The average shelf life for a movie in theaters today is roughly a month. If it’s a great movie, you can tack another few weeks. But back in a pre-Jaws world before high concept films ruled the cineplex, films like Robert Altman’s gambling hit California Split played on a constant loop for half a year. It wasn’t the biggest box office hit but it was part of a beloved era of filmmaking that encouraged bold, original storytelling over high concept cash grabs.
Of course, California Split isn’t the only film of its kind but it’s a masterpiece to the prolific mumblecore writing duo Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson. It also serves as one of the main inspirations for their third and latest collaboration, Win It All which will be released Friday on Netflix. Though there is pushback from a sector of the film community regarding films released for streaming over the sacred theater, going to the streaming giant was a choice made to reach a max audience and keep the spirit of film alive even if it’s not in a theater.
“As the business has gone, the big theater movies are not small stories like California Split,” Johnson told Cut Print Film. “They’re you know…The Mummy which I’m in and I’m happy to be in but it’s not California Split. Trying to compete in the box office between a California Split and The Mummy, The Mummy’s gonna crush it.”
Moreover, the duo decided shooting on film was the best way to tell their story. It’s something Swanberg has done for his last four projects and a secret film he told Cut Print Film he is working (despite prying, all he’d say is it is it will have analog effects. So look forward to that). Swanberg made the decision to shoot on Super 16 opposed to 35mm as a creative decision going back to more traditional Hollywood aesthetics while also embracing the digital age living on Netflix’s servers.
But not only does the film take inspiration from classic film techniques, Swanberg and Johnson (who also stars) took inspiration from the bonafide three-act structures with a big story like California Split. For an indie, that becomes a big risk.
“I think the risk was: Can you, in a small indie, have a big story? Or does the indie audience just want character driven, more moment-based film,” Johnson explained. “In the indies I’ve done a lot of times that’s abandoned for a cooler way to tell a story. That’s why we wanted to tell a more traditional story in the style of an indie. I knew it was a risk. I didn’t know if people would roll their eyes to it or come along for the ride.”
Early reactions at the premiere at the SXSW Conference (including our rave review) indicate that indeed, audiences have come along for the ride.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a better screening of anything I’ve ever made,” Swanberg recalled to Cut Print Film. “You always hope for a reaction like that but I was pretty blown away.”
While this would be a risk for most other filmmakers and actors, it has become second nature in a Swanberg film: It’s almost entirely improvised. Swanberg and Johnson sat down to write an 85-page outline of the story but virtually all of the dialogue is off the cuff, relying on the likes of Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Jo Lo Truglio, and newcomer Aislinn Debrez, all of who were brought on by Swanberg and Johnson free of a studio’s influence.
“Because there’s no outside studio — Joe Swanberg and I are the studio — a lot of times with casting you have to deal with the people financing it that have a quota of who you need to cast and make a list,” Johnson said. “Of those 10 names, you have to pick somebody. Even if none of those people are right for the movie, and what’s the joy of making our movies is there’s no list. We cast the people that we felt would be perfect for the part. And that was Lo Truglio and that was Keegan and that was Aislinn Debrez.”
Swanberg said he just sat back every take with a “massive smile” on his face watching Johnson and Key riffing with each other or Johnson and Lo Truglio acting like true brothers together.
Most of the film was already laid out but there were still moments that evolved during the production. Swanberg said he brought Debrez on for a more serious performance but once she was on set and got familiar with the cast, she became the “class clown” and helped advance the story in a new way. The scenes with Key and Lo Truglio, as expected of such comedic talent are some of the film’s top highlights with Lo Truglio laying claim to one of both Swanberg and Johnson’s favorite lines that had the SXSW audience in stitches.
“To be a pretentious actor,” Johnson said. “We’re taking the scene really seriously and so the fun is less for me in that moment and more for the audience to have Lo Truglio say that.”
So while Win It All is mostly a comedy that follows Eddie (played by Johnson) — a gambling junkie who Johnson said he tapped into while writing with influence from his larger than life uncle Eddie who in and out of legal troubles through Johnson’s childhood — it also has a dramatic core that propels the story beyond a tired comedy with a talented ensemble.
In addition to using visual and writing influences of 70s Hollywood and one of Swanberg’s favorite films from the 1980s called Sticky Fingers that inspired using a duffle bag of money as its plot device, Swanberg and Johnson were intent on using a soulful 70s soundtrack to further enhance the story.
“We listened to a lot of stuff and Chris [Swanson] did an amazing job of grabbing some interesting songs that were off the beaten path,” Swanberg said. “There’s a lot more music in the movie than I typically use but for me, it really informed the vibe of the movie…I can’t imagine the movie without it.”
As a film that centers around a plot involving gambling and drawing inspiration from a classic gambling film, it’s only natural this was a risk for the cast and crew as well.
“I think the main thing was sometimes you’re in a lifestyle and a rut and you had an opportunity once and awhile to get out of it but getting out of it is scary,” Johnson relayed. “But if you see something you really want, it’s risking it all to go for it. So yeah, I think risk has a lot to do with it.”