Interview: A conversation with filmmaker Shane Ryan

Tom Jolliffe chats with independent filmmaker Shane Ryan….

California born indie filmmaker Shane Ryan has been directing films for 10 years now. Raised on a steady diet of Jean-Claude Van Damme films and an innate love of all types of cinema, Ryan has gained some success and no small amount of notoriety in his career as a film maker. His first major breakthrough was the exploitation flick, Amateur Pornstar Killer. This would spawn two sequels. He’s courted controversy from films like this, but also dealing with issues like child murder as well as pedophilia in some films. His recent film, My Name Is ‘A’ by Anonymous is based on the real life murder of Elizabeth Olten (a famous case in America in 2009) focusing on the convicted killer, 15 year old Alyssa Bustamente. The film, finished in 2011, still awaits distribution. Shane took the time to answer a few questions about his career thus far.

Tom Jolliffe: Can you give us a little bit of background to My Name Is ‘A’? What was it about the case that intrigued you as a film-maker?

Shane Ryan: I heard about a 15 year old girl (Alyssa Bustamante) who was being accused of the horrific murder of a child (9 year old Elizabeth Olten), and I saw that everybody wanted to scream “witch” and see Alyssa burn, but I didn’t see anybody trying to understand why this happened. Instead everybody just wanted sensationalised headlines. I thought, you know, there’s way more that I want to know. I want to invest in this. I want this to matter, not just be a three minute headline. That’s what intrigued me as a filmmaker.

As a person, Alyssa herself intrigued me because I identified with her from the first picture I saw. She had self-inflicted wounds all along her left lower arm. That was also one of the first things the media jumped on to label her “crazy girl/psycho/etc.” I’ve personally suffered majorly from self-abuse since I was 13, so it was kind of like looking into a mirror, only I was seeing a teenage girl being accused of a gruesome murder. It made me think, “Shit. I might need to look into this for my own well-being. What am I capable of?” I started to think that maybe she didn’t even do it. I had been arrested when I was 16 for a horrendous crime I did not do (nor could imagine doing) and, once at the police station, within minutes had officers who were not even at the scene mistreat me and keep me locked up for hours saying the most vicious and insulting things imaginable to try and get me to confess to something I didn’t do.

So between this coerced confession experience and self-abuse understanding, I was very curious about this whole situation. Unfortunately a lot of this I didn’t even get to explore in “A”, since I was only partially telling this story. Since we were improvising and experimenting by shooting on three formats and working almost entirely with kids (whom were getting to create a lot of their own material), the film just took on a life of its own, which was very exciting from a filmmaker point-of-view.

TJ: Where do you currently stand on distribution?

SR: Given the subject matter it must be a difficult sell. It’s been my most difficult film ever! My snuff trilogy (“Amateur Porn Star Killer“) was far easier to get noticed. It was a big hit. Another thing that makes you wonder just how the world really works; Why is it easy for me to make a fake rape/murder film in a week and have far more success with it than spending a year making something I really thought mattered like “A”? I finally got “A” picked up for distribution (VOD/theatrical) almost a year and a half ago but I actually don’t know what the hell happened. I thought it was supposed to come out a year ago. Maybe the distributors have an issue with it as well. The real case attracted worldwide attention and I receive emails from people in many countries begging to see the film for the past 3+ years but no distributors would listen to me about how popular this case was.

TJ: You’ve gained something of a reputation for doing controversial films. Is this simply a consequence of the sort of stories you want to tell, or do you like to be controversial?

SR: I’ve always loved movies and wanted to tell stories. I grew up with only one dream; make and/or star in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. But then when I was 19 I saw this film by Tim Roth called “The War Zone” and it made me feel something a movie never had; outraged/utterly depressed / changed, and I thought, “Now that’s how I want people to feel after watching something I’ve made.” I think I got so caught up in that idea that I actually started losing the stories I wanted to tell and instead simply told controversy. I wanted to shock people and make them think. But I was more focused on moving them than moving a story along or forming an idea. Then when I saw how much the controversy got recognition I really got a high from pushing that angle. It finally caught up to me and backfired and that’s when I turned around and made “A”. Now “A” might be just as controversial as my others, but I don’t really know, because this time I wasn’t concerned about it being controversial. I just focused on what I thought mattered. And with my next film, “The Owl in Echo Park“, I wasn’t worried about anything other than Kevin Gage’s character. So, maybe by accident I started to like being controversial, then got slapped in the face with it, didn’t like what I saw, so now I just am me.

TJ: Would doing films with a lighter nature ever interest you?

SR: Oh yeah. I’d be up for a quirky romance movie, like “Eagle vs. Shark“. At one point I almost did one but things simply fell through. Or JCVD! I think “Death Wish” should be remade with Van Damme. He’s a much better actor than people believe, and I think he could prove it in a role like that.

TJ: Which film-makers influence you?

SR: The ones who have their own vision and stick with it, whether I like their films or not. The likes of Cassavetes, Harmony Korine, Gus Van Sant, Tony Scott, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Vincent Gallo. I’m just as influenced by “A Woman Under the Influence” as I am by “Domino“. One blew me away with raw characters, the other with extreme style. When somebody sticks to their vision it tells me it’s okay to stick to mine. But that’s just what I want; My own vision, not to copy somebody else. So, I’m most influenced by life.

TJ: Your next film, The Owl In Echo Park, sounds promising. Can you tell us a bit about the project?

SR: It was the hardest shoot I’ve ever done! We were getting hassled and 86’d (ejected) every second. In many cases being interrupted before we were done with a scene, and many scenes we shot in just one take, one shot, in 15 minutes, and we still had cops and security ruining everything. Because of this, it actually changed a lot of the story. So, I’ve been trying to work magic in post. It’s about an undercover cop who may or may not have gone rogue. He’s a drunk and a womanizer. I tried to think of him as a Waingro (Kevin Gage’s unforgettable character in Michael Mann’s Heat) version of Charles Bukowski (German born, American poet) posing as a cokehead undercover cop. He’s so far gone that there’s no turning back. Everything is meaningless to him, until he finds out that his teen daughter has run away to become a prostitute. What humanity he might have left in him is finally put to the test.

TJ: Kevin Gage is a well-known character actor. He also co-produced My Name is ‘A’. How did you get involved with him?

SR: Kevin’s an old friend of a close friend of mine. We’d been talking about working on a film about 7 years. Finally, the timing was right, and bam!, we worked on 6 projects together in just over a year. He came on board as co-producer for “A”, got a role in a film I co-produced called “American Girls“. After that he starred in “Owl” and then I hooked him up with Sean Cain and Kevin went on to star in this sci-fi film of Sean’s called “Jurassic Block“. Plus we worked on two more potential projects in the meantime, so it was awesome. I was a fan ever since “Heat” which I saw and was blown away by when I was like 15, so getting to work on all of these films, especially after more than half a decade of talking about it with him, was simply awesome.

TJ: Are there any particular actors/actresses you’d love to work with?

SR:Yes, Van Damme!!! Terrence Howard; ever since “Dead Presidents” came out I’ve loved that guy, knew he’d become a star. Larry David; speaking of light-hearted, if I could be on “Curb Your Enthusiasm“, I’d be, full-filled. And top of my head: Ellen Page. Mark Webber. Tim Roth. Jack Nicholson. Robert DeNiro. Al Pacino. Gene Hackman. Dustin Hoffman. Denzel Washington. George Clooney. Michelle Williams. Christian Bale. Kristen Stewart. Jason Statham. Wesley Snipes. Ethan Hawke. Larenz Tate. Jon Favreau. Nick Stahl. Chloë Sevigny. Zoe Saldana. Christian Slater. Mekhi Phifer. Nicolas Cage. Forest Whitaker. Gena Rowlands. Naomi Watts. Keanu Reeves. Mel Gibson. Hilary Swank. Elizabeth Olsen. Jena Malone. Julianne Moore. Peter Greene. And Shô Kosugi.

TJ: What do you think of the current state of mainstream cinema? Does this further inspire you to go against convention?

SR: I love all types of films, anything from a $20 to a $200 million budget. But lately, almost everything has bored me to tears. In the past two years I’ve seen maybe 10 good films. So, is my love for films just coming to an end? Or are all movies just getting bad?

The films I did like, were “Gravity” (big budget), “Thanks for Sharing” (indie-ish with big actors), and “Magic, Magic” (slightly more indie-ish, with a couple well known actors). And while “Fast and Furious 6” was horrid big-budget soap opera trash, this other Paul Walker car/thriller film, “Vehicle 19“, was amazing. So few impress me anymore. I think some mainstream actors, like George Clooney, have done very well at bringing good, character-driven 1970’s-type films back to Hollywood. But then indie films started getting worse. They all feel like, ironically, 70’s trash films. It’s like some people in Hollywood are trying to re-create the 70’s from the great films of that era and indie filmmakers got the same idea, but from the bad trashy 70’s films. Maybe Tarantino can pull it off cause he’s got big budgets and great actors, but if you don’t have that you’re basically just re-creating trash with dogshit. Like re-crumpling up an old photo; the first time it looked vintage, now it looks like garbage. So, does this inspire me to go against convention? I have no idea.

TJ: Which of your films are you most proud of?

SR: Working with no budgets I always wish I had so much more, could do so much more. But I try harder and harder with each film so I’d say I’m most proud of whatever I did last.

TJ: What do you have in the pipeline?

SR: Finish “Owl”. Trying to act. I’d love to act in foreign films and make foreign-language films. I’m also hoping to shoot this little artsy film called “The Bloody Penguin“. And I want to do this dramatic-revenge film I’ve had in mind for the past decade. I want JCVD’s daughter, Bianca Bree, to star in it. It’s about these real-life murders which occurred in my hometown that everybody knows was covered up by authorities and made to look like all these coincidental deaths within this family. The film’s loosely based on what happened but then turning into this “Romeo and Juliet“/”Death Wish“/”Man on Fire“, crazy love/revenge story. So, we’ll see.

Many thanks to Shane Ryan for taking the time for this interview.

Tom Jolliffe

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