Tom Jolliffe chats with indie filmmaker Shane Ryan in part two of our interview (read part one here)…
Your directing process is pretty organic. To kind of pick up and shoot with whatever/whoever is available. As such you can pick up those inspired moments that come ‘in the moment.’ Do you enjoy the challenge to think so instinctively? You’ve not tended to work from scripts, but have you ever sat and storyboarded? Would scripting and storyboarding be something you’d adapt to, or struggle with?
My Japanese film, Oni-Gokko, had to be scripted and shot-listed and that went over very smoothly. But that could have just been luck in everything falling together – getting the perfect actors on a whim by chance, a D.P and crew I was familiar with, etc – plus it was a short shot in one night, so not much time for anything to start going wrong. Exactly a decade earlier I made Isolation, which was also scripted, shot-listed, as well as storyboarded (though that was also a short, it took about 20 days to shoot over the course of 8 months in order to accomplish what I wanted). Those more planned out films become a bit more atmospheric, I’d say, when I work that way. Whereas the improv stuff feels a bit more raw, and documentary style. I think I capture some ‘in the moment’ stuff when I’m planned, but otherwise it’s almost entirely in the moment for my other films. I developed the no script approach simply because it became so hard to get actors to show up (now more so than ever before), and mostly because if the location didn’t work, as well as people not showing, it’s like, what do we do? “We cast a 20 year old blonde white female who didn’t show and we lost the restaurant location, but we have a 50 year old black male right here we can use instead and we have a beach.” If that happens with a tight script, there’s just no way to adapt to that on the fly. But if I merely have an idea, I can figure out how to apply that idea to the new person/location, or simply think of a new idea and start from scratch.
So, I don’t know if I’ve really thought about, ‘do I enjoy the challenge to think so instinctively.’ It’s all a challenge. I’m just trying to get a film made any way that I can. I used to write scripts for my films all of the time from age 7 to 21. But I always struggled due to not having any money in being able to get even close to anything that I had written filmed. I had to abandon so many projects. I remember my first full length feature, I started making when I was like 9, but it was so hard to plan things with other people (since I was at the mercy of my parents, their work, other peoples parents, etc). We’d have a year or two between filming, and at that age I rapidly was changing from growth spurts (I also starred in it). We moved, I switched schools, lost friends, gained friends, etc. So I was constantly rewriting it til eventually I gave up. I tried again at age 15 to make another film and again at age 19/20, but it was the same money problems, or not getting any decent sound, or actors pulling out, etc. It was actually when I saw John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes, with Edward Burns and Robert De Niro, that I got the idea for this new approach. My brother and I tried to make our own film like the two killers’ film within the film. We even had the same camera. It was just this moment of inspiration; ‘hey, that was cool, we have time tonight, let’s see if we can recreate something similar.’ We shot it on maybe 5 separate days with zero planning, no script, in just a couple hours if not a matter of minutes on each day. And we got a 12 or so minute film out of it, maybe took a few days to edit, whereas the same year I began production on Isolation and because it had a script and everything else, it took me 18 months to shoot and edit the whole thing to completion. I attempted the no script approach again in 2003 with American Virgins (which I hope to finally finish up this year), but I didn’t think about the bad sound angle, so that’s when I decided it had to appear as if it were a documentary/mockumentary in order to get away with sound issues. So I tried again in 2004 with Amateur Pornstar Killer.
In the digital age are we seeing a pre-occupation with technical specs? I personally watch a lot of films that could be shot on the best Red available, in 4k, but still look like a student film because they’re poorly photographed and/or graded. Same goes for editing. The modern programmes do everything but too many films have no rhythm or feeling. Is creativity being killed by our technological reliance?
I think so. Best example this week; I got a really bad review of Dacryphilia. The critic clearly knew my work already and didn’t like my films. He called them low-rez/low budget, etc. Which is crazy since this film is clearly a huge step above APSK and most of my films in terms of the cinematography. But the biggest complaint was that there was nothing to it, no understandable meaning in the visuals, and mostly, he felt I could have done more with modern technology. So, I found out he was a filmmaker, and watched his last short, in which I saw the similarities in his work going for an experiential film like mine. He clearly thought he accomplished what I hadn’t. I noticed he had used After Effects in his, with one effect displayed annoyingly throughout most of the film (though to his credit he used a bunch of effects in a way I don’t know how to being that I’m not much of a technical person at all). But I thought his movie was so contrived, so staged, the actors so uninteresting to watch. So the argument between the two would be this; he wanted me to make use of this new technology, whereas I have no idea how to even use this technology. I put a lot of effort into creating the visuals on set, with lighting, with real water as rain (putting my actors in real discomfort and pain as it was freezing), real blood fx, real fire, real fog effects, etc. I wanted to use as little computer effects as possible. And aside from color correcting, the only post-production effects I really used were blending two images together for a few shots. But firstly, I used two actresses that I thought were interesting to watch. There’s something really captivating about both girls, there’s nothing basic looking nor boring about them, and there’s so much hidden pain in them it just shows on their faces. Secondly, I myself was in more pain during the editing of this than I had ever been in. I think that pain, that disgust I felt, poured out into this film.
There were also some terrible fights between Lilith and I during some of these days while shooting. At least one of the shots of her crying was her actually crying after a horrible argument that we were having in the middle of filming. There’s another shot where she’s looking at Lilly dying and turns her head. The look on her face was just real, totally present. I couldn’t tell if she was saddened by her death, intrigued, scared, or all of that and more. But moments before that shot, we had had a fight that was so bad I didn’t think we’d be able to shoot. But when we did, it showed in her facial expressions. While that sucked tremendously for us, pain makes great art. Not saying our film is a masterpiece or anything special at all, but it’s emotional art, and it’s practical art, that’s for sure. It’s not technologically reliant. And that’s the kind of art that I love. It’s the only kind that I believe has any shelf life as well.
Are there any modern film-makers impressing/inspiring you at the moment?
It’s sad, I used to go to 3-4 films a week. Now I’ve only been to the theatre 3 times this whole year. Just not much looks appealing anymore. The films that do look somewhat decent are playing 2-6 hours away (or Netflix comes in and swoops them away), so I don’t see much anymore. And we don’t have any video stores left so unless I stumble across something at the library I don’t really see much new stuff to know what’s out there. I’ve been trying to watch every Criterion movie, actually, the library has so many. Mostly catch up on old movies I’ve missed. Plus I own about 4k films, so I’m never out of things to watch. But far as new stuff, I did see Shoplifters, which was so, so amazing, as was the John Wick trilogy (I grew up on 80’s action, sue me – Keanu Reeves is incredible). The only other films that come to mind are Ross Partridge’s Lamb (that film tore my heart out), and Heaven Knows What (I wish Arielle Holmes hadn’t disappeared, she was incredible in that and American Honey, which was also great). Terrence Malick is still making films, he’s my biggest inspiration among living and working filmmakers, along with Clint Eastwood, and them two plus John Cassevetes still remain my biggest influences. However, If Beale Street Could Talk, now that was something else. That really hit me. I wasn’t blown away by Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight the way everyone else was (maybe it was over hyped by the time I saw it), but Beale Street, that was a rare and special kind of film. The music in that was incredible, heart breaking, powerful, it just pulled me right in.
Oh, I totally forgot, S. Craig Zahler. Zahler is probably the best example of somebody who hasn’t made a single not great film yet. He’s made three solid movies, one after the other with Bone Tomahawk (still his best), Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete. He’s everything that Quentin Tarantino tries to be. Sadly, though, they were all watched at home. Great films don’t get big if any releases anymore. Instead we got Avengers, Spider-man, Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America, Captain Marvel and Aquaman.
You’re not a fan of Hollywood’s pre-occupation with reboots, remakes and franchises. Is cinema dumbing down? Do you think the indie scene is regressing/getting worse?
I’d say it’s as dumb as it gets right now, but it’s only going to get worse. You should hear the responses I’m getting from distributors in regards to this streaming nonsense. Some major outlets are no longer letting anything that’s horror related (regardless of the rating content), plus nothing R-rated (let alone anything with controversial NC-17 type material), and get this, nothing with subtitles! Apparently, one major outlet is now rejecting independent films that aren’t in English because too many people were complaining about having to ‘read subtitles’!!! Yes, it’s dumbing down. I was so pissed because I had pitched a true crime Japanese language film to a distributor that was looking to make 10k films, and that budget is perfect for my film, plus this distributor had released dozens of Japanese films (that was part of their market when they did DVD), and I got turned down unless I made it in English! It’s awful. I was wondering why I hadn’t seen a foreign film in theatres in awhile. Remember around 2000 when we were getting a ton of major foreign releases? Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Y Tu Mamá También, High Tension, Life is Beautiful, Amores Perros, etc…all gone. The closest we get now are American remakes.
From my P.O.V as a writer and producer, I occasionally hate the whole process and the constant dead ends. On a monthly basis I feel like retiring from it completely but can’t. You’ve said similar in the past. Like a lot of artists who approach their work creatively it’s a love/hate relationship. Could you ever live without making films?
I feel like retiring about once an hour. I think it’d have to be all or nothing for me. Either go get a cabin in the woods and just turn myself off from technology as much as possible, or else just immerse myself in film and keep trying. I’d have to become a different person, basically. Because film is a part of me. It’s what I am. I wouldn’t be me without films. So, I’d have to become somebody else.
Is there an element of catharsis in making these films, particularly as the subjects are often dark?
Oh yeah, for sure. Not necessarily because they’re dark subjects though, it’s just I get so overwhelmed with ideas. I experience so much, I see so many films, I people watch everyday, I just become flooded with thoughts and stories that I feel the need to get them out of me, regardless of how touchy or not that the subject is. I might feel the need to tell a lighter story as much as I do a darker one. I might be more haunted by not getting the beautiful story out than the grittier crime tormented story. I just need to get them out of my brain, to free up space, to feel that weight lifted. Which is why being a filmmaker sucks. I’d like to get these thoughts out and done with daily. Being a writer, a painter, a musician, all of these would have been much better suited for my personality.
What’s next for you in terms of feature projects?
I’m starring in a film next month, which is based on a character that I created. I can’t say much else yet since they’re going to start casting and I’ve been banned from almost all of the major casting sites for trying to make films with nudity in them (that’s a no-no these days, not just for streaming sites but actors themselves got me banned for posting these roles cause apparently, it’s taboo now). So, the producers are worried I’m a pariah, and don’t want to associate me with anything until everything’s set. I didn’t know anybody even knew who I was. I guess I should feel complimented. And then the same producers will be on board when I direct a film for them around November. It’ll be good to focus just on directing the actors (whereas I tend to be a one man crew in my own films).
I also have the underground films I’ve been working on endlessly the past few years. I’m turning Ted Bundy Had A Son into a trilogy, I did a few pickups for The Owl In Echo Park, which I hope to finally have done after the first Bundy film, plus I’m still shooting Red Oedipal, God Got Ill and This Girl, This Boy. I also am working with this writer, Jamie Grefe, who wrote an action script for me, A Violent Night,Goodbye, which we’re trying to get financed (along with a possible ghost film), and I’ve been talking a lot with actor Patrick Kilpatrick (Death Warrant, Minority Report) about doing a film. Either Violent Night, or something else (Patrick honored me with a film grant award from his company last year, which was incredibly generous). I’d still love to make Brenda too, inspired by the Tupac Shakur song, Brenda’s Got a Baby. I got a concept trailer for that I still need to edit. So many things, so little (if any) money, and no help in post production. It’s insanely hard!
Plus I got some co-productions and anthologies; Virus Of The Dead finally came out (which I made with Kathryn Eastwood, Clint’s daughter), 60 Seconds to Die 3 (which Lilith wrote and directed the segment for, and I shot and produced), Philia, and the 80’s anthology Awesomely Righteous and Radical of course (submit here: https://www.madsincinema.com/submit-your-film.html), and then there’s postponed release of the Samurai Cop 2 documentary, Enter The Samurai, with Tommy Wiseau, Bai Ling, Ralph Garman, and all the other crazy folks from the show.
You win the lottery tomorrow…what film do you make?
John Wick: Chapter 4 and The Expendables 4. I hijack both. Those are the only sequels I can get behind. Or I got this killer idea for a new Dirty Harry film, with Clint reprising the role, and Scott Eastwood (his real-life son) playing his son (or even grandson), as the up and coming detective to replace Harry in the series, or so you think. It wouldn’t really be like the other Dirty Harry films, but then again it would be. I’d also try my true crime woman revenge story, The Birmingham Cycle, which I’ve been wanting to direct since 2001. I still think Bianca Brigitte VanDamme would be great in it. See, this is me wanting to go the action route, now that I’d have money. This is what I grew up on. At this point though, I’d probably take the money and run. Leave me alone world. I finally won.
Many thanks to Shane Ryan for taking the time to speak to us.