INTERVIEW — “Digging For Fire” Stars Jake Johnson & Rosemarie DeWitt
In “Digging For Fire”, writer/director Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”, “Happy Christmas”) explores the self-sacrifices of marriage, the responsibilities of parenthood and how one couple juggles both while battling the monotony of monogamy and the human desire for mystery that lies just below our surface.
I recently had the opportunity to join a virtual roundtable discussion with stars Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt to talk about their characters and the message of the film.
“Part of the fun working on a Joe Swanberg movie is we didn’t have a script on this, we just had an outline.“
“Digging For Fire” marks Johnson’s first time as a feature co-writer and producer – a role he found difficult to adjust to.
“This one was trickier for me just to be an actor on, because there were so many actors…so much talent that I would forget that I’m in the scene!”
Swanberg directs his most stacked ensemble yet with dynamic supporting turns by Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Ron Livingston and Sam Elliott. He also cast his real life son, Jude, as the couple’s child to help relate his own experiences to the film.
“I think Joe makes movies that are really personal to him. His hope is always that somebody goes, “That movie was made for me.“”
“Joe really oversees it and deserves most of the credit because he also edits it…Mostly what was shot was in it.”
In Swanberg’s most mature film to date, “Digging For Fire” follows public school gym teacher, Tim (Johnson), and his yoga instructor wife, Lee (DeWitt), new parents who have been married for a good decade when we first meet them. They are spending the weekend house-sitting an upscale, mountainside Los Angeles home of Lee’s client. While scoping out the grounds, Tim discovers a old bone and rusty hand gun which ignites his long-repressed thirst for adventure. Lee, who has a much needed girls-night-out planned, would rather have Tim finally get around to tackling their pile of taxes than digging up the backyard.
As most couples do, they compromise. Tim is left at the house to work and Lee drops off their son with her parents on her way to meet her friend. At this point, the film divides into two separate stories with similar trajectories as both Tim and Lee embrace the freedom of their night apart and seek the excitement that they desperately miss in their own relationship. Through their escapades and flirtations with danger, they gain perspective on who they are and realize that they may already have what they’re digging to find.
“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 execute the life story…and that’s why we got Rosemarie.”
Often typecast as one-third of a love triangle (“Promised Land”) or the unhappy wife who gives in to her temptations (“Men, Women and Children”), DeWitt breathes new life into her trademark role in “Digging For Fire.” As a wife forced to crack the whip and not only be a mother to her son but sometimes to her husband as well, DeWitt portrays a woman who longs for a passionate marriage, but will settle for a night to herself.
“There’s a moment that I think a lot of women relate to where I look at Jake and say, “See, you make me be the bad guy!” Because women don’t want to nag. They know that stuff needs to get done. They know that their husbands want to… go drinking with the boys. They want to go do those things too, but they also are trying to keep all the balls in the air.”
Throughout his career, Johnson has perfected playing the man/child that avoids the responsibilities of being an adult (“New Girl”) while hanging on to his glory days (“Safety Not Guaranteed”)- the kind of guy that doesn’t want the party to end.
“It’s an interesting time when you start having kids and you get married. I think the way this story is told wrong is that it’s the “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 (party) but you’re just going to be tired all the time. Then your parties with your buddies are gonna suck because you wanna talk about your kids, and when you’re with your kids you’re gonna be so tired because you partied with your buddies. But I don’t think you ever stop missing being in your mid-twenties and partying because it’s so fun.”
Me: “You just party a little differently.”
Jake Johnson: “You just party a little differently, is right.”
Rosemarie DeWitt: “You put on Barney and dance around the living room.”
The visual metaphors are abundant in “Digging For Fire”, but never blatantly obvious. The growing pile of taxes on the kitchen table represent responsibility until death. Benjamin Franklin said, “There are two things certain in life: death and taxes.” Tim knows this, but instead of facing his responsibilities, he decides to invite his buddies over to help him unearth his exciting new mystery.
Tim’s friend Phil (Birbiglia) reflects his conscience reminding him of his family and commitments once bad influences Ray (Rockwell) and Billy T (Messina) show up along with tempting acquaintances Alicia (Kendrick) and Max (Larson). Their arrival escalates Tim’s fun hunt to new and dangerous heights. As he bonds with the attractive, young Max over the dig, he begins to pick up old habits from his past.
Meanwhile, Lee is determined to enjoy her night out after her friend (Melanie Lynskey) bails on their plans. While at a bar she meets handsome stranger, Ben (Bloom), who gives her the type of attention and stimulating conversation that she no longer receives at home from Tim. In the next scene, Tim confides to his new female companion, Max, about how marriages often get put on the back burner as the attention and main outpouring of love is redirected towards the child. These are innocent connections that could easily have spiraled into clichéd affairs, but are instead used to help Tim and Lee gain perspective on their marriage and their overall place in the world.
“A lot of people like to say, “Monogamy is not natural” and yet so many people want to get married… and they just need a minute to oxygenate the relationship or bring some novelty to it. I think we made a movie about that for people who really want to be married to the people that they’re married to and it’s not easy over the long haul to keep everybody feeling alive.”
“Digging For Fire” examines how the exhaustion of adult responsibility combined with the natural desire for variety can be both a dangerous and enlightening temptation. Tim and Lee are in a marital slump, and are searching for ways to keep the passion alive. They are both digging for the spark that first ignited the fire between them, but has since flamed out due to complacency.
“I personally think, being in a relationship and having kids, it’s not always the fairy tale 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. And I think that’s something we both found strong rather than a sign of weakness. It’s hard, but if you stick together, you can make it work.”
On the surface everything may seem fine, but if you do a little digging, you might find that what you’re looking for is right in front of you. 4/5
“Digging For Fire” is in select theaters now and available on VOD August 25.
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