Interview with Oscar-Winning Director of Ryan

Filed under: Interviews

For his Academy Award-winning short film Ryan, Chris Landreth has been faced with more screenings, public appearances, and interviews than ever before. Taking on computer animation as a second career path, Landreth has gained wide recognition and numerous awards for his previous films The End (Academy Award-nominee for Best Animated Short in 1996) and Bingo, which won a Genie Award in 1999. Now with Ryan, which is a look into the life of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, Landreth explores what is quoted as his personal "psychological reality".

Showbiz Monkeys: When did you first learn of Ryan Larkin and his work?

Chris Landreth: I knew of Ryan Larkin's work before because his short films have been around for awhile, I mean -- they have been around since the sixties. I knew of the film Walking, very much of a staple in the Canadian animation scene. When I first met Ryan, it was in the year 2000 -- I got to know him over the course of a week and just thought, 'Wow, what an amazing person I just met.'

SBM: From your film, I've picked out lines that were directed towards Ryan. For instance, you said 'I hope you get back into some serious creative work, I personally want to see you thrive'. I was wondering why it is so important for you to tell his story?

CL: It is a very universal story. It is not just a story about Ryan, which is interesting enough as it is, but a story about a lot of things which resonates with a lot of people. Ryan lives a life that embodies some of the fears and some of the emotional things that artists go through about what happens if your creativity dries up and what happens if you have no more means to support yourself and what happens when you lose it all -- either through mental illness or drugs or whatever -- what happens to you? Ryan lives that out to a big extent, and that is a big story -- it is a very broad story -- that's why I felt like I wanted to tell it.

SBM: In the beginning of the film, you bring attention to a few themes -- an unbridled romantic world view, organizing finances, the dread of personal failure -- and as you are actually revealing Ryan Larkin, I sense that these things are almost parallel. The film is quoted as your psychological realism. I was wondering if you could shed some insight on that, and how you would describe your film?

CL: I wanted to use the visual aspects of what you can do with animation to bring out the psychological states of people. In the beginning there, where you see me describing unbridled romantic worldview and all of that stuff, those are certainly my psychological states. What I was trying to do there was to make them visual so that people could immediately get it without having to necessarily describe what those things are. So I set it up one way in the first scene with myself, and I don't really describe it with Ryan, but when you see Ryan in the film and you see him in that very altered state without there needing to be a description, you get a real idea of at least how I perceive Ryan's psychological state to be.

SBM: The film is so intricate and comforting, I feel like it is just asking me to experience it and not pushing me to have a bias or install any one feeling. I am noticing things every single time I watch the film, which I never caught before, or I am re-discovering them. What was it like giving birth to this film from conception to finished product and putting such intense ideas into something that is tangible?

CL: The conception part is where the creativity really comes out and that part is in the sketch book so it is drawing stuff out. The work of the characters that you see there is something that I figured out pretty early on in the creative process -- with the parts where I have to actually see myself, and see Ryan in the metaphorical states which you see in the film. Once those sketches are done and they are actually modeled out in Maya, which is very early on in the process, what follows after that is very technical and I have to say that once I get into that technical state, it is not a particularly emotional thing. At that point it is more problem solving and there are lots and lots of problems to solve -- logistical problems, technical problems, problems with software -- and it really is about the deadline and very practical at that point.

SBM: Is there any room for play at that time? Is there any room left to expand or explore your ideas?

CL: I tend to get very left brained -- once the characters are drawn out in the sketch book form, I will spend and the people who work with me will spend a lot of time of rigging a character. The rigging part is where you actually model and make a character be able to move and talk and do the things a character needs to do. It is a time-consuming and very demanding process. As I said, it is a problem solving thing and very technical thing, which I tend to relish very much when I do animated films. There is a real payoff in the end with what is called the rendering part, where you render the character and it looks like what you see in the film. If you are in computer animation, it is quite a gratifying process, and for me and the whole team it drives it forward quite a bit. That is what is very much the impetus of doing it once you are in the production part.

SBM: With the images and everything you have put into it, do you have any hesitations about being vulnerable and showing people personal things about yourself?

CL: I will tell you this: when I started working on the film, I didn't have me so much in it. I felt, why should I put myself in it when this is a film about Ryan. I realized very early on that if I did that, the film would be a weak film -- it would be singling out Ryan, it would be heavy handed, it would be judgmental, it would be voyeuristic, and it would be kind of dishonest. I made a decision early on, that if I didn't want the film to be all of those things, I had to put myself in it, and I had to have those issues that you hear about. Like when I say to Ryan, 'I look at you and I see a lot of things about my mom', that was actually a part of the conversation that happened when I talked to Ryan about his alcoholism. If the film had just been me, lecturing Ryan on not drinking, it would have been a lousy film I think. So I made a decision that the way the film was going to work -- the only way the film was going to work -- is if I had myself in there and if I had exposed myself to a certain extent. But it needed to happen in my opinion, in order to make the film honest and in order to make the film connect with people. So it wasn't so much that I was putting myself in and then feeling kind of queasy about it, being vulnerable, it was that it was the only way to make the film work. I guess you could say that it was a very conscious decision.

SBM: It feels very organic -- it feels like a give and take, a push and pull between the two of you. At that point in the film when you were speaking of your mother and you were being engulfed in what I will nickname 'the dread', and suddenly a voice interjects and says your name Christopher and you then look up, and it feels like that voice has brought you back to us -- who is that supposed to be? Is that a mesh of several people, yourself, a mentor --

CL: That voice? The voice is Ryan's actually.

SBM: I watched it over and over and wondered if it was supposed to have the weight of a much bigger meaning. (laughs)

CL: The voice of God or something like that. (laughs) No, it's actually Ryan.

SBM: I wondered if it was supposed to be someone who was always a supportive backbone.

CL: In the film, Ryan is actually the person who the film is about and is very much a grounding element in the film -- the way that the film was going and you see those things wrapping themselves around Chris -- me -- and the film has become very much about me. And then there is Ryan who is sitting next to me and is sort of bringing me back by saying 'Christopher', and then we go into that last chapter -- the one that was about Ryan in that part of the film.

SBM: Regarding Ryan, how did he feel or how did he receive your proposal to do this film? How did you go about discussing it with him and what was that like?

CL: I asked him if he would be a part of my film, if he would be the subject, and he said yes.

SBM: It was that simple?

CL: Yeah, it was that simple. But he said, I am kind of poor, would you help me out financially if I am going to do this with you? And I said yes, sure, and I did. So there was a little of that involved.

SBM: Have you sat with him and watched the finished product?

CL: Long ago, a year ago we did. He has seen the film many times since then, and I am glad to say that he has been very much a supporter of the film.

SBM: What was it like exploring the branches of relationships within the film between yourself, Barbara, Derek, and Felicity? What was that like involving different aspects of his life?

CL: Derek came and interviewed with me months after I interviewed Ryan. I needed somebody who knew Ryan during his stage at the National Film Board. Derek is Derek Lamb, who is a famous animator is his own right -- he won an Academy Award for a film he did in 1978 and he teaches at Harvard University now. You know, he had a lot to say about Ryan. (laughs) I used about four lines of it, but we actually talked for about an hour and a half. But those were the best and most important lines that you heard in the film. In the case of Felicity, she lives in a very rural part in Quebec, maybe once a year or so she comes out to Montreal, so I timed that part of the interview to happen when she was in Montreal. I brought her into a National Film Board studio and interviewed her, and that was where she says Ryan was always very close to the edge. But then, the second after I had her interview me, Ryan was in the building and I had Ryan come into the room with Felicity, and I had Ryan actually draw Felicity while she was sitting there. He did some quick pencil and pen sketches of her and while they were talking to each other, I had microphones on both of them so you can hear them talk to each other. So that is the part in the film when you hear him say, 'we should have had children and I still love you.' He is actually saying that to her at the time and we got that on tape. The drawings that he did of Felicity are what we used to make Felicity appear in the film looking like a drawing. That is all based on the drawing that Ryan did at that time.

SBM: Wow. That's incredible. Does that apply to Derek as well?

CL: Yes it did. I mean, you see Derek looking like a sketch based also on a drawing that Ryan did of Derek.

SBM: Did you actually show him one of his original sketches from Walking?

CL: I did. That's why you hear him in the film say 'Oh wow, you have one of the original drawings.' Yeah -- I had that sketch hidden behind the chair I was sitting in and I brought it out and he reacted that way.

SBM: What was that like for you?

CL: First of all it felt like I was being kind of a trickster, because Ryan wasn't expecting that. Why, of course I wanted to get a nice reaction from him to get that on tape -- which I did. And to the happiness of Ryan though, because he hasn't seen that sketch in a while, he was really quite happy to see it.

SBM: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? I was reading a small bio and it said that this is a second career path for you.

CL: Yes that it true.

SBM: What is that like for you? Was it an epiphany one day that you wanted to pursue film or was it something more gradual?

CL: More of a gradual thing. I was in engineering. I got a masters degree in engineering in 1986, which is like 20 years ago now, and I was doing what is called fluid mechanics -- it is a kind of mechanical engineering. At a university that I got my degree at, I was working and doing experiments and stuff, and eventually got more into computers, then eventually went from computers to computer graphics, then computer graphics to computer animation, and then to making outright short films.

SBM: Your previous short films The End and Bingo have brought much recognition your way, including many awards and even a previous Academy Award nomination for The End back in 1996 for Best Animated Short Film. What is the whole experience like having now won an Academy Award?

CL: I have been much more busy, lots of phone calls, lots of screenings and public appearances. Three nights ago there was a screening at a place called The Camera Bar, I don't know if you know of the Camera Bar in Toronto, but it's a really new, cool, swank, hipster, bee-bop place to see movies.

SBM: Would you describe yourself as an extrovert, or an introvert, or somewhere lingering between?

CL: Introvert who has to be an extrovert at times.

SBM: I was wondering this because, having to be in the public eye and all this extra attention, how are you handling this? Is it something you enjoy, something you may want to run away from, or something you are embracing?

CL: I am fine doing it as long as I drink more coffee. (laughs)

SBM: (laughs) I think I know far too many people who would agree with you. Shifting gears a little, what do you feel is necessary in maintaining longevity in this unforgiving industry?

CL: It depends on where you want to go with it. I mean, I know that there are people who have very stable positions in this unforgiving industry. Do you mean animation or computer animation?

SBM: I was thinking more of film in general.

CL: In animation, people tend to have very steady jobs. They work for The Core or any one of the number of places, working full time jobs. It is not like you work for one company for very long, but there is generally work for people in these places. For doing independent filmmaking, I have never thought of the industry as unforgiving -- it is unstable; unpredictable. Canada has a different scene than the States, obviously, because of things like the National Film Board that tend to support independent filmmakers. You won't get very rich doing that sort of thing, but Canada is unique in that it supports those people who are good filmmakers with good or original visions, so at least they can make a living, which is great.

SBM: What advice would you give for an artist who wants to get their work out there and is vulnerable to the public?

CL: Have a vision. Be absolutely convinced. You have to have conviction that what you are doing is good and truthful and worthwhile. You have to be fully behind what you are doing. If it is going to be independent and you are doing this on your own, you have to really be able to not necessarily have to make a lot of money doing it. You have to be comfortable with that. If you really need a steady income or a certain level of income, you should find another line of work.

SBM: What is your favorite part of making films?

CL: I don't know if I have a favorite part, I like all the parts of making films.

SBM: Thank you for taking some time out to talk with me Chris, and thank you for your courageous work.

Tags: Chris Landreth, Ryan, Oscar winner, Canadian film

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