How did Swingers get to be so money?
Jon Favreau (Mike): When I set out to write Swingers, I didn’t know I was even writing a movie. My dad had given me a screenwriting program and I started the script just as an exercise to see if I could write a screenplay. Swingers is what came out.
I started writing, just drawing from the environment I was living in. I had characters loosely based on people I knew. None of the events were real; it was all a story that came out of my head without an outline.
I wrote the screenplay in about a week and a half. The writing process wasn’t filled with any sort of turmoil. If you really do the math, it’s 10 days, 10 pages a day. It’s not like you’re chained to the computer. I was just entertaining myself and really enjoying it, sort of giggling at it as I was writing it. I couldn’t wait to share it with my friends more as, like, doodles in the notebook than saying, “Hey, here’s my big movie.”
I sent the script to my agent. She sent it out and there were some nibbles. People were interested in optioning it, but they had a lot of notes. They wanted to change Vince’s character to a girl and have them not go to Vegas and said the dialogue was too repetitive, and it had to be darker and more violent. I was really trying to embrace the notes. I tried to change the script, but I just couldn’t.
I said, “Look, before I change anything, why don’t we do a staged reading? Let me bring in the friends of mine that these characters are based on. And that way we could really hear the script as I intended it so you understand the dialogue, and then you can also maybe be open-minded, and maybe cast one of these people?” I figured it’s a shot to put my friends in front of whatever guy who was going to direct this thing.
The budget was small — and allocated in unusual ways:
Favreau: Nicole’s office was in an unfinished garage in the backyard with dogs running around and stuff.
LaLoggia: The door to the outside garage was through my bedroom and it was like people would come walking through at all hours. Jon, Vince — who’s a huge personality — they’d come in the office, they’d put their feet up, they’d wanna talk. I’m like, “I can’t talk about this shit right now. I’ve got shit to do. Get out of here.”
Liman: Our entire lighting package was gonna consist of 100-, 150-watt light bulbs.
Wurmfeld: Our coffee budget was zero. We had it donated.
Liman: Saving on shooting time and movie lights is a big factor, but you still need locations. And Nicole used to cry in front of people, literally. No technique was beneath us to get people to give us things for free or cheap.
LaLoggia: Instead of getting a traditional caterer, we made deals with restaurants in the neighborhood for next to nothing.
Avram Ludwig (associate producer): We spent more money on music in that movie than on the movie. We paid the most for the Dean Martin stuff. I don’t know. I think we paid half a million dollars in music licensing and the movie cost a quarter of a million dollars to make.
LaLoggia: The entire post-production — all the development, all the processing, all the coloring — was free. That would have been our budget alone. So if it weren’t for that, we couldn’t have done it.
Liman: Every day I was telling Jon something else that was un-kosher and he was getting more and more alarmed. Not hiring a DP, a director of photography, seemed to be the thing that particularly [troubled him]. And then one day — a few weeks before we started shooting — he caught me reading a book on basic movie lighting.
Ludwig: Our biggest cost was getting film. Film comes in 1,000-foot loads and 400-foot loads. On a big movie, they’ll throw away the end of the film, like the last hundred feet or so.
Liman: We shot most of the movie with these 100-foot short ends. It’s a minute of film. Which also meant the actors could get through 60 seconds of a scene and I’d have to call reload.
Wurmfeld: I cultivated a lot of relationships with the people around town selling short ends.
LaLoggia: I called this place in L.A. that does recycled, re-canned short ends and I just begged for the cheapest price we could get.
Liman: The problem with shooting on short ends, though, is that it takes four minutes to reload a conventional camera. I thought to myself: We’ll never get through the movie if we shoot a minute, spend four minutes reloading, shoot a minute, spend four minutes reloading. You’ll never get any kind of rhythm going. So I decided I would shoot the movie with this documentary 35-millimeter film camera that was not designed to shoot dialogue because it sounds like a sewing machine.
Ludwig: The camera was much louder than a regular camera that you’d use for a feature film. But it’s easy to load and very compact. I think it was developed so Godard could have a camera that would fit into his bicycle basket.
Liman: To absorb the sound, I would take my down jacket and put it over the camera and then take the two arms and tie them together underneath the lens. And then my comforter would just get wrapped around the whole thing once. Jon would describe it like he was acting in front of a big, fluffy snowball. But I really think that as insane as that setup was, it created a really safe environment for the actors. Vince really did some extraordinary things, like the scene where he’s supposed to be drunk and he jumps up on the table. You know, he had to do that in front of a lot of people and I feel like they looked at me and they were like, Doug is clearly not being self-conscious.
The strength of the movie was that they had already rehearsed it endlessly:
Favreau: We already knew our characters. It was as though we had been in a stage production of it. I often think of it like Play It Again, Sam, which was onstage before it was ever filmed.
Wurmfeld: Literally every single word that comes out of Vince’s mouth is on the page. That’s what totally blows me away about Jon’s writing — his ability to get someone’s voice, because I think that’s not an easy task. One might think that Vince is improvising, and certainly he can, but I just was amazed that all those jokes and stuff were actually on the page.
If you enjoyed the movie, read the whole thing.