Jake Johnson Talks "Win It All," Netflix and why he might be having a Scorsese/De Niro thing going with Joe Swanberg [Interview]

When Jake Johnson met director Joe Swanberg for the first time, he had no idea that this meeting would start, what has so far been, a fruitful and highly creative actor-director partnership.The fact that “Drinking Buddies” turned out to be their first movie helped a lot. The 2011 film, starring Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde, has become the blueprint example of how good Swanberg’s style can be when everything just clicks. The film, about drinking, love and friendship, did not have a successful theatrical release, but ended up gaining the majority of its fans through Netflix. Its themes clearly struck a chord with, not just millennials, but adults and, yes, the mainstream.
It’s now been six years since “Drinking Buddies,”  and Johnson and Swanberg have now made three movies together, the other two being “Digging With Fire,” and, this latest one, “Win It All” (which is now streaming on Netflix). They can’t seem to let go of each other, already having plans to make another film this year. High on their creative partnership, they aim to make nine movies together and then call it quits— at least that’s what Johnson told me when I interviewed him last week.
“Win It All“ is a worthy new addition to their canon. It is a straightforward character study about a compulsive gambler trying to get his life back on track. The film features not only the best performance Johnson has ever given, but it is proof that Swanberg, who usually uses a ton of improv in his movies, can even make solid indie movies that rely more on scripted words than on-the-spot creative thinking.
Unlike their last two films, Johnson and Swanberg knew what story they wanted to tell, and used a three act structure that was highly influenced by the maverick Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. I spoke to Johnson about his partnership with Swanberg, the influence of Robert Altman, and why they wanted Netflix to pick it up even before shooting started.
“Win It All,” It was great, what else can I say?
Thank you [laughs]. It was fun, it was a movie Joe and I wrote together because we wanted to make something that was enjoyable and fun for people, we made it with the intent to go straight to streaming and, you know, we want people to enjoy it.
You guys have worked before on these low-budget films, and the aesthetic you’ve built seems to continue, although it seems more conventional, but it actually turns out to be refreshing.
Yeah, you kind of picked up what it was all about. What’s nice with working with somebody repeatedly is that you learn from the mistakes you made and, at least, make the adjustments. It’s a true independent movie in that there is no outside studio. We finance these movies with personal checks. And we use the money that we made from it to pay for the next one. So, we’re doing it because we’re trying to make movies, and we’re trying to figure out what we like to make together. This one was a bit of an experiment: can you, in this movie model, make more of a studio three act-structured movie in that we add more story instead of more character to it. It’s a movie we both really loved and the performances with Keegan Michael-Key and all the others — everybody really brought their A game.
Did you like the experience?
I personally loved it because I’m a story guy, I started as a screenwriter, I went to NYU in screenwriting. I love the structure of the three acts, I love story beats, twists and turns. But, just mostly, the indie scripts I get or offered are more character driven than story-driven. So, this was a real passion project for me and a real experiment. I wanted to see if you could actually mix the two, if you could make it a small movie that is small by nature, but big by story.
So, this was more scripted than in your past endeavors?
That’s right, Joe and I , we had a script where we knew everything that needed to happen in terms of story. So, we were beat perfect, but in terms of dialogue — Keegan-Michael Key and Joe Lo Truglio, those are two of the funniest guys working today and some of the more talented actors. So, I don’t want to tell them to stick to a line that I wrote on my laptop. There’s no illusion that I’m Billy Shakespeare over here. We need you to stay on the story because if we deviate away from the story the movie has nothing. All the scenes with Keegan and I where he’s messing with me, we knew what had to happen, but he brought so much to the table. When he’s making that speech at the AA meeting, that was him, that was what he chose to say. So, you don’t get to do a Swanberg movie without the cast really bringing a lot to it.
There have been plenty of movies about gambling, and the two that come to mind are “The Gambler” and “California Split.” Were those influences in making this film?
Without question, “California Split” was a huge influence. It was a movie that I love, it was a movie that I care about. We didn’t want to make a remake because our story was different, I don’t want to touch what they did because it was perfect, but that type of movie I find is very interesting, those are the kind of movies I saw in my teenage years [that made me] want to make films or be an indie filmmaker. I think we’re in an era right now in indie filmmaking where there’s all these different ways to have films out with streaming sites and indie theaters, there’s ways to make different sized movies that can have a life. “California Split,” it would be hard to write that movie today and have it compete against the summer blockbusters. Nowadays we have so many ways for people to watch, I think it’s the “wild west” of filmmaking.
You even mentioned that you guys made the movie with the intention of streaming it on Netflix, can you elaborate a little on that?
Every movie Joe and I write together is in hope of developing the next one. Every movie in concept should be a whole different experience. We had done “Drinking Buddies,” which we hoped would have gone to theaters, and that really found an audience with people streaming it.
It sure did. You don’t know how many people have come up to me and said they discovered “Drinking Buddies” on Netflix.
That’s where the world saw it. Nobody saw that film in theaters, to this day people are coming up to me and saying “Hey, I just saw a movie called ‘Drinking Buddies’ man, I loved it” and so, we thought, “Wow people loved and found it” and then we made “Digging with Fire” that we got to play in select theaters and it found that same audience. That was really unique. This one, we want you guys to discover this, when you can discover this. Aislin Derbez, who plays my love interest, is from Mexico and what’s so exciting about this streaming is that this movie goes worldwide April 7th. So this movie is playing in Mexico the day it’s playing in Chicago and that blows my mind.
Yeah, it seems to have become a go-to place for established filmmakers. Even Martin Scorsese has signed up there for his next movie.
I don’t think we should ever discredit the fun and joy of going to the movies. I saw “Get Out” in the movie theater and I am so glad I saw that surrounded by people. I thought it was the perfect theater movie. There are some movies that belong in the theater, there are some movies that it would be a shame if you didn’t see them in the theater. Then, there are other movies that can actually work on streaming. So I don’t think that streaming means the death of movies as we know it. I just think it’s a different avenue. We’re in a content race where you make some different budgeted types of movies and they don’t have to cannibalize each other. They can all survive.
I’d like to know a little bit more about your work partnership with Joe, you guys seem to have something unique and interesting going on. What makes it all work so well?
Like any relationship, Joe and I really like each other and we both bring something very different to the table. Each movie is a different kind of partnership. The kind of model that we’re forming is that we talk an idea together and, if it’s something we’re both passionate about, we spend a lot of time on it. Then I’ll come up with a structured pitch of the act, sort of like a blueprint. And if he likes it and is willing to spend time on it and if I like it then we go in and start writing it. We fill it out and then we cast it, once we cast it, we will rewrite for that cast and the on-set. Joe runs a perfect set in my opinion, and as an actor, it’s a ridiculous industry that we’re in, but you need to trust the director and you need to be willing, vulnerable, and open to try your hardest because you like this person and care about him. Joe creates an environment that once the actors embrace what he’s doing, he really gets  incredible performances out of them because you’re in the Joe Swanberg world. The guy knows how to throw a party.
These films have people that feel real, situations that feel authentic, and, as you mentioned, a lot of the credit has to go to Joe and his actors. A good example is your character in the movie, Eddie. It’s not a caricature at all.
Yeah, that was the idea.
I’d like you to talk a little about Eddie. He starts off as a not very likeable character, but then he really develops into someone you really care for.
Eddie is loosely based …. I come from this family from where my mom had eight brothers and sisters and they were these big, larger than life Chicago characters and when I was growing up I looked up to all of them. I just thought, you know my uncles and aunts, they were just the coolest people. But my Uncles had all these crazy stories. Eddie, in my creation of this character, was loosely based off of, not just my uncles, but the way my uncles used to tell stories of their friends, people who grew up in the neighborhood, it’s like I really know those guys, I idolized those characters for a lot of years in my life. It was definitely the type of character that I loved to play, I really hope to again, and it doesn’t feel like something that I’m done with. These are people that contributed to my artistic development of who I thought was cool and who I thought would be cool to play.
Are you already planning your next movie with Joe?
We are. Joe and I always plan, it’s always about scheduling. You know, he’s got his Netflix TV show [“Easy“], I’ve got “New Girl” and then other movies. We have a couple of ideas that are always kickin’ around, slowly building the story and then there will be a time where he says, “I can be free in October and November,” and I go “that window works for me,” then we lock that off, and once we lock that off, then it’s a sprint to get to that date to get the cast, the money, get the crew, get the script. So right now we’re just in the phase of picking which one we want to be next, and what’s nice about Joe and I is that we’ve always been saying that we want to make nine movies together. We both feel that there aren’t enough collaborations in this business where people who like movies can watch a twosome grow together. I loved watching Scorsese and De Niro, and Joe and I have an opportunity with these indie movies that we’re doing to create our version of something like that. I loved, you know, Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. You know those collaborations that just come and go. We kind of shook hands and made an agreement by saying, “Let’s do our own thing and let’s see what movie 5,6,7,8 and 9 look like.” Because, each one we’re going to learn from. We’ve learned a lot from “Win it All,” and I want to put that into practice for the next one.