Filmmaker Joe Swanberg on “Win It All”
"Win It All" stars Jake Johnson and is now streaming on Netflix
Apr 07, 2017 Web Exclusive
Even though filmmaker Joe Swanberg was directing scenes with Jake Johnson and Keegan Michael-Key — two comedic actors renowned for being quick on their feet — his latest film was the least improvisational of the director’s career. Titled Win It All, the movie has the most fleshed out plot of any Swanberg movie, featuring a story written by him and Johnson about a fiendish gambler plays away an entire duffel bag full of cash belonging to a dangerous convict. The result: more positive reviews than any film Swanberg has garnered in his career of niche, off-the-cuff style flicks.
Below, the beloved indie director tells us about becoming more of a refined filmmaker, why that might not lead to him helming the next Transformers sequel, and why he feels like a troubled gambler every time he makes a film.
Kyle Mullin [Under the Radar]: Even though Win It All has less improv than your prior movies, it must have been fun to see skilled improvisationalists like Jake and Keegan work together.
Joe Swanberg: It was amazing. Joe Lo Truglio, too. [Lo Truglio plays Johnson's older brother.] I was in the presence of some real heavy hitters. You feel really safe doing comedy with people who have a strong sense of story, and who are equally comfortable doing dramatic work. For me, comedy is rooted in character, and has to be true to the character to be worth anything. So it’s really fun to shoot with actors like that.
To me, it’s a common mission-- everybody’s better when they’re being generous scene partners. So I like to work with people who are naturally funny but also aren’t gunning to be the funniest one in the scene, or aren’t trying to tell more jokes than everyone else. I want them to help advance the story, and they be naturally funny enough that those jokes just happen to do that. I had a blast working with those guys and learned a lot from them.
You and Jake wrote this film together. What do you enjoy most about that collaboration?
It’s really great. It’s the third time we’ve worked together. [Before that they wrote 2015’s Digging for Fire together, which Johnson starred in. Swanberg also cast Johnson in 2013’s Drinking Buddies.] Each time out we push each other to do something new, and expand the process.
So we really wanted to write this time. Even though we did a lot of improv on set we really committed to sitting down and writing a script. It was great, having this familiarity of a collaborator that I’ve worked with before, but it also being a brand new process for me.
I’ve often struggled as a writer, it doesn’t come naturally to me. But Jake is a really talented writer. And I learned a lot from the process of working with him, and observing his writing style and also the idea of imagining a movie on paper. In our next collaboration I think we’ll keep pushing in that direction. I’ve made a lot of movies, and the process of trying to learn and grow is one that’s really interesting to me.
And critics are praising you for it. One wrote that this is your “most polished work yet” but that it’s “no less impactful” than your other movies.
Yeah, I feel the same way about it. We pushed to tell a story, three structured acts. But I still wanted to have a relaxed and natural feel. Jake knows me, and we were able to achieve that without looking like we were trying too hard.
Hopefully I’m getting better as a filmmaker, and I’m trying to learn from my successes and failures. I want to develop more as a visual story teller too.
What do you mean by that?
Early on in my career I actively avoided having a visual style. I just wanted the actors to entirely dictate where the camera was. I was following improvised takes, and capturing them the way a documentarian would.
After doing that on several projects and honing my skills in that way. But, around the time I did Alexander the Last, I started thinking about keeping the spontaneity while also expanding the visual palate of the movies. At this point I feel like I have enough of a handle on the kind of performances I’m looking for from the actors, that I’m able to play with dolly moves and steady cam and a lot of visual elements that are were way out of my consciousness before.
I love the idea of you having elaborate new toys to play with, like dollies, and I hope that someday you can do a 15 minute tracking shot with lots of Michael Bay style explosions.
(Laughs) The truth is I’m open to everything. The way that I choose projects changes year to year, and the things I’m interested in change all the time. Trying new things is very exciting for me, I don’t want to get locked into making the same movie over and over. The extended Micahel Bay explosion shot isn’t in my head right now, but I don’t want to speak for my future self.
So if you have such eclectic interests, does that mean you also have eclectic influences that inform your work?
Yes for sure. But I couldn’t give you direct connections between what’s inspired me and how my films have turned out, except for a movie called Sticky Fingers, a comedy from the 80’s about two struggling singers in New York city that end up with a duffle bag full of drug money. That was definitely a fun reference point and starting point for Win It All.
I’ve read that some of your prior films were inspired by your personal life or that of your friends. Digging for Fire had some of that. Was that the case with Win It All?
The sibling relationship in Win It All isn’t inspired by any real incidents. But the feelings that Joe Lo Truglio’s character has, being the older brother and the more responsible one, is definitely something I relate to. I’m happy taking care of my brother, it’s a pressure that often falls on the eldest.
And Jake and I also really relate to the gambling aspect of his character, in terms of the film work we do. The way we put our own money into these movies. I very much have felt like: “Okay, here we go, I’m going to bet it all on black right now.” It’s really fun and nice to bring along that personal quality. But for the first time in a long time, because this film was written so carefully and was very much fiction and not relying on improv, it was a nice breath of fresh air. Because some of my prior films could become so overwhelming, because they were so personal for everyone. It was good to tell a story more liberated from reality and was more happy fun.
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