Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson have worked together—Swanberg as director and writer, Johnson as actor and sometimes co-writer—over the last four years on microbrew indie Drinking Buddies, marriage dramedy Digging For Fire and Netflix half-hour series Easy. Friday saw the release of their latest: a Netflix gambling nailbiter called Win It All.
Those four projects defy easy categorization. They’re comedic, they’re dramatic, they’re tense, they’re romantic and they’re unpredictable. They’re a slightly heightened reality, and reality doesn’t conform to thriller or romantic-comedy conventions (well, most of the time). Win It All is a gambling movie for people who don’t like gambling movies; it’s also a romantic comedy, a cringe comedy and at times a thriller.
“I think of movies the way I think of a good campfire story,” says Johnson, who co-wrote Win It All and plays the lead as a likable but opportunistic gambling addict who gets in over his head. “When I hear someone tell a story, I want to laugh, I want to hear some romance, I want there to be some adrenaline.”
Below, Johnson, a Chicago native in his late 30s, talks about the status of main gig (FOX’s New Girl), the strength of his IRL poker game and why we need unclassifiable cinema.
Let me ask you first about your non-Swanberg gig. If New Girl is not back for another season, won’t things have ended in a pretty good place for everyone on the show?
Yeah, I think [showrunner] Liz Meriwether did a really nice job wrapping the show up if FOX decides not to pick it up. I think she would have been heartbroken if we didn’t conclude the story and FOX didn’t give us another season.
Of the numerous projects you’ve worked on with Joe Swanberg, is Win It All the first that you cowrote with him?
More or less. I have a writing credit on Digging for Fire, but I don’t feel like I really cowrote that one. This was the first film that I felt like I actually wrote. This time we sat together, pounded out a three-act structure and wrote a full script.
That’s not how he usually works, right? When I talked to him last year for Netflix’s Easy, he said he uses a loose process that includes a lot of input from the actors. Did the two of you decide at the outset of Win It All that you wanted to do something more studio-style?
Joe has a certain style of making movies, as you said, and we wanted to experiment with doing a different style. We didn’t improvise or change any of the story as we were shooting, but Joe’s not precious with dialogue. We could live in the moment and say things a different way, but we really tried to make sure that the story beats were exactly what we wanted. With something like Digging for Fire, the story could actually change based on an actor’s improv. With Win It All, we wanted to do something tighter.
Where do these films find their tone—either dark comedy or drama or dramedy? Is that in the original idea, or does it come sometime later?
The beauty of independent film is that you don’t have to have a genre. These films don’t have to make $500 million at the box office. I think Win It All has a lot laughs, a lot of tension and some romantic comedy. I think it’s a lot of things.
I was curious to hear what you would call it. There are parts of the film that are very dark comedy and parts that were more romantic comedy or character comedy.
With an indie or even bigger movies, they can be a lot of things. One of the things that makes Get Out so great is that it’s a horror movie that’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in the last year.
Why did you want to make a poker movie?
I’ve been a poker player for years and have been exposed to some underground casinos in different cities. I find the world to be so fascinating—the people who are in these casinos and love going to these casinos. I grew up loving gambling movies like The Gambler or California Split, and we wanted to tell a traditional story in that kind of world.
The underground poker rooms you have in the film are based on the look of underground places you’ve actually been to?
Are you a better poker player than your character in the movie? You’d have to be, I guess, because he’s terrible.
Sadly, no. Luckily, I play much lower stakes.
How do you start a story with a character who has his shit together? I like the hero’s journey.
Why do you gravitate to these characters who don’t have their shit together?
How do you start a story with a character who has his shit together? I don’t wanna play a doctor who does pretty good surgeries unless it’s about him falling apart and coming back. I like the hero’s journey.
There’s a really funny scene near the beginning of Win It All where you’re going through a duffle bag and saying “oh, no” and “holy shit” at what you see inside. How much do you write for a scene like that knowing it will just be you in the frame? When Joe and I first started talking about that scene, we worked out the rhythm of it together. You pull out something a laugh a little, then pull out something else and say, “Oh, no. Oh, no.” But when we shoot it, we’re not worried about what we did in front of the computer. I really just trying to make him laugh. We both know what we’re going for, so we’re trying to make sure we make sure to get the intention of the scene more than the exact script.
Your character is winning and losing money throughout the movie, and you periodically put the dollar amount on the screen. How did you navigate how to use that?
The actual dollar amounts mean a lot in the film, so we didn’t want the audience to have to guess or figure out how much he’s up or down. And comedically, we get good laughs from from when those appear.
And a few are jarring. I was surprised at those because you don’t necessarily get a sense of the stakes when you’re watching someone play with chips.
Absolutely, and it also helped a lot with editing. Joe didn’t want to make a movie where people who don’t like poker have to sit and watch a bunch of poker scenes. To be able to jump to that number, you can assume he’s been playing a lot longer than you’ve been watching him play.
You’re in a hybrid documentary/drama coming up in May on Hulu called Becoming Bond, where you play a presumably British character named Peregrine Carruthers. Please, please tell me you got to use a British accent.
[Laughs] No, but I wish. My buddy Josh Greenbaum, who is an uber-talented guy, made that movie. I’m in it for just a short bit. It’s a really funny movie about a guy [George Lazenby] who was briefly cast as James Bond, and I’m in the movie for a minute and a half. It’s a great, fun movie.