ABOVE: SAM ROCKWELL, JAKE JOHNSON (CENTER), MIKE BIRBIGLIA, AND STEVE BERG IN DIGGING FOR FIRE. PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN RICHARDSON.
In Joe Swanberg‘s newest film Digging for Fire, married couple Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) agree to housesit for one of Lee’s clients. It’s supposed to be a holiday: family time with their young son in a luxurious Los Angeles pad with a pool, garden, and tennis court. Then Lee goes to visit her parents for a few days while Tim stays behind to do their taxes. Away from one another, both spouses flirt with their former lives—before the baby, marriage, maturity, and middle class angst. Lee goes out to a bar and meets a handsome stranger; Tim throws a party and decides a body might be buried in the backyard. Familiar faces such as Brie Larsen, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Chris Messina, Jenny Slate, Mike Birbiglia, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliott, Ron Livingston, and Timothy Simons drift in and out as family members, friends, neighbors, and potential sources of infidelity. Johnson and Swanberg, who previously worked together on Drinking Buddies, conceived the story together and share the writing credit.
While Johnson is perhaps most famous for his role as Nick Miller on the sitcom New Girl, the 37-year-old Chicago native has a strong indie background. It was his performance as Uma Thurman’s alcoholic brother in Max Winkler‘s bittersweet film Ceremony that first caught the eye of New Girl creator Liz Meriwether.
EMMA BROWN: Digging for Fire is based on something that actually happened to you. Did you immediately think, “Oh, this would make a great movie!”
JAKE JOHNSON: No, because I was so locked into the real life mystery of it until I felt like I’d got to a conclusion, which was [that] we were digging for garbage. And I had spent 10 days of my life digging for garbage. Joe Swanberg and I did a movie called Drinking Buddies together and we wanted to make another movie that, even though it was different, was in that same world. So he and I had been talking ideas of what we could do; we didn’t want to do a movie about people who are together, not together, but we like doing relationship movies and we wanted to follow that up with another thing. I pitched him this—just the dead body stuff. He started pitching the idea of a married couple who take this weekend off and we crafted the arc of the story together. That’s really the only writing of it. We had a three-page outline of that and then we cast it and every actor improvised their stuff.
BROWN: Is it hard to stay focused when you’re improvising with a bunch of your friends?
JOHNSON: Kind of. It depends. For this movie, a lot of my stuff was partying and hanging out with a group, so Joe didn’t need it focused. He would say to me, “The only thing we need in this scene is blank.” Outside of that he didn’t care what everybody did, as long as it’s moving the story forward and the characters seem real and the relationships seem genuine. But in terms of being friends, I’d only met [Mike] Birbiglia once. I’d met Sam [Rockwell] twice. No one really knew each other. I actually knew Brie Larsen the most and Anna [Kendrick], obviously, from Drinking Buddies. But it was a random group of people acting like old friends, which was kind of fun to do.
BROWN: Did you know Brie from 21 Jump Street?
JOHNSON: Yes. Brie and I were both in New Orleans for a long chunk of time. Even though I didn’t do much in that movie, I was held, so I had a month in New Orleans and she and I buddied up and ended up getting a bunch of dinners together. Very smart woman.
BROWN: How did this cast come together then?
JOHNSON: It was people we had heard had seen Drinking Buddies and liked it, or had seen something Joe had done. We just reached out to people and said, “This is the basic story. We see a character for you in this vein, but we’re open to your thoughts and how you would want to do it.” And people kept saying yes. Joe wanted it to feel like an L.A. movie, and for him an L.A. movie had that thing of every time you turn a corner, there’s a face you recognize. He’s like, “I want everybody in this fucking movie for people to go, ‘Wait, what?’ That’s part of the fun for me.” So we reached out to people we thought were genuinely talented and we’d beg them to come and we’d get people like Jenny Slate to come in for a two hour scene.
BROWN: Do you find that L.A. is like that? Every time you turn a corner you see someone you know?
JOHNSON: No. But Joe’s a Chicago guy. He’ll visit and go to a couple of Hollywood parties, but it’s a city that’s got 10 million people in it. [laughs] He’ll come and he’ll be like, “Alright, we’re going to this dinner.” But it’s with a movie, and then he’ll be like, “Can you believe that guy’s here?” “They’re only here for this. We don’t all see each other every day.”
BROWN: After you reached out to everyone with the outline, who came back with big ideas about what their character should be like? Did anyone?
JOHNSON: Everybody! Brie Larson came with big ideas. Brie’s character was loosely written as a woman in her mid-20s; she and I meet at that party and there’s this weird sexual chemistry. It’s supposed to be very flirty and they’re getting close to fire and then they don’t. Then Brie said, “Why would I be sexually attracted to this older man with a five-year-old kid who’s digging in the backyard of a housesitter house for a body?” And Swanberg and I were like, “Hadn’t thought of that…” [laughs] So we were like, “We don’t know. We don’t know what it would be like to be you, and from the way you put it, that does not sound attractive, but we need your character to be around, so why would you come back?” And she’s like, “I could justify coming back for a fun adventure if I liked him and I wanted to help dig looking for a body.” So rather than do a thing where there’s this tension between them, that relationship becomes more of an intellectual conversation and a connection between two people.
BROWN: But there is a bit of that tension too.
JOHNSON: It sneaks in. We viewed it much more as you start there, and then you heighten, you heighten, you heighten. That’s one of those things where Joe and I thought, “Wow, Brie’s really smart and helped our movie.” Everybody really brought a ton to it.
BROWN: Did anyone say no to participating in the film?
JOHNSON: Yeah, but a lot of it is scheduling. All of Joe’s movies, the variations of who it could be change so much. We shot 15 total days and I only worked for eight days; I think Rosemarie only worked for seven days. So people fell off because we were like, “We’re going to be there Thursday through Tuesday,” and they were like, “Oh, I’m shooting then.” “Alright, you’re out. We’re not coming back.” There’s a lot of moving parts in Joe’s movies. It’s not the kind of movie you sign up for six months in advance. You get a call and then four days later you shoot it.
BROWN: How did you find the house?
JOHNSON: It’s a writer friend of Joe. The architect of the house was the drunk guy who hit on Rosemarie in the bar. The owner of the house always wanted his house in a Joe Swanberg movie, because he and Joe are friends and he loves Joe’s movies. Joe pitched him this one.
BROWN: You dug up his actual garden?
JOHNSON: Yeah. [laughs] We put everything back.
BROWN: I heard that you wanted to be a writer before you wanted to be an actor.
JOHNSON: I aspired to be a writer and then I just started getting acting work. I really didn’t have a direct goal, I just knew I wanted to be in this industry telling stories and doing this for a job. I thought my path was going to be as a writer, but I’m pretty happy doing it as an actor.
BROWN: So you didn’t write lots of stories when you were a child?
JOHNSON: Oh, I did. For sure.
BROWN: Do you remember the first story you wrote?
JOHNSON: I read a Bridge to Terabithia and I basically copied the story, but with two brothers. It was a 70-page thing. I thought it was brilliant but I just copied Bridge to Terabithia. [laughs]
BROWN: I remember that book. It’s really upsetting.
JOHNSON: It’s a very upsetting book—absolutely.
BROWN: Did you get good feedback?
JOHNSON: I think my mother read it. She was like, “There are a lot of misspellings and you need to figure out grammar.” No, she was very encouraging. Then I got really into writing plays. I did that for years and years and got some produced and didn’t like it as much when I wasn’t able to control it. Then I started acting in my own plays, and like Joe’s process in movies, we’d be doing these characters and I’d be like, “I think you’re funnier than what I wrote. Why don’t we just write something together where we each write our own lines so we both can be really good in it?” That’s what started my career. I was in a two-person show [with Oliver Ralli] called the Midwesterners where we wrote all of our own stuff and we traveled the country with it. That’s what eventually led me to L.A.
BROWN: Like Mindy Kaling. Didn’t she do a two-person show as well?
JOHNSON: Yes! She did Matt & Ben. I’ve actually talked to Mindy about it. We were doing shows in New York while she was doing that. Then that show blew up at the Fringe Festival and everybody was like, “That’s the goal! You do these little shows to get that.” All of a sudden Mindy was writing on The Office and had sold a TV show. When we’d try to write shows, we’d jokingly call the word documents “Hit Show.” We just couldn’t crack the code.
BROWN: When you say you didn’t enjoy having your plays produced, why is that? Was it because of the direction?
JOHNSON: It’s a really weird feeling when you write something and you really know it and then you watch actors come in and do it. I think a lot of people are very good, but I don’t think anybody could do my rhythm. I was thinking, “If you want my rhythm”—and when I was writing, I was writing them for myself—”why am I watching another actor doing what I should be doing?” It was just a really unpleasant experience. I was like, “No, if I’m going to write it, I’m going to say it. If I’m not directing it, I need to be right in the director’s ear so we can be talking about this.” You do something like use the wrong music, the tone’s off, and everything feels off. And I was like, “I’m not going down with this one. I wrote it, but I don’t like that play.” Then I thought, “Well, no one’s producing my stuff, letting me star in it, and direct it at these theaters, so I’ll just do them in comedy clubs.” That led to UCB. We used to rent theaters in the Lower East Side in the year 2000—you could rent a theater for 150 dollars. We’d charge two dollars a seat, so if we could get 75 people in there we could get our money back. We’d have an hour and a half and do an hour show; that was really my introduction into doing it all.
BROWN: Did you get 75 people?
JOHNSON: Sure. We didn’t make money but we never lost money. We’d sit around Times Square with fliers, walk around the Village and try and get people to come. Now you’d just tweet it, but that was the beginning of emails, or the beginning of me doing emails—I’m sure there were people in 1986 who were doing emails. On a night where we’d have 120 people, we could use that extra money to start for the next show. We tried to do a show once every three weeks to a month. We’d always do a new show. It was not successful. It did not become the Matt & Ben show, but it taught me what I like to do as an actor and what I like to do comedically.
BROWN: Are there seeds of ideas from that time that you would want to expand upon now?
JOHNSON: No, but it’s not because there aren’t ideas. It’s because all of those—even as a seed—belong to Oliver and myself. If I took one and did it not as the Midwesterners, it would feel so wrong. He and I were so creatively married for so many years that it would be a betrayal to everything we did. None of it was mine and none of it was his. But when we’re together we’ll have a couple of beers and go over our old sketches and relive them a bit and see what we like and what we don’t like. We’ve talked about doing a one-night only show and doing sketches from when we were 22 years old and renting a theater. We might do that.
DIGGING FOR FIRE COMES OUT IN SELECT THEATERS TOMORROW, AUGUST 21.