Ryan Colucci, an alumnus of the prestigious Peter Stark Producing MFA Program at USC, runs an animation studio, makes movies (his latest, the gritty action thriller SUBURBAN COWBOY is now on VOD from Uncork’d Entertainment), and pens graphic novels. Enough on your plate, fella?
Tell us about your beginnings. Why the arts?
RYAN COLUCCI: Growing up, I wanted to be a comic book artist. It felt like the best way to share the stories I wanted to tell. As I became a teenager, that desire morphed into telling stories with a much different canvas – film.
However, I come from a fairly blue-collar background in New York where a career in the arts was not realistic, so I went to Villanova University and studied Accounting, for no other reason than it was supposedly hard and I was good at it. I spent a year overseas studying Economics and Political Science at Cambridge University – and when I was there I realized I was destined for another life. It was the first time I left the bubble that was my life, and really took stock of it. The books I was consuming in large quantities all had one thing in common – they were about filmmaking. Not the racy, exciting side of Hollywood… but books on lighting and editing and screenwriting. It dawned on me that people actually do this for a living.
So I came back, transferred to film school close to home and eventually got accepted to the Peter Stark Producing MFA Program at USC.
I didn’t completely abandon the comic world though. I’ve put out two graphic novels. In fact, my book Harbor Moon makes a few cameos in SUBURBAN COWBOY because the lead is obsessed with werewolves (shameless self-promotion).
Work a few different jobs on the way?
Other than a detour in the world of lacrosse… no. There has never been a plan b. I don’t believe in that. I have gone through stretches where I’ve had $200 to my name and was showering at my gym because, I believe, you need to give this everything you have.
What would you say was your ‘break’? when did you know it was working for you?
Just getting accepted to the Peter Stark Producing MFA Program at USC was my biggest break into the industry. It was the first time I was surrounded by people that were just as passionate about film as I was… and it opened a lot of doors a middle-class kid from Long Island had zero access to. But it is just an invitation into this world… any real momentum and traction takes a lot of sacrifice, patience and really hard work to really break through. As good as USC is, and high profile the Stark program is – out of 24 students in my year, over half of them aren’t even in the industry in any capacity anymore.
I helped launch a company right out of Stark with a classmate and we were on the hunt for a small project to produce/finance, but could not find anything. Then we found an animated film and decided to build an animation studio from scratch and just go make it. That was BATTLE FOR TERRA, and it came out through Lionsgate in 2009.
How do you think you’ve improved as an artist since then?
I barely recognize the person I was back then. I am much more patient. It would be an understatement to say I’ve been humbled over the last ten years or so in the film industry. Just when I think I’m hot shit, a greater power decides to bring it all crashing down. Whether it is a massive book series set up at a studio that lands on the front page of Variety (which goes into turnaround and I never get paid on), a project that gets to the week of shooting and it turns out the financing wasn’t real, another project where we’re in the middle of shooting and it turns out the financier can’t cover his commitment, or just the ping pong of moving back and forth from New York (where I’m from) to Los Angeles to see this dream through.
With SUBURBAN COWBOY, everything sort of feel into place. It was a smooth process from start to finish, and the most enjoyable project I’ve made to date. I wouldn’t do much differently – at least not with the same budget.
Do you get recognized for any particular film? Is there one you’d call your calling card?
SUBURBAN COWBOY is my first as a director (I also wrote, produced and edited it)… so I’d definitely have to say this is my calling card. It was also the first time I was able to make a film with total control; where I was able to meet every single crew member before they were hired – down to the Production Assistants. And it was an amazing experience that translated into a supremely efficient set. Not only did we only go overtime once during the shoot, but we were able to shave a full day off our schedule. That’s pretty insane when you consider we had 20-something locations on a 16 day shoot schedule, with a micro-budget.
From here on out, I’m hoping that this is also the one people recognize me from.
Do you find, when production companies or studios call, they’re looking for you to direct because they’re chasing a certain ‘type’ of filmmaker’? Or has that not been your experience yet?
I was hoping things blew up for me a bit more than they have. First when we got into Austin Film Festival, then when we sold it, then when the sale was announced on Deadline Hollywood. There were no agents or managers calling. Literally zero. This blew my mind because I have friends from USC who are signed at agencies like CAA and WME based on a short that they made years ago and have done nothing since. There were also no production companies calling to meet about what was next for me as a director. But there were people that I worked with along the way, sales agents or lawyers/financiers, that I have created relationships with and I am now working on that next project with… And for those that are interested in projects I’m moving forward with, I can now point to a film that actually exists – that people can see – and not talk about the film that is in post or coming out. I’m no longer a director with a script – I’m a director.
The film was just released, so the things I thought would happen may still happen. However, there’s no way I can sit around waiting for that. So, I’m already moving forward as if I have to do this whole thing again by myself. It definitely hasn’t been an easy path for me because I’m a shit salesman and an introvert, but every project builds on the last one and I’m working on enough projects where people have no choice but to take notice.
Tell us about SUBURBAN COWBOY. How different a film is it for you? Will it surprise those that know your back catalog?
The film is about Jay, a mid-level weed supplier on Long Island. One of his dealers, also his childhood best friend, robs someone to pay Jay back for his last shipment. His friend disappears and the debt is left to our hero – because the person who got robbed was connected to Serbian gangsters in Queens. He sets off to collect the money he has on the street, but when he comes up short, Jay is forced to take drastic measures.
It’s a raw, visceral look into a world you live in, but probably don’t want to know exists. The story isn’t groundbreaking, but what fascinates me about it is this idea that the guy next door is a criminal. It’s not this stereotypical gangster story where the bad guys are obviously criminals. It’s more true to life, at least in the part of the world I come from. The person I was working with on the story was actually arrested as I finished the first draft of the script. I rewrote the ending to reflect what was happening in real life. Of course things change based on budget, locations and particularly cast, but the details/specifics of the world are hopefully what makes this unique.
As a producer and screenwriter, my first film was a CG-animated film, my second is based on the album of an electronic music artist and a film I have in post can best be described as a very dark, Jaws in Space-like story. So, things are getting darker for sure as I progress… but I’m not sure it will surprise anyone. I hope, as my first as director, that what surprises people is the acting and how well the film comes together as a whole.
Is it a genre you like playing in?
Crime thrillers are, without a doubt, my favorite genre. The darker and grittier, the better. For me, what separates them and makes them unique is the world they exist in. Are they something we have yet to see? Are the details dialed in and authentic?
How much time did you get to spend with cast beforehand, to make sure the chemistry was down pat? Much rehearsal time?
Frank Radcuz Jr, who plays the lead, was one of the first people we cast. So he was able to read with the other cast as we went through the audition process… that was invaluable in terms of chemistry. Above that, we spent a lot of time together watching movies like PUSHER and UN PROPHETE… discussing what worked and what to pull from that with them. It was important to not just make sure they all fit together onscreen, but that I got along with them – so every single cast member had to come down and meet on a personal level before we would cast them. It was an awesome experience.
In terms of rehearsal, there was actually more time spent going through the script line-by-line and having me explain the intent of each word. The language is very specific and there are things people would say and not know what it meant. The more the actor understood what they were saying the better they were able to deliver it. The goal was always to make an authentic film, so this was important.
Is it different working on independent films than studio films? I imagine independent films are less stressful?
I don’t know if I would say that. Everyone in Hollywood wants to make it seem like what they do is the most important thing around, but the reality is that we aren’t curing cancer. That said, there is stress just like any other endeavor where money is at stake… Obviously different things to stress about when you have no money versus big budgets. You need to plan everything around the budget and most of the time that will impact creative decisions you make.
At the same time, knowing that the movie falls on your direction…
From the outline stage I knew that I would be working with a limited budget, so it was always conceived as more of a character piece. Something that builds tension through character and dialogue – because of the financial realities of making the movie. We were forced to think of creative ways to show things, or not show things for that matter. The nice thing about working independently is that you can take more risks creatively. Hopefully SUBURBAN COWBOY isn’t just about some guy walking around with a gun.
Is there anything in this film you found particularly hard to do? Maybe something you didn’t quite master?
There is a scene (which was actually about six scenes in the script) where the lead actor gets out of a car and we follow him into the house, through the house, he wakes up his girlfriend and then drags her outside the house where she gets in the car and takes off – in the rain… all in one shot with no cuts. It took 13 dry takes and 14 takes with the rain towers on, but it was awesome.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently co-directing ORIENT CITY, a hand-drawn animated samurai spaghetti western with Zsombor Huszka (who did the animated titles for SUBURBAN COWBOY). We just finished the short film, but dove right into the feature. I recently returned from a few months in Budapest laying out the storyboards.
Up next for me on the live action side is a contained sci-fi thriller called ANDOVER, a project written by Dikran Ornekian and Rylend Grant. You never know what will happen in terms of financing, so I wanted a project that could be done at the same budget level as SUBURBAN COWBOY, but with the ability to stretch that money further (limited locations, small cast). Those guys crushed the script and there is interest in doing it at what can best be described as a non-micro-budget. At a certain budget level, you lose your ability to take risks creatively and make something different, so we’ll see how fast it can come together. As nice as it would be to take a step up, I don’t want to be on the shelf that long.
Although I’ve carved out some time to promote SUBURBAN COWBOY. It is currently available for rent/purchase digitally; iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, Vudu, Dish, DirecTV, OnDemand (Time Warner or Comcast)… If it sounds at all interesting, give us a shot!
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