"It's a sweeter companion piece to New Girl," the actor tells EW of his pandemic-filmed indie.
Video courtesy of Decal

Nick Miller hive, assemble!

Earlier in the pandemic, New Girl alum Jake Johnson wrote and starred in the new comedy film Ride the Eagle, which, he tells EW, is the perfect follow-up to his beloved former TV series. "It's a sweeter companion piece to New Girl," he says. "Like New Girl gets crazy and silly and fun and romantic, and this is a little bit quieter and a little bit sweeter, but I definitely think it connects to it."

The indie comedy stars Johnson as free spirit Leif — a guy who gives more than a few Nick Miller vibes. Ride the Eagle begins as Leif learns his estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) died and left him with a "conditional inheritance" requiring him to complete an elaborate, and sometimes dubious, to-do list before he can move into her picturesque Yosemite cabin. Leif treks up to the cabin with Nora, his canine BFF, to step into Honey's wild world as she tries to make amends from beyond the grave.

EW has your exclusive first look at Ride the Eagle with the trailer above. And below, Johnson dives deep on bringing the tone of New Girl to his new movie, why he wanted to write this story, and more.

Credit: Decal

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you get the inspiration to write and make this film?

JAKE JOHNSON: This one came right in the midst of the pandemic when it was at its worst, and the business as we know it, at that moment, I didn't know if we were going to work again for years; this was long before the vaccine was approved. Trent O'Donnell, who was a New Girl producing director — he did over 70 episodes — we just spent so much time together on New Girl, we became very close friends, and we were talking a lot about how much we missed working together and how sad we were about the pandemic and how we just missed everybody. So we came up with an idea to make a movie, just the two of us. He was going to film it, he was going to operate the camera, and then we were going to self-finance it. But the idea just kept growing and growing and growing and growing. We decided to put my dog in it, and then we decided to write a character who gave me a list, and then we wrote the part and Susan Sarandon agreed to do it. And then we got J.K. Simmons [to join the cast], so the thing just kept building with this crazy momentum.

But the mission statement was always very clear, and that was: we just missed everybody. It's as simple as like, I miss standing in line next to people. I've missed being in traffic. I've missed human beings interacting with each other, for good or for bad. The origins of this story were to show that the Honey-Leif relationship was not a great relationship, but in the end, he just misses spending time with her. The thing that I hope people take away from this is now that the world is opening and we're seeing people, to just remember how great it is that we're seeing each other, even when it's annoying and even when we drive each other crazy. All this could get taken away. I remembered how much I loved acting during this pandemic because everything dried up. So let's remember how great this is right now when we've got all this. If there was a message, it was remember to hug the people around you because they're here right now.

It makes sense hearing you talk about wanting to work with Trent again and how you brought all the best parts of working on New Girl to this film because, throughout the whole thing, I kept thinking about how Leif would get along great with Nick Miller. They're like two peas in a pod.

That also has a lot to do with Trent as the director. There's a tone that we had formed that we were together so much for. Honestly, that job, New Girl, there'll be so many times that I'll go back to that job and those people and try to work with [them] again because it was such a formative job. I mean, it was seven years of my life. It was my first big job. It was the most I've brought of myself to a character, into Nick. So a lot of the character would come out of that because we improvised so much. And Trent and a woman named Erin O'Malley don't get a lot of credit for that show because they were producing directors, but the show wouldn't have been the same without those two. And so, being able to work with them and give Trent some shine on this; he was invaluable to us.

What was it like filming this during the pandemic?

It was the kind of movie where, when we were up in the mountains shooting the cabin sequences, we only had a seven-member crew. Everybody held the boom mic at different times. At the end of nights, Trent and I were making dinner for the crew. It felt like old-school indie filmmaking in a really exciting way. And honestly, one of the reasons we didn't want to make it feel like a pandemic movie was that we wanted a break from the pandemic so badly. We wanted to make something that didn't feel like we were in the midst of a pandemic. We didn't want to do a story about people like, locked in a room together. We wanted to make a story that just felt like a movie about people missing each other and then at the end being able to see each other because that's what we felt at the time.

A lot of people probably don't know that you actually got your start by writing a play, so what was it like returning to those writing roots?

It was good. I've been able to continue to write throughout my career; it's been more behind-the-scenes stuff. It was really nice. Also working with Trent O'Donnell, I can't say it enough, but he was such an integral part of New Girl's success, and so being able to mix it up with him again and write something together and make something and be on set, it just reminded me of the best of that job. It was nice to write, it was nice to improvise, it was nice to see these actors. Everybody was so good and so excited to be working.

What was it like getting to be out in those beautiful locations, especially since it was at the time when everyone was stuck inside for so long?

We were right near Yosemite. It was great. As we were making it, we didn't know if people were going to be out and about when it came out, so one of the goals was we wanted it to also feel like a travel show. We wanted people, if they were inside, to just see some beautiful stuff again. I love the Anthony Bourdain's of the world, and I love any travel show, and so we really wanted to show that part of California, which I think is spectacular. California has been having a hard time lately, especially with the wildfires and what's been happening with the drought, but it's the greatest state in the union. [Laughs] So I'm happy to show it as beautiful as it is. And once you're up in the mountains, no one was up there, so you got to kind of escape the pandemic. We created this little pod. At the core, Ride the Eagle is about what happens when you've missed an opportunity to be with somebody you should have been with, and how sometimes in life, those moments you want are now too late. Our main character Leif has to sit in the realization that he never gets to be with his mom again. And so being up in a cabin in that isolation and realizing now what he wants to do when essentially his world reopens again, it was really nice to be in the mountains shooting it while the character was experiencing that.

What did you enjoy most about bringing Leif to life as he goes on this literal and figurative journey?

I really loved acting with a dog. [Laughs] Leif's best friend and his main companion is his dog Nora, and I'd never gotten to work with a dog as an actor before. I know it's ridiculous to call a dog an actor, but the dog we used in it was a retired guide dog for the blind so she's a highly intelligent, trained animal. It was really nice to genuinely connect with the dog in scenes and actually feel like the dog was my scene partner. [Laughs] It's goofy, but it was probably the most fun I had when I was in a two-person scene, and it was the dog and I, and we needed to actually convey something. I also liked playing a character, especially during the pandemic, about somebody who has been closed off and is just starting to open himself up to the world again. I really liked playing a character who was able to feel as many emotions as he felt.

What are you excited for people to see from this movie?

Honey's paintings are so fun. Honey's artistic style, those were done by my wife, Erin Payne. I think they add so much to the character, and I'm excited for people to see that. And I think D'Arcy Carden is so special in this movie. She's a human being who I didn't know before but has become one of my favorite collaborators now because she just brought so much to the table. And I'm excited for people to enjoy this ride. We ended up naming it Ride the Eagle because that's what it kind of felt like — it felt like a super weird ride. It's like sit back, have a drink, do whatever you need to do to get yourself in the right state of mind to watch a movie and enjoy it.

Ride the Eagle debuts in theaters, on digital, and on-demand July 30. And check out the exclusive first look at the poster below now:

Ride the Eagle
Credit: Decal

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