American filmmaker Kris Avedisian discusses his debut feature film, Donald Cried (2016), which explores the relationship between the chaotic Donald (Avedisian) and the straight-laced Peter, two old friends that are unexpectedly forced to spend time together when Peter is stuck back in his hometown and tensions over their past are uncovered. We talked to Avedisian about his dual roles as actor and director, the aesthetic of the film, the difficulties of making comedies, and his writing process.
The Seventh Art: I’ve read how you came up with the literal voice of the Donald character, but I’m curious whether you were focusing on the psychology of the character in advance of that or whether it was something that came about at the same time.
It came at the same time. Kyle [Espeleta], who wrote the story with us, had the initial idea to put Jesse [Wakernan] and I together, where I play the weirdo and Jesse the straight man. [In the story] we would meet at a coffee shop, it would be a fun exercise, something small in one location with not much of a story arc. It would just be the idea of putting the two of us together. I started thinking what it would be like to play a weirdo – what my version of a weirdo would be. I just started to do these voices. The actual character part of it is a more excited and enthused, less reserved version of myself. You just add the voice, which disguises that it’s my kind of personality. That was the initial idea and as we built it, Donald could philosophize. He has these simple but poignant thoughts. That part of it was thought about more and built into the script of the feature. But the character was really found through the short, which was completely improvised – the script was just an outline of what needed to happen in the scenes. It started as a voice, a bit of myself, and then shooting the short where we found the character.
I assume some of yourself is in the Peter character, as well. Was there more of a trajectory given to his character in the feature than the short? What was that character’s evolution?
Yeah, in the short he was kind of one-note and that was the thing with the short – it was more of the audience’s arc than the character’s arc. With the feature, there was a balance we wanted to keep: just as much of an audience’s perspective changing on these guys, but also giving the Peter character more than what he had in the short. But not going too much in the direction of “Here’s your protagonist, it’s about this type of person trying to figure out these particular issues.” That balance was always a struggle. When we had the script finished, it was a question of is he too boring? Is he an alcoholic? What are typical problems for a protagonist? So to think of him more of a blank thing, it made it a bit more challenging from a story perspective, but it also allowed us to get the see-saw dynamic, the back-and-forth with these guys without being too concerned with pushing a character arc.
Does that mean that there was less improvisation in the feature? Was there room to come up with ideas on the day?
We would definitely come up with stuff on the day. The feature was scripted. I think, for me, it wasn’t a traditional ‘learn the lines’ performance. Jesse really learned his lines and I knew it really well because I wrote it. We’re improvising at times, but it’s always using the words from the script and maybe changing something here and there. The bedroom scene that’s in the movie is a combination of the original [scripted] beginning, where I come out of my house when Peter is getting out of the cab and follow him around, doing this Rick Moranis thing, talking about him being a bounty hunter. Then we went up to the room and I told a different type of story. So for that scene, when we re-shot the opening and Peter comes to my house, we’re up in the room, I’m ad-libbing there on this longer monologue, but it was practiced before anyway, building on that. I think the scene that really speaks to improv is when we smoke pot; the story told about the brother getting ripped in half is in the script, but us messing around, swinging on that vine was about getting to the location and discovering. That’s how we usually like to work and how we did the short, but for the feature we had limited time and it was important that it was all scripted. It was stressful. I think the film comes across loose and fun, but it was extremely stressful. It wasn’t a ton of laughs when we were shooting.
Is that also because you’re occupying two roles as actor and director?
Yeah, that was definitely part of the stress; you’re dealing with whatever is going on behind-the-scenes, fires that need to be put out, and then emotionally trying to stay in a neutral space, not stray too far from being in Donald. I feel that I stayed closer to Donald than I did to the directing part of it, because I had to do that, but it was stressful. I’m going to be 40 next year, I’ve put my wife through enough. This movie needed to do well or give us hope that there’s a future in this, so there was a lot riding on the movie hitting a certain mark.
How did you collaborate with your DP on each scene, given you would be in the scene itself?
We talked leading up to it, going through each scene. The idea was for a lot of two-shots, what is the simplest way to cover a scene. I wanted to use two cameras just for the nature of the characters talking over each other’s lines, as well as to have the freedom to improv within a scene. It just made sense to move faster, get both our angles, but of course there’s some stuff that’s not great about that look. That was working with Sam [Fleischner] to figure that out, because he would rather not shoot two cameras as a cinematographer, so that was always a balance. It was very workmanlike, “How simple can we keep these set-ups?” I’m happy with how the movie turned out, but that’s definitely the one area I wish I could have given more time to, but it also plays into what the movie is about.
Were there scenes where you could flex an aesthetic muscle?
It was always this tough question of how much of it is going to feel like a documentary and how much is going to feel like a cinematic narrative. We ended up shooting plainly, so I feel it hits a mark that it has documentary qualities, but doesn’t feel like a documentary. I don’t think I flexed any aesthetic muscles, it’s very understated, blue collar like the town it’s set in. It’s funny to think what the movie would look like if it was more cinematic, which would be like Manchester by the Sea, which was shot the same winter in Massachusetts, so it’s all the same snow. I see that movie and there’s obviously nice things about it, but there’s a character to Donald in the rawness and crudeness – something could have been lost if it was more well put together visually.
One thing I liked about the two characters’ dynamic, which comes up in the dialogue, are these arbitrary sets of rules – Donald even says they play by ‘different rules’. As an audience, it’s interesting to consider what rules drive Donald’s game. Was that a dynamic you had growing up with other men?
No, I think the game being played – in doing the short and sharing Peter’s perspective of returning to your hometown – the thing that interested me was, “Who is this person after twenty years and what are they capable of? Are they capable of violence? Is there something you’re afraid they remember or don’t remember? You think you did something shitty to a person – or did you?” That uncertainty coupled with how that person thinks of you now. There isn’t a game being played, but there is a manipulation happening and you never truly know where it’s coming from or how clear it is to Donald. Donald is kind of unconsciously manipulating things. He’s truly forgiving of Peter and appreciates the positives, but there is something unconscious in there that’s getting back at Peter, pulling him through this situation, playing this game, I guess. Writing it, it never felt on the nose, though. It’s part of it, though we didn’t think of it specifically, it came out unconsciously through the see-saw nature of the two characters.
I like that you mentioned violence, because what I was picking up on is part of this milieu that they were accustomed to when they were younger. Peter has left it and then when he comes back and they’re playing this football game, for instance, he’s told he’s “gone soft.” He’s lost this physicality, which comes up again in the wrestling. What is the importance of physicality or violence in this town?
So much of this stuff is unconscious, how it’s coming out. The violence for me was – we’re making a micro-budget movie and we have to write this script that we can make ourselves. What’s a fun time at the movies? To laugh, cry maybe, and for there to be a hint of violence. How much can you get into one of those thing without focusing on just one thing; it’s fun to not know what’s around the bend, to not know where a movie can go. From the short we knew it could be funny, but it needed another layer. The turn was to like Donald and realize Peter had wronged him in the past, but still you want something other than just the laughs and the uncomfortable feeling of being with someone you haven’t seen in that amount of time. If you feel that you’ve wronged that person, is that person aware of it or still thinks about it? I think it’s a fun time at the movies. But yes, it is physical. Growing up, I played football, we played manhunt in the woods – all this very physical Lord of the Flies type stuff going on. There was a group of us that grew up in the neighbourhood that hung out and did the same thing the characters are doing. East Coast guys are maybe a bit tougher or have more of an appearance of toughness. Donald’s father is a caring guy and it’s more bark than it’s bite, it’s his ball busting that’s also a thing here on the East Coast. There’s a story I’ve told about moving to California and meeting California friends, where we are in parking lot and a woman almost hits us backing up. I was eating a bowl of pasta salad from the supermarket and I yelled at her, kind of like Midnight Cowboy. My friends couldn’t believe that I was doing it, but on the East Coast it’s nothing, it’s common, and that openness is actually kind of nice. I feel people are more open than on the West Coast. There’s also a harshness and criticism that comes with that. It’s something that’s left for interpretation by the audience, but it needs to be funny, uncomfortable, real, believable characters. That way the comedy is more funny, the danger is more dangerous, if you believe the characters. What you could really see in a 24-hour period.
When you talk about balancing the comedy, were you ever worried that if the film was just treated as a comedy, that would limit its exposure as a film or the relationship the audience has with the characters?
Yeah, we’re still dealing with it and the guys I work with, I get really defensive and protective. I never feel like what I’m doing is a comedy, it’s always real or serious or not funny, and I have people saying, “But no, it’s a comedy.” I’m probably fighting it more than I need to in self-preservation of what I’m trying to do. With Donald, I don’t see it so much as a comedy. I understand that it’s funny, but I think that why people like the movie is more for the serious elements. That’s why the short worked and what I feel works in the feature. I don’t think it’s a stoner comedy, though it starts out like it might be that, but after half an hour, it definitely starts turning into something else. I don’t want to say that the comedy comes easy, because it’s not easy, but it’s easy to think of funny scenarios or type of car someone drives. The hard part is making the characters believable and the stakes real, even if they’re small.
People always ask for my influences and I always say P.T. Anderson. I felt really self-conscious about this answer and I’ve been beating myself up over the past year for how many times I just say it; you would never know by the way movie is, who doesn’t like P.T. Anderson, etc. I say it because even with how his films have evolved and how unconventional as they became – I don’t think I would be comfortable working in that place, and I’m not even close to the writer he is, you can’t compare – but it’s always an influence in order to make my work better, not to emulate his. I wasn’t watching a lot of movies when I first saw Boogie Nights, I didn’t think I would be making movies, I thought myself as possibly an actor. I hadn’t seen Altman movies at that point, it was James Cameron and Spielberg and mainstream films. Seeing Boogie Nights, it was seeing the tiny little moments that I would pick out of Goodfellas, these little human, comedic moments. It was three hours of that kind of stuff that I loved, these details and the real world. This showed me how I can make a movie with no money. How they speak, how they talk over one another, how they flub their lines, the cars they drive… That to me is what I always look for and why I say his name all the time, even if it’s so cliché and you don’t see it in Donald. It’s always in the back of my head, what would P.T.’s version of a story look like, how would he treat characters in a sci-fi movie?
Is your interest in realism why there’s no score to the film?
I wanted a score, but it was the same thing with the ‘cinematic’ part of the movie: it was nice to have it in certain moments, but nothing worked overall. At the end, we use a cool ambient song, but I didn’t want to manipulate the audience. Let them feel whatever it is that they’re getting at that moment, I don’t need to accentuate it any more or make them feel how I want to feel in that moment. There’s no b-roll, there’s no introduction to the place, so the score was rejected by the film whenever we put it in. The film made the decision for us, but even with designing the story, we never wanted to manipulate the audience.
Has your writing process changed with the projects you’re working on now or are you approaching them in the same way as Donald?
It’s the same way, but I’m trying to do more of it, so in turn I’m doing more of it on my own. My friend just sent me an interview with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller where they talked about their writing process. It was very similar: work on outlines forever, which I would do with Jesse or Kyle, then finally sit down to do the script. That’s still happening with new projects, but I’m doing it on my own, which feels different. Ultimately, I like the collaborative nature of talking through the stories with other people. Right now I’m trying to write a story with no outline, stream-of-consciousness style and see where it goes – not get caught up in the beats that you need to be aware of and just let the story go and see what happens.
In Donald it seemed like the events were less sign-posted than the characters’ psychology – is that still the interest?
Yeah, the next one is a thriller and it’s about a group of these guys who go to a hotel that the parents of one of the guys are selling. They go there and they get hunted down by this Terminator-like character. It’s like Cassavetes’ Husbands and then the Terminator comes. The protagonist is kind of dysfunctional and they’re all middle-aged guys who have moved on and he’s feeling like he’s on the outside. This has been a tough one because it’s melding a pretty 1980s thing that’s transitioning from a character focus – the idea was that if the eventual violence didn’t come, these characters, relationships and dynamic would sustain the movie. The dysfunction theme will probably never go away, but I want to do a story about a female bodybuilder, I envy the dedication to the craft of these people who are obsessed with what they do. That would be a bit outside the box for me, where it’s more about what the person is trying to achieve and not getting into the past.