The actor and director co-wrote a script for their latest, 'Win It All,' a departure from how they normally work
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AOL's BUILD Speaker Series Presents: "Digging For Fire"
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Jake Johnson and Joe Swanberg have become the Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese of the festival circuit in recent years, teaming for three features that first bowed at either the Sundance Film Festival or South by Southwest Film Festival. Their latest, Win It All, launched at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, and marked a turning point in their collaborative relationship: They wrote an actual script.

“Joe would come to Los Angeles and we would do old-school writing partner [thing],” Johnson told EW of the film, which follows Drinking Buddies and Digging for Fire on the pair’s collective résumé. “We would sit for 10 hours. We wrote the script into first a script treatment thing, which was about 70-80 pages, and sent it to the agents and managers, which is something we’ve never done before. My agent was like, ‘You know what? If you guys want people to like this, it needs more of a love story.’ So, let’s work on the love story. Let’s play that and see what we think.”

If that sounds like a normal screenwriting process, it is — but it’s not how Swanberg normally works. The prolific filmmaker, who also created the Netflix series Easy, likes crafting an outline for a project and letting the actors improvise scenes while on set.

“It changed a lot of my thinking about what can be born out of that process,” Swanberg said of the more traditional writing exercise. “It’s just that the discovery in the process comes at a different point. We’re attempting to build the same structure live on set when we’re doing it that way. It’s just taking it and building it with Jake in a room on a page is a different kind of fun. What I was always afraid was we’re going to laugh our heads off and feel like we nailed it sitting in Jake’s bedroom writing, and then we’re going to hit the set and it’s going to land flat — because the joke’s five months old at this point. What’s nice about Win It All is that the jokes translate. If you’ve got good people and the jokes work you’ll be fine when you get to set.”

Set in Chicago, Win It All stars Johnson as Eddie Garrett, a degenerate gambler who is given a bag full of cash to watch by an acquaintance headed to jail for six months. Things begin to go awry almost immediately: Eddie soon starts using the satchel as his own personal ATM, leading to one big high and several levels of lows. As he tries to piece his life together and get the cash back before the friend is released from jail, Eddie also falls in love with a local nurse, played by Mexican actress Aislinn Derbez. Joe LoTruglio and Keegan-Michael Key costar, along with Swanberg’s wife, filmmaker Kris Swanberg, and their son, Jude.

“The type of actor we tried to get for Digging for Fire, a lot of it — without getting into names — it just didn’t quite work for us,” Johnson said of the casting process for the 2015 film, which featured an all-star cast that included Anna Kendrick, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, and many others. “There were certain actors where we were like, ‘Man, we’ve always been a fan, but they’re not quite in it the way we need to do it.’ So we kind of hand picked this movie.”

Added Swanberg, “In the casting process, you go on your best guess and you have a hunch on something. It’s really one of the best things about the first few days of shooting: Is this going to work? What are the vibes going to be? But then I think you do know when they’re good. You settle down and let it happen.”

Win It All arrives on Netflix next month, but the pair of friends are already looking forward to what’s next. Johnson says he and Swanberg hope to make nine movies together in total, meaning there are likely six more collaborations in their future.

“In terms of the next thing, I was thinking about this last night, I like the push of going further into the scripted,” Johnson said. “Seeing what happens if we bring in an outside person to help in the writing. Give someone a story guide. This is someone who has been hired by the studios over and over and they’re sick of it and they want to see something made. We have a soft idea, they have a soft idea. So you’re entering our world now — our world is weird — and seeing what that one looks like.”

The actor, who said he loved working on Win It All, added how he hoped to bring other voices into their circle as well, perhaps even producing or directing a script not written by either himself or Swanberg — which drew a laugh from his partner.

“You do realize you’re just describing a normal career,” Swanberg said.

Added Johnson, “It just took us a while! Then we just call ourselves a studio.”

Win It All debuts April 7 on Netflix.