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.
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.
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
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.
did you and Joe decide Rosemarie was right to play your wife?
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
So you did some of the writing too?
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.
Chris Messina showed
up and took his clothes off in that home.
Which was not written...
... which was not
That was Chris Messina's idea. (laughs)
Yeah, but Chris and Sam had a really important job.
That's right. Craziness.
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
... Charming and funny...
and charming, and
all that stuff. (laughs) It was hard. I mean, this is a really
bit character role for Orlando.
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
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
This is based on a story that actually
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.
Yeah, because you kept saying to me, "Are you really going to do it that
Well, you only, because I
thought your choices were so odd and peculiar and terrible.
(laughs hard) Funny.
(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?
It's funny you say that. I think I misinterpreted...
Yeah, because Joe's in the editing room.
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."
guys are also really easy going.
No, I'm just saying
you trust him.
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?
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
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.
Right. We did a couple days
of basically story re-shoots, just to clarify some stuff.
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...
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.
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.
You're on the beach, you got a fire going...
Yeah, I kiss everybody on the beach.
She kissed the sound guy.
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?
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.
Orlando just really fought for it. (laughs)
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.
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?
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...
... 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
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?
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.
(laughs) That would be good.
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.
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.
At least in a movie...
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.
You put on Barney and dance around the living room.
That's right. And then drink ten bottles of wine when the kids fall
It was really refreshing to see a female
character play not being a nagging wife. Was that something that
attracted you to the role?
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?
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?
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.
DeWitt: I was
like, "Fuck you guys. That's bullshit!"
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...
... And Brie was like, "Fuck you guys."
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)
(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.
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
After Jake picked his ego off of the floor...
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
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.
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."
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 is sort of a pivot point in the film. Once that happens, anything is
Jake Johnson: I think that's
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?
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.
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