We Can Thank Erin Payne for Making Digging for Fire a Smart Film About Marriage

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For the new movie Digging for Fire, directed by Joe Swanberg and starring Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt, Swanberg and Johnson co-wrote the story (the dialogue was improvised) based on an unusual personal experience: the time Johnson found a rusted gun, large bone, and license plates in the garden of a house he and his wife, Erin Payne, were renting.

After the LAPD said there wasn’t enough evidence for them to investigate and told the couple, “We aren’t in the business of digging up people’s garbage,” he and Erin organized a dig party to see if they could find more evidence, AKA maybe a body. The events were interesting enough to serve as the basis for a good movie, but Johnson made a big change to the story. Rather than have it be about the couple’s discovery, he wanted to make a movie about a married father who gets to have an adventure with his male buddies. As one of the producers (money guys), he had to run the movie by his wife before investing their money. Turns out, Erin didn’t have the positive reaction Johnson planned, as he told me,

The earlier incarnation of the film was all my character on this hill and the wife away with the baby. And I pitched that story to my wife. And said ‘Joe and I want to make these movies,’—and we also co-financed the movies—so I had to ask my wife, ‘do you mind if we pay for this?’

And she asked, ‘Well what is the wife doing while you’re having this quote unquote crisis, smoking weed and digging holes in other people’s backyard?’

And I said, ‘She’s with her parents, taking care of the baby.’

And she was like, ‘Not only do I hate your character, but I hate this movie.’ She’s like, ‘So she’s working really hard in the middle of the night.”

And I’m like, ‘You’re missing the point, this is about the essential crisis of man.’

And she said, ‘No, this is wrong,’ so I talked to Joe, and he 100% agreed. So at that point we needed a woman who was very strong and talented, who could help build that story in a way Joe and I didn’t think we could at the time.

Along came Rosemarie DeWitt as wife Lee, who expressed to the guys the kind of weekend she would want if she didn’t have to play mom for a weekend (she’s the mother of a daughter with Digging for Fire costar Ron Livingston), and the three ended up building a story that became a surprisingly insightful and funny movie about marriage. Swanberg describes it as his first “Hollywood” movie, and it features some big names including Sam Rockwell, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Sam Elliott, Jane Adams, Judith Light, Melanie Lynskey, Orlando Bloom, and Swanberg’s scene-stealing son, Jude.

Swanberg, who is married to director Kris Swanberg (director of Unexpected), was in town despite having a baby daughter just two days earlier and explained that the movie’s themes were initially going to be about a husband and father’s sense of duel identities:

The identities of a husband, of a father, and for lack of a better term, a man, even that encompasses all those things. I guess I mean the identity of a single man. And feeling that within the context of the husband-father thing ,there is still this caveman, bachelor thing which wants to come out occasionally. And that guy can’t come out when the wife and kids leave.

On that point, Johnson explains what it’s like for him (and probably other guys) who retreat to bachelorhood, even for a few days:

Joe and I were talking about our wives and family, and when the family leaves, how quickly we go back. That first day is the best day. You smoke weed, and drink, and eat terribly. But after about 40 hours, you think, ‘I’m the most disgusting thing.’ You haven’t showered, you body’s never felt worse. I regret every decision and thought I’ve had. I want my life back. I want who I am in that life back.

The full interview is part of a podcast with Chicago Filmmakers, Lakeshore Drive to Hollywood, which will be up next week. Digging for Fire is out in limited theatrical release this week.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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