Matt Kazman on Getting Over the Hump with “Donkey”

You wouldn’t think things could get much lower for Russell Hoffman (Dru Johnston) than showing up to a young boy’s birthday party in “Donkey,” his face caked in green makeup in order to pretend he’s Shrek for the enjoyment of some elementary school kids yet being unrecognizable to the adult host of the shindig who tells him to turn around when he looks nothing like the kindly ogre. It isn’t right that she doesn’t pay him when he’s obviously tried his best, but she isn’t entirely wrong either when putting on a happy face doesn’t come easily to him, listening to self-help tapes in the cart on the way over and only taking side jobs like this when his acting career hasn’t panned out the way he had hoped when settling in Los Angeles. Yet if he suspects he’s hit rock bottom, sitting in his car without being compensated for his troubles still saddled with heavy makeup and silly ears bulging from his forehead, he’d find there’s somehow some place even lower when he gets a call from his sister Ally (Sarah Hagan) beckoning him to come to the hospital where their father looks as if he’s about to pass on.

This sets up a most peculiar moment of clarity in the latest short from Matt Kazman, who finds not only the ridiculous and sublime in the short where Russell stumbles into an intensive care center in full Shrek makeup facing some of the worst news of his life and when standing in front of his father, who he can’t tell if he’s listening or not, is able to say things about himself he never imagined he’d bring himself to before. If it seems like it takes absurd lengths for Russell to reflect on his life and where he is now, Kazman can now laugh a bit about setting up a production to exorcise his own feelings of desperation in “Donkey,” ultimately finding affirmation as the film has collected one prize after another at festivals its played, but more importantly achieving acceptance from himself when it so crisply conveys the limbo that so many creative people feel stuck in when they know their calling yet have trouble getting their calls returned.

Kazman has showed immense promise for years, helming a number of films that flirt with dark humor when death is often a driving force, but the punchlines avoid being bleak, shifting uncomfortable feelings into laughs and when presenting them to the public revealing that he’s surely not the only one that’s had them. As much as it takes for Russell to be walking around in public as Shrek without the world taking notice – even Ally fails to see who Russell is supposed to be in his full regalia, the writer/director puts himself out there to an even greater degree and the results are undeniable. With the comedy recently made available online as a selection of Short of the Week — and can be seen below — Kazman spoke about how he was able to pull himself up and process his own emotions through the making of “Donkey,” finding a killer cast and seizing the opportunity to become a better collaborator.


How did this come about?

The shorts I’ve made have all come about for different reasons, but this one specifically came about because for a period of time, especially in the thick of COVID, I was feeling a distinct lack of creative momentum, like the way that this character feels in the movie and I think a lot of people in the creative field were feeling [when] things that got canceled or shut down because of COVID. At first, I was feeling down on myself, like a bit of a failure, and I wanted to make something about that feeling, but I also didn’t want it to be like a woe is me story, because I was self-aware enough to know that these negative feelings about myself were my feelings, [not] necessarily others’. But it was weird to have that self-awareness and still be battling those sorts of feelings that specifically manifested for me as this feeling [where] I felt wanted to hide from people, especially people who work in the arts. I felt like I didn’t want people to see me while I was feeling this down on myself. I wanted people to only see me once I was doing better.

I wrote this in the middle of 2021, and I shot it at the very end, and to make money during that time, I was working on corporate videos, [which] was not anything close to what I want to be doing. I [felt] I needed to make something creative again — it had been three years since I made something for me, so I thought I need to do that for my own sanity and I also had this feeling of making something a little bit small [since] a lot of the shorts that I’ve made in the past have been ambitious, whether logistically or what I’m trying to accomplish with it. So I thought I can just get friends to be in or have it come together a little easier and not try to have a crazy shoot. And separately, I became obsessed with this clip of Regis Philbin from years ago where he is on David Letterman dressed as Shrek because I think he’s promoting the Broadway musical, but he doesn’t say that. He just shows up in full Shrek garb and he’s clearly upset about it. And David Letterman is just making fun of him and for two minutes, and then he’s like, “Okay, well, thanks for coming by.” And for some reason, I just loved the idea of seeing somebody who looks monstrous in a funny way, not in the context of [being] on a stage in a musical, and I just had it in my notes, “someone dressed as Shrek dealing with something serious.” That image to me felt like a good visual representation of failure.

I didn’t want to make a movie about a director who is struggling, but I’m creative and I thought I could show a creative person who’s a performer and clued into the idea [that this character would be] an actor, but he’s a children’s party performer and not only that, even though he’s trying, people don’t think he’s good at it. And then [I thought] I want [him] to deal with something serious. The other personal aspect is that a few years ago, my dad had a cancer situation — and he’s fine [now], but he was in the hospital for two weeks because there was a complication and it was scary. And as somebody who always has moments where I feel down on myself, I [realize] it’s important to have moments where you realize that the world’s not all about you, so once I had that idea for the plot, I wrote it very quickly, and it definitely was sillier at first because my instinct [is] to make comedies that are awkward, but I realized that one of the reasons why I wanted to make it was because I wanted to make something that was a little more emotional than all of the other shorts that I’ve made and feel a little bit closer to my character.

It’s interesting in relation to your other films that death is usually a starting point – “Father Figurine” is about the reading of a will, “Killer” is about a boy who fears masturbation will bring death and “Grateful Dad” is about the burial of a father. Is there something there that keeps you coming back?

Trust me, it’s something I’ve openly talked about with a lot of people because I am like, what am I doing? Once I started incorporating that in [repeatedly], what I’ve told people is that I’m very afraid of it. [laughs] Death very much scares me, and the mortality of my parents scares me a lot, because I’ve made numerous things that involve death of family members, to the point where my family members are like, “What’s up with you?” And on one hand, I feel like this might be a crutch since I’m working on a feature now, and literally my number one rule was “No parents can die.” But this [short] was the first time where I [thought] this experience is rooted in a little bit of an experience that I had and it’s something that brings out a lot of emotions in me. Whenever a grandparent has passed, I’ve always been surprised at how emotional I get, so in that sense, it comes from a real feeling. And the first time I [brought death in as a plot point], I made this short called “Killer,” and I wasn’t overthinking it then, especially because like in that movie, a mom dies, and when my mom saw it, she was like, “Did I do something to you?”And I [said], “What?!?! No.” But after I made that, and I liked the tone and coming up with story ideas that were about how people feel about death because some people are very accepting of it. Then I actually tried to come up with a bunch of ideas to make an anthology series about all that, and I think some of my [other] ideas have come from that bank.

The Shrek character isn’t only a funny character to place into that kind of situation theoretically, but visually it’s amusing to see the green in that muted color palette. Did the color scheme come naturally?

I definitely knew I wanted it to be muted and I kept saying that I just wanted it to look sad. The two major ways that came about were the locations. The hospital set we filmed on, I saw others that were definitely a lot nicer, [but I thought] this just looks like the saddest hospital I’ve ever seen and I liked that. I didn’t want it to be this very poppy, colorful thing. I liked the fluorescent look of it with no windows [where] it looks natural, but it’s not like you’re seeing sunlight pour in. And it sounds like a small decision, but that extended to the house that he goes to at the beginning [where] I want it to feel like it’s in L.A. because there’s like a sadness with like a struggling actor that’s specific [there] and to the shot [selection]. Typically, I have shots last for a while, but I was trying to be a little bit more immersive with this in terms of slow movements in and that muted tone stems from the colors, but [extends into] the way I shoot stuff where I’m I’m not trying to be very flashy. It feels like you really have to sit in it with him and these other people.

How did you find Dru and Sarah to star in it?

Dru is somebody who I was a fan of for a while, because I used to live in New York, and he’s a really big person in the UCB improv world. The comedy that he has come up doing is very big and loud and funny, and he can do that really well, but I had seen some things he had been in where he’s playing a depressed person, and he handled that tone in a way where [I knew] that’s what this person is and he moved to L.A. during the pandemic and a good friend of mine introduced me to him and then that same friend was like, “Dru should do this [part].” So I just reached out to him and he [said], “Hell yeah, I’ll do this.” And for the most part, I really did try to cast people I knew or friends of friends.

And with [Sarah Hagan], I was a big fan of hers and I specifically thought of her because I knew I wanted the actor [in that role] to be good at playing serious. There are lots of comedic actors who I thought could be good for the sister role. but I really wanted somebody who wasn’t going to try to make it funny, and Sarah was in a really good short made by Kim Sherman called “Dogwalker” the same year I was at Sundance with “Killer,” and I re-watched “Dogwalker,” and it’s a darkly comedic idea, but she is playing it really serious the whole time and I was [thinking for “Donkey”], I really want her to be crying the whole time, but I was very mentally prepared for that not to be the case because [I thought] I can’t make someone cry this much. I actually worked with Kim Sherman’s husband Jack Caswell, and he was the person I asked to shoot “Donkey,” and when I was thinking of people to play that role, I just asked Jack, “Do you think you could reach out to Sarah and see if she’d be interested in doing this?” And he did and he’s like, “She’s down, e-mail her.” So I did.

Is there anything that happened once the script came to life that you might not have expected, but could get excited about?

The way in which I worked with Dru and Sarah was different — Dru is a pretty good friend of mine, and I did spend a lot of time rehearsing with him, especially the monologue [because] I was very neurotic about it working. I really appreciate he took the time to do that and I wasn’t [thinking] he has to like say the most perfect thing, but he does have to get emotional and he does have to hide his emotions for most of the movie and because he was a friend, I allowed myself to try to ask more of him. But with Sarah, my main direction was to just take it really seriously, specifically in the moments where she [says to her brother], “Who are you?” And he’s like, “I’m Shrek,” and even she doesn’t see it, that’s clearly supposed to be funny.

And her first take when we were filming, she just started bawling and I was like, “Oh my God, this is exactly what I want. “I’m just not going to say anything,” and then when we were done with the take, she just stopped because she’s a very good trained actor. The control freak that popped up in me on the shoot was [more] just about timing. I would repeatedly tell people to take things slower, just to be in the moment for longer and slow down the pace and make it feel even more real and sad. As an editor, I was also trying to give myself room to breathe in the edit, so if I want to tighten it up, I can, but I really was trying to keep them in these moments for longer than I think their instincts were to really drag out and I think that comes through. I actually only watched it with an audience for the first time recently, and when I was working with the editor, I’m like, “This feels normal to me,” and then [I saw it with the audience where it felt] “This is really uncomfortable, but in a way that I think is good.”

This has a great, subtle use of score, which I know isn’t always something you’re inclined to use. What was it like to put music on it?

Music’s very important to me, but working with composers is still new. I only did it for the first time three years ago on a short, where we only did one cue that I repeated, so I didn’t have too much control over it, which was probably good. With this, I knew the two moments where I wanted score and a very good friend of mine had worked with Zach [the composer] and I liked the anxious feeling that [the music] gave you, so I had temp tracks in the edit that I showed to Zach telling him, “this is what I like about these” and even getting specific as, “These are the instruments from these that I like” — and I’m probably describing the way that all directors work with composers, but it definitely trying to give them some space while also being hands-on in the later stages because part of making shorts is that I’m also learning. I’m trying to use them as opportunities to become just a little bit less of a control freak and a little bit more of a collaborator, so working with composers for the first time, I’m like, “okay, I just want to get better at this” and with those two tracks [we have in the film], it’s like, this is the anxious track, and then with the monologue, I didn’t want it to feel melodramatic. And I felt like Zack hit a really good, minimal feeling with that.

It had a really light touch, and at risk of spoiling the slightly sneaky punchline at the end, how did you find the choral version of Smashmouth’s “All Star” to place over the end credits?

It was in the script [that] when we cut to black, I, I just like wanted to use “All-Star” and I [thought], I’ll reach out to them or to the label and most of the times that I’ve made shorts, I always clear the music, even if it’s someone who’s famous, and as I was figuring out the music, I had some idea of the kind of music I wanted [throughout], but I didn’t completely know that I was going [with] the orchestral operatic [feeling of] “Ave Maria” at the beginning, but once I played with that, I [thought], “Well, maybe all the music is like this.” And literally one day, I was like, I wonder if like a choral version of “All-Star” exists and I Googled “‘All-Star’ choral version” and it does. [laughs] Numerous choirs have recorded it, so I found one, plugged it in, and it’s very funny [because] it strikes the tone that I’m trying to strike with the movie where I’m trying to make you laugh, but also everyone’s playing it really seriously and it’s supposed to feel very real, so there was something about the fact that it’s a really serious choral version of that song that was both funny and serious and just struck the exact tone I was trying to hit. And it ends the movie on this somber note where I think that it takes a second for people to realize what it is, but then when people realize what the song is, people laugh over the end credits, and that’s what I wanted.

What’s it been like having it out in the world and seeing it with an audience?

It’s been really nice. Because I shot it at the end of a year, so I knew that I wasn’t going to submit to festivals until the following year, so I was sitting on it for a while and this sounds like a reoccurring theme, but whenever I edit something I’ve made, I’m usually like the darkest on it and it’s interesting as I was editing this, and the movie was about failure, I was like, “Great. I did it again.” But around the time I had finished the score and moved on to color and sound, I just didn’t watch it for a month, and [then] I watched it, and it was the first time that I watched a short of mine, I was like, “Oh, wait, I actually think I expressed the things I was feeling when I wrote it. And hey, that makes me feel good.” I try not to have expectations about festivals and hat stuff in general, but it was the first time that, even before I had entered into that, I was actually happy with something, and historically I have felt weird about my movies until someone likes them, but [this time it was like] I don’t need someone else’s approval.

However, I thankfully have had my other shorts play at a bunch of really great festivals, including all the festivals that this played at, like IFF Boston, the Lower East Side Film Festival, and Seattle and Palm Springs, and just getting into them is a nice vote of confidence, but seeing it with a crowd, I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s why I make things.” With this one specifically, seeing when [the audience] awkwardly laugh and then when they’re really quiet for his monologue and I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a bit of a punchline, so I always very excited to see how people react to that. That experience was very gratifying, and when I won a jury award at the Lower East Side Festival, I was genuinely like, “What?” because I really just tried to let go of all expectations, and I wasn’t able to go to Seattle, but I got an e-mail from them saying, “Hey, you won the audience award for Best Short.” So I keep being surprised and it’s been very gratifying that people respond to this.

It’s really hard with shorts to like get them seen because there’s thousands made every year and it’s so hard for festivals to program shorts because they get so many good ones and i they don’t program a lot of them that they like because there’s a limited amount [of room in the schedule], so as a result, it’s really hard to know how people respond to yours. People have generally told me they relate to it, and when I make most of my stuff, I just want people to relate to it or feel seen in some way, which is obviously a theme in the short, where [this character] just doesn’t feel seen, so the specific response that I’ve gotten on this that “I feel seen” is really nice.

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