Trent O’Donnell on Flying High While Laying Low in “Ride the Eagle”

For once, Trent O’Donnell had a break in his schedule. The Australian writer/director had worked steadily for years on one television show or another, once betting on himself by putting money into a pilot that would become “Review with Myles Barlow,” later inspiring the Comedy Central series “Review with Jon Daly,” and subsequently creating “The Moodys,” another show that would cross the Pacific, before becoming an in-demand director on shows such as “New Girl” and “No Activity,” leaving him little time to look at the feature scripts he had been sent, let alone actually moving forward with one. But when time stopped for everyone with COVID-19, there was finally time to to try something he’d always wanted to do.

“[Jake and I] have just been good friends since “New Girl” days and we always send each other ideas for things,” recalls O’Donnell. “As our friendship developed, we became sounding boards for each other and we were both at home during the pandemic and one day, had the idea [of] “should we try to make a movie now? Would that be crazy?”

With complete trust in each other and a small band of co-conspirators, it was less crazy than either would’ve guessed as they set up production on “Ride the Eagle,” a comedy with no allusions to COVID-19 yet takes inspiration as many did during the pandemic in making the most of the moment as one could. Johnson stars as Lief, a drummer for a band eager to move on without him when he’s their oldest member by far, and he is given a potential lifeboat after learning that his hippie mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) has passed on, leaving behind a VHS cassette with her wishes including that he come back up to the family cabin to complete some tasks in order to take ownership of the lakeside property. With his dog Nora, Lief makes the trek from L.A. to Yosemite, not knowing what’s in store for him when he’s been estranged from his mom for some time, leaving her lover (J.K. Simmons) puzzled as to who he is when he shows up, but rather than linger on the past, the tasks Honey sets out for him get him to think about the future, having him clear his mind of all distractions from his life in the city and striking up a conversation with people he regrets losing touch with, including an ex (D’Arcy Carden) who happens to need someone to talk to as well.

Freed from all the usual constraints of a traditional production yet having the skill and discipline from working in those environments, O’Donnell and Johnson are able to make a laid-back comedy that always stays on point, channeling the spirit in which it was made when telling of someone who is empowered to take control over his own destiny after becoming more proactive about the situation he’s in. As in Johnson’s collaborations as both a writer and star with Joe Swanberg (“Digging for Fire” and “Win It All”), “Ride the Eagle” reveals a tender and searching side of the actor and it’s clear O’Donnell helped bring the best out of him and with the film now arriving on a much larger scale than it was made on demand, the director spoke about how he pulled it off while keeping everyone safe and how the production embraced the unusual conditions it was made under.

After you decide to make a movie, how did you figure what kind of movie you wanted to make?

The initial idea was I was going to actually hold the camera and shoot the film and Jake was going to act in it and we were going to develop some kind of weird one-man arty piece that we could do entirely, just the two of us. When we actually got together, we realized, “No, that won’t be good. We need other people,” so we started to sit down and work on this story. We had a little bespoke production model and we had all this crew that was friends and we went away and made it.

Did the limitations of shooting under these conditions inform this at all?

It did a little bit. We knew we wanted to make a film at this time when there were some constraints, but we looked at ideas we had and this story is one where it’s somewhat based on our experiences with our extended families, not drawn on one person specifically, but there’s sort of a mismatch of both our families. We wanted to come up with something that wasn’t a pandemic movie and people weren’t wearing masks, but a story that would lend itself to this remote and isolated setting that we could actually achieve and the goal was to make the film the way we would’ve made it if it wasn’t COVID, which was Jake’s character would go up to that cabin and spend time and learn about his estranged mom.

One of the real blessings of making a film at that time was that literally every production was shut down then, so we got all the people that we wanted. Everyone we asked we got because no one was doing anything and we created this safe little bubble to get people to come in and work. Usually you try to get Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons and D’Arcy Carden to be in a movie in the same month, they’re never all going to be available. They’re always going to have something on, but because of the pandemic we were able to have full availability on them, which was amazing.

Did you know about the cabin beforehand?

Yeah, that was Jake’s cabin up near Yosemite, [which we talked about] when we first sat down and we looked at like what locations do we have that we could actually use? So it was very much by design and it was the [most] fun production because Jake and I and the very small crew all got tested and then we drove up there and we all lived together in the cabin, so it was almost like a camp. Erin [Payne, Jake’s wife] did those paintings [in the cabin] — we gave her the brief of the character of Honey and she ran with that and gave us this amazing artwork that really added so much to the film, so this was really a community project and it was filmmaking in the funnest way for sure.

Particularly with the scenes where Jake and D’arcy Carden are on the phone in separate places, the compositions were great and I imagine you were shooting D’Arcy after you had already shot the scenes with Jake. Were you thinking about how one scene could bounce off of one another?

Yeah, we were because they’re phone call scenes, and we wanted to give them some kind of visual energy, so we rehearsed those scenes a lot. D’Arcy, Jake and myself spent a lot of time on Zoom and rehearse them together and they would open some of them up and improv a little bit and rewrite a little bit, so we had those scenes down before we shot them. We knew we wanted to do split-screen – that wasn’t an afterthought – so we gave them this feeling sometimes that they’re in the same room almost, but also some movement where D’Arcy would walk through her house. All those things were timed out to give it that energy rather than having two people sit on the phone being unrelated. We were very aware we were going to do a split-screen and we wanted to tell a story between their characters within those splits.

Did anything happen that you may not have expected but you could embrace it?

So many things really. We thought we had outsmarted the situation when we got our little crew all tested and we were all COVID-free driving up, but there were these fires burning up around there. It actually gave us these incredible skies that we filmed quite a lot of, but that was just a total curveball. There were some days where it completely ashed over and actually the day we finished filming [in Yosemite], we high-tailed out of there because the whole sky was black at noon the next day. We got the film made just in time. There were so many hurdles and obstacles every day, but we were a small enough unit that we weren’t as concerned with time as you usually are. [Typically] every minute costs a lot of money and you have to be very, very efficient and if something doesn’t go right, you have to just live with that and move on, but because we were this little bespoke model, we were able to really make sure that we were happy with the piece before we moved on.

When it’s a film ultimately about being proactive and seizing the moment, did you feel like you were living that out?

Definitely. Jake and I spurred each other on to keep going with this project because it’s not easy. Everyone can set out and decide to make a movie — it’s a fun idea, but there’s a lot of logistics and a lot of grunt work in it and we were very much living in the moment and creating our own momentum. We weren’t beholden to anyone but each other and once we decided to do it, it was actually a big thing for us to come through with a finished product.

“Ride the Eagle” opens on July 30th in theaters, including the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and on demand.