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“Monsoon” Season: An Interview With James Ryan

Writer-director James Ryan makes his feature film debut with the decidedly offbeat family comedy, The Young Girl and the Monsoon. 13-year old Constance (Ellen Muth) is growing up faster than her weekend dad, Hank (Terry Kinney) can handle. When they’re forced to live together in his cramped New York apartment through extenuating circumstances, they each wind up coming of age in their own way.

Drawing from his unique perspective as a former actor (Joe vs. the Volcano, Five Corners), TV writer (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) and playwright, Ryan brings an impressive resume to the table. filmcritic.com had the opportunity to chat with him a few days before his Monsoon breaks on May 4.

filmcritic.com: How did you make the leap from being an actor/playwright to directing your first indie feature?

James Ryan: My acting career was actually something that fell by the wayside after a while because I didn’t like the business part of it. My playwriting just took over and seemed to be a better fit. And then, because I’ve always been in love with film, I started writing for the studios — Warner Brothers, Disney, Spring Creek Productions. As is usually the case when you work as a screenwriter, I was getting frustrated writing films that were never being made.

When my play, The Young Girl and the Monsoon, was put up at Playwright’s Horizons in 1997, it got a good review in the New York Times. After that, I got a lot of phone calls from studio people who wanted to develop it into a screenplay. I just heard myself say, ‘No, I’m gonna do it myself this time.’

So you were completely fed up with the studio system?

Oh yeah. I mean, some of my friends can happily live with the fact that they spend a year or two writing a script that doesn’t get made, but it started to really get me down. Basically, I lost two plays to companies that tied them up in turnaround situations. And I didn’t want the same thing to happen to The Young Girl and the Monsoon.

What was your experience of adapting from stage to screen?

Most executives say, ‘How are you opening up this film [for the screen]?’ I don’t think that’s really the issue. On some level, you’re telling a story and developing characters. Words are the primary way in which you convey information onstage, whereas in movies, you have the picture. So, it was always a question of, ‘How can I tell the story now? Should I use a picture or a word to really get stuff out?’

But there’s something else involved: with film I can capture private moments and lives much better than I could onstage. When I started to explore doing that, I lost about 50% of the play and removed a character, and things went in another direction as a result.

Were there challenges in writing a teenage role?

Most teen roles are very clichéd, wise-cracking teenagers who are above it all. These stories are usually written from an adolescent point-of-view where all the authority figures and adults are moronic, and the teenagers know better. That’s just not real! I have a teenage daughter and have also worked with teenagers. In my experience, they’re really screwed up! I mean, they go through a terrible period and don’t know what to do. And they just act out. Y’know, if we had out way we’d throw them into the basement and just toss meat down there until they passed this phase. The thing is, you have to be with them and that’s what I tried to capture.

Do you think there’s anything specific about raising a kid in New York?

Totally. This is a very particular species called the City Kid, and they mature on the average three to five years sooner than kids who are in environmentally healthier surroundings. They’re subjected to so much information at such an early age, so much sophistication, so many people around them. They’re just more advanced in terms of getting in touch with sexuality and a lot of other issues. As a result, I think they’re stressed a lot. They’re pushed too hard, too fast. No doubt about it.

Hank is 39. How old were you when you started this project?

I was just about the same age. Hitting 30 was never really a problem for me, but when I crossed into the 40s, I just saw my death. You start to really evaluate life differently at that point. So, obviously I had gone through this sort of threshold.

How did you select Hank’s profession as a photojournalist?

Part of the subject matter, hopefully without sounding too pretentious, has to do with that moment where Hank says that ‘the exposed life is not the examined life.’ The Young Girl and the Monsoon was about people coming to a crisis where they had to examine their lives. I wanted to tie that in, not only in terms of their internal lives but also the external life around them. It seemed to me the most ideal choice was to choose that profession. Also, it’s a job where simply exposing somebody can look as if you’ve given that personal subject matter real analysis or examination. And that’s not necessarily true.

Could you describe the process of working with cinematographer Ben Wolf?

Ben and I worked on the project for about three months before we started shooting. What was strange was we did sketches and storyboards, like stick figures and stuff, and then eventually being an actor I was like, ‘Look, Ben, let me just act it out for you.’ Then, suddenly, I included Ben in the scene, and we were doing, like, love scenes on the bed while I was explaining angles to him! We actually did the big break-up scene in the park in front of people walking by, and they would say to themselves, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s funny, but this was the most fruitful way in which we found to work together.

Did you feel like you had enough time during production or was it the typical indie scenario of having to rush through things?

It was a total cliché. I mean, it was hell. We shot in 31 days, 6 days a week, sometimes 10 pages of script in a day. Y’know, from a cinematic standpoint I just wish I had the luxury of doing a million inserts and pick-ups and coverage, but you just couldn’t do that. You simply had to keep moving. Also, we shot it in my apartment, which was a huge mistake because at one point we had 45 people crawling around here and I’m just now getting over patching the walls.

That’s the stress of taking the independent route. What are the strengths?

Our Executive Producers, Michael and Beverly Mehrlich had a great attitude. They wound me up and let me go. Obviously, we did a rough cut and they gave me their notes and input, but they never interfered artistically. Of course, I had all of the difficulties and compromises everybody has, but it was the exact tonic I needed after eight years of writing scripts that never got made, so it was really healing for me. It was great.

You wrote a book: Screenwriting From the Heart: Techniques of the Character Driven Screenplay. It reminded me of something an obnoxious producer once told me: ‘The character driven script means there’s no story or strong central event.’ How would you respond to that sort of criticism.

All stories are character driven to some degree. It’s ridiculous to make this artificial separation between story and character. It’s like, what causes a hurricane? Wind or temperature? They’re logistically linked. In the modern narrative, whether it’s the 19th Century novel or whatever, writers started to become much more interested in the specificity of characterization because they began to feel that there was more permanent value resided in the strategy or approach to creating a story. So, it has become a way to label a plot driven movie. That’s all it really
means — and even the plot driven story has to have good characters or the substance doesn’t really seem to be there.

Part of my writing that book was I felt that a lot of filmmakers were mistaking technique for substance, and there wasn’t enough content. The way in which you get people to focus on that was through characterization and that the more complex, original, and specific the characters, generally, the more complex, original and specific will be the story or the movie.

Buy Screenwriting From the Heart — the Book from Amazon.com

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