Kris Avedisian’s hilariously heartbreaking debut feature delves into the familiar territory of returning home. Based on his 2012 short by the same name (which was shot in 16 hours), Donald Cried was co-written by his longtime friends and collaborators Kyle Espeleta and Jesse Wakeman. Together, they flesh out some of our worst fears about encountering people from our past. Building on the tension between two alienated and wildly mismatched protagonists, the film centers on their intricate relationship and evolves from straight-man/fool antics into an excruciating social anxiety nightmare. Setting the action in his hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island, Avedisian creates an isolated, dismal environment where the snow never ceases and the past always lingers.

Although the characters in Donald Cried may have convoluted lives, the film’s story is simple: right when thirty-something New York banker Peter Latang (Jesse Wakeman) returns home after nearly two decades to pick up the ashes of his recently deceased grandmother, he loses his wallet. With no money and nobody to call, he is forced to knock on the door of his estranged high-school friend, Donald Treebeck (an enthralling Avedisian), a socially awkward bowling alley employee who still lives with his mother. Donald’s nature is defined by his distinctive deep, dopey voice with a slight New England accent topped off with an irritating grin. Throughout the film, which develops over the course of one snowy day, Peter depends on Donald to drive him around Warwick, but Donald keeps sidetracking him with visits to old high school haunts. It all sends Peter hurtling deep into the darkness of his own questionable personal history, in an uneasy comedy/drama that upends the conventions of homecoming movies.

FILM COMMENT spoke to Avedisian last Friday about some of the difficulties and thrills of writing, directing, and acting in his first low-budget feature film, just a day before its premiere at SXSW. Donald Cried will be screening on March 19 and 20 as part of New Directors/New Films.

Donald Cried

How did these characters originate?

Donald came from the voice—that was the first thing and was developed from there. Peter, I don’t know, it was just bouncing back and forth between extremes. You just keep going back and forth until you find somewhere in the middle. It was an instinctual process. For Jesse [Wakeman] and our other co-creator Kyle [Espeleta], they had Donalds in their lives, and I was more like the Peter character. So my thing with this movie was a little more about dealing with guilt and maybe how I mistreated people in the past or feeling that I still do at times.

How much of you is in these characters, particularly Peter?

As far as Peter goes, when I return to places where I spent some time in my early twenties, I can write people off and I have a weird anxiety—like I have some guilt, like I acted like a moron. I might ignore someone or I might not want to be there, and I’d come across as arrogant but it’s only because of my own guilt. With Peter, I was trying to find somebody relatable, because in the short Peter was just a straight man with this one little twist at the end. People really seemed to identify with both characters, or they had a Donald in their life, or they were Donald, so we really just wanted to keep that quality and just be as open as possible without having a totally flat character. It was a surprise for me, delving into these characters—it becomes more layered, dark, and funny at the same time.

Jesse has acted in your shorts before, Kyle was a producer in one of them, and you all teamed up to create Donald Cried. How did that collaboration come about?

We met in California almost 16 years ago. I met Jesse through Kyle and we just started doing work and made shorts and things like that over the years. They were in New York and I was back in Rhode Island, and we just got into some scripts and then Donald Cried, the short, came out of wanting to make something. It was kind of lightning in the bottle. We felt like we had a good, doable, low-budget feature idea that we were trying to work toward.

What was it like to adapt it into a feature?

It was that same balancing act: wanting to maintain what people got out of the short over an hour and a half. How much of it would get into hijinks, how much can really happen in a 24-hour period with these two guys, how far can you push it and make it interesting and believable at the same time. We were making sure we could switch to who we were sympathizing with and balance that. The hardest part was not being too boring and not being too over-the-top. We would have drafts where it would just be extremes.

When I was editing it, I thought: “This is good, this dynamic is a good dynamic.” I thought we should definitely pursue these characters further, so we started talking about it a little bit and felt like there was enough there to justify doing a feature. We felt there was more there to explore with these guys.

Does the short also take place in Warwick, Rhode Island?

Yeah, that’s where I’m from. I still reside there. It’s always been a cool place, kind of a dark, depressing place during the winter, and we were just fortunate enough to have insane amounts of snow for both the short and the feature. That was something I’ve always wanted to capture in Rhode Island: the depression and snow.

I kept thinking about the snow and just how inconvenient it is for Peter especially. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to go up there.

It’s great! At some point in the movie the snow just kind of comes and doesn’t stop. When I [Donald] drop him off at the nursing home and it’s starting to snow and we go do the pot and the ashes, and the snow gets more intense… that just worked out so well.

It adds to the tension.

Oh, yeah. It wouldn’t have been the same movie without it. It’s just this desperation: being cold, not having many options, and just making everything that much more of a pain in the ass.

Donald Cried

One of my favorite things about the film is how that tension builds throughout and how a lot of it gets released through humor. At some points, I found myself laughing out of nervousness or out of discomfort. Did that come out in the performances of these characters or was that more worked into the script?

A little bit of both. We’re never working for laughs per se, but the stuff we’re doing, we know that they’re funny moments. A lot of the movie for me is not a drama by any means, but I wasn’t coming at it from a comedy standpoint. And all the ideas are so ridiculous, so none of it seems dark to me either.

A hard part going from the short to the feature was knowing that Donald was kind of harmless. You didn’t know what he was capable of, and we always had to try and remind ourselves not to embrace the goofiness too much. We tried to keep him a little mysterious and not someone you can trust completely. The humor was always just me annoying Jesse in real life, and this was an excuse to do that for a few days. The humor is built in, but it’s always instinctual. P.T. Anderson’s tone, writing-wise, and his characters and dialogue was a heavy influence from the beginning. Whether or not you see it in this movie, Boogie Nights was really inspiring and used as a guideline as far as how the humor and drama mixed.

You and Jesse feed off each other so well in your performance. What was that like on set? I’m assuming it comes very naturally.

Pretty much. We’ve known each other for a long time, so obviously there can be tension between two close friends. As far as our acting dynamics, we’ve done enough little things together, and it was pretty effortless which was one of the nice things about doing this feature. He and I would be able to push through and have a lot of shorthand between us. We just know each other so well and, as I said, I’ve always annoyed him—maybe I’ve done a version of Donald to him. It wasn’t too difficult to tap into that.

Peter is such a disagreeable human being, but as the movie goes on, our sympathies switch back and forth. You’re not so sure he’s such a great person, and part of that might be his guilt.

He lost his parents at a young age—I don’t know if you picked up on that, that photo with him and his parents. He was working as a teenager and dealing with that. Did he feel a little strange to you? Did he not feel completely normal?

I understood that he feels incredibly guilty, but it’s the kind of guilt that makes him a jerk instead of empathetic. Just because he can’t justify what he’s done or what he’s earned. Jesse is such an interesting actor…

Jesse is awesome. I’m glad to hear that about him because that was one of our fears, making his character too bland. We thought of him being an alcoholic at one time. We were worried he would seem too flat. It wasn’t from a lack of caring about him—it was very important to us.

Donald Cried

Was it difficult for you to switch gears from director to actor?

That was tough. Kyle was there to oversee or handle us a little bit—to have that kind of perspective and help with the performances. It was harder than I thought to bounce in and out and be able to stay in character, and also deal with everything that comes along when trying to make a movie. But we had a lot of talented people and a lot of support, so it made the process easier.

I noticed you’re funding postproduction through Kickstarter. What’s left to do?

Sound mix and things like that. Some licensing things.

On your Kickstarter page you list some pop songs you wanted to get the rights for.

I’d been fighting to get “Careless Whisper” by George Michael for the end credits, and I was pushing and pushing—and then it was in the ending of Deadpool so that really put the kibosh on that. So we went with Milli Vanilli, and that was in the short so I felt okay to go back there. I think we had big expectations for music because the movie has no score. What needs to be playing, it needs to be recognizable, to round up the believability of the world.

You’ve mentioned Paul Thomas Anderson as an influence. I was wondering if you watched any movies in particular to prepare for this film.

Not as much as I would’ve liked. It was mostly about expectations: I knew that the way we were doing it, I didn’t want any expectations of what I was trying to achieve. We talked about Force Majeure—it was around at that time.

There are a couple of moments where you cut to a TV showing wrestling or weightlifting. One of these moments happens right before you introduce Corey, Donald’s boss, played by Ted Arcidi. Was that to suggest the suppressed aggression or violence between Peter and Donald or was that because of the influence of Arcidi, who used to be a pro-wrestler and weight lifter?

I didn’t know who Ted was, and then at the audition I said, “Oh, play this WWF style—that’s what this character is supposed to feel like,” and he laughed and went: “Oh, okay.” I wanted him to cut his mustache and I was just looking him up online to see if I could find a picture of him without his mustache—and we started pulling out all these videos and realized who he was. I was like, “This is great, we could play this in the office while he’s getting all jacked up or pumped up.” The wrestling spoke to that, and there’s this physicality to the movie that worked itself in naturally through Ted and those videos. Ted was great—I felt like it was difficult because we don’t want to make him super abusive. Again, it’s about finding that balance and making sure that he and Donald have a relationship that’s not all bad. There is something good there. He’s a complete ass obviously, but there’s something human there.