Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt
Are Digging on Digging for Fire
by Jay S. Jacobs
Jake Johnson has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing aging party boys who don’t want to grow up. Beyond his lead role as Nick on the popular Zooey Deschanel sitcom New Girl, Johnson has been digging into feature films, with the popular comedy Let’s Be Cops and this summer’s blockbuster Jurassic World. Now he’s trying out the role of writer as well.
Digging for Fire is the second film Johnson has made with mumblecore film icon Joe Swanberg, following their work together on Drinking Buddies a couple of years ago. As with most of Swansberg’s films, Digging for Fire is almost entirely improvised by the actors. Based on an outline by Johnson and Swanberg, the duo collected a bunch of Hollywood friends to play out the story of the marital problems of a bored married couple who find a gun and a human bone in the hills of a house where they are house sitting.
To play the other half of the couple, the filmmakers did not have to go far to find Rosemarie DeWitt, who it sometimes seems has cornered the market in Hollywood of playing an unsatisfied wife of a certain age. DeWitt first caught our attention with her role on the short-lived but respected TV series Standoff – which co-starred Ron Livingston, who became her husband and also has a supporting role in Digging for Fire. (Be sure to check out our older interview with her circa that series as well.) Since then she has been in films like Rachel Getting Married, Cinderella Man (interesting trivia fact, that movie was about her grandfather), Men Women & Children, Kill the Messenger and the recent reboot of Poltergeist. She also had recurring roles on Mad Men and United States of Tara.
The rest of the ensemble cast is a who’s who of Hollywood hipness, with such established actors as Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate and Jane Adams all taking on supporting roles.
The week before Digging for Fire got its limited release, we were one of several media outlets who were able to speak with Johnson and DeWitt about the film.
How did you and Joe decide Rosemarie was right to play your wife?
Jake Johnson: We built this whole story. We didn’t have a script. We just had an outline. Then once we realized we were going to be telling two stories – his story and her story – we needed an actor who was strong enough, who could not only execute the life story but help write it. That’s how we got Rosemarie.
So you did some of the writing too?
Rosemarie DeWitt: No. He’s being crazy generous. They wrote all of the [plot]. It’s really hard to break a story. It’s really hard to come up with all the details; the beginning, the middle and the end. I didn’t feel like I was ever doing any mental gymnastics to figure out what comes next. You really get to go into the scene and know what it’s about. The words are yours, or your character’s. But they did all of the hard work. Then they surrounded us with phenomenal actors, all of whom could be the lead of this movie. [They] lent very generous support to the movie. I think Jenny Slate came there for two hours, to take a yoga class with me.
Jake Johnson: That’s right.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Chris Messina showed up and took his clothes off in that home.
Jake Johnson: Which was not written…
Rosemarie DeWitt: … which was not written…
Jake Johnson: That was Chris Messina’s idea. (laughs)
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah, but Chris and Sam had a really important job.
Jake Johnson: That’s right. Craziness.
Rosemarie DeWitt: They needed to bring a level of danger. Something could upend this marriage. If he went down the rabbit-hole of the guy he used to be, or wanted to be, or fantasizes about being. Orlando Bloom had to come in and be devastatingly handsome…
Jake Johnson: … Charming and funny…
Rosemarie DeWitt: and charming, and all that stuff. (laughs) It was hard. I mean, this is a really bit character role for Orlando.
Jake Johnson: He really did an excellent job in this movie. A lot of the people in this movie, you’re not surprised to see them in a little indie movie that was shot for 15 days.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Like Melanie Lynskey. Or me.
Jake Johnson: Ron [Livingston]. Myself. You. But, you still get the fun of seeing all of these faces. Orlando was the one for Joe and I. When he agreed to come on, we were like, “Orlando Bloom is doing this movie?” And he really shines in it.
Does Joe just call people up?
Jake Johnson: For this movie, yeah.
For every scene, there is somebody you recognize.
Jake Johnson: The way this one was cast was, we knew we wanted to do this movie. Joe wanted it to feel like an LA movie. Part of that feeling like an LA movie is celebrity faces. Joe and I were both guys from Chicago, so even though I am on TV it still weirds me out when I go to an event and I see somebody’s face where I’m like, “Oh, there is that dude from that thing!” When we were talking about an LA movie, it’s everywhere you go you see a face that you kind of know from somewhere. Most of his movies take place in Chicago and it’s a different thing. When we realized we wanted to do that kind of movie, it became about just texting people or calling people and saying, “We only need you for a day and a half or two days. You’ll have a lot of freedom in character, but this is the arc and this is what we need you to do.” We were very fortunate a lot of people were around. We shot it over the summer when there is not as much work, so a lot of people were able to jump out and come and play with us.
Did you come up with the backstory for the pieces you put in your backyard? Did you come up with the backstory for the body within the movie?
Jake Johnson: A lot of the pieces I found in the backyard were real stuff I [had] found, but we had props. All of that stuff, I had found a version of that. They didn’t look like that, because I no longer have them. But all of that was real.
In your imagination did you come up with where they came from?
Jake Johnson: Yes. The version that’s not in the movie, but for Joe and I, it’s the neighbor character who paints that picture of what happened on the hill. We imagined this guy to be a character that we felt that we knew who he was. As we were talking about it, we didn’t think that that was important for anyone in the audience, but it helped us to feel… so he was connected to the neighbor. Because of the way this story works, it could have just been something totally different and the neighbor could have just been messing with him.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yes.
Jake Johnson: We don’t give that hard answer. Also, when Joe and I do this, he and I always have slightly different takes. We never agree fully, because it doesn’t matter. But he’s like: No, it’s like that. And I’m like: No, it’s like that. And we’re like, (shrugs) all right. We’ll shoot it. Let the audience pick.
This is based on a story that actually happened.
Jake Johnson: Yes.
As a co-writer in this movie, did it help your acting?
Jake Johnson: That’s a good question. I would say, actually, this one was trickier for me just to be an actor on. There were so many actors, and I talked to Joe about it after, I found myself being more than being more reactionary at times. Because we would paint this story. I would have these general strokes that we needed to do. Then I’d look around, and there’d be so much talent that rather than driving a scene forward, which is how we’d imagined it, I would sit there and be like, “wow, there is Mike Birbiglia talking with Sam Rockwell. And Anna Kendrick is there. And Brie Larson is running down.” I would just find myself watching and Joe being like, “The scene is working,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, it’s great.” At times, I’d forget that I’m in the scene. I’m the one who has to drive this, so, if anything, I think it actually made it a little harder to act in it. I like it more when I know a little bit, but then it’s just my job to get on the field and play and let other people think about it.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah, because you kept saying to me, “Are you really going to do it that way?”
Jake Johnson: Well, you only, because I thought your choices were so odd and peculiar and terrible.
Rosemarie DeWitt: (laughs hard) Funny.
Jake Johnson: (fesses up) I never said that to her.
You just talked a little about how, when you and Joe have disagreements on something, you’d just shoot it both ways. How do you guys decide what to ultimately go with?
Jake Johnson: It’s funny you say that. I think I misinterpreted…
Rosemarie DeWitt: Joe wins.
Jake Johnson: Joe wins.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah, because Joe’s in the editing room.
Jake Johnson: It’s Joe’s decision. So, in terms of the writing of this, all we had was an outline. In terms of shooting both ways, we don’t shoot it both ways. We just have different instincts while we’re shooting. So we’ll shoot it one way. In terms of the backstory of the guy back there, I know who I thought was back there and he knows who he thinks was back there, but it’s not like we are editing it together and I get to say like, “You must do this.” Well, there’s no studio, you know? (laughs) This is a small movie, so he’ll say, “No. I’m doing this and I’m editing in Chicago and there is nothing you can do about it because you’re back to work on New Girl. You’ll see the movie when it’s done.”
Rosemarie DeWitt: You guys are also really easy going.
Jake Johnson: Oh, stop.
Rosemarie DeWitt: No, I’m just saying you trust him.
Jake Johnson: Yeah. That’s why I work with him. I think he’s very talented.
With so many improvised scenes, was there something you were sad to see cut?
Jake Johnson: No, because it’s not like an improvised studio movie, or even New Girl, where you shoot so much and then you whittle it down. We shot this movie on film. So with our budget, which was not a lot, all of that money went to the film. You can’t shoot a scene five, or six, times just to do it. Mostly what was shot, is in it. I heard that there was some stuff with Orlando that got cut.
Rosemarie DeWitt: That was one of the rare scenes where I think Joe Swanberg did old school Joe Swanberg. Where Orlando and I, when he cooks me a steak, we sat and did longer takes. We talked about a lot of different things. I think we couldn’t let the audience go too far down the rabbit hole with those two characters, because we had to come back around with these two characters. So a lot of the Orlando stuff (laughs) was honestly just too winning to end up in the movie – but that was the only place. Everything else, if anything, we went back and did a couple extra days and needed more.
Jake Johnson: Right. We did a couple days of basically story re-shoots, just to clarify some stuff.
Rosemarie DeWitt: And stretch some things out.
What do you think came out dramatically in terms of the film saying things about modern relationships? These two definitely go off and can keep going…
Jake Johnson: That’s right. I personally think what Joe and I were both interested in saying is that being in a relationship and having kids: it’s not a fairytale, and it’s not always the easiest. Sometimes things happen that you’re not always the most proud of, but you can take something from those experiences and bring them home, and it actually can make you guys stronger. You hear stories about people who take time off and then re-find each other. I think that’s something that we both found as strong rather than a sign of weakness. It’s hard but if you stick together you can make it work.
Rosemarie DeWitt: A lot of people like to say monogamy is not natural, and yet so many people want to get married. Really want to be married to the people that they are married to. They just need a minute to, like, oxygenate the relationship and try and bring some novelty to it. We made a movie about that – for people who really want to be married to who they’re married to. It’s not easy over the long haul to keep everybody feeling alive.
Rosemarie, do you think seeing Orlando was what made her realize she had what she wanted all along?
Rosemarie DeWitt: Of course. (laughs) I’m kidding, I don’t know. Um, yeah. I think in that moment – well, that’s a scene actually went away. Jane [Adams] and I had a scene that almost turned into a really hot make out scene. (laughs more) I don’t know why, but in the middle of it I almost just kissed Jane too.
Jake Johnson: You’re on the beach, you got a fire going…
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah, I kiss everybody on the beach.
Jake Johnson: She kissed the sound guy.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah, I just started kissing people who weren’t in the movie. But, yeah, I think Lee just found that the world was just so vast.
It put things in perspective?
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah, it put some things in perspective… like those things do. You know, a moment with nature or a brush with death and everything starts to make sense. I also think that sometimes you sit across from someone, and even if they’re as dreamy as Orlando Bloom’s character, you realize you have a pretty good at home and that it’s worth fighting for. I don’t think that she wants to stay on the beach. I think that moment was enough for her. In that scene, Saturn blew her mind more so than the night she was already having.
Was it a conscious decision to have Lee to have the extramarital kiss and not Tim?
Rosemarie DeWitt: (to Jake) Was it?
Jake Johnson: No. So what that was, that was working on a Joe Swanberg movie. When they were doing those scenes on the beach, we had not written in that they kissed.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Orlando just really fought for it. (laughs)
Jake Johnson: Orlando insisted on it. So that was something that when they got to the beach that night, Joe really wanted to see that scene happen. He pushed for it. That was something that Joe, in the moment, just felt was really right. But no, it wasn’t a planned-out thing. It wasn’t a big strategy. It was more of a moment for him.
I have a question about the use of twos in the film. There are things like private versus public, but then you have your characters living in a duplex, Tim and Phil only been friends for two years, and then we have some twinning with Lee and Ben because they’re both wearing the same color shirt and the same color jacket on the beach. Could you tell me what you meant by that?
Jake Johnson: Whoa!
Rosemarie DeWitt: You know what’s really interesting? I don’t think there was anything in the things you just said, although your eye is amazing, I think it was more meant to be between Brie Larson’s character and the character of Lee. With having her wear the dress. There were supposed to be some similarities of how maybe Lee was when she was younger…
Jake Johnson: Right.
Rosemarie DeWitt: … And certainly between that absurd moment where you dressed like Sam Rockwell. But those might be the things that just sort of happened out of the collective unconscious of the movie.
Jake Johnson: What I really think is interesting about your question – and I mean it genuinely, because we had this at a Q&A at Sundance – part of the fun of working on a Joe Swanberg movie is that we didn’t have department heads. We didn’t have a costume department. Joe just told people what to wear in the movie. So a lot of things like those connections, I believe that everything you just said is really interesting and right – but it was not thought about or discussed. There were moments that we knew needed to happen. For Tim to give a dress to a woman that’s his wife dress: we wanted that just to be a major betrayal. Even though you could see that as innocent, I don’t think there’s a lot of women that would like some other woman wearing her clothes.
Jake Johnson: We wanted these things to happen, but we didn’t consciously connect them all. When people connect them all, I think it’s a neat thing the way that Joe makes movies.
What do you want audience members to walk away with an understanding of?
Jake Johnson: At the end of the day, I make movies because I like to entertain people. I would like people to enjoy the journey. This is a smaller movie. It’s a character piece. It’s slower. I think people who like movies that are more character studies and who take their time – really, more than anything, rather than a lesson, I want people to have not regretted the hour and a half of their life.
Rosemarie DeWitt: (laughs) That would be good.
Jake Johnson: Truthfully now. If you watch this on video or if you go to the theater, I want to of made their night enjoyable. If you go to dinner and see a movie, I don’t want them to think, “I wish I hadn’t seen that movie.” We wanted to tell a story that was, ideally, something that was fun to watch, kept you in it, characters who you could relate to and think were real, and a story that ends in a way that you feel satisfied.
Rosemarie DeWitt: And I think that Joe makes movies that are really personal to him. He’s not afraid to tell the actors why it is so personal to him. We will sit down and he’ll say, for example, “Kris [Swanberg, his wife who is also a director] and I had a conversation about such and such,” regarding parenting or marriage, and I think that his hope and, my hope, is that somebody goes, “Oh that movie was made for me. I think that movie is a lot like my life. Or a lot like what I’m aspiring to do or aspiring not to do.” It’s not made for everybody.
Jake Johnson: That’s right. You just said it. When you make a movie this size, you are not trying with the net to catch every fish. But the fish you catch you really hope will love this. We really hope the people who like this movie can really connect to it. That would feel like a big win.
Have you played a dad before?
Jake Johnson: Man, I don’t know. I can’t think of offhand, but I might have. Maybe not. Maybe this was the first time.
Rosemarie DeWitt: At least in a movie…
Jake Johnson: It’s an interesting time, when you start having kids and you get married. I think the way that the story is told wrong is that “yes dear” mentality of like, “I’m dying to party, but my ball and chain won’t let me.” What feels more modern is that you’re definitely allowed to, but you’re just going to be tired all the time. When you’re partying with your buddies, you’re going to suck because you want to talk about your kids. Then when you’re with your kids, you’re going to so be tired because you partied with your buddies. I don’t think you ever stop missing being in your 20s and partying because it’s so fun. Now, you just party a little differently. (laughs)
Rosemarie DeWitt: You put on Barney and dance around the living room.
Jake Johnson: That’s right. And then drink ten bottles of wine when the kids fall asleep.
It was really refreshing to see a female character play not being a nagging wife. Was that something that attracted you to the role?
Rosemarie DeWitt: Yeah. It’s interesting, there was a moment where we did a scene with Jude Swanberg, who is really Joe’s darling little son in real life, who plays our son in the movie. Long story short, I made him cry in the scene because I told him not to say “poopy” at the table. Then he started crying and I felt like I mean monster. But in that moment, it’s that moment that a lot of women relate to. I look at Jake and say, “See, you make me be the bad guy.” Women don’t want to nag. They know stuff needs to get done. They know their husband wants to stay on Reddit till four in the morning, or wants to go drinking with the boys… They want to do those things too, but they’re also trying to keep all the balls in the air. There’s something nice about this character for me; that she gets to do that and lead her life. We see that she has the fully alive juicy side too, she just sometimes has to be the bad guy.
Was that line ad-libbed?
Rosemarie DeWitt: It was definitely ad-libbed, and then Joe [liked it].
You and Rosemarie have such great on-screen chemistry together, how involved were you with the casting of her and the other characters as well?
Jake Johnson: For Roe, I was involved a lot, because in terms of the male-female dynamics, and it’s really Joe’s theory that I jumped onto, it’s really hard to write a female character as a dude. And Joe and I are both kind of dudes. We needed somebody who could come in who would have a lot of input and wasn’t going to be saying like, “What should I say now? What should I do here?” We needed someone who was going to be strong enough.
Rosemarie DeWitt: I was like, “Fuck you guys. That’s bullshit!”
Jake Johnson: (laughs) It happened with Roe, and it also happened with Brie where her character in this movie, in our outline, was supposed to have a crush on my character. There was supposed to be sexual tension. That’s what we wrote. That’s what we imagined. She came in when we met on it…
Rosemarie DeWitt: … And Brie was like, “Fuck you guys.” (laughs)
Jake Johnson: Yeah. In a very nice way, she goes, “Why would I be sexually attracted to an older guy who has got a kid?” Joe and I were like, (macho) “Yeah totally.”
Rosemarie DeWitt: (laughs) They were like, “This is the male fantasy version that we wrote.” And then the real 25-year-old woman came in and said no.
Jake Johnson: She said, “I would be attracted to this weird adventure, that you were looking for a body. I’d like to hang out and maybe smoke a joint and go digging for a body, but I would definitely not want to sleep with you.” So Joe and I had a real eye-opener.
Rosemarie DeWitt: After Jake picked his ego off of the floor… (laughs)
Jake Johnson: I went home and I held on to a big glass of rum and felt bad for myself. But then we’re like, all right, if that’s the case, what keeps you around? She wanted to have intellectual conversations and talk about her adventures on Ayahuasca [a native-American “medicinal” tea]. The connection was my character doesn’t feel like he and his wife will take a crazy adventure like taking Ayahuasca because of their responsibilities. The story becomes then about that. In terms of my involvement in the casting, it was we wanted to cast – especially when you just had an outline – the most interesting people we could get. Who were smart so that they could say things like that rather than just, “Oh my God, I would totally have a crush on your character.” To which Joe and I would give each other a high five and be like (macho again) “That’s what we figured, ladies.” (DeWitt laughs)
Now that you’ve co-written a movie, have you found that you’d like to do another one?
Jake Johnson: It’s interesting. We did another one that we actually wrote more on together. This one, it feels a little bit weird being a writer on it. It felt more to me like that’s a union status thing. Joe and I did another movie this summer that we wrote way more on – to experiment more. We actually had dialogue and some scenes. But for Digging For Fire, it really felt like we came up with the story. Joe, who really oversees it, deserves a lot more of the credit, because he also edits it. This was really an ensemble and everybody brought a lot to the table on it.
In today’s day and age you see male nudity so infrequently. Would you mind telling us a little backstory to that scene?
Jake Johnson: Here’s the back story. I’ve been a fan of Chris [Messina] for a long time. Because of Mindy [Chronicles] and New Girl [both Fox comedies that ran on the same night], we’ve spent so much time together at Fox events. He’s just a guy that I’ve wanted to work with for years. In this movie, we only had an open part for a party scene. But that seems really important and it felt very dangerous and really crazy and different than Tim’s life. Exciting in a way that, when he shows up to the party, the stakes get raised. People out there, the talk was cocaine and a different kind of party. It was his idea. Chris said, “Well one thing that be weird, especially in a house that you’re house sitting, is if my character took off his clothes and jumped into the pool. It would definitely take the party to another level.”
Rosemarie DeWitt: It would take the film to another level.
Jake Johnson: Yes, it would take the film. We all laughed. We were in a bar and said like, “Sure, Chris. That sounds fun.” When we were shooting and he said, “I’m going to take my pants off and do it.” So he did. I really think it adds to a weird element of the movie, where you don’t know where the story is going at that point. So I respect and appreciate the fact that he did it.
It is sort of a pivot point in the film. Once that happens, anything is possible.
Jake Johnson: I think that’s right.
Rosemarie DeWitt: Also, the night is supposed to take a little bit of a turn.
I liked the score, it felt sort of like an 80s adventure. How did that come about?
Jake Johnson: Yeah, the score of the movie, that’s really a Joe thing. But what we wanted while we were shooting, Ben Richardson, the DP [Director of Photography], who also did Drinking Buddies and Beasts of the Southern Wild, he wanted it to feel almost like a Spielberg movie at times on that hill. Where it felt like a bigger adventure and it felt fun and exciting. I know Joe when he did the score wanted it to have that epic feeling, if possible.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 22, 2015.
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