When Jake Johnson met director Joe Swanberg for the first time, he had no idea that this meeting would start what has so far been a fruitful and highly creative actor-director partnership. The fact that “Drinking Buddies” turned out to be their first movie helped a lot. The 2013 film, starring Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde, has become the blueprint example of how good Swanberg’s style can be when everything just clicks. The film, about drinking, love and friendship, did not have a successful theatrical release, but ended up gaining the majority of its fans through Netflix. Its themes clearly struck a chord with not just millennials, but adults and, yes, the mainstream.
It’s now been six years since “Drinking Buddies,” and Johnson and Swanberg have now made three movies together, the other two being “Digging For Fire,” and this latest one, “Win It All” (which is now streaming on Netflix). They can’t seem to let go of each other, already having plans to make another film this year. High on their creative partnership, they aim to make nine movies together and then call it quits — at least, that’s what Johnson told me when I interviewed him last week.
“Win It All” is a worthy new addition to their canon. It is a straightforward character study about a compulsive gambler trying to get his life back on track. The film features not only the best performance Johnson has ever given, but more proof that Swanberg, who usually uses a ton of improv in his movies, can even make solid indie movies that rely more on scripted words than on-the-spot creative thinking.
Unlike their last two films, Johnson and Swanberg knew what story they wanted to tell, and used a three-act structure that was highly influenced by the maverick Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. I spoke to Johnson about his partnership with Swanberg, the influence of Robert Altman, and why they wanted Netflix to pick it up even before shooting started.
“Win It All,” it was great, what else can I say?
Thank you [laughs]. It was fun, it was a movie Joe and I wrote together because we wanted to make something that was enjoyable and fun for people, we made it with the intent to go straight to streaming and, you know, we want people to enjoy it.
You guys have worked before on these low-budget films, and the aesthetic you’ve built seems to continue, although it seems more conventional, but it actually turns out to be refreshing.
Yeah, you kind of picked up what it was all about. What’s nice with working with somebody repeatedly is that you learn from the mistakes you made and, at least, make the adjustments. It’s a true independent movie in that there is no outside studio. We finance these movies with personal checks. And we use the money that we made from it to pay for the next one. So, we’re doing it because we’re trying to make movies, and we’re trying to figure out what we like to make together. This one was a bit of an experiment: can you, in this movie model, make more of a studio three-act-structured movie in that we add more story instead of more character to it? It’s a movie we both really loved and the performances with Keegan-Michael Key and all the others — everybody really brought their A game.
Did you like the experience?
I personally loved it because I’m a story guy. I started as a screenwriter, I went to NYU in screenwriting. I love the structure of the three acts, I love story beats, twists and turns. But, just mostly, the indie scripts I get or [am] offered are more character-driven than story-driven. So, this was a real passion project for me and a real experiment. I wanted to see if you could actually mix the two, if you could make it a small movie that is small by nature, but big by story.
So, this was more scripted than in your past endeavors?
That’s right. Joe and I, we had a script where we knew everything that needed to happen in terms of story. So, we were beat-perfect, but in terms of dialogue — Keegan-Michael Key and Joe Lo Truglio, those are two of the funniest guys working today and some of the more talented actors. So, I don’t want to tell them to stick to a line that I wrote on my laptop. There’s no illusion that I’m Billy Shakespeare over here. We need you to stay on the story because if we deviate away from the story, the movie has nothing. All the scenes with Keegan and I where he’s messing with me, we knew what had to happen, but he brought so much to the table. When he’s making that speech at the AA meeting, that was him, that was what he chose to say. So, you don’t get to do a Swanberg movie without the cast really bringing a lot to it.
There have been plenty of movies about gambling, and the two that come to mind are “The Gambler” and “California Split.” Were those influences in making this film?
Without question, “California Split” was a huge influence. It was a movie that I love, it was a movie that I care about. We didn’t want to make a remake because our story was different, I don’t want to touch what they did because it was perfect, but that type of movie I find is very interesting, those are the kind of movies I saw in my teenage years [that made me] want to make films or be an indie filmmaker. I think we’re in an era right now in indie filmmaking where there’s all these different ways to have films out with streaming sites and indie theaters, there’s ways to make different-sized movies that can have a life. “California Split,” it would be hard to write that movie today and have it compete against the summer blockbusters. Nowadays we have so many ways for people to watch, I think it’s the “wild west” of filmmaking.
You even mentioned that you guys made the movie with the intention of streaming it on Netflix. Can you elaborate a little on that?
Every movie Joe and I write together is in hope of developing the next one. Every movie in concept should be a whole different experience. We had done “Drinking Buddies,” which we hoped would have gone to theaters, and that really found an audience with people streaming it.