Jake Johnson on "Digging for Fire" and batting sixth

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

LOS ANGELES (AP) — This story begins with a rusty gun, a license plate and a bone of unknown origin.

A few years ago, a half dozen blocks from the hip Silver Lake wine-tasting shop where Jake Johnson is enjoying a glass of Pinot Noir, he and his wife dug up the makings of a mystery novel in the backyard of their rented house.

His neighbors weren't surprised and the police weren't concerned. So he called a bunch of buddies and went digging.

The experience "freaked him out" for a long time, he said with wide-eyed intensity, perched against the bar in a loose-fitting Sriracha T-shirt.

"What happens to someone who thinks there's a dead body in their backyard?" asked Johnson. "I wanted to tell that story."

It's one of those too-weird-to-be-true tales that's made even more bizarre by the fact that the stylish Silver Lake enclave of Los Angeles seems like the last place you might unearth guns and bones.

He's able to laugh about it now, having used the experience as the metaphorical bones for a largely improvised indie movie, "Digging for Fire," out in limited release Friday and on VOD Aug. 25. The buried objects serve as a catalyst for a funny and poignant character study about a married couple and their young kid, who try on an upgraded life while housesitting for friends in LA.

Johnson's character becomes obsessed; his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) would rather not deal with it.

It's his second movie with indie director Joe Swanberg. They met through Lizzy Caplan, who Johnson knew from the Fox sitcom "New Girl," where Johnson plays curmudgeonly but kind Nick Miller.

Caplan was working with Swanberg to develop the 2013 film "Drinking Buddies," a beer-soaked relationship study set in Chicago. Johnson wanted to spend the summer in his hometown, but needed convincing.

"(Swanberg) told me he could make a movie in 16 days — we'd have a couple IPAs on set and it'd be really fun, really easy and it'd be good. I told him he sounded like a car salesman," said Johnson, pausing to ask the bartender what makes the rosé pink, without losing his train of thought.

"I said, 'I'm a super nice guy until I'm not. If we get there and you pull the rug out, we'll be enemies forever. But if it's real, I'm your guy forever.' It was real."

Johnson's a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood. After struggling for years, his cast role on "New Girl" has allowed him the financial freedom to be choosy about how he spends his time, and, most importantly, who with. Simply, he wants to work with friends.

He'd just spoken to his agent about this on the way to the wine tasting.

"I'd rather have less work and less fame, celebrity and money than not have a lot of fun working. If I don't know somebody, or people who I like and respect don't vouch for them, I'm probably not going to do the project," he said.

So Johnson sticks with his friends, including Max Winkler, who he has a production company with, and his "Jurassic World" director, Colin Trevorrow, who Johnson met while he was an out-of-work actor and Trevorrow was a struggling writer.

So far, it's working.

"He's who I think of when I picture a guy in one of my movies. He sets the tone and sets the bar for what I'm looking for in a performer," said Swanberg.

For "Digging for Fire," they developed the story via texting, borrowed "Ed Wood" screenwriter Larry Karaszewski's LA home and called around to their local buddies to see who might be interested.

Over the 13-day shoot, Jenny Slate and Timothy Simons showed up for a few hours, Sam Rockwell put in a couple of days, Chris Messina decided his character should take his pants off, Anna Kendrick did (fake) cocaine, and Orlando Bloom dropped by, even though he wasn't scheduled, to better understand the whole improvised experiment. Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Brie Larson, Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey are also in the cast.

Johnson wants to keep making movies with Swanberg, self-financing them, and using the profits to make another. They even made one this summer.

He thinks of it as gambling. He likes gambling. He also knows that he'll have to make some compromises if his day job ever goes away.

"Deep down, unfortunately, I'm not a bleeding heart artist. On my death bed, it's not going to be about my films. It'll be about my family and friends," he said.

Johnson knows that this outlook is probably holding him back professionally, but he's OK with that.

"Somebody's got to bat sixth," he said.


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