Interview with Trent O’Donnell the director and co-writer of ‘Ride the Eagle‘, a feel good comedy dealing with family, relationships and bereavement set in the wilderness of the Yosemite National Park. Shot during lockdown it brings together a comedy ensemble including Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon. Available on digital download from October.
Please introduce yourself and your film
My name is Trent O’Donnell and my film is called “Ride the Eagle”.
You are an experienced comedy writer and director. How does this film compare to your work to date?
Well it’s my first feature. So largely my work has been two fold, I work either writing things that I’m going to make, which is more in the UK / Australian model of writing and directing shorter run series of television, and then in America I did a lot of sort of guest directing when you go on to these bigger shows and you drop in do a couple of episodes and then you go away again. That was kind of my experience up until this point. This was the first time I’d done a bigger longer project and it took a pandemic to get me to actually do it but it is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
You co-wrote and directed the film. Do you see yourself as a writer or director?
I see myself very much more as a director than a writer. I love the process of writing and I love the ideas behind writing, but I in no way regard myself as a polished writer. Like everything I have written I have directed myself. So when I write scripts they are very much a working document, I’ve never really written polished scripts, which I’ve sent out into the world and asked people to give me money for them. It has always been that I have sort of written things that I know I’m going to be on set and I know that I will be making them. I regard myself as a rough writer but much more as a working director.
What is the directing process like for you normally?
Normally as a director, first and foremost, I love working with actors. I’d say I’m a performance based director. I think a lot of comedy directors are performance based but largely my work is sort of I’m taking a writer’s script and I’m breaking it down. There is a homework part of it where you are blocking the shots and you are working out how you actually want to shoot the thing. That to me is all the grunt work and when I’m actually on set, the sort of joy of it, is working with actors and working with great comedy actors and being able to get things on their feet, feel when it’s working and feel when it is not and sort of adjust accordingly as I go. I would say when you look at directors overall they usually fall into one of different categories. You could be a very technical director who is very good at doing action sequences and you plan everything within an inch of its life. I’d say that I’m not that, I’m much more pure comedy performance director.
The film is set in the wild frontiers of America and looks a perfect location for lockdown. How did you find it?
Well basically this film was born out of Jake Johnson and I. We met on New Girl. I was the producing director on New Girl. Jake and I became friends and we became writing buddies and we would send each other ideas, different ideas for shows and films and we actually, just before the pandemic, Jake and I tried to sell a TV show. We didn’t sell it and off the back of that, I think partly through the frustration of just having to try and develop and pitch and do all those sort of things, we thought maybe when the pandemic hit, it would be nice to just go and make something. So we set ourselves a date to shoot something, we just got together and we beat out the story, decided what we liked, narratively what interests us both and then we looked at, probably more of a practical sense than most films are made, we looked at what we had and what was available to us, and so like all those locations in the film were either my place or Jake’s place. He owned that cabin up near Yosemite. So we knew we had those things right from the start and on top of that Yosemite has always been one of my favourite places in the world, I just love that whole area.
The characters were a lot of fun, and it was a funny and relatable story but quite absurd and exaggerated too. Was there an element of truth in any of the characters or were they just fictitious?
There were definitely elements of truth, no one was based on anyone specifically, but I would say definitely elements from my extended family and definitely from Jake’s extended family and we kind of took all those little things from people we knew and sort of mashed them together without it being directly from my family of Jake’s. We always like comedy that is grounded more in truth and feels believable but within that you find ridiculous things in real life that feel absurd that you wouldn’t believe unless it really happened. So we definitely cling on to those kinds of things. We want it to feel relatable but also be funny and entertaining. We found like so many people, almost everyone has some sort of fracture in their extended family to some degree with these grudges that people hold etc and we found that was kind of a rich area.
I don’t want to give any gags away or any spoilers away. Could you give us a quick synopsis of the story?
The film is basically the story of Leif played by Jake Johnson who is estranged from his mother Honey played by Susan Sarandon. Honey passes away right when the film starts and basically Honey leaves Leif a conditional inheritance. She leaves him her cabin up near Yosemite but only on the condition that he completes this list of kind of obscure, weird tasks and it is all about her trying to pass on one final lesson to her son that she was estranged from and never really knew.
There was some lovely casting. How did it come about?
It was weirdly the easiest casting process I’ve ever been involved with, simply because of the time that we made it, which was a couple of months into lockdown and into covid and so everyone’s projects were put on hold, no one had anything on the horizon. We were a very bespoke, little, tiny unit, so we weren’t a massive filmset, we were only a handful of people, which meant we could all be tested and we could be contained and so the casting was simply: I had worked with J K (Simmons) before and I just simply emailed him and he responded that day and said, “Sounds fun.” We went directly to all of our actors. Susan we hadn’t worked with before but she was just the archetype in our head and we just thought we’d wildly just email her agent and say, “Is there just any way she would do this?” And two days later we were speaking to her on the phone. So it was weirdly a very easy casting process because no one had anything on at the time because usually when you try to cast these things, you get responses that yeah they’re tied up for the next 10 months. But we got everyone that we wanted right away. We wrote it with Susan in mind, not thinking she would do it. J.K I knew at least I could ask him. D’Arcy Carden is a friend who I had worked with before, so we got all these people that we had written for which was kind of incredible.
There was another star, the rescue dog Nora. Was she easy to handle on set?
She was great, she is a retired guide dog, she was very directable. The only thing with it was it was kind of scary because it was Jake’s real dog and Jake has 2 young daughters and they would have killed him if he had lost the dog. So we were constantly having to keep tracks of the dog making sure the dog was ok; only because Jake is scared of his daughters. But no she was great, she was really easy and probably the easiest animal I have ever worked with.
What advice would you give to anybody looking to direct or write something?
My advice is to always just go out and make things. It is very accessible now to get cameras, people make movies on their phones and such. I think it is just having an idea and certainly this was the case with this film. Just creating your own momentum and actually going through with it and doing it, is such a huge part of the process. For this movie we just set ourselves a date. We said alright we are not doing anything, this is when we are going to start shooting our film and we sort of worked back from that date. My advice is to always go and make things. It doesn’t matter how small a scale, create your own momentum and finish them.
Film: Ride the Eagle
Director: Trent O’Donnell
Stars: Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run time: 1hr 28min