Ryan Gielen knows you don’t get anywhere by being lazy. A talented writer and director, Gielen broke through in 2008 with his comedy THE GRADUATES before spearheading (with his brother Matthew Gielen) the nonprofit DVDs To The Troops, which has distributed thousands of films to soldiers stationed overseas. He’s also the CEO of BELIEVE LIMITED – a production company that is devoted to mixing “hustle with humor”. With his latest film DRINKING GAMES hitting DVD on August 20th, Ryan took some time to chat with DAILY GRINDHOUSE about bringing a stage play to the screen, the inspiration behind the film’s most memorable character, and how the film was able to effectively use kickstarter.
Sweetback (SB): Let’s talk about the background of the project a bit, first. DRINKING GAMES began as Blake Merriman’s play “Dorm” – a play. At what point did you come onboard the project? Was it a work-for-hire gig, or did you have a previous relationship with Blake?
Ryan Gielen (RG): I cast Blake in my first movie THE GRADUATES. Like a lot of folks in THE GRADUATES we became friends and have been for a while. When he came to me with his play “Dorm”, I read it and really liked it but didn’t see the wisdom in making it as a play. For the same price tag as a play we could do it as a film and it would last forever. Instead of lasting for two weeks in a small beat up theater in New York it could last forever and exist everywhere. So I pitched him on turning it into a film and six months later we were filming.
SB: DRINKING GAMES was financed through a Kickstarter campaign. Do you see crowdfunding as the future of indie financing, or do you feel like certain projects are more appropriate for this sort of campaign? Does crowdfunding put any extra pressure on you as a director?
RG: We financed postproduction through Kickstarter, but the original budget was from Blake and a handful of private investors. Crowdfunding is an incredible development, but what is even more exciting is crowdfunding that allows funders to take some percentage of ownership over the film they’re funding. In five years this could potentially give rise to a new class of $1 million dollar to $3 million dollar films. As with any new technology there are only going to be a handful of big success stories, but the fact that crowdfunding allows tens of thousands more people to follow their creative passions is a win for everyone. It’s a beautiful thing. And yes I do see it as putting extra pressure on the director and producers and actors – because it’s usually their friends and family and business contacts that donate – but that’s a good thing. Accountability and pressure make you a better filmmaker.
SB: What are some of the unique challenges with bringing a stage-play to film? With the limited number of locations you had available, was it difficult to keep the final result from seeming stage-bound?
RG: Great question. As you might imagine a limited number of settings can potentially make a film boring or repetitive. We worked extremely hard to use the camera dolly, jib and movement to keep the film fresh and to reflect the characters’ heightened experiences. The other thing about a stageplay is it’s much more intimate, So the question we kept asking ourselves was, Does this camera movement bring us closer to the characters experience or further away? And if it took us further away we changed the camera move. Every movement had to serve to bring us closer into the characters experience, and I think that’s why the film never feels repetitive- the camera movement and lighting design grow with the story.
SB: DRINKING GAMES has a set up that resembles that of many a teen sex comedy. In fact, viewers could easily mistake the first twenty minutes for setting up a raucous comedy, instead of the psychological thriller it evolves into. How important was it to not telegraph the dark places where the characters were heading?
RG: It was very important for us to allow the story to unfold the way the evening would unfold for any of the young characters in the film. They don’t know they’re in a psychological thriller, they think they’re just attending a party and then things start to get sketchy. Even when drama and arguments and danger arise the characters still don’t know they’re in a psychological thriller so they resist admitting how bad things are getting. This is a big reason they stay attached to the party and to Noopie. We are SO attracted to charisma that we will forgive almost anything from a charismatic person. And to translate that for the audience meant just letting the story unfold without telegraphing too much. The audience gets sucked in just like the characters.
SB: In one of those teen comedies, the character of Noopie would be the life of the party – the “cool”, older character that dispenses wisdom (and drugs) to the freshmen. What I find most interesting about the film is how it turns this trope on its head, turning the character into a modern, Tucker Max-ish, manipulative villain. Tell me about Rob Bradford’s performance as Noopie, and was it difficult to keep the character menacing, yet keep him grounded in the real world?
RG: Great question great observation. That was absolutely the intention- not just to hammer on the idea of what a Tucker Max character is but also to hammer on who the rich entitled sociopaths are that run our nation. They all started in fraternities or some incestuous private school, they were all some version of Noopie at some point.
When Blake came to me with the script I was still a little hung over from the George W. Bush era, and I saw Noopie as a reflection of W. He’s a rich entitled sociopath who cares only about what is most beneficial or interesting to him personally at any given moment. That made Noopie a lot scarier to me then a typical movie monster might be. That was also what grounded the character – half of our country thought it would be fun to have a beer with the president, meanwhile that same president is killing over 100,000 innocent women and children in illegal wars, without losing a wink of sleep. Noopie is grounded in reality because he IS reality. He is the absolute worst elements of humanity but magnetic at the same time. In fact I envision Noopie running for office someday after he moves back home and filters into the family business. He’s going to be a very powerful, very drunk scumbag someday.
As for Rob’s performance… Rob is an incredibly gifted actor and it was a blast to watch him tap into his fun side to become this character. But it was a huge stretch for Rob because Rob is one of the most genuinely nice and positive people I’ve ever known. For this role he got to shave his head, bulk up and just be a dick. He had fun and I had fun watching him do it. The real challenge came in the late second and third act, when Noopie is really fucked up on drugs and losing his grip on the party. Rob has to play sad, angry, bitter and playful all at the same time while still being charming and projecting cool. It’s an awesome, dynamic performance.
SB: I’m guessing that the lead roles were fairly locked down, since Blake Merriman and Rob Bradford were part of the fundraising process. Is this sort of compromise difficult for you as a director, or has your work for (your company) BELIEVE! LIMITED prepared your for helping bring the creative visions of others to the screen?
RG: Yes most of the parts were written for specific cast members, but we did seek out and cast Riccarda Albrecht (Melanie) in a traditional casting process. In general I would prefer to always cast something myself, but knowing these actors and knowing how the parts were written for them, each was a perfect fit from the beginning. Plus these are my friends so what better way to make a film – I got to go away for a month with some of my closest friends and make a movie. It was the best trip. It was a dream.
SB: Can you talk a little bit about DVDs to The Troops – your nonprofit devoted to sending used DVDs to soldiers serving overseas? Where did the idea originate, and what sort of success have you found? It must be incredibly rewarding to think that you’re contributing to these soldiers maintaining a little piece of home.
RG: DVDs to the Troops is really special to me. My brother and I looked at our large DVD collections one day and wanted to give them away, but we couldn’t find an organization that was dedicated to collecting DVDs and sending them directly to military units around the world. Nobody was really focused on that. It was one of those ideas that stayed with us so six months later we created our own nonprofit that would focus solely on this endeavor. We’ve shipped tens of thousands of DVDs over the last two years to Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and a few other installations around the world. We are growing rapidly, and will soon need to increase our fundraising in order to keep up with the number of DVDs that are coming in. People seem to recognize right away the value of the organization and it just happens to coincide with a time when people are no longer buying or holding onto DVDs the way they used to. It’s a perfect fit. On a personal note, I’m incredibly proud of the organization and energized by it. I love making films, but no positive review of a film can compare to the feeling I get when we get a thank you note from a unit overseas.
SB: Where can interested readers pick up a copy of DRINKING GAMES? And what would be the best way for them to keep up on your current and future work?
SB: Thanks so much for taking the time, Ryan. What advice do you have for young or inexperienced directors who are attempting to tackle their first feature?
RG: Great question. I’ve given this answer before but I get asked this question a lot and my answer is always the same: I was incredibly lucky to sit down with Chris Moore for a few minutes, producer of GOOD WILL HUNTING and the AMERICAN PIE movies. Unfortunately I was quite young, only 22 at the time and did not know good questions to ask, so I sat there like an idiot. He was incredibly generous, and I’ll never forget the piece of advice he hammered on: if you have the money to go to film grad school, don’t. Take that money and make 10 short films. Find your voice, make mistakes and learn the craft. I took that to heart. He was speaking as someone who has to evaluate craft constantly. I think he knew that an aesthetic and style- a voice- can’t be learned it has to be developed. I already saw him as a visionary, with Project Greenlight he was one of the first people to really understand the potential of the web for filmmakers, but I especially vibed with this advice because I HATE sitting in classrooms. I would always rather be on my feet making mistakes and growing. That would be my advice to anyone just starting out. Start making a lot of mistakes immediately
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