When Leif’s (Jake Johnson) estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) dies she leaves him a “conditional inheritance”. Before he can move into her picturesque Yosemite cabin, he has to complete her elaborate, and sometimes dubious, to-do list. Leif and Nora, his canine BFF, step into Honey’s wild world as she tries to make amends from beyond the grave in this hilarious and heartfelt comedy.
I had the great delight of speaking with Ride the Eagle director and co-writer Trent O'Donnell about his new comedy film, his background as a director in comedy TV, collaborating with co-writer and actor Jake Johnson, and taking the bull by the horns and going all-in on his first feature.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Before we jump into talking about the movie, I want to learn more about your filmmaking journey. Your career has been mainly in comedy TV, what made you want to become a visual storyteller and become a director and writer, specifically in the comedy world?
Trent O’Donnell: I've always been a lover of comedy and comedy films. I got really into photography and actually worked as a photographer for a little bit, but always with an eye on creating stuff and making short films. This was in the mid-90s where it wasn't as easy to get cameras. I made a couple of short films that got into festivals and that led to me getting into doing some commercials like comedy, pretty much always comedy. And then I made a pilot myself. Finally, this movie is the first thing I've funded and I put my own money into it since making this pilot, many years ago. But I made a pilot called Review with Myles Barlow in Australia and that got remade in America for Comedy Central, Review with Andrew Daly. And I had this opportunity to work in half-hour comedy on TV, always with an eye on wanting to do a movie but just wanting to do the right one, I’m very picky about what movie I want to do, I just think you have to give so much to a movie and so many years. I read a lot of scripts and so many of them I wanted to like buy into but if you just don't see a great version of it for yourself, then you probably can't do it. I spent a lot of years writing scripts and not doing them and then luckily we have this horrible pandemic that opened up all this time which Jake and I were just like ‘let's just make something.’
Sadie: How did you and Jake connect over this specific story for Ride the Eagle?
Trent: We were months into the pandemic, and we would always send each other ideas and thoughts and we got together, and we had this little block of time and went ‘wouldn't it be cool if we went and made something ourselves?’ and that was the spark as much as anything. We knew we didn't want to make anything about the pandemic - we were living that every day, so we wanted to make something that felt somewhat timeless or at least not time-stamped as a COVID story. And then we started to put our heads together and l spent time together chatting about what were the stories that interested us and what were the areas that appealed to us and we came up with the story of Ride the Eagle and Leif and Honey is a little bit drawn on embellished stories from our own families - a little from his and his extended family and my family. And we fell upon this story of a mother and a son, a broken relationship and this idea of that it can be mended even if someone's already dead.
Sadie: I like that running theme - the idea of second chances - I don't want to give spoilers away to our readers but they come back and they have this really wonderful re-connection. You mentioned that you guys both were embellishing characters from both of your family backgrounds, were there specific characters or family members that you deliberately brought into specific characters like Honey one or maybe even JK Simmons’ character Carl?
Trent: Not really specifically. It was more than the themes within our own family. I come from a big family - my mom is one of 10 and there are all these sorts of riffs and falling outs and stuff like that. We just thought how pointless some of that stuff is, but ultimately there's no prize for holding a grudge the longest. Even Honey, she never set out to do the wrong thing and most of the time she thought she was doing the right thing. And then Leif, he just dug in and refuse to forgive, and then that's how you end up in those situations.
Sadie: It's really interesting that you guys came up with this during the pandemic. I feel like it speaks to a lot of people who unfortunately experienced a lot of loss, or a lot of people were reflecting on time lost with certain family members.
Trent: It was definitely a conscious thing about missing people and not being around people. And to a certain extent, I think everyone took stock of their life to some degree, during the pandemic, whether willingly or unwillingly.
Sadie: I'm sure you guys had a very small and nimble crew. Where did you guys film?
Trent: Up near Yosemite - was really fun. It was sort of peak COVID – we all got tested together and we all got negative and jumped in the and we all stayed up there. We all lived together in the cabin. It was like we were on a weird camp. [laughs] We kept our own hours and it was the most freeing fun experience.
Sadie: The collaboration process with Jake, knowing you were to direct and he was to act in it, how did you both approach writing the script?
Trent: We've written stuff before that we haven't made and so we're fairly attuned to the tone that we were going for. We have a similar sensibility when it comes to comedy, and I think Jake’s a great writer, actually, his background is writing before acting. And he is a great kind of sounding board to me. If I'm being honest, I probably lean more into the comedy sometimes and tend to break things like broader comic ideas, and he tends to be, for me anyway, he is the one that like grounds it a little more. It's very about the truth and making sure nothing feels like that it's unbelievable and will take you out of it or breaks that tone. But the easiest thing about the fact that he was acting in the film was that we got to read it a lot. We could write a scene and then we could read it. And we could hear the voice of the actual actor saying the words and you get a great sense of other words that didn't feel right, that feels clunk. It was great to have that. We got to develop this real shorthand for Leif, that was an extraordinary experience.
It was good putting our money into it which I hadn't done for so long and particularly for me because Jake's a rich Hollywood guy, I don’t think he cared about the money, but the money was enough that I was like, “OK, I got to do this now, I have some money in this.” And we had time because we weren't doing anything else. Even though we did it quickly, we spent a lot of time on it. We were working on it every day and it was great to work on it every day. And we sort of made an unspoken pledge to each other that we were going to do it. It had this sort of wonderful relentless momentum. And that's kind of what you need, that's kind of what you can do if you're doing an independent film yourself. We weren't having to send it off to people and then wait for notes for three weeks or anything like that we were our own studio in that sense.
Sadie: With your heavy background in directing TV, what are some valuable tools you carried over into directing your first feature? Were there some things that you wish you had known ahead of time before taking on this project?
Trent: I think the thing you get on directing TV is you get your set hours, you're on a working set a lot and you start to develop your own visual style and tone. There's definitely an opportunity to be creative and to present different shots and different little cinematic moments that you want to achieve, but on the other hand, you're also working with an established kind of power, and you have to stick to that. There is this great, kind of support group around you, where you sort of keep that ship moving but you're not really steering. And I think having done all that, made me competent in terms of how we shot the movie and we didn't have to always cover every angle of it. We could commit to some interesting things that we wanted to do. It just lets you work with cameras and actors in real environments. I think like anything, you get your hours up and you just get better at it.
Sadie: Any general advice for writer/directors who are collaborating with another writer who also happens to be an actor, with the plan set in place the said actor will also be starring in the project, what kind of advice would you give them?
Trent: You don't have to be railroaded by the person playing the role. Like Jake doesn't own Leif just because he got to play Leif. It is a character that you are both creating. And sometimes I think the way the best writing partnerships work is that the other sees something in a slightly different way. You are two different voices and just being able to have equal weight. Actors get plenty of credit - don't get steamrolled by an actor.
Sadie: That's great advice! Trent, thank you so much for your time. I hope that you continue chasing directing features and that you and Jake keep working together, as well as collaborators.
Trent: I hope so too. Thank you so much!
Ride the Eagle will be available in Theaters, On Demand, and Digital July 30, 2021.