Tuesday night, Jake Johnson will appear in what may or may not be the series finale of New Girl. Whether or not the Fox sitcom that made him famous returns for a second season, one thing is clear. He’s ready to become a movie star.
After stealing scenes in 2015’s box-office bonanza Jurassic World, this summer Johnson will co-star with Tom Cruise in a reboot of The Mummy. But first, he is taking on a very different type of leading man role in Win It All, a film he wrote with frequent collaborator and fellow Chicago native Joe Swanberg that will be available on Netflix starting Friday.
The genre-defying film, which premiered at the South by Southwest festival last month, is hard to define. It’s a story about gambling and gangsters that isn’t particularly violent. It’s an improvised comedy that is also incredibly dark. More specifically, it’s a “bag of money” movie in the tradition of Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and even Dumb and Dumber.
“It’s the beauty of being able to do an indie movie. Because if it’s a studio movie, they would say, is this a tense movie or is this a comedy?” Johnson told fans at a Q&A following the film’s premiere in Austin. “Making it where it’s a small crew and it’s just us and there’s nobody telling us what to do, we wanted both. We wanted people to be tense, but I don’t want to watch a movie for an hour and a half and not laugh. And on set, we like to joke around, so we didn’t want to be joking around and then they call action and we’re not having fun.” Especially since they were paying for it themselves.
After working together on Drinking Buddies and Digging for Fire—two fully-improvised films—Johnson and Swanberg decided they should try to actually write a “real story” for once. They decided to craft a three-act structure “with an inciting event and all the cheesy stuff,” Johnson tells The Daily Beast in a joint interview with Swanberg the next morning. In this case, that “event” is the bag of money that an acquaintance gives to his character, a compulsive gambler named Eddie Garrett, to hold onto while he’s serving out a prison sentence.
Before starting the project, Johnson remembers asking himself, “Could we do a Joe Swanberg movie, with me in it, that had that device in it? That had Joe’s style of naturalism and feeling real and moments you believe, but have turns and twists? Is the audience going to roll their eyes and go, ‘Fuck you, this is not what I want to see when I’m seeing this kind of movie’? But for me personally, this is more the type of movie that I like.”
Johnson says he originally set out to be a writer, “but nobody wanted any of my writing.” Instead he started getting cast in TV commercials before he eventually found fame and success as Nick Miller on playwright-turned-showrunner Liz Meriwether’s New Girl. The sitcom started as a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel but transformed into an often-hilarious ensemble comedy thanks to Johnson and co-stars Max Greenfield and Lamorne Morris.
His creative relationship with Swanberg, a beloved indie director who most recently created the anthology series Easy for Netflix, has allowed the 38-year-old actor to stretch beyond the type of comedy that he makes look effortless on New Girl. Nick has done some messed-up things over the course of six seasons, but he has never sunk as low as Eddie does in Win It All. Over the course of the film, we see his reckless behavior leave him deeper and deeper in debt to a criminal who wants his money back a lot sooner than expected.
Asked which of them has the gambling problem in real life, Johnson deadpans, “Both of us,” before half-joking, “Mine is cards, his is movies.”
“My mother used to play cards, my cousin’s a professional card player. I played a lot,” he continues, noting that he even worked in a casino for a while, where he encountered gamblers like the one he plays in the film. “I was always the PG version of it,” he insists. “Joe gambles on his movies, and he always has in a very real way.”
Over the past 12 years, Swanberg has written and directed an astonishing 17 feature films—seven of which were made in a single year—not including Win It All. This is the first one that will be released exclusively on Netflix, with no plans for a theatrical release.
As an “old-school theater-goer,” Swanberg says there is something that he will miss about not having his film open in the traditional way. But as a “producer and filmmaker,” he says, “I’ve never had a better experience than making something that went up all around the world on the same day and people saw it.”
“If people loved the theatrical experience so much, where were they on Drinking Buddies?” Swanberg asks. “I know where they were: iTunes. For anybody who ever asks me that, I’m like, where were you? Why didn’t you buy a ticket?” That film, released in 2013 on a one million-dollar budget, made less than $20,000 in its opening weekend, but took on a life of its own once it hit online platforms, spending 10 weeks in the top 25 most-downloaded films on iTunes.
“If any of my films had succeeded theatrically, I might have a different feeling about it,” Swanberg continues. “But you’ve got to remember, I spent 12 years banging my head against a system that was like, ‘Nah.’ And I went to this other system, which was like, ‘millions of people will see this within hours of its release.’ So I’m like, alright, these two systems, one of them makes a lot more sense to me than the other one.”
“I’ve done the studio movies where we do the big push,” Johnson adds, hinting at projects that didn’t succeed as much as he had hoped they would. “With this one, we didn’t show it to anybody but Netflix. This is where we wanted to go, because, although I think there is something to doing the indie release and going city to city and beating the drum and getting people out and maybe it catches fire, maybe it doesn’t, I’m like, who cares? We make a movie, why don’t we just absolutely love the movie and let people watch it any way they want. If you want to watch it in bed, if you want to watch it on your phone, however you want to enjoy the movie.”
“I’m going to have to wrap my head around that,” Swanberg says in response to the idea of someone watching his newest project on their phone.
But Johnson is unfazed. “It’s what the world has turned into. We can fight it all we want,” he says, but it’s not going to change. It’s something he’s experienced firsthand on New Girl, which is geared towards a demographic that is now younger than he is. When the show started, he says he was “blown away” to find out that the biggest fans didn’t even own televisions. They were watching it alone on their phones, or friends would get together and prop up an iPad.
“So we’re sitting there on set, and a set designer is freaking out because the curtains look weird,” he says. “You’re spending two hours on the fucking curtains, I’m telling you, the kids are watching it like this!” he says, holding up his phone as a prop. “Just get the story right, get the jokes right.”
That’s the ethos that both men decided to apply to Win It All, setting themselves up to succeed partially by not overthinking every little detail. The result is a solid film that probably wasn’t going to break any box-office records but will make an ultra-satisfying Netflix viewing experience for years to come, whether you’re watching it on your phone or a giant TV screen.
It also gives Johnson his first real chance to carry a film on his own, something that, with any luck, he’ll get to do a lot more of in the near future.