Department of Theatre and Film
Interview with Director Ryan Lewis
By Tom Hurst
Since 2003, Ryan Lewis has been making short films under the umbrella of Lewis’ Cider Mill Productions. Starting with the sci-fi spoof “Glorious”, Lewis has gone on to become a name in the world of short films. By directoing all his films, including many created in 48-hour film contests, Lewis has proved his ability to take charge of productions and is now working on his first featured-length production, Emulsion.
How did you get into film? I got into film back in high school. I guess I’d always dreamt of making films – for years I was coming up with stories and scenes in my head, but I never really thought about it in terms of making a movie. I was just entertaining myself. But then one day, junior year I remember thinking I’d like to write a movie. Just to see what it was like. I spent so much time writing the script that by the time I finished, I was really proud of what I had written (at the time…not so much now, looking back it was VERY rough) and I decided I wanted to try shoot-ing the script. Now, I had never even used a video camera at that point, but for some reason I thought I could make a movie. So I started getting every book and magazine on how to make a movie. I grabbed any of my friends that wanted to be either in front of or behind the camera and ran out and shot the film. Once it was shot, I had to edit it…again, I’d never done that before either. So I found any book I could on the topic, bought two VCRs and went to work. Looking back I’m still a little amazed with what all we were able to pull off. There was never a question of whether we would finish the film or not…just how long it would take our totally inexperienced cast and crew to get everything we wanted.
What is the hardest part about starting a production? Off the top of my head there are two extremely hard parts about starting a production. One would defi-nitely be coming up with a storyline. You can come up with a fairly original idea, but then trying to make it into an entire film can be tough. It’s amazing how quickly your brain can start veering off into things that have been done in other movies. Almost everything has been done before, so it’s all about how you take these ideas and put an original spin on them. The second tough part about starting a production is just how overwhelming it can be. There are so many little things that go into making a movie that if you look at them all at once it can be terrifying. I find its best to split up the process and attack one portion at a time. For instance, on the film I’m working on right now, Emulsion, we shot 3 separate weekends. This way enabled me to get everything together for each weekend as if it was a film in itself. We just shot the last weekend a few weeks ago and it alone took six weeks to prepare. I had to line up the cast and crew, all the locations, camera and lighting equipment and police permits. Since I was both producing and directing the film, it was my job to do everything and if I would have tried to attack all nine days at once, it would have taken forever and some of the intricacies of the film would have been forgotten.
How do you get sponsorship? As far as sponsorship goes, my partner Michael Maney and I have funded all of our short films (with help from the equipment rental houses in Cincinnati). I’m producing a fifteen-minute version of Emulsion in order to send it around to various producers in an attempt to raise funding to complete the remainder of the feature length film. I alone am footing the bill for this portion of the film, but it was shot for a very reasonable price thanks to help from people all over town, who gave us deals on everything from equipment to food. It is my thought that having a finished script and a fifteen-minute seg-ment of the film produced could help the project stand out a little in the sea of scripts that are floating around Los Angeles…and hopefully help to raise the money necessary to finish the film.
Give me a brief history of Cider Mill Productions. Cider Mill Productions began officially in May of 2003. I had been working on the script for Emulsion a few years prior to that, and as I began to send the script around for producers to read it I realized that I needed to have the protection of a Limited Liability Company. The other short films on the website are not directly Cider Mill films, but rather Dog Day Productions. Dog Day is the name of the joint effort between Michael Maney and myself. Cider Mill is the production com-pany for my solo projects, Emulsion being the first, but in an effort to raise funding for Emulsion I list the Dog Day films on the Cider Mill site as well.
What is the inspiration for your subject matter? Who do you generally collaborate with? The Dog Day films were all created for timed filmmaking competitions like the 48-Hour Film Project. In those types of proj-ects, you get a list of requirements, including genre, at 7pm on Friday night. No prior writing is allowed, so you have to go in with a blank slate. From that point you have 48 or 72 hours (depending on the competi-tion) to entirely create the film. So in that case you don’t have a ton of inspiration, other than the fact that you have to get something written Friday night before you start shooting Saturday morning. Michael Maney and I share all major responsibilities on these proj-ects (the only exception is that I produce the film and he is the director of photography—everything else is shared) and we have worked together for 9 years now, so we are very familiar with the way the other works. The way we come up with scripts is hard to explain. We get the genre and then spend about a half hour tossing ideas out, which either get shot down immedi-ately, or are used to build something else on top of it. Generally after a half hour of brainstorming we have a foundation for the script. From that point we continue the process of trying plot ideas or dialogue as we fill in the remainder of the script. We usually wrap up the script after about 5 or 6 hours of writing.
As for Emulsion, I knew I wanted to write a new script that could be my first feature film. A lot of independent filmmakers come up with their extremely quirky stories but I chose instead to come up with a storyline that I would pay to see in the theatre. I didn’t want to rely on the fact that I was an independent film-maker as much as I was just a filmmaker. I knew I’d be working with a limited budget, but I didn’t want that to be reflected in the story. So I just wrote…and then rewrote. I still occasionally re-write scenes. I’m a firm believer that the script is only completely finished once it is shot…but up until then it can always be evolving here and there. I’m extremely proud of the script and believe in it one hundred percent, but you never know when one line of dialogue will pop into your head that could help when the scene is filmed.
How do you choose what festivals to enter your films in? Or do you choose a festival and design your film around that? Festivals are an interesting part of the process. If you get accepted, and are able to attend, they can be an absolute blast. But getting in is a bit tough to explain. Its especially hard because of the fact that the short films we have completed to date are all for timed filmmaking competitions and most festivals that I enter our films in look down upon those kind of festivals. I’ve heard that festivals are a little prejudiced against these type of festivals because they get submissions from filmmakers who spend as much time and money on their project as they want, and if they accept a film entirely created in two days, it could cheapen the festival. So when I make press kits for festivals I try to downplay the timed competi-tion angle, or omit it completely. I try to make it so that in the judge’s eyes we are just a regular film with no special qualifiers competing against other films.
As far as which festivals I submit to, I search the Internet for any festivals that may give our film a chance. I use a lot of Google and a great website called www.withoutabox.com which is basically a da-tabase for film festivals. My general rules are to only submit to festivals that are less than 5 years old and have a substantial short film program. Since we’ve been on the film festival circuit for a while now, I have seen a number of shorts that are screening around the country. If we’ve been in a festival with a film that shows up at another festival at another time, I submit to that festival the following year. Basically, I look at what films the festival has accepted in the past and if we fit the mold, I send it in.
Of course, the timed competitions have their own festivals, and we are very proud to have done well in those festivals, so in a way, we do design the films for entry in those festivals, since they are the first step in the film’s life. But from that point on, the film has to stand on its own merits as a film – not as a film created in a weekend.
What mistakes did you learn the most from? I’d say the biggest mistake you can make in the film world is listening to someone say no, or letting doubt creep into your head. This is a business of “no” especially with the amount of people making films today. Fes-tivals and studios are looking for films to showcase, but the market is so flooded that first and foremost they look for a reason not to pick up your film. You can hear a thousand “no’s” but a single yes can open up doors and opportunities that you’d never imagine. You have to be extremely persistent. It’s definitely a hard lesson to learn and it sounds totally cliché but this is a hard business. It isn’t the kind of thing you get into because you want to get famous and rich, you make movies because you have to make movies. Sure, a select few achieve stardom, but not without a tremendous amount of work mixed with luck.
I remember a few years ago, I had a friend who worked at a production company in Los Angeles and convinced him to sneak a copy of Emulsion’s script into one of their script readers. The reader is the gatekeeper of the production company, who’s job is to read the script and write coverage on the script, recommending it be passed higher up the chain, or more often, rejected. Coverage comes complete with a few pages of explanation on what they did or didn’t like about the script. When I got the coverage back it was four pages explaining how this script will never work as a film. It was absolutely horrible to read how this reader felt the script was unoriginal and filled with plot holes and clichés. Eventually I spoke to my friend who got the script in the door and he told me that writers take two paths after getting coverage like this. You can abandon the project and take it as a failure…or you can take their advice and use it to improve the script. It took a while to convince myself that I wanted to work on the script again, but eventu-ally I realized he was right. If I ever wanted to make it in this business I had to be ready to take the punches and be able to bounce back. Years later I am so glad to have learned that lesson. I did go back to the script and transformed it entirely. After the revisions, I was able to get the script into the hands of a number of prominent producers who read it and had amazing things to say.
How do you create interest in your film? Well first off we have a great group of friends who are very sup-portive. Ever since the beginning they would show up to check out or films, and usually bring a friend or two. If those friends liked what they saw, they’d generally come back to future screenings, sometimes with a friend. At the local level, it’s been a very grass roots kind of thing. We’ve also been very lucky to have achieved a great amount of success with judg-ing in local festivals. Because of this success, as well as the work of my publicist, we’ve been featured in local newspapers, magazines, radio and televi-sion. It seems that every time we’ve moved on to make a new film, more people know about us and it gets easier to both get the film made and to have an audience for the film once its complete. Three of our five shorts premiered at local festivals as part of the 48 Hour Film Project, but for the premieres for the other two films, we held events at the Esquire and Mariemont Theatres. Both premieres were sold out and were filled with a number of people who left the theatre telling their friends about the work. It’s been amazing to have this kind of support on a local level as we take the films to other cities. We’ve met a number of people simply because they came to see our film. It is an amazing feeling to meet some-one who came solely to check out our work, without having a direct connection to us whatsoever. I have made quite a few friends because of the work both in Cincinnati and elsewhere. For example, as a result of traveling with these films I’ve met people at festivals in San Jose, California that I have become very close friends with. The same has happened in a number of other cities around the country.
Have the rights for your film ever been bought? If so, how was it negotiated? We have a distribution deal for Infamous: The Pelagrino Brothers through a company that features short films on the Internet. Our deal includes the possibility of having the film featured on compilation DVDs, on in-flight entertainment on select airlines, on-demand cable services and a number of other opportunities. The process was very interest-ing and fast. One day I received an email from one of their account executives that had seen our film in an on-line festival and wanted to have the film as a part of their portfolio. We discussed the contract for a few days and within a week had signed with them. Our contract is non-exclusive, so we are able to still own the rights to the film while this company holds the right to distribute the film for the next three years.