SXSW: The 'Controlled Chaos' of 'Drinking Buddies'

Drinking Buddies Cast SXSW Premiere - H 2013
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Drinking Buddies Cast SXSW Premiere - H 2013

"Holy s---, we got a movie here!" Jake Johnson recalls saying, upon learning that Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston had boarded the improvised indie.

AUSTIN -- If Drinking Buddies were to be nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar, who would get the credit?

It's an intriguing, if far-fetched, cinematic puzzler, seeing as its cast -- led by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as employees of a Chicago microbrewery, with Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick as their respective significant others -- is responsible for 100 percent of its dialogue.

Like Christopher Guest before him, Joe Swanberg is the rare narrative filmmaker who prefers working without a script. The prolific director, who at age 30 has more than a dozen features under his belt, relies instead on luring quick-witted and captivating actors to his projects, then gently coaxing them along within an open-ended narrative. The final story usually reveals itself in the editing room.

SXSW Review: Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies, which premiered Saturday night at South by Southwest, firmly nudges Swanberg into the mainstream spotlight, with cinematography by Ben Richardson -- whom Swanberg had hired prior to seeing his work on the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild -- and a cast of bankable Hollywood stars.

Speaking to a small group of journalists at SXSW, Wilde says it was her fiance, a huge Swanberg fan, who persuaded her to take the high-risk part.

"He said, 'You’d be so lucky if you got to do that movie, that’s the coolest thing,' " Wilde recalled. "We had a Joe Swanberg festival in our apartment."

Johnson, who stars on Fox's comedy hit New Girl, said he was unfamiliar with the director's work before being approached, but it was Swanberg's enthusiasm that persuaded him to do it.

"I literally was the first one to sign on," " the actor said. "We were talking about this movie, and I was really fired up about this cast. When [Wilde, Livingston and Kendrick] came on, I thought, "Holy shit, we got a movie here!"

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Johnson, who calls Swanberg's unique method "controlled chaos filmmaking," says his extensive background in improv helped him find his bearings on the set.

"We improvise a lot on New Girl," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "But a fully improvised movie I did called Paper Heart, as well as years of improvising at UCB and Improv Olympic, helped as well."

Livingston, whose career was catapulted by two of the most fanatically beloved indie films of all time -- Swingers (1996) and Office Space (1999) -- told THR that he's still perfectly happy to take big risks on smaller projects.

"I don’t mind if I’m in a movie and we fail and it sucks," Livingston said, strolling down Austin's bar-clogged "Dirty 6th" street on the way to the film's raucous premiere party. "That happens most of the time." 

Judging from the film's SXSW reception -- THR film critic John DeFore predicts it should "substantially expand the filmmaker's audience" -- Drinking Buddies can proudly count itself among the minority.