Digging for Fire with Rosemarie DeWitt

The actress talks capturing the improvisational feel of life in Joe Swanberg’s latest film

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Actress Rosemarie DeWitt is just as grounded as she is daring in her work. When speaking about DeWitt in Your Sister’s Sister, director Lynn Shelton said of her ethic, “Rosemarie really married with the project and became part of the fabric of the story. She’s just incredibly brave, completely fearless.”

Director Joe Swanberg mined these qualities when he paired frequent collaborator Jake Johnson with DeWitt in Digging for Fire, in which Swanberg once again relies on moments of naturalism from his actors to bring his and Johnson’s own story to life. He also revels in spontaneity—his own son Jude is quickly becoming a fixture in his wheelhouse.

In the film, DeWitt plays Lee, a mother at odds with her husband Tim (Jake Johnson) over which preschool to send their young son to. Tim and Lee have the chance to stay at a Hollywood Hills home, but that goes down the drain when Tim stumbles upon a bone and an old gun on the property. Intrigued by the mystery behind his findings, Tim wants to delve into a dig, while Lee would rather leave it alone and focus on their daily problems, such as their unfinished taxes, and their son. The two go on their own separate journeys as Tim stays for the dig and Lee retreats to reflect on her current challenges.

Paste spoke with DeWitt about being in the moment, and making out with Orlando Bloom.

Paste: The unique thing about Joe’s films is that he has this certain way of capturing the real minutia of life, and because of that his films have this improvisational feel. So how much was it improv?
Rosemarie DeWitt: A ton. It was different in that, when I worked on Your Sister’s Sister with Lynn Shelton, it felt like this crazy relay race with this big ensemble—almost like a team sport. It would be acting in moment-to-moment stuff, and there would be a lot of gymnastics in keeping the story straight. On this project Joe and Jake [Johnson] really broke the story. We didn’t do 45-minute takes to see what we needed. We would do 30-minute takes and only do two of them because we were shooting on film. Joe was editing the film all the time and always knew exactly what he wanted. As much as it was improvised, now we’re at that place where there’s a lot of improvisational movies to make, where 10 years ago they were novel. Now there’s a whole genre for them.

Paste: Since Jake Johnson co-wrote the film with Joe, was there any kind of pressure attached to that?
DeWitt: No, if anything he was a great resource. He was only on set the days that he worked because he wanted to embody the character, and not wear the producer hat. If he were around, maybe I would say, “Hey, is this working?” Joe and Jake are so collaborative that when they hand off the role to you, they really hand it off and they said, “Do whatever you feel. Do whatever you want.” It would be rare when Joe said, “Oh, we don’t need that. Let’s stick to this plot point.” Almost always they would really welcome whatever the actors brought to the table.

Paste: Since the two of you spent most of the film on your own separate journeys, did you think about how that chemistry would look or feel when you both shared the same space in a scene?
DeWitt: It’s funny. I think we met up one time before with Joe before we started shooting. Joe is almost devious about tracking you when you’re not in front of the camera, and he takes mental notes. I think the dynamic is already in play from the very moment you introduce yourselves, and he would say, “Remember that day you guys were sitting on the couch? I think you should do it in this scene.” He’s constantly bringing life in, so when the camera rolls there’s no weird moment. It helps with the chemistry and the naturalism.

Paste: Your character Lee is dealing with a lot and at the core of that is the pressure of being a good, conscious mother without losing her own identity. Was that something you were interested in exploring?
DeWitt: If anything the opposite was true to me. My daughter was only 1, and I wanted to lose my identity. I said, “This is the best thing ever!” I don’t even want to leave the house again. Sometimes you’re really relying on other people’s experiences. Joe makes really personal films and he would kind of start our day before our scene and say, “My wife and I were talking about this when we tried to choose a preschool for Jude.” Sometimes that would inform it, and sometimes my own experiences would inform it. Then sometimes this third, magical thing would happen where you don’t really know what you’re doing and you find yourself. With the scenes with Orlando [Bloom], we had so many conversations about so many things, and some of them made them into the movie, and some of them didn’t, but there was no obligation to [do] anything other than to connect.

Paste: I didn’t see the arc with Orlando going there at all. Were you surprised with where it wound up?
DeWitt: [Laughs] I was surprised! You read the outline and it says, “She meets this stranger.” Joe’s very instinctual. He’ll have an idea ahead of time or he’ll take the vibe off the actors, or the body language, and we were on the beach, and he says, “Okay, I really want you guys to get into it.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I just want you to get in there!” So we shoot the scene for about two hours on the beach, and I found myself calling my husband [Ron Livingston] and saying, “I know you read the outline, and just so you know, I spent the whole night making out with Orlando Bloom, but it wasn’t my idea!”

Paste: How did he react to that?
DeWitt: He gets it, but it’s funny, because something happens when you know about something ahead of time. On an improv movie there was a work moment where I was like, “God, I was not prepared for this at all.”

Paste: It’s interesting how Tim and Lee are both struggling with trying not to lose themselves in the marriage, and coming to terms with making first big decisions for their son, but they’re dealing with it in two completely different ways. He’s throwing himself into the physicality of this dig, whereas Lee is more analytical and willing to address things.
DeWitt: I thought that was interesting too. I think it’s like how guys like the Dare part of Truth or Dare, and girls like the Truth part. It’s not surprising to me that she finds herself in these deep conversations with one person, and the guys are doing all this dumb shit.

Paste: I can’t leave without addressing Joe’s young son, Jude Swanberg. He just continues to steal every scene he’s in. How was it working with him?
DeWitt: He’s the best actor in all the movies that he’s in! It’s dangerous to act with him because he can make you look so phony, because he’s so truthful. There was one scene we did…

Paste: The scene at the dinner table?
DeWitt: Yeah, at the dinner table! Joe directed Jake to say “poo-poo” and Jude would find nothing funnier, and then he directed me behind their back to not let them goof off at the dinner table, which of course, when I scolded him his bottom lip started trembling and he burst into tears. I was like, “Oh my God! What have I done! I’ve scarred a kid for life.”

Digging for Fire hits theaters on August 21 and is available on VOD on August 25.

Niki Cruz is a Freelance Entertainment Journalist based out of New York. With a passion for Film/TV she often contributes to Paste, am New York and Interview Magazine. Niki spends her time off learning life lessons by binge-watching Dawson’s Creek. You can follow her on Twitter.

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