Mended Bond: Kris Avedisian and Jesse Wakeman on the Unpleasant Fraternity in Donald Cried
Lacking appropriate words, forcing an uncomfortable embrace and remembering once-forgotten regrets are common symptoms during a chance encounter with an old friend who, through the passage of time and often distance, has become little more than a stranger. Once that unexpected moment ends, most people return to their everyday routine, but what if, because of uncontrollable circumstances, one had to actually spend the day in the company of that somebody you used to know? Debutant Kris Avedisian sets his feature Donald Cried, in which he also stars as the title character, around such possibility and charges it with unbearably cringe-worthy humor — occasionally in the saddest of ways.
Framing his two-hander, adapted from a previously produced short film, around a 24-hour visit, Avedisian crafted an economical narrative that exalts performances and effectively harnesses a familiar-feeling location. To settle a major family affair, Peter (Jesse Wakeman, co-writer and Avedisian’s close collaborator) must step away from his New York identity, return his hometown in Rhode Island and request the help of Donald, a warm-hearted, no-filter, man-child who used to be one of his best comrades — or so we think. In Avedisian’s turn there is a heartfelt longing for companionship and a sincere need for self-preservation that speak to both an internalized vision of the character and a tightly executed screenplay with honest twists. Working on a tale about unwanted reconnection, co-scribes and leads Kris Avedisian and Jesse Wakeman have created an awkwardly touching hangout picture.
Donald Cried — an IFP Narrative Lab alumni film — opens today from The Orchard. Filmmaker sat down with them to get insight on their years-long process.
Filmmaker: How did the friendship between the two of you slip into filmmaking? And was that friendship at the core of what you wanted to explore with Donald Cried?
Kris Avedisian: We’ve known each other for 17 years, so we are definitely pretty embedded into each other’s lives, but we’ve gotten older, and we’ve grown up. We met in our early 20s — what seems like an eternity but it really wasn’t that long ago. From 23 to 27 you go through some crazy shit, and I feel like once you hit 30 you start putting the pieces together. We’ve had our rough patches, or times when we are not getting along so well, or we are doing different stuff. I’m sure some of that stuff bled into it somehow, but I think [the concept] came from an idea that would put us together as an acting thing where I was going to play a weirdo. We made the short, and we liked what we saw in it, and people seemed to get stuff out of it. We thought there was more of a story to tell. In the end you just try to tell an interesting story with a particular setup and all the other stuff just happens subconsciously.
Jesse Wakeman: I thought less about our personal relationship and more about growing up. There is something a little bit sad about looking to the past and what we were. We weren’t friends when we were young, but for me so much of the movie is about returning to that childhood era. Most of the people I was friends with at that time I’m no longer friends with, and that’s just a little sad. If I was to hang out with one of them for a day what would that be like? This was a chance to tap back into that — getting to play in the snow and just deal with each other. It’s forcing these adult issues back together with this childlike thing.
Filmmaker: Once you had the voice of Donald how did you develop the character from there?
Avedisian: We had the setup and the outline for the short, and the short was a lot more improvised than the feature was. The actual character was really developed through the process of making the short. It’s kind of me when I’m really excited or when I’m at my most annoying. It’s me, emotionally heightened and exaggerated — a caricature of myself. The voice was there, and we found it through the short.
Wakeman: We were making shorts for a long time before that, and I would say for myself, I was always trying to play characters. We look back on them and thought it was good, but I was pushing. I wasn’t quite hitting it, and that’s what we found with the short. I believe in Donald. I believe that character. He’s so outlandish and ridiculous, but it was real, and he could do it. I believed what I was seeing, so once we had that character dynamic, that was really what gave us the confidence. We made the short, and then the feature followed, but it really started with those characters.
Filmmaker: Did the uncomfortable comedy come from the screenplay, or was that developed on set? In particular the scene where the characters go to “the spot,” the tone briefly turns a little dark but it works because you play it excellently. How did these cringe-worthy moments come about?
Wakeman: That’s just the comedy that we love. The British version of The Office is huge for us. That’s what we want to do, those awkward silences.
Avedisian: It was built into who Donald was. The story in the film about the guy who got ripped in half, that’s just like one of those stories that you hear about. Someone you went to high school with — you haven’t heard his name in so long, and someone says, “Did you hear what happened?” “No, what happened?” And you’re like, “Oh god!” But it’s kind of darkly funny in a twisted way.
Wakeman: And Peter wouldn’t tell that story, but Donald would. He says these things. That’s part of who he is.
Avedisian: We’re making a small movie, with no money, and it’s not going to have special effects, so how do you get the most bang for you buck out of a scene? How do you make something entertaining and real and emotional all at the same time? That’s all part of it.
Wakeman: It creates suspense, and it keeps people guessing. Related to your question, that turn with the gun, Kris was always saying, “Donald can’t become a teddy bear. He can’t become comfortable for the audience, just a funny guy. There has to be that tension.” That scene at the spot came very late. I first thought they were just going to shoot the gun together, but at the very end, we turned that, and we made it appear like something was going to happen. That came out of so many discussions about tension and trying to keep that tension going through the movie.
Avedisian: In another interview the nursing home came up, and how twisted and fucked up an idea that was. The journalist thought it was funny, but really dark. That was built out of story necessity, but also the comedy of that came out at the very end. What came first was, “How did these guys separate? How did they come back together?” The nursing home scene was earlier, but it got moved here because it made sense. What’s going to bring them together? The grandmother, because that was someone they were both close to, and how do we get Donald back in? “Oh, he’s been playing Peter, because he actually cared about the grandmother, and Peter’s upset, because it makes Peter look bad because he’s not as good of a person as Donald.” We were just thinking about all of these layers, and they’re all coming together into this theme of connecting to this one thing that binds them, and then the comedy comes. All of this stuff just happens by chance. It’s hard to ever explain where it comes from because it comes from so many different things. Hopefully if you’re doing your job right, and really thinking about the characters, all of the other stuff will just come through you. The cringe-worthy stuff, it all starts off with what needs to happen here, what needs to happen in the story.
Wakeman: It started as a short, and the more we talk about it, I do remember and realize, “Yes, it started as an exercise, and it was very improvised.”
Avedisian: The piss in the bottle didn’t come until we were shooting because something needs to happen here. What’s a fucking story? And that happened to me in real life, so that became a story, because we needed a turn here, we needed a story.
Wakeman: It was just part of finding it. I would never say that this movie was found, because we spent so much time on the script, but I think it’s an interesting relationship to the short, because a lot of discovery happened there, finding the characters, and after that, we had the characters, and we had this dynamic, this issue of guilt. So how could we build it into a larger thing?
Avedisian: Certain writers write about two people sitting in a coffee shop having a conversation before they start writing a script — just to see what two characters [would] say to each other. We just physically made a version of that.
Filmmaker: It’s also very contained, because the first scene is when Peter gets there, and the last scene is when he leaves. Was that the framework that you wanted to establish?
Avedisian: That’s how the short was, so we wanted to retain that same thing. That was the difficult part, because the short was 17 minutes, so you don’t have to worry about stuff you have to worry about in a feature, and we didn’t want to betray the emotional state that the short film leaves you in. Trying to figure all of that out and keeping it as true to life as possible, but also how to fit in twists and turns and fun things that could happen realistically in a believable world, like the reveal of his step father — that’s pretty conventional, but for this it worked. It shows that Donald is embarrassed, that’s why he didn’t say anything. He plays it off like it’s cool after it happens, but he doesn’t tell Peter that he’s his stepfather, because he is kind of embarrassed by him.
Filmmaker: Tell me about shooting in Rhode Island, and how did the snow add to the film in terms of production value or challenges?
Avedisian: The snow was incredible, thank God. It would have been such a different movie without it. I’m from Rhode Island, I still live there, and so shooting there was really easy. We were a small crew with local support. Shooting out in the snow, it was a small crew, so we didn’t have anything crazy logistics to work around. We just got the cameras going and went out and did it. It was just colder.
Filmmaker: I understand you used to shoot wedding videos as a day job. Did that experience teach you anything that you could bring into your film?
Avedisian: The wedding videos came from doing movie stuff. A friend of ours, who’s the cinematographer on this, he shot somebody’s wedding just because he knows his way around a camera, and then I shot one, and then we were just basically applying our film knowledge and shooting documentaries, which is what the wedding videos are. It was really that film lent to wedding videos rather than wedding videos lending to the film. As wedding videos have become more of “movie productions” now with dollies and sliders and drones, we actually got out of it just because it was becoming too much of a production. It was cool to photograph, but the saddest part about it was once you were done, you couldn’t truly be proud of it, because it was a wedding. You always wanted to be doing a movie instead. You wanted to have control.
Filmmaker: How did the film come about in terms of the logistics of the production and how was it financed?
Avedisian: My wife’s cousin saw the short, and he just wanted to get involved. He’s got a creative side, and he’s a fireman and a landscaper — a really hard working, great person — and he just wanted to get involved in the movie. He believed in it and thought there was something there. I also developed a relationship with an oral surgeon in Rhode Island, and he was able to put up some of the money. We shot the movie for about $45,000, so it wasn’t that much to get, which is how we wanted to do it. We wanted to have it low, and keep the responsibility of paying people back low, and just get it done.
Wakeman: And once we had that we got it shot and we were able to go to one last person in New York to help fill it out.
Avedisian: Jesse had contacts with Kyle Martin, our producer, and that was big. All of these things, you can’t dismiss any of these things, because if any one of them didn’t exist then the whole film wouldn’t exist.
Wakeman: As filmmakers that are making stuff, we just wondered, “How do we do this? How do you make it?”
Avedisian: We all sucked at being producers.
Wakeman: We just kind of stayed in our bubble, and kept working. That gave us many years of just creating shorts and working alone. We went through a couple producers that weren’t working, and finally connected with Kyle. He had made these smaller things — he’d made Tiny Furniture — and I was able to get him the short, and he just really responded to it. We met up and went from there. He was connected to crews in New York. He had other people that could come on as line producers, and it started to form, and we watched as it started to happen, and it was amazing. He helped bring all of that together, and he connected us with IFP, so he’s been really, really helpful. He’s definitely part of the team.