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Joe Swanberg tapped his Chicago smarts for ‘Drinking Buddies’

OliviWilde Jake Johns'Drinking Buddies.'

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in "Drinking Buddies."

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Updated: September 21, 2013 6:22AM

Chicago-based filmmaker and actor Joe Swanberg is committed to making movies in the area he considers his hometown. Though born in Detroit, Swanberg has lived “in Illinois since just before high school.”

A high school buddy in Naperville played a big role in the director’s latest project, “Drinking Buddies,” currently available as video on demand and opening Friday at Landmark Century.

The film is set in a craft brewery, and the old friend “brews at Three Floyds. … Not only did we go to high school together, but he went to film school when I went to film school.”

The two friends lost touch for a period of time, but “when I caught up with him again, he was brewing beer for a living, and I was like, ‘Man! You are my hero!’ ”

“It was quite a transition.”

Swanberg had always been intrigued by the small-batch approach to beer making. Then a birthday present from his wife came along.

“She gave me a home brewing kit — probably about four years ago now, just as I was starting to get into drinking better quality beers and noticed that there was a lot of local stuff brewed in Chicago. Plus I also needed a hobby that wasn’t filmmaking.

“It’s just kind of funny that my hobby came full circle and got turned into a film!”

Not only did it turn into “Drinking Buddies,” but the movie also attracted a number of well-known Hollywood actors: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston.

“Clearly, they did this for love — because they wanted to — and not for money,” said Swanberg with a laugh, talking about his low-budget indie film, shot in “three six-day weeks” during the summer of 2012.

As he usually does, Swanberg worked on “Drinking Buddies” from a detailed but relatively free-form, improv-friendly script.

That was an attraction for the actors, used to projects that are totally scripted, with every word they utter on screen inked in the screenplay.

Nervous on the first day of filming, Swanberg quickly relaxed when he realized Wilde got his concept.

“The very first scene we shot, I knew we were going to be in for a treat. … Olivia is talking to a couple who was coming in to select beer for their wedding.

“There was no dialogue [written], it could have gone a million different ways. Olivia says, ‘Can I see the ring?’ and then takes her glasses and puts them on.

“It’s hilarious and yet so genuine — the kind of thing a woman like the Kate she was playing would have done. It’s those little touches that are so wonderful.

“I watched so many moments like that during the filming of ‘Drinking Buddies’ that just made me smile, because the actors added so much. … It made me admire it, watching it like an audience member would.

“The thing about Olivia: She’s smart. She’s really an engaged person. But when I talked to her about ‘Drinking Buddies,’ I could tell that from the other movies she was doing at the time, she was at the point in her career where she was ready to do something like that.

“Plus she told me after the movie was finished that it actually was Jason [Sudeikis, her fiance, who has a small, uncredited role in the film] who had seen my stuff and really had nudged her towards doing this movie.

“So I owe Jason a big thank you there!”

Swanberg based Wilde’s lead character on “my friend Kate Thomas, who works at Half Acre Brewing. She’s the sort of woman who works in a guys’ world. The Kate character in the movie — yeah, I used the same name! — was developed through a lot of conversations with the real Kate, and learned that it’s tough. It’s hard because you want to hang out with the people you work with and you want to be able to be a part of it, but the craft beer world now is very guy-centered.

“It may be changing a bit, but like all the liquor businesses, it’s overwhelmingly dominated by men. It’s very much a dude’s world.”

The focus of “Drinking Buddies” is the work lives and personal lives of the four principal characters — revealing the challenges men and women face in the workplace. The tricky part: when platonic friendships and working relationships turn romantic.

“I think it’s a universal situation that people will identify with — particularly if they work at a smaller company,” said Swanberg.

Because he knows Chicago so well and continues to make it his home, Swanberg added a sense of reality to the setting for “Drinking Buddies.”

Along with filming in the Revolution Brewery and using its employees as extras, “it’s nice as a writer and director to know the city that you are shooting in, because you can be so specific.

“You know the apartments these characters live in, you know the bars they drink at, you know what neighborhoods they hang around in.

“For this film it was all about looking in Logan Square, Humboldt Park — places like that. For example, for Ron’s character we found a really cool place, right off Halsted, where cool restaurants are.”

One “real Chicago guy” who played a key part in the production was co-star Jake Johnson, who grew up in Evanston and Winnetka.

Now enjoying success in the hit Fox sitcom “New Girl,” “Jake really loved getting the chance to spend a few weeks back in Chicago last summer,” Swanberg said. “… He was one of the main supporters of Chicago as were sort of thinking about where to shoot the film.”

When questions arose about relocating to a cheaper city, “it was Jake who immediately said, ‘If it is not shot in Chicago, then it kills a lot of the incentive into why this movie is special.’ ”

This upcoming weekend will be a big one for Swanberg, as he also stars (“but just as an actor for hire,”) in the horror movie “You’re Next.”

“It’s nice to mix things up,” he said, but I like making my own films — especially in Chicago.”

On that front, Swanberg’s next offering will be “Happy Christmas,” which stars his “Drinking Buddies” actress Anna Kendrick.

“I shot a lot of it in my house,” said Swanberg, about the film that also stars Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”), Lena Dunham and Mark Webber (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”).

“Melanie and I play a couple with a kid and Anna Kendrick plays my little sister, who has broken up with her boyfriend and decided to move to Chicago and sort of hit the reset button on her life.

“She moves into our basement and turns out to be not quite the roommate we expected.

“It’s not exactly the typical holiday movie fare,” added Swanberg with a chuckle. “But it’s all about relationships — something I think I’ll always make films about.”


Twitter: @BillZwecker

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