Jake Johnson on ‘Digging for Fire,’ Improv, and Producing His Plays in New York
“I thought my path was going to be as a writer, but I’m pretty happy doing it as an actor.” – Jake Johnson
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg is well-known for making narrative movies that are mostly improvised from a basic outline. His latest film, Digging for Fire, stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson of TV’s New Girl. This is Johnson’s second film with Swanberg and is now out in limited release and on video-on-demand. Speaking with Interview Magazine, Johnson spoke about Swanberg’s improv style of filmmaking, working with actors he isn’t familiar with, and why collaborating with Swanberg reminds him of when he used to write plays.
The origins of Digging for Fire began when director Joe Swanberg and Johnson worked together on the also mostly-improvised film Drinking Buddies. He explains, “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. ”
When the interviewer asks Johnson if it was difficult to improvise scenes with friends, Johnson points out that besides a few close connections the actors didn’t actually know each other all that well. He reveals, “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.”
Even if Digging for Fire doesn’t have a script, collaborating with Swanberg brings Johnson back somewhat to his original goal in show business, which was to be a writer. Swanberg explains, “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.”
Johnson actually used to write plays that were produced in New York, but he admits that he wasn’t very comfortable with the process until he had more control over it. He recalls, “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.”