I]t also happened with Brie [Larson] where her character in this movie, in our outline, was supposed to have a crush on my character and there was supposed to be sexual tension. That’s what we wrote, that’s what we imagined—“
“And Brie was like, ‘Fuck you guys!’” DeWitt again interjected.
Johnson laughed, then continued. “Yeah, in a very nice way, [Larson said] ‘Why would I be sexually attracted to an older guy who’s got a kid?’ and Joe and I like were ‘Yeah, totally.’”
DeWitt said, “[T]his is the male fantasy version that [they] wrote and then the real 25-year-old woman came in and said, ‘No.’”
Johnson said Larson had other ideas, saying that she told him, “I would be attracted to this weird adventure that you were looking for a body, and I’d like hang out and maybe smoke a joint and go digging for a body, [but] I would definitely not want to sleep with you.”
The film’s story then changed because Swanberg and Johnson had to figure out what would keep Larson’s character around.
“[T]he connection was my character doesn’t feel like he and his wife will take a crazy adventure… […] because of their responsibilities…. [W]e wanted to cast the most interesting people [we could] get who are smart so that they can say things like that rather than just, ‘Oh my god, I would totally have a crush on your character,’” Johnson said.
In addition to DeWitt, Swanberg and Johnson assembled a cast of indie favorites (besides Messina, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey and Jenny Slate make brief appearances) and celebrities (Bloom, Kendrick, and Rockwell). Johnson said that Swanberg “wanted it to feel like an L.A. movie, so part of it feeling like an L.A. movie is celebrity faces.”
“Most of his movies take place in Chicago,” Johnson said, “and it’s a different thing, and so when we realized we wanted to make that kind of movie, it became about just texting people or calling people and saying, ‘We only need you for a day and a half or two days, you’ll have a lot of freedom in character, but this is the arc and this is what we need you to do,’ and we were very fortunate that a lot of people were around. We shot it over the summer when there’s not as much work, so a lot of people were able to jump out and come play with us.”
DeWitt stressed the importance of the chemistry of the cast. “Chris [Messina] and Sam [Rockwell] had a really important job in that they needed to bring a level of danger, something that could upend this marriage. Orlando Bloom had to come in and be devastatingly handsome and you know—“
“Charming and funny,” Johnson interjected, making DeWitt laugh.
“Charming and all that stuff. It was hard, I mean, this is a really big character role for Orlando,” DeWitt said, still laughing.
“Orlando was the one for Joe and I when he agreed to come on, we’re like, ‘Orlando Bloom is doing this movie?’ and he really shines in it,” Johnson added.
Johnson eschews credit for co-writing the film, saying his name on the script is a “union status thing,” and humbly gives Swanberg all the recognition, especially because Swanberg also edited the film. If there was any difference of opinion in how a scene should play out, Swanberg generally won.
“If I say ‘You must do this’—well, there’s no studio. This is a small movie, so [Swanberg would] just say, “No! I’m doing this and I’m editing in Chicago and there’s nothing you can do about it because you’re back to work on ‘New Girl’ so you’ll see the movie when it’s done!’” Johnson said, laughing.
Thematically, both Johnson and Swanberg were interested in painting a realistic version of marriage and parenthood. Unlike a typical Hollywood portrayal, Tim and Lee don’t have any big blow-outs or sweeping romantic gestures to win each other over. Their interactions are quieter and more natural.
Keeping away from the same trajectory a mainstream film would take makes Digging For Fire more true-to-life. “I think the way the story is told wrong is the ‘Yes, dear’ mentality: ‘I’m dying to party but like, my ball and chain won’t let me.’ What feels more modern is like, you’re definitely allowed to, but you’re just gonna be tired all the time and when you’re partying with your buddies, you’re gonna suck because you wanna talk about your kids, and then when with your kids, you’re gonna be so tired because you partied with your buddies. I don’t think you ever stop missing being in your mid-20s and partying because it’s so fun; you just party a little differently,” Johnson said.
“You put on Barney [the Dinosaur] and dance around the living room!” DeWitt added, laughing.
“Exactly, and then drink ten bottles of wine when the kids fall asleep!” Johnson said.
Another difference is that Lee is not a “nagging wife”; she’s a full partner who has her own desires, but she doesn’t browbeat Tim into letting her pursue them. That doesn’t mean she lets him off the hook when he goofs off or otherwise doesn’t support her.
In one scene, Lee, in correcting her son’s behavior at the table, makes him cry. “I felt like a mean monster,” DeWitt said, “but in that moment—it’s that moment that I think a lot of women relate to, where I look at [Tim] and I say, ‘See? You make me be the bad guy.’ Because women don’t want to nag. They know that stuff needs to get done—they know that their husbands want to stay on Reddit ‘til four in the morning, or want to go drinking with the boys—[women] want to do those things, too, but they also are trying to keep all the balls in the air. So there’s something nice about this character for me that she gets to do that and lead her life, and we see that she has the fully alive juicy side, too, it’s just sometimes she has to be the bad guy.”
Further differentiating Digging For Fire from a mainstream film is the source of on-screen nudity; in this case, it was provided by a male rather than a female courtesy of a willing Messina, whom Johnson knows from attending events put on by Fox (Messina stars in “The Mindy Project,” which formerly shared the Fox network with Johnson’s “New Girl”).
“[W]e only had an open part for a party scene,” Johnson explained, “but that scene was really important, and it felt very dangerous, and really crazy and different than Tim’s life, and exciting in a way that you know when [Messina’s character] shows up to the party, the stakes get raised.”
However, the nudity wasn’t written into the scene; that was pure Messina. Johnson said Messina told him, “Well one thing that’d be weird, especially in a house that you’re housesitting, is if my character took off his clothes and jumped in the pool. It would definitely take the party to another level.”
Johnson added that this discussion took place at a bar, and everyone laughed when Messina made his suggestion. “Sure, Chris, that sounds fun,” Johnson said he told him.
“And then when we were shooting,” Johnson continued, “[Messina] said, ‘I’m gonna take my pants off and do it’ and so he did. I really think it adds a weird element […] where you don’t know where the story is going at that point. I respect and appreciate the fact that he did it.”
Johnson and DeWitt (and Swanberg in absentia) hope that people enjoy what is, for them, a deeply personal film.
DeWitt said, “Joe makes movies that are really personal to him, and he’s not afraid to tell the actors why it’s so personal to him. […] I think his hope and my hope is that somebody goes, ‘That movie was made for me.’ You know, ‘That movie’s a lot like my life or a lot like what I’m aspiring to do or aspiring not to do.’ It’s not made for everybody.”
“We wanted to tell a story that was ideally something that was fun to watch, kept you in it, characters you can relate to and think were real, and a story that ends in a way that you feel satisfied,” Johnson said.
He added, “When you make a movie this size, you’re not trying with the net to catch every fish, but the fish you catch you really hope love this. So we really hope the people who like this movie really connect to it. That would feel like a big win.”
Digging For Fire opens in theaters and will be available on VOD on August 21, 2015