Digging for Fire

Digging for Fire is a 2015 American comedy-drama film directed by Joe Swanberg and co-written by Swanberg and Jake Johnson. It stars an ensemble cast led by Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Orlando Bloom and Mike Birbiglia. Johnson and DeWitt play a married couple who find a gun and a bone in the backyard of a house they are staying in.

Digging for Fire
Digging for Fire Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoe Swanberg
Produced by
Written by
  • Joe Swanberg
  • Jake Johnson
Music byDan Romer
CinematographyBen Richardson
Edited byJoe Swanberg
Lucky Coffee Productions
Distributed byThe Orchard
Sony Pictures Worldwide
Release date
  • January 26, 2015 (2015-01-26) (Sundance)
  • August 21, 2015 (2015-08-21) (U.S.)
Running time
85 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$119,000

The film's plot was inspired by a similar incident in which Johnson discovered a gun and a bone in his backyard. Instead of a traditional script, he and Swanberg wrote an outline that summarized the plot but included no dialogue. They cast the film mainly by contacting their friends and other actors who they knew had enjoyed their previous work. It was filmed over 15 days in Los Angeles County, California. Swanberg dedicated the film to filmmaker Paul Mazursky.

Digging for Fire premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015. It was released in theaters on August 21, 2015 by The Orchard and on video on demand on August 25, 2015. The film was generally well received by critics.


Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), a yoga instructor, brings her husband Tim (Jake Johnson), a gym teacher, and their 3-year-old son Jude (Jude Swanberg) to house-sit in a client's house for a few weeks while the client is away. While walking around the property, Tim finds a gun and a bone in the backyard. At first he wants to dig up the surrounding ground to see if a body is buried there, but Lee convinces him it is a bad idea.

When Lee and Jude leave for the weekend to stay with her parents so that Tim can work without distraction on the family's taxes, he invites a group of friends—including Ray (Sam Rockwell), Phil (Mike Birbiglia), Adam (Kent Osborne), and Paul (Steve Berg)—to the house for the night. After a few drinks, they decide to dig up the backyard together, quickly finding another bone and a license plate. Phil, who is skeptical about the digging, leaves with Adam and Paul as Alicia (Anna Kendrick), Max (Brie Larson) and Billy (Chris Messina) arrive at the house. Billy pairs off with Alicia and Ray with Max while Tim continues to dig. He finds a shoe before deciding to go to sleep.

The next morning, Tim is visited by a neighbor who warns him that digging for buried items in the backyard is a bad idea and says that the site was once the "Chicano Hall of Fame". Soon afterwards, Max returns to pick up her purse and finds Tim digging again. She joins him and discovers a plastic bag filled with bones. Meanwhile, Lee goes to visit her sister Squiggy (Melanie Lynskey) and brother-in-law Bob (Ron Livingston) for an afternoon after complaining to her mother that she no longer feels she has an identity outside of being a mother and wife.

Phil returns to the house and, seeing Tim with Max, assumes that Tim is cheating on Lee. Tim and Max go out to dinner and Tim confesses that he feels his marriage to Lee has deteriorated since they had a child. Lee goes to a bar alone, where she meets Ben (Orlando Bloom). When Ben is punched by another man at the bar, she accompanies him to visit Alicia, who is a medical student and a friend of his, so that Alicia can suture his wound. As Tim and Max smoke marijuana together at the house, Ben cooks dinner for Lee.

Max leaves the house when Ray reappears and Tim accuses Ray of ruining his night. Lee and Ben make their way to the beach and share a kiss. Tim returns to the backyard and uncovers a ring and what appears to be a human hand before he decides to stop digging. He throws everything he has found back into the hole he has dug before starting to fill it in. He walks back up to the house and, finding Lee waiting for him, kisses her. The next morning, they pack up their belongings and go to pick up Jude.



Digging for Fire was inspired by a real incident in which Jake Johnson (pictured) dug up a bone and a gun in his backyard.

Digging for Fire was based on a real incident in which Jake Johnson and his wife dug up a bone and a gun in the garden of a house they had rented. Over a couple of weeks, he and a group of his friends dug up various objects before deciding to bury them again. Johnson described the experience to Joe Swanberg about three years later and they decided to make a film about it.[1] They wrote a two-and-a-half–page outline[2] that summarized the plot but included no dialogue or detailed character descriptions.[3][4] Swanberg wanted the actors to improvise the details of each scene and allowed them to make choices about their characters: for instance, Orlando Bloom decided that his character would ride a motorcycle, Chris Messina suggested that his character go swimming naked,[4] and Brie Larson persuaded Johnson and Swanberg that her character would not be sexually attracted to Tim.[5]

Digging for Fire features an ensemble cast,[6] the largest Swanberg had worked with at the time.[7] He and Johnson cast the film by contacting friends and other actors who they knew had enjoyed their previous film together, Drinking Buddies.[4] Rosemarie DeWitt and Swanberg decided to work together after her husband, Ron Livingston, starred in Drinking Buddies.[6] Unlike the other actors, Orlando Bloom was cast through an agent.[4] Swanberg cast his own son, Jude, as the three-year-old son of the lead characters.[1]

The film was shot over 15 days[2] in Los Angeles[8] and Malibu, California.[9] Swanberg and cinematographer Ben Richardson decided to shoot on 35 mm film rather than digitally, as most of Swanberg's previous films had been made. They decided to shoot on film, Richardson said, because "there is a certain visual integrity to a film-derived image that is still lacking for me in most of the digitally-derived imagery that we see".[8] Although the film's dialogue was improvised, the actors rehearsed each scene before filming so that the scene could be blocked out due to the constraints of working with film rather than digital.[3]

Swanberg found the process of editing Digging for Fire more difficult than for his previous films, since there were many different possibilities of how to integrate the separate storylines involving Tim and Lee. He dedicated the film to Paul Mazursky, who died in 2014, because of the influence Mazursky had on Swanberg's work and because of the thematic similarities between Mazursky's work (particularly the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and Digging for Fire.[10]


The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015. Shortly after its premiere, The Orchard and Sony Pictures Worldwide acquired North American and international distribution rights respectively.[11] The film went to be shown at the Chattanooga Film Festival,[12] Sarasota Film Festival,[13] Chicago Critics Film Festival,[14] Maryland Film Festival,[15] and Traverse City Film Festival.[16] The film was given a limited release in American theaters on August 21, 2015, earning $25,000 from three locations on its opening weekend. It later expanded to 30 theaters and earned a total of $119,364 from its 38-day run.[17] It was released on video on demand on August 25, 2015.[18]


Digging for Fire has been met with generally positive reviews from critics. On the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 66% approval rating, based on 67 reviews with an average rating of 6.15/10. The site's consensus states: "Digging for Fire finds director/co-writer Joe Swanberg working from a familiar palette, but in ways that suggest he's taking new and exciting strides as a filmmaker."[19] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 69 out of 100 based on reviews from 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[20]

Film critic Richard Roeper described Digging for Fire as "a movie made by someone who clearly loves the art of movies" and praised the casting and editing.[21] A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote of the film's "appealing honesty" and its "tight, satisfying narrative".[22] Variety's Ben Kenigsberg characterized the film as "a lovely slice of everything and nothing" and gave particular praise to the cinematography, editing and improvisation.[23] Peter Travers, who awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars in a review for Rolling Stone, highlighted the performances, cinematography and score, and felt that Digging for Fire showed Swanberg to be "a true filmmaker".[24] Screen International critic Tim Grierson found the film to be honest and insightful, and drew particular attention to Johnson and DeWitt's "nimble, low-key performances".[25] An Banh of Indiewire opined that the film was the most "emotionally mature" of Swanberg's works and that each of the actors gave "purposeful, plot-driven performances" in spite of the large cast.[26]

The Austin Chronicle's Kimberley Jones, on the other hand, felt that the story suffered because of the large cast and wrote that "mostly it's just a toe listlessly pushing dirt around".[27] Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune praised Ben Richardson's cinematography and "natural tone" of the acting but felt that the dialogue was lacking, giving the film 2 out of 4 stars.[28] The San Francisco Chronicle's G. Allen Johnson also criticized the "forced and uninteresting" dialogue and thought that the story and characters felt "phony".[29] The Boston Globe critic Ty Burr found the film uninsightful, writing that "Swanberg is tilling soil here that has been churned since humanity began", and felt that the plot focused too much on Tim rather than Lee.[30] Chris Nashawaty gave the film a C+ grade in Entertainment Weekly, dismissing it as "Joe Swanberg's latest meditation on aging-hipster malaise".[31]


  1. ^ a b Yuan, Jada (February 2, 2015). "Sundance: Joe Swanberg, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jake Johnson on Digging for Fire". Vulture. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Rosen, Christopher (August 21, 2015). "Jake Johnson keeps growing up with Digging for Fire". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  3. ^ a b Walsh, Katie (August 20, 2015). "Interview: Jake Johnson Talks 'Digging For Fire,' Acting Drunk, And Working With Child Actors". Indiewire. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d Heyman, Jessie (August 20, 2015). "Jake Johnson on His New Movie and Where New Girl Went Wrong". Vogue. Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  5. ^ Caldwell, Sarah (August 20, 2015). "What Brie Larson Taught Jake Johnson About Women". Vulture. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Kelley, Seth (August 14, 2015). "Orlando Bloom, Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt Talk Improv at 'Digging For Fire' L.A. Premiere". Variety. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  7. ^ Wickmann, Forrest; Lindemann, Anne Marie (February 4, 2015). "Joe Swanberg on How Working With Bigger Names Has Changed (and Not Changed) His Movies". Slate. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Ben Richardson Finds Freedom with Film on Digging for Fire". InCamera. Kodak. May 12, 2015. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  9. ^ Erbland, Kate (August 21, 2015). "Rosemarie DeWitt on How Joe Swanberg's 'Digging for Fire' Reflected Her Own Life Experience". Indiewire. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  10. ^ Eng, Matthew (August 20, 2015). "No Script, No Studio, No Problem: Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson Discuss DIGGING FOR FIRE". Tribeca Film Festival. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  11. ^ Sneider, Jeff (January 30, 2015). "Sundance: Joe Swanberg's 'Digging for Fire' Starring Jake Johnson Sells to The Orchard (Exclusive)". TheWrap. Retrieved August 23, 2015.
  12. ^ "The Chattanooga Film Festival Announces Second Wave Of Films". The Chattanoogan. March 5, 2015. Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  13. ^ "2015 Film Guide" (PDF). Sarasota Film Festival. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 24, 2016. Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  14. ^ "Digging For Fire". Chicago Critics Film Festival. Retrieved August 23, 2015.
  15. ^ "'Digging for Fire'". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  16. ^ "Digging for Fire". Traverse City Film Festival. Retrieved August 23, 2015.
  17. ^ "Digging for Fire". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  18. ^ Buchanan, Kyle (August 7, 2015). "Let's Say You're Jake Johnson, and You Just Discovered a Mysterious Bone ..." Vulture. Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  19. ^ "Digging For Fire (2015)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  20. ^ "Digging for Fire". Metacritic. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  21. ^ Roeper, Richard (August 21, 2015). "Digging for Fire (2015; Rated Rated R)". richardroeper.com. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  22. ^ Scott, A. O. (August 20, 2015). "Review: 'Digging for Fire,' a Comedy by Joe Swanberg". The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  23. ^ Kenigsberg, Ben (January 27, 2015). "Sundance Film Review: 'Digging for Fire'". Variety. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  24. ^ Travers, Peter (August 19, 2016). "Digging for Fire". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  25. ^ Grierson, Tim (January 27, 2015). "Digging For Fire". Screen International. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  26. ^ Banh, An (January 30, 2015). "Sundance Review: Joe Swanberg's Excellent 'Digging For Fire' Marks a New Stage of His Career". Indiewire. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  27. ^ Jones, Kimberley (August 28, 2015). "Digging for Fire". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  28. ^ Phillips, Michael (August 20, 2015). "'Digging for Fire' review: Mystery and marriage". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  29. ^ Johnson, G. Allen (August 27, 2015). "Swanberg a bit off in 'Digging for Fire'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  30. ^ Burr, Ty (August 27, 2015). "'Digging for Fire' depicts new parents doubting it all". The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  31. ^ Nashawaty, Chris (August 13, 2015). "Digging for Fire: EW review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

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