If it seems like a curious move for the hapless, lovable Jake Johnson and mumblecore-extraordinaire Joe Swanberg to write a movie about searching for a dead body, you’d be right, but you haven’t heard the whole story. The premise for their newest film, Digging for Fire, actually begins very much in reality—right in Johnson’s own backyard. “What really happened was I was digging in the backyard with my wife and I found a rusted gun, bones, and license plate,” Johnson said. “Now, it very well could have been animal bones and a kid’s gun that got rusted, but for the sake of mystery, I got excited about it.” Johnson corralled a bunch of friends and hosted a 10-day backyard excavation, but no skeleton was unearthed.
The fiction of Digging for Fire will probably strike viewers as a lot more familiar. Swanberg assembled most of the cast from 2013’s Drinking Buddies (Johnson, Ron Livingston, and his movie muse Anna Kendrick) then added more star power (Orlando Bloom, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson, to name a few). Johnson plays a husband struggling to get it together. After his wife, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, packs up their toddler (starring Swanberg’s adorable son, Jude) and leaves him for a weekend with a tablefull of undone taxes, both spouses go on a lo-fi self-discovery journey. While the somewhat grim outlook on long-term relationships is characteristic of Swanberg’s oeuvre, Johnson was less interested in that. “I was really excited about the dead body—to be a twelve-year-old about this movie,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t there when they were shooting the Rosemarie DeWitt stuff, so a lot of that was more open-ended. For me, it was just about the dead body.” Here, more from Johnson about Digging for Fire, Chris Messina going full frontal, and where New Girl went wrong.
Why did you opt for a short outline instead of a traditional script?
We had an outline so that we were able to pitch people, which had a beginning, middle, and end. With every actor coming in, we wanted them to bring their own brain and their own creativity. We know what needs to happen in a scene, but Joe, as a director, doesn’t really care how you get there, as long as it’s good. His theory is: Get good people and good things will happen.
You’ve obviously worked with Joe Swanberg and a number of the people in this movie. Is the casting process now like inviting a few friends over?
Yes, this one was. We connect this movie with Drinking Buddies. We knew people who liked Drinking Buddies and so we just reached out to them, or they had expressed that they liked it. They were interested in the world. So we said, “We’re making this one, do you want to come jump on?”
How did Orlando Bloom get involved? Because he seems like—
An outsider. That was through the agents. He’s my surprise pick because I think he’s great in the movie. He’s the guy you don’t expect in this thing, but he brought a lot to it. A lot of his character, and what makes his character interesting, he wrote. He wanted to have a motorcycle; he wanted to get into a fight. And Joe loved all of it.
What about Chris Messina’s full frontal? Was that a conversation?
When we asked Chris to be in the movie, what we said was his character needed to add an element of danger to the movie, [like] this night is getting more out of control than my character is kind of ready to deal with. And so Chris was, like, “Well, we could be blowing coke and screaming and getting drunk.” And then he goes, “I should just whip my dick out and get in the pool.” And Joe and I laughed, and then on set, he whipped his dick out and got in the pool.
Do you prefer improv to scripted TV?
Well, in scripted TV we improvise a lot, too. I like having a good script, but I like being able to have some freedom with it. So I’m one of those in-betweeners. I’m not necessarily looking to do heavy drama that is word-perfect. I like good writing, but I like being able to be in the moment and have good things happen.
New Girl kind of turned a corner at the end of season four. How have you felt about Nick and Jess’s ups and downs over the course of the series?
Zooey [Deschanel] and I knew it wasn’t working when Nick and Jess were together because there was so much fighting and they were always standing across from each other in some absurd argument. And we were, like, this is kind of spoiling something that’s nice between these two characters. I think the writers saw that, too, and I think we’re all relieved that they’re back to being friends. There might be some tension, but they’re friends.
When you would get a script that had Nick and Jess doing something you didn’t necessarily agree with, was it like getting a mandate from the boss?
Yes. We would see a scene and it would be like, “All right, I guess Nick and Jess are doing this?” And we would talk and sometimes we would say, “That’s great!” And other times, we’d be, like, “Why are they doing this?” But at the end of the day, you’re not being paid as a writer. I’m an actor. What they’re going to write for you is what you’re going to do. So if you like it or not, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but that’s partly what it is to be on a TV show.
How are you feeling about the fifth season of New Girl?
I’m excited. When people ask “What do you want to happen?” I’m like, “I don’t care.” I like playing Nick. I think he’s a really fun character. I will be really sad when I won’t get to play him anymore. I know all the characters. We know all our tones, our comedic rhythms. I like when the [show’s] funny. I don’t necessarily love the melodrama of television at times. I like when there’s just like really good comedic situations. When we’re in an emotional fight on television, I’m, like, “What?”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The post Jake Johnson on His New Movie and Where New Girl Went Wrong appeared first on Vogue.
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