Donkey is the fourth film from writer/director Matt Kazman to be featured on Short of the Week and it is the slightest of the bunch. The story of a struggling actor doing kid birthday parties dressed as Shrek, the film is straightforward, with minimal locations, few twists, and a giant green metaphor. Donkey is not complicated, nor is the path the plot takes particularly surprising. Then why are we featuring it? In principle, we try to be more demanding of our repeat filmmakers rather than less—the site gets boring if we stick to a coterie of faves. The trouble is that, despite those critiques, Kazman is simply one of our great comedy directors, and what Donkey sacrifices in concept is complemented by the way the pared-down proceedings focus Kazman’s serio-comic directing, investing even more weight into the performances and imbuing the deeply personal themes of the film with surprising pathos.
Early in the film Russell, our depressed Shrek cosplayer, receives a call from his sister Ally. Their dad is in the hospital and it doesn’t look good. No time to delay, Russell must head over right away. Russell, however, has receded from his family recently. His sense of failure has caused him to withdraw inside himself and neglect his connections to the people in his life. The idea of a crisis forcing him into contact with his family is deeply stressful, and also he’s still, y’know, dressed like a giant green fictional ogre.
Again, it’s not the plot points that create any special appeal. The absurdity of a person dressed like Shrek is, indeed, funny, but the idea of failed actors doing children’s birthday parties as a deeply shameful thing is one of those weirdly common short film tropes. What is so satisfying is Kazman’s deadpan writing paired with the exquisite timing of the performances and edit. It is perhaps indefinable, but consistently over the course of the film’s 15-minute runtime, one gets the sense that a dry punchline would be ruined if the delivery were shifted by even a fraction of a second. Dru Johnston plays Russell with a deep, almost comatose reserve, and Kazman’s direction matches that, with little to no camera movement and central compositions that isolate Russell in the frame.
“…was going through a period of feeling really down on myself, feeling like a failure, and I wanted to make something about that feeling…”
This puts a lot of pressure on Johnston, an actor recognizable from the S/W-pick The Runner, and who delivers a standout performance. Credit must also accrue in part to Kazman who specifically wanted to emphasize this element of the production saying that he, “was trying to make the production as low-impact as possible and putting more time into working with actors. I wasn’t trying to do anything particularly visually fancy with this. I set up the shoot so that we were basically in one location each day and we didn’t have to rush. I tried to have as small a crew as possible.”
This deliberately modest approach also dovetails with some of the personal sentiments that fueled the creation of the short. To be honest, when we became aware of Donkey one of my teammates asked “why is Matt still making shorts?” This is perhaps an odd question for people who have such esteem for the medium, but it felt to us that Kazman, over the course of a decade of directing, had mastered his craft and had proven what he could with storytelling at this length. Part of Kazman surely agreed, and he noted to us that during the development of the short he “…was going through a period of feeling really down on myself, feeling like a failure, and I wanted to make something about that feeling, but with some self-awareness, because I knew my feelings were self-inflicted and a little self-absorbed.” Like Russell, Kazman found that, at his lowest, he “hid from people” and that whenever he got outside of himself, he felt a lot better. He sums up the inspiration for Donkey by remarking, “I wanted to make something that honored how awful it can feel to be down on yourself (especially as a creative), but also acknowledged that sometimes you need to get outside of yourself, or like, get over yourself.“
Donkey ended up being therapeutic in that sense, helping Kazman to get out of his pandemic rut and he feels that the result fills a unique spot in his filmography—a little more emotional than his other shorts, a little less distant. As someone who feels yet to fully climb out of his own pandemic malaise, I experienced a deep recognition from the short, and audiences on the festival circuit seem to as well—the film picked up the audience award last month from the Seattle International Film Festival as well as a Jury Award from my hometown Lower Eastside Festival. With his creative juices flowing again, Kazman is ready to go full force into the project he’s been thinking of the most these past few years, a feature adaptation of his celebrated Sundance short, Killer. He just recently finished the script, and we are excited to see the idea further develop.