“The magic to me of New Girl was those actors,” says Trent O’Donnell, reflecting on the five years directing and executive-producing the popular sitcom. One of those actors was Jake Johnson, who played Nick Miller – “I liked how his brain worked and the comic ideas that he came up with,” O’Donnell says. The duo have teamed up again on O’Donnell’s debut comedy feature, Ride The Eagle. Landing in Aussie cinemas this month, the indie is a culmination of the chaotic – and frankly weird – comedic tone O’Donnell has been fine-tuning since the late noughties.
The 45-year-old Australian-via-Los Angeles filmmaker got his comedy footing making viral commercials: You might remember this surreal, award-winning Toohey’s Extra Dry ad from back in 2007, or the time Vanilla Ice ran down an LA highway yelling “I’m sorry!” into a megaphone in an Australian campaign for Virgin Mobile.
O’Donnell then moved on to ABC satires, being recruited by The Chaser’s War On Everything, and has since directed episodes of The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, worked with comedy heavyweights Will Ferrell, Will Forte (The Last Man On Earth) and many others on his Stan Originals co-production No Activity.
Filmed throughout the pandemic with a skeleton crew, Ride The Eagle follows intimacy-avoidant musician Leif (Johnson) after his estranged, weirdo-hippie mum Honey (Susan Sarandon) passes away. Posthumously via VHS recordings, Honey leads Leif on a quest for his inheritance, one that’s inconvenient at best and law-breaking at worst.
This surprisingly heartening, and very silly, story about the expectations we place on grief was co-written by Johnson and O’Donnell. “He’s kind of a weird fish, Jake, in a way,” O’Donnell says, with affection, over Zoom. The filmmaker tells NME more about his creative relationship with the actor and gives us five tips on how to make a good comedy.
Don’t let the jokes distort the truth of what you have to say
“I like comedy that is grounded. Even if you’re in a ridiculous world, there should be some kind of truth to it. And I’m applying that through the characters or the situation; you’re not betraying that at any time just because you think one thing might be funny.
“I like that [Jake’s] rhythm is different to a lot of other actors: the way he improvises and ad-libs and opens up how he does, I always found he does so in a truthful way. He doesn’t go like, wacky and zany for the sake of it. There’s always truth underneath.”
Trust your cast and lean into their strengths
“Every role in the movie, we wrote it with someone in mind. And Luis [Fernandez-Gil, who plays Gorka] was a guy that played poker with Jake, and Jake loved his natural mannerisms. We let all the actors name their characters, and [Fernandez-Gil] appreciated it; he was like, ‘Great because I’ve been Miguel in like, 50 things’. Luis had a friend named Gorka whose family owned, like, a transport shipping empire in Spain – he was a very wealthy person who had this privileged life and felt that he could demand all the time of you that he wanted.
“When you’re directing, you’re across so many areas and departments. You’re answering questions all the time. That character of Gorka is not high on the list of things I need to be thinking about all the time, [in terms of] getting the film made. But for Luis, that’s his entire focus: that one guy. So if you cast these smart people who can add value and own their characters, it’s crazy not to use that.
“I need good, funny, talented actors that I can communicate well with. I don’t feel that I’m a director who can make someone who’s not funny, funny. And I don’t really like making stuff that I’m trying to hide in the edit. The cast is probably the biggest thing for me.”
Be sensitive to what actors and writers are trying to achieve
“If a moment isn’t working, then my job is to come in – in collaboration with the writer – and pitch around that [moment]… Actors will have an idea, and you’re respectful of that. If you want to move it to a different area, it’s knowing what they’re trying to do with their performance, and then going ‘I think this could work’ and getting them to adjust where you think it needs to.”
Sticking to your own voice will lead you to like-minded creatives
“I was a fan of [Johnson’s] before I worked on New Girl. As I worked with him, [Johnson and I] just started to realise we have a similar tone and sensibility. We like the same things. And we just kind of became friends from that. You gravitate creatively towards people that have that similar tone and sensibility.
“Find your personal taste and sensibility; don’t try to make other people’s things. Like, there’s stuff that I find really funny that I don’t have enough affection for, that I could [never] really do – like musical parody: sometimes that can be done wonderfully, but I wouldn’t jump into that.”
Try not to lose momentum when making your film
“The reason that I hadn’t made a film before was that the wheels turn so slowly in that process. And the thing about Ride The Eagle was so much of it [required] momentum. We wrote the script and started to organise the shoot before we even finished writing. And then we were able to keep up that momentum the whole time because we weren’t beholden to anyone.
“I have scripts now that I’ve written over a year ago; I send it away, two months later I get a call, I get notes, and then I tweak it. And it gets to that point where you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I still have that fire to make this story’. There is death by noting… The momentum, it’s kind of everything, because, particularly in Hollywood, most stuff doesn’t get made. And all these great writers and great actors are attached to doing these things that never see the light of day.”
Ride The Eagle will premiere in Victoria, ACT and regional NSW cinemas from September 23, and in cinemas that aren’t facing COVID-19 restrictions from September 9