Kris Avedisian never saw it coming. He and his longtime friend and co-star Jesse Wakeman had prepared for nearly everything in the years leading up to “Donald Cried,” the bitingly funny story of a pair of childhood friends whose life had taken them in distinctly different directions. But one day during a record flurry of snowfall for the neck of New Hampshire they were shooting in, Avedisian and Wakeman were indulging in a bit of rough-housing that escalated a bit more than either of them expected.
“I packed the snowball a little bit too hard, I threw it at [Kris] and it hurt, and he got mad,” Wakeman says with a grin the morning after the film’s premiere at SXSW. “I love that stuff.”
They had a feeling audiences might too, which is why despite other ideas the two and their co-writer Kyle Espeleta had had over the years, they kept returning to the idea of adapting a short they had made together in 2012. A clever variation on “The Odd Couple,” with Wakeman playing Peter, an uptight New York banker who returns to his hometown of Warwick to settle the affairs of his recently deceased mother, and Avedisian growing out a mullet to play his former pal Donald for whom time seemed to have stopped when they parted after high school, “Donald Cried” developed into something more profound as the two both find themselves wanting what the other has to some degree. With Donald admiring Peter’s independence, stuck living under his mom’s roof and working at his stepfather’s bowling alley, as Peter, though loathe to admit it, can’t help but be taken by the simpler life Donald leads unburdened by expectation, the former friends, brought together when Peter’s wallet goes missing, find common ground in battling off arrested development with the same ferocity as they’re often physically knocking each other about.
The fact you never know whether it’s playful or not contributes to how Avedisian skillfully elides sentimentality, digging deeper to an almost primal level to consider changing modes of masculinity and the seeds planted in young adulthood that led Peter and Donald to become who they are in their early thirties. Yet Avedisian and Wakeman never let that weight get in the way of a good, uncomfortable laugh, supplying them early and often as the duo barrel their way through town, irritating themselves and others as they cause a ruckus at a nursing home, a cancer benefit, a bowling alley or out in the snow. Shortly after the film’s premiere at SXSW, Avedisian and Wakeman spoke about how they turned the film into a true family affair, the evolution of the short to the feature and creating the little details in production design that would tell who the characters were.
What it was like returning to these characters after doing it once for the short?
Jesse Wakeman: It was on our minds for a long time. Kris and I and our friend Kyle, the other writer, would talk about it every day and my character was a little bit more particular, so it was filled out, and that was tough. It kind of developed itself in terms of that idea of improv was really structured improv. Certainly, my gear, my look, my hair is all [planned].
Kris Avedisian: We had some loss of footage during editing the short. And I was frustrated, this might not work, but [we thought] this dynamic between these characters is really cool, so there’s something more to do. After we edited it, we felt like something’s here. Once it started showing and people were getting more out of it than we intended emotionally – it wasn’t just about laughs – we felt like there was a justification to do do more with it, but we waited because don’t want to just force it.
Jesse Wakeman: We’ve been working on features for a while, like different scripts that we could do well for very little. Then the short came pretty quick, and we [asked ourselves] can we build something out of this?
Was it was difficult to figure out ways to keep these two characters together throughout the entire movie? It never feels like it repeats itself, but it couldn’t have been easy.
Kris Avedisian: That’s what we spent a lot of time deciding.
Jesse Wakeman: Years.
Kris Avedisian: How much people will allow to pass was always a thing, like how much is an audience keeping track of the money or why couldn’t you have called the cab? All those details. No one’s going to realize Peter doesn’t [have any money] if you didn’t see him lose his wallet.
Jesse Wakeman: And then we’re dancing with this real reality we’re trying to get to, like how far can we push into movie land where it doesn’t matter. We were walking that line. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” was one reference among many for the structure.
Kris Avedisian: We looked at that and went, oh, when did they separate? I think they separate a couple times in that movie, but they were able to do these bigger and bigger things to get them apart, and it was a struggle for us. We worried at times that things would just seem redundant.
Jesse Wakeman: Up into the shoot. Like, what happened to the money? Forget about the money.
Kris Avedisian: We got to a certain point that we instinctually thought was good enough, but still really had no idea if people would have a problem with it. But I’m glad it didn’t feel forced or unnatural.
I was amazed to hear that you didn’t know that it would snow until two days before hand since it’s such a big element of the film. Were those anxious days leading up to it?
Jesse Wakeman: That was magic.
Kris Avedisian: It was stressful. We were a little annoyed or freaked out, but Kyle [Martin], our producer, was just like, “Yeah, we’re just going to do what we’re going to do.” We originally looked at Buffalo and other places we could try to shoot to make sure there was snow, because it was really that important, but budget-wise we wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Jesse Wakeman: It wouldn’t be the same, but we had to work with what we had and it hadn’t snowed like that since the short. Three years go by, and it snowed as much as it did for the feature as it did the short.
Kris Avedisian: It was pretty amazing how it worked out. It snowed like crazy. What was awesome about it was how [the weather] just progressed naturally even though we were shooting different days. When we were out in the woods, messing around, that was two weeks after we had shot the movie. That was a re-shoot and it just started snowing like crazy again, and [when the characters are] dropped off at the nursing home, it was starting to snow, and that was so important just because of the oppressive, depressive feeling.
Jesse Wakeman: We’re interested in documentary and working with the elements that are given us. We’d see a location and ask, can we do something there? We were always trying to work with what we had. “It’s really snowing out?” “Okay, let’s go.”
You have two cinematographers as well – was the weather actually part of the reason for that?
Kris Avedisian: That was for the parts that were more improv, especially in the van and stuff like that. It’s just more efficient to just get that, [especially] if we’ve got a good run between the both of us, we had it on both sides.
Jesse Wakeman: We have certainly worked in ways where we didn’t use two cameras, and [there are moments you realize], “Ugh, this isn’t working and it’s a slow build to figure out, “No, we have to do it this way to get that flow.”
There’s a really great, awkward moment where Kris’ boss is aggressively rough-housing him and there’s a teen girl sitting in the corner that’s never mentioned or pointed out, but her presence makes it all the more uncomfortably funny. Since a lot has to go into that – it’s another person to be cast – how did that detail come about?
Kris Avedisian: Originally, he always had a girl in there, but she was going to be older and it was more like a manager that he’d be doing business with – just another person there to experience that situation seemed interesting. I don’t remember what the shift was, but my friend, that was his teenage daughter, and [we thought] it would be nice to just to not have that person even have to say anything, and she can still just be there creating that tension, like, why is she in there? He’s obviously flirting with her and she’s like an employee.
Jesse Wakeman: Like anything else in the film, it’s like working with what we had.
Kris Avedisian: [For instance] we tried to hold a real cancer benefit to raise money for kids [for the climactic scene in the film set at a cancer benefit] and have everybody come. It was a really quick shoot. We just had a DJ there and catered it, and it was just all friends and family from Warwick.
And you just shot the scene in the middle of it?
Kris Avedisian: In the middle of it. We would stop it once in a while, but we were like just running and gunning that whole time, basically from the time he drops me off until he gets punched is all shot in a very short amount of time. That should have been like a two-day shoot and maybe we might have had a better version of it, but it felt real enough. It felt authentic, so we were okay with it.
Jesse Wakeman: You always want more time. It’s just [getting] those details. We didn’t have as many people come to the benefit as we would have liked and really fill it out in that kind of ’80s high school [way], but I think it’s very appropriate to how those things probably are.
You have a lot of details in here that help create the world – did you work a lot on the production design? Everything in Donald’s bedroom - the KISS figurines, the centerfold posters – say so much about the time he’s stuck in.
Kris Avedisian: Kia [Davis], the production designer, was working on it for while. Donald’s room was like one of the big ones. Kyle Martin, the producer, was going online and looking through these oddball posters and stuff, and others [on the production] thought it was fun, so they were pulled in. Kyle, our writing partner, headed up some of that poster stuff in Donald’s room and Kia really picked out all these [action] figures. The other locations we just tried to make sure we didn’t have to do anything to them [to make them look authentic].
Jesse Wakeman: Donald’s house was [actually came from] a friend from childhood. That’s her parents house.
Kris Avedisian: The breakfast scene at the end was [at a house of] a friend of mine.
Jesse Wakeman: So when we take a picture together with the fish behind us, all that that was this house that Kris spent time in when he was in high school.
Kris Avedisian: We tried our best to find places we didn’t have to decorate. We were really fortunate, like the bowling alley office.
What was the premiere like?
Kris Avedisian: Nerve-racking, but good.
Jesse Wakeman: We’re always going to be super critical. Everyone else seemed pretty happy with it, and I was very excited for the movie to be seen by people after so long being in this tiny group, but you get the effect of watching it for the first time when you have this other audience there. That was pretty special to get people really reacting to jokes and the little things that we did.
Kris Avedisian: [Jesse] and I have been working with an editor and we just literally came right off it to come here and we’re still feeling like we have some unfinished business. It’s not like we had a month to breathe, so we were on edge a little bit with that, like not feeling like had enough time to decompress and get some space, but of course, it’s great. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the festival’s great. We’re so happy.
Jesse Wakeman: I slept really good.
“Donald Cried” opens on March 3rd in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Los Angeles at the NuArt.