Film

Interview: Chicagoan Jake Johnson on Making Ride the Eagle During the Pandemic, Without Making it Feel Like the Pandemic

One of my favorite Chicagoans is actor, writer and overall truly nice guy Jake Johnson, who I first met in 2009 with the release of the indie hit Paper Heart, in which he starred opposite Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera. Before long, Johnson was popping up in standout roles in such films as Safety Not Guaranteed, 21 Jump Street, and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, eventually landing the leading role in director Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and as part of the winning ensemble of Fox’s long-running sitcom “New Girl,” playing Nick Miller, a character who seems most closely aligned with Johnson’s own personality.

The actor went on to appear in two more Swanberg films, Digging for Fire and Win It All, as well as one of the biggest movies of all time, Jurassic World; and then there was The Mummy, opposite Tom Cruise; and the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. His recent network series “Stumptown” was renewed for a second season just before the pandemic, and sadly was ultimately cancelled because of it, leaving Johnson a bit of a hole in his schedule and only so many options, in terms of creative outlets. But working quickly with “New Girl” producer and frequent director Trent O’Donnell, the pair wrote Johnson’s latest starring vehicle, Ride the Eagle (with O’Donnell directing), about a musician named Leif who is left with a conditional inheritance when his estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) dies. Before he can move into her picturesque Yosemite cabin, he has to complete her elaborate, and sometimes dubious, to-do list. The film also co-stars D’Arcy Carden as Aubrey, the woman Leif considers the one that got away, and J.K. Simmons as Carl, a neighbor to (and former lover of) Honey.

Ride the Eagle

Image courtesy of the film

Although not immediately evident while watching, the film was shot during the pandemic. The picturesque landscape and the story of a man reconnecting with a mother who effectively abandoned him in order to stay in her cult-like commune brings a genuinely moving and charming narrative to life, and the chemistry between Johnson and Carden is the heart and soul of the movie, which is surprising since their entire relationship is via the phone. Ride the Eagle is available where most streaming films are found, and it is absolutely worth seeking out.

If there was one person I’d hope to find an excuse to connect with during this period of Zoom interviews, it was Johnson. I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, moderated Q&As with him frequently, and he remains one of the easiest people to talk with about his work, Chicago, and the state of the world in general. Please enjoy out conversation and check out Ride the Eagle.

It’s wonderful to see you again.

You too, man. How’s everything?

Things are pretty good, all things considered. This film seems insanely personal to me, and I hope something like this never happened to you or Trent. Where did the idea of this list even come from?

You know what’s funny? It’s actually not personal to either of us at all, but the idea of the project was to make something that felt very personal. What we really wanted was an intimate movie about people connecting. Trent and I were talking way before the vaccine about how much we missed being around people and watching things that weren’t the news or watching stuff that wasn’t about how much everyone hated each other and our world as we know it would “NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!” Fuck man! So we just wanted to make a movie that felt like people you knew and people would say “I can relate to this. That person feels real,” and they go through an emotional journey where they end up saying “I’m okay to forgive my mother. Chill out. I missed a lot of laughs.” So that was the mission statement of the whole thing, and we always went back to that. Does it feel real? Could this have happened?

It was until almost the end of the movie where it occurred to me that this was shot during the pandemic. Even when you share a scene with J.K. Simmons, you guys are a little too far apart. You and D’Arcy are on the phone; Susan is only on TV; even the guy you’re living with in the beginning, you’re never in the same room with him.

That’s so funny.

And the movie isn’t about being alone or the pandemic or anything like that. Why did you even attempt something like this?

It’s funny you mention that because it’s kind of the trick of the movie. But now as the movie is coming out and we’re doing our big push, the world is opening, and that’s no longer as valued as it was while we were making it. But for us, the main thing we didn’t want to make was a movie that felt like the pandemic. I didn’t want anybody wearing a mask or anyone being political or having a message. I didn’t want anybody being afraid of another person’s germs murdering them. And I didn’t want anyone to feel, if they watched this in a few years, what it felt like in October 2020. But we had to live by the rules of 2020. So for example, the reason Susan Sarandon isn’t sending me iPhone messages, which of course she would, is because if we make her leave VHS tapes and make the footage look grainy, it doesn’t feel like this conversation feels. We’re used to this. So if she were on Leif’s phone, people would go “Ugh, I spend the whole year doing everything like that.” But if it’s on a TV screen with grainy VHS footage, it doesn’t look like now.

With D’Arcy and I, the tricks was “How do we build chemistry while keeping it over the phone?” So that’s why we did the whole sex scene because every great romance has the scene where they either have sex or try to and can’t. You have to have that moment. So it was split screen and figuring out when to do split and when to do singles. So that was the whole game of the project.

When you shot with D’Arcy, how did you shoot that? I assume you were actually speaking to each other.

No. When I was at the cabin, I had no reception. I made a lot of movies with Joe Swanberg in this model, and we really improvised a lot. So going into this, we realized that we couldn’t use that device. But what I loved about those movies, and little indie movies in general, I don’t like when dialogue feels too written, I don’t like when I’m watching an incredible performance by an incredible actor—I get bored. I like naturalism, so the game of this was, how do we make this seem improvised but we couldn’t. She and I had a lot of rehearsals together, which were really fun. From her side, I was on the phone, but I don’t think she really heard me. I think she’s being polite when she says that I helped, because I don’t think I did. And from my side, I read mostly with Trent.

It’s very convincing because it’s genuinely sweet and sexy. I never would have guessed that. When you’re shooting this, did it feel a bit fragile to be back to work, because you had “Stumptown” literally ripped out from under you after being renewed? So did it feel shaky going back to work after an experience like that?

When that show went away, it was really disappointing because we had such a great cast. I was sure that thing could build, and then we got picked up, and the writers were pitching the episodes. Then when it got pulled, I did have a moment where I thought, if they were willing to cancel this show after paying people out—people got paid to not go to work—I thought Hollywood might be in real trouble, and I thought there might be a world where I don’t work again for years, and that wasn’t going to work for me because I like to work. I’m not like the characters I play, in that I’m lazy. I need to work everyday; I like to have a mission when I wake up or I get myself in a lot of trouble.

I love Trent. We did so many episodes of “New Girl,” and I find him to be so talented and smart and fun to work with, so we decided to make this movie. This original version of this movie was him and a camera, me mic’ing myself, and the dog, and we said “We’ll make a movie in my backyard if we need to.” But as we started writing, it got bigger and bigger, but the idea was “I can’t have Hollywood pull the plug on this, and I can’t have a big corporation decide it’s not safe. If this is the way movies are going to go for the next three to five years, I need to be in front of it.”

According to IMDB, you’re in the new Jurassic World sequel Dominion. When did you shoot that?

So Jurassic World, I ended up not being able to shoot because of COVID. I’m not in it. I was in it; I had a plane ticket and everything. I’d worked with Colin [Trevorrow, director], I saw the script, I was ready go, there were a couple really fun scenes. Lowery is a character that I love, and I was excited to bring him back, and then the pandemic hit and it got pushed, and then “Stumptown’s” scheduling got tricky because that’s when that show was still going, and then the protests were happening here in L.A., and Trump was our president, so I wasn’t even sure if you could leave the country and come back. Then the timing on the UK dates were getting really strict because of quarantining, and we lost our window. It sucks.

You actually shot Ride the Eagle in and around Yosemite. It must have been amazing to be able to spend so much time outdoors, with no one around.

It was. When we shot up near Yosemite, I think we only had a seven-person crew. So when we were making the actual meat of this movie, it was a pretty small group, and it was really nice to be out of the feeling of the pandemic and be at work. What I found out quickly was how badly everybody just wanted to focus on making something, and nobody wanted to talk about how hard the last four or five months has been. So it was so nice to be back doing the thing I love to do, which is work with a group of people. With movies or TV, actors get all of the credit or directors do, but the truth is it’s such a collaboration with every member of the crew. If you have one bad member of the crew, it does spoil the project, big or small. If you have a weirdo sound guy, it’s really hard to do comedy around him [laughs]. So it was really nice to be a group again and be working and be in nature. I really love the movie; I think it’s really sweet and I hope people know what it is going into it. We shot it in 10 days; it’s got a lot of heart; it’s not like a joke-a-thon movie—it’s got laughs in it, but it a little drama with laughs in it.

The film is about interesting kinds of regret. You’re not especially mournful about your mother dying, but you do end up with a regret about not knowing her better later in life. You realize in the end she seemed like a pretty cool person, even if she wasn’t a great mom. You also have this equally weighty regret about Audrey. You can’t do anything about one of those things, but you’re going to try to do something about the one that got away. With all of that, what the hell does the title mean to you? I know it’s about that painting that Honey did, but what does it mean.

It’s a great question because the title was the last thing we settled on. Honey’s paintings in the movie were a big deal for us, but we really under-thought it, because we knew we wanted her to be an artist but since Leif is learning who this person is as the audience is, we thought that everything about her had to be specific. Aside from having Susan Sarandon, who is so talented and brings the character to life, what her art looks like matters because that’s how you figure out who this person is. The point of the movie is that Leif hated her when he was a kid, he was a dick to her when he was grown, and now it’s too late, and he blew it. And guess what? She might not have been a great mom, but they would have had a ton of fun in that cabin together if he would have opened up. So her painting meant a lot to us, but neither Trent nor I had any ideas.

So, my wife is a painter, and we said to her, “Will you just make some paintings that Honey would do?” and she said “Alright, can I get some direction?” and we had none [laughs]. So we just said “The weirder the better. Imagine a lady who’s dropped too much acid.” My wife got an MFA in painting, and we’re like “This is not a technically sound painter, so just do a painting in a day,” and she did this whole run of these paintings, and when we saw a painting of a squirrel riding an eagle, Trent and I just laughed a lot and were like “That’s kind of Honey. Riding an eagle.” We just thought it would be fun if he got to know her through her paintings and her weirdness.

So are you the squirrel?

Or the eagle, I don’t know [laughs].

I think you’re riding with her.

You know what, I think you’re right. Leif is the squirrel [laughs]

I thought I read somewhere that you were teasing the likelihood that you would reprise your Peter Parker role in whatever the next Spider-Verse movie is going to be. Are we any further along in those discussions?

I can’t say for sure because I don’t know for sure, but I know from everything I’ve heard that it’s all moving in the right direction, and I will do everything in my power to be in it. Peter B. Parker is one of the favorite characters I’ve ever played. As an actor, I don’t see a lot of difference between voice acting and on-camera acting besides somebody fixes your hair and makeup, and you’re under lights more. Playing that character, I would be really sad if I didn’t get to come back. I would feel the way I did with “New Girl” season 6 when it ended, when I didn’t think we were coming back. I was like “I need to see more.” And I would feel like “Peter’s not back? What happened?” I’m not a writer or producer on it, but I’m just really curious. I’d like to see him still fighting. It’s not like you retire when you have kids. It’s not like you hit and age and you have no super-powers left. They change. He’s still Spider-Man.

I do see connective tissue between Nick Miller and Leif, and maybe it’s because of Trent’s involvement. I assume you’re okay with that.

Agreed. Here’s the truth, and I’ve realized it over time, is “New Girl” keeps living on with audiences. I’m honored by that, and Nick is someone that people keep responding to, and I think all of my characters will be connected to Nick. Peter B. Parker is connected to Nick. It’s not like if you look at a show like “Mad Men,” that was written word perfectly and everything was figured out by the writer/creator, and the way they did it was very technical and very specific. “New Girl” was different; Liz [Meriwether, creator] viewed the set as a lab. We were able and expected to bring ourselves to the character. When I say “ourselves,” I don’t mean our personal stories, but what we find funny. So Max [Greenfield] is not like Schmidt in real life, but Max thinks Schmidt is really funny and he’s really good at playing him. I’m not Nick but I know how to play Nick because that’s the comedy I’ve been doing since I was 17 years old on improv stages. So we all brought a ton of what we thought was funny to these characters, so the truth is, every character I go into, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I’m going to take the things that I like and put it into the material. I think there will always be the soul of that character in everything I do, or at least I hope so. Unless I get in a motorcycle accident and my brain changes, and then I hope you like the new version of me.

Jake, best of luck with this. Way to keep going and being creative.

I appreciate it, man. Honestly, this one, there was no studio, we paid for it ourselves, there was no announcement. We just wanted to see if we could make something and get it to consumers directly, so we skipped the festival circuit.

It’s great. Thanks, Jake.

Nice to see you again, man. Take care.

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