Jake Johnson on Ride the Eagle, New Girl's Popularity, and Mythic Quest - VRGyani News and Media

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Friday, August 6, 2021

Jake Johnson on Ride the Eagle, New Girl's Popularity, and Mythic Quest

From director Trent O’Donnell (co-executive producer/director on New Girl) and co-writers O’Donnell and Jake Johnson (who played Nick Miller on New Girl), the indie dramedy Ride the Eagle follows Leif (Johnson), a man whose estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) leaves him a “conditional inheritance” upon her passing, forcing him to complete a questionable to-do list before he can move into her cabin in Yosemite. As Leif steps out of his comfort zone, he also reconnects with an old flame (D’Arcy Carden) and crosses paths with someone from his mother’s life (J.K. Simmons), on his journey to learning more about who she was.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Johnson talked about making a movie totally on their own with no studio and no executives involved, how the pandemic affected things, putting this cast together, establishing the Leif and Audrey dynamic during rehearsals, and working with his canine co-star Nora. He also talked about how he appreciates that people keep finding New Girl, the great time he had making an episode of Mythic Quest, and what attracted him to the animation/live-action hybrid Lost Ollie.

Collider: I had no idea what to expect from this movie, and I just kept laughing out loud.

JAKE JOHNSON: Thank you. It’s funny you say that because when you say that you didn’t know what to expect going into it, that’s the hope of this. We didn’t have to pitch anybody. (Co-writer/director) Trent [O’Donnell] and I paid for the movie. There was no studio. There were no executives. The tone was really all over the place. We wanted the tone to change and we wanted it to be a bunch of different stuff. We just wanted to make an hour and a half film that we liked. So, I’m really happy to hear that you liked it too.

This was a pandemic project for you. How did that directly influence the film and the story you wanted to tell? Did you have to think about that when you were writing this?

JOHNSON: A hundred percent. If you sit down to work on a project, it’s a blank canvas and you do whatever you want. This was the opposite. We knew we couldn’t be in the same space with a lot of people. We knew we couldn’t travel freely. We knew if we were going to get someone like Susan Surandon, she was not gonna fly to Los Angeles. So, everything became about, how do we isolate talent, but get the most out of everybody, in terms of the story. We reverse engineered it. We figured out the kind of movie we wanted to tell, and then the best way to do that with the locations that we had available to us. Out main thing was that we did not want it to feel like a pandemic movie. Every time we would come across something, we would say, “All right, so the mom’s only in VHS? Is this gonna feel too pandemic-y because you can’t be in the same room?” That’s why we didn’t do cell phones. We didn’t want it to feel like FaceTime because we’ve all done Zoom and FaceTime. VHS, with that grainy look, felt different. Everything was about, how do we separate this from 2020 while shooting it in 2020?

RELATED: Jake Johnson Tries to Make Amends With His Deceased Mother in ‘Ride the Eagle’ Trailer

Did you also think, if you were going to have somebody verbally abuse you, then it needed to be J.K. Simmons?

JOHNSON: Trent and I had tried to develop things in the past. He did 70 episodes of New Girl. For my money, he was the star of New Girl. He and a woman named Erin O’Malley were the behind the scenes ones who don’t get the credit. Trent kept it so funny and so light. He was just the best. So, we tried to sell stuff since then, but what always happens when you get to a certain point of development is that they wanna now very clearly what the tone is. Once a tone is too clear, I find a project so much more boring. As an audience member, I don’t need to know exactly what a tone is, every second. I like to be surprised. With J.K. Simmons, the idea was that I wanted there to be a terrifying character. I wanted there to be somebody my character could be scared of. But if somebody calls and they’re threatening my character and I’m doing that phone call, I wanted there to be some jokes in there. The way he’s insulting me has happened to me in my life. A guy tried to beat me up in a bar once, and the way he was trying to start a fight with me was asking me why I had a beard. It felt like he was saying that a beard looks good on my face, but I didn’t need a beard. I was really confused. He was like, “It works on you.” And I was like, “I think you just complimented me, while you wanna beat me up.” So, I wanted that idea of J.K. Simmons to be referring to me as a little fuckboy for who turned out to be my mom. But for me, if somebody called me a fuckboy, that’s the ultimate compliment. Nobody calls me that in real life. I thought it’d be great.

Was it ever difficult not to just completely lose it during those conversations?

JOHNSON: I don’t want to ruin anything for the audience, but everything in this movie was faked. I didn’t do any of my acting with D’Arcy [Carden]. I did it all alone. And everything with him, I did my coverage, and then we got him on his coverage. We had our biggest laughs, honestly, when we were writing it and imagining him saying it. When he came on board, we rewrote a little bit for him and imagining him saying it made us laugh. But while we were shooting it, it was mostly pretty silent because he wasn’t there. We would imagine, “This will be really funny, hearing him say it,” but because of [COVID], we didn’t get to do it together.

Was it weird to establish the relationship with Leif and Audrey, when you want people to fall in love with them, but you can’t actually work together?

JOHNSON: I’m a big believer that what people like in romance stories is the chemistry. Rather than the witty dialogue, it’s the way characters look at each other and the way it feels, if they’re sitting on a couch and neither of them are talking. I don’t think what they love about it is the pop song or the indie hit song that’s playing because that music is gonna change and everyone’s gonna think it’s cheesy in a couple of years. What they like is when they were sitting on a couch and you felt that tension. D’Arcy, Trent and I knew we weren’t going to do it together. The reason she became a producer on this movie, from starting off as just an actor, was because we had to do all of that in rehearsal. We rehearsed a ton because we knew when I was at the cabin, there was no reception, so I was gonna have to remember where she would laugh. D’Arcy, as an actress, has a certain charm, when she would laugh or when she would hold back. We did her coverage first, so I would have to know that she was really funny here or really sweet here, so it was a weird puzzle to do. I prefer it the other way, to be honest. I would much rather be on a couch with D’Arcy Carden, shooting it in a two-shot, a million out of a million times, but I was happy with the final product of this. I think you can feel the chemistry as an audience, even though we didn’t get to feel it as actors.

How was your dog co-star to work with?

JOHNSON: The origin of the movie, with seed one, when I called Trent and said, “Do you wanna make a movie together?,” it was because in the pandemic, we got a Nora. She’s a retired guide dog from a great program, called Guide Dogs of America. She was a guide to a blind woman, and then she was retired. So, when we got Nora, I’ve never had a dog as intelligent as her or as emotional as her. Her eyes are like weird human eyes. When I’m sitting alone with her on the couch, I definitely feel like I’m with a weird human. I don’t know what she’s thinking, but I know that she’s thinking. In New Girl, my character did a lot of scenes with this character named Tran, who never talked on a park bench. Trent was there for all that, so we knew that tone. The original pitch was, worst case scenario if no other actors wanna do it, it could just be me and the dog in a cabin watching these videotapes and we can figure out the weirdest movie of all time. We knew that he was in and I was in, and the dog had no choice. I was like, “All right, we’ve got a start.” So, Nora was always essential to the project.

What do you miss about making New Girl? When it comes to a show where you’ve spent so many seasons as that character, are there things you miss about the show and about the character? Are there memories that most stand out to you?

JOHNSON: Honestly, rather than miss, I really appreciate that people keep finding it. This is a cheesy thing to say, but Tim O’Brien, in the book The Things They Carried, one of the characters talks about people who die and he refers to them as library books and how, whenever you talk about them, it’s like they’re coming back to life because people are getting the book out. But if no one’s talking about them or telling the stories, then that person’s actually dead. I read it in high school and it blew me away. The thing about New Girl is that, if people didn’t keep finding it, the show would die and the memories would fade. I don’t really miss it because it feels very present. I’m not working on it, but the fact that people are finding it for the first time and loving it during this era, it just feels like the TV show is still very alive and it’s still part of culture. Zooey [Deschanel] and I were texting yesterday, and we do the same kind of bits we did while working. It feels like we’re on hiatus. It just feels like we’ve been on hiatus for a few years, but people are watching the show more now than they did then.

What was your experience like, making the Mythic Quest episode that you were a part of? Have there ever been conversations about you returning?

JOHNSON: No, I don’t think we’re gonna return. But it was a 10 out of 10 experience, in terms of enjoyment and creativity. Rob [McElhenney] is brilliant. I didn’t know Rob, really. I knew him from Sunny, but I didn’t realize how smart that guy was. When he pitched me the idea, I said, “I don’t know anything about video games. I’m not a gamer. I don’t know any of the references. I’m not interested in video games. I don’t know, man. I don’t think this one’s for me.” He said, “I’d really like you to do it.” I was like, “All right. I wanna work with you and the script is good.” But then, I also got really nervous about doing a standalone episode because, if those are bad, they’re terrible. If you love a show and then, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Why is that guy from New Girl here? I hate that guy,” that’s gonna be a really bad 40 minutes for an audience member. He just said, “It’s gonna work. It’s gonna be great. Lean into it.” So, I honestly just leaned in and did what he wanted. I think Cristin [Milioti] is one of the greatest actresses I’ve worked with. She’s a killer. Right from the beginning, there was a certain magic. I didn’t have to make any decisions. I got to just lean into his vision. I loved it.

Lost Ollie also sounds really cool, with the mix of animation and live-action. What made that stand out for you and made you want to be a part of it? What do you think makes it special?

JOHNSON: I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know if it’s special yet, to be honest. But what brought me to it was the director, Peter Ramsey. He was one of the directors of Into the Spider-Verse, and I loved working with him. We did over two years on Spider-Verse together and I think he’s just a brilliant guy. I also like the mix between live-action and animation. If done right, it’s a really cool thing. What attracted me to this one is that the tone of it is pretty weird. It’s about a kid whose mother dies, and she gives him a toy and he loses that toy. The toy has its own story and the kid does. I’m just in a little drama. I play the kid’s dad. I’m in a little drama set in Kentucky, about a boy who loses his mom. I’m not part of the animation story. When we filmed it, I filmed a little indie about the death of a woman. I’m like, “How are you gonna mix this with songs?” I’m very curious. Shannon [Tindle], the showrunner, has been texting me that he’s really excited with how the episodes are coming together, so I’m really excited to see it. At this point, I’m just an audience member going, “Okay, I hope it’s great.”

Ride the Eagle is in theaters, and also available On-Demand and Digital.



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