I read this email from you in bed, took a shower, ate breakfast, then sat at my desk to answer these questions.
What is your earliest memory?
Seeing Revenge of the Nerds in a movie theater with my dad and uncle. Based on the release date of the movie, I must have been almost 3, or maybe they saw it second run and I was 3. Anyway, I don’t remember much of the movie, but I do remember my dad’s hands covering my eyes and ears several times throughout. So I would be looking at this giant image and hearing these loud sounds, then I would see and hear nothing, then images and sounds again. I’m sure this has something to do with my love of cinema and the quality of mystery and excitement that it still holds for me.
If you weren’t an actor and a writer/director, what other profession would you choose?
I would be a stay-at-home dad. I think full-time parenting is one of the most challenging professions, and despite getting little credit, and often being looked down upon, it’s hugely important.
Describe a typical work day.
I work in my basement office Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., unless I’m traveling or in production. If I’m not busy on something specific, I spend the first hour of the day returning emails and reading news and articles, then I’ll pick up whatever I was doing at the end of the previous day (writing, editing, etc.) I typically eat lunch around 11:30 or noon and by then Los Angeles is at work (I live in Chicago), so I’ll spend some more time returning emails or taking phone calls. In the afternoon I’ll sometimes read a script my agent has sent me or watch a movie. I always have a stack of DVDs near my computer to keep up with. If writing or editing was going good in the morning, I’ll do that throughout the afternoon, then spend the last thirty minutes of the day returning emails.
Is there a time you wish you’d lied?
I can’t think of a time where I wish I’d lied but many times where I wish I hadn’t said anything.
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and have a conversation with yourself at age thirteen?
I would tell myself to date some girls in high school; that “the one” is just a stupid concept that makes sense in movies and books, but doesn’t apply to the real world. I would tell myself that I’m doing a major disservice to the first few years that I’ll spend with my eventual wife by having no relationship experience and idiotic concepts about true love. I’d tell myself that eventually I’ll overcome these things to have a great marriage, but I’d save myself a lot of time and trouble (and who knows, maybe have some actual fun) if I loosened up a bit and just engaged with the girls around me, rather than fruitlessly looking for one that only existed in movies and my imagination.
If you could have only one album to get you through a breakup, what would it be?
Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
What are three websites—other than your email—that you check on a daily basis?
From what or whom do you derive your greatest inspiration?
I derive the most inspiration from my friends and family. I know that’s a broad answer, but everything I’ve made has come out of some situation that I see someone around me dealing with. My imagination starts working, wondering how I would deal with that situation, or guessing how they are dealing with it privately. I wonder what their lives are like when I don’t see them. How do they fight, how do they make up, how do they make decisions. These questions get me excited and lead to projects.
Name three books that have impacted your life.
Needful Things, by Stephen King – as a kid this is one of the first “adult” books I read. It was such an intense peek into the world of adults. There’s language, ideas, acts in there that I didn’t know existed. Is this what it’s like to be a grown up? I feel like a lot of young Americans have this experience with Stephen King. His books are in so many houses and so accessible. For kids who get curious about things outside of their kid world, he’s a gateway.
White Noise, by Don DeLillo – I read this for the first time my freshman year of college, and I’ve read it a few times since. Each time I spend weeks afterwards acutely aware that I’m going to die and everyone I love is going to die. Eventually it fades and I stop thinking about it, but that book really drives it home. It’s funny that we’re able to spend most days forgetting that we’re going to die, and even when we think about it, it’s abstract. That book makes it concrete for me. I am going to die. You are going to die.
Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis – By the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, I was so upset about America on a daily basis that it was overwhelming my ability to think about anything else. I, like many products of the American public school system, held an idealized view of America at its founding and the men who created the country. Ellis’ book was important for me. He painted a picture of chaos, fear, backstabbing, gridlock, everything America was still dealing with in the 2000s. In a strange way it restored my faith in the country, and in our political process, to know that it’s been a cluster fuck since the beginning, and even these brilliant guys (and many of them were truly brilliant) who founded the country made a lot of terrible decisions that we eventually worked to fix, and the terrible decisions our leaders are making on a daily basis now are also fixable if we keep working. This book lead to many other books about revolutionary America, and now I feel like I know George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They are so real to me, as people, not just as faces on our money. My big takeaway is that Thomas Jefferson, despite being a great writer, is a total hypocrite fucker who is responsible for most of what I hate about politics now. John Adams is my hero. By all accounts he was an arrogant asshole, but his personal correspondence reveals a very smart, passionate, human asshole that I really relate to. I relate to Thomas Jefferson a lot as well, but in him I see only my bad qualities that I want to change. George Washington was the kind of alpha bad-ass that I could never relate to, but boy did people respect that guy. I would love to be in a crowded room with him just to feel the energy move entirely in his direction.
If you could relive one moment over and over again, what would it be?
The day after my son was born, my wife was asleep in the hospital bed and I was sitting in a chair next to her with a book in one hand and my beautiful little sleeping son in the other arm. That was a moment of pure happiness for me. My family was happy and healthy and safe and resting.
How are you six degrees from Kevin Bacon?
I used to put pillows on the ground between couches as a kid and play Tremors with my friends.
What makes you feel most guilty?
When my 2-year-old son has to ask me to put my phone away and play with him.
How do you incorporate the work of other artists into your own?
I try to do it naturally and subconsciously. I don’t like to steal things from other work. I like to let it seep in and come out on its own.
Please explain the motivation/inspiration behind Drinking Buddies.
I wanted to set something in the world of craft beer, which I love and spend a lot of time thinking about, and I wanted to try my hand at making a film that challenged an audience while entertaining them, rather than challenging them while challenging them.
What is the best advice you’ve ever given to someone else?
Jeez, I don’t know. I’ve probably been the most helpful when I haven’t given advice and just minded my own business.
List your favorite in the following categories: Comedian, Musician, Author, Actor.
I’m going to cheat and list 2 because these are all ties:
Comedian — Louis CK and Chris Rock.
Musician — David Byrne and Paul Simon.
Author — Don DeLillo and Phillip Roth.
Actor — Joaquin Phoenix and Rosemarie DeWitt.
If you had complete creative license and an unlimited budget, what would your next project be?
Either a massive narrative television project about America in the 1770s or a film about the first people to accidentally discover beer and the quest over the centuries to perfect it.
What do you want to know?
What would you like your last words to be?
I love you.
Please explain what will happen.
I’ll send this email, then drive with my wife and son to Indianapolis to see my parents because there is a screening of Drinking Buddies there tomorrow night.
JOE SWANBERG has directed many acclaimed feature films and web shows, including Hannah Takes the Stairs, Alexander the Last, Uncle Kent, and the IFC.com series Young American Bodies. He also co-directed and acted in the breakout horror film, V/H/S. His films have premiered at Sundance, Berlin, and SXSW, and regularly appear on TV and in film festivals and theaters around the world.
In Drinking Buddies, written and directed by Swanberg, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a craft brewery. They have one of those friendships that feels like it could be something more. But Kate is with Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick). And Jill wants to know if Luke is ready to talk about marriage. The answer to that question becomes crystal clear when Luke and Kate unexpectedly find themselves alone for a weekend.
* Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.