The class of 1998 was an amazing collection of people, many of whom I met as sophomores in my first year teaching US History I. A gaggle of those students became the core of my Mock Trial team as well as Model Congress and Model United Nations. Ryan was at the center of that group, a smart, passionate, thoughtful, and funny kid who has grown into a wonderful filmmaker, husband, and father. As he lives in San Francisco, we don’t get to see each other too often, but we got to check in with each other this summer and picked up as if we were still back in 1998.
Was your entire childhood in Hillsborough? If not, where did you live prior?
Yes, every single second.
What did you think of social studies generally in high school, specifically how it was taught as a subject? Did you find it engaging? Did you think it prepared you for later course work and — gasp — citizenship?
Social studies was one of my favorite subject areas in high school. I was especially appreciative of the electives offered, which provided a lot of opportunities to get deeper into interesting subject areas not normally covered in a class. I think the big benefit of my social studies coursework in high school was to sharpen my critical thinking skills, which helped me in college (and citizenship).
More generally, how was your high school experience?
Overall I had a great high school experience, but in hearing about other high schools around the country over the years, I’ve realized that HHS could have been offering more for their students. My senior year in high school I was the student representative to the school board. At the very first meeting, I remember the superintendent bragging about how Hillsborough spent the least per student of any similar high school in the state. It was something he took great pride in, but as a student who was having the least spent on my education of any of my similar peers, it was an absolutely disgusting thing to hear. I’m not saying you have to spend the most, but if you’re spending the least and getting decent results, imagine what you could do for students if you were spending in the middle of the pack. Other schools are offering those additional opportunities and support to their students and I think the school district could have set its sights higher.
In terms of my personal academic experience, I only realized once I got to college that I was a terrible writer. I always knew it wasn’t my strong suit, but I got good grades in high school and had no idea how behind I was. It took the first few years of college to get up to speed, so that’s one area I wish I had been forced to improve before reaching college.
How did your experiences with Model Congress and Mock Trial impact you?
My participation in both of those activities really helped me to think through argumentation logically and honed my skills at expressing my views verbally. I think Model Congress specifically also got me to think a lot about larger issues and then the actual steps involved in addressing those issues.
What attracted you to Wesleyan University?
Wesleyan University was one of the most liberal liberal arts schools I could find with strong political science, philosophy, and film departments. It also had a reputation for being diverse and fostering political activism. I liked that it was a small school and close, but not too close to home. I was friends with an HHS grade a year ahead of me who went there, so I got to visit and really liked the feel of the place. That visit was the first time college felt real to me and that I could envision myself at a specific place. I returned home I applied early decision. When I look back on it, I was woefully unprepared to apply for college in terms of thinking through what I wanted out of a school and which one would be the best fit. I had a list of somewhat random schools to which I was going to apply, but that list would be completely different if I were to do it again. I feel lucky that I happened upon a school that was such a good fit for me.
What did you major in? Did you have to write a thesis or do some kind of similar capstone project? If so, what was it on?
I was a double major in philosophy and political science (called “government” at Wesleyan). Wesleyan did not require a thesis or capstone project. It was an option, but I didn’t end up doing one.
Did your career goals change while you were in college?
Honestly, I didn’t have career goals before, during, or immediately after college. I just had a vague sense of wanting to do…something. In high school, my focus had been on going to a good school and I let that become an end in itself. I knew what subjects and issues interested me, but it wasn’t until I was about to graduate that it really dawned on me that I didn’t have any sort of career plan. Looking back on it, early in college I think I had some notion of becoming a professor, so I may have just floated along for years assuming I would immediately go to graduate school. Thankfully I had enough sense to realize that I did not have the intellectual chops to become an important philosopher, but for some reason I cannot now comprehend, it took me years to accept this (possibly due to my lack of said intellectual chops).
As graduation approached I started asking my advisors if they had any suggestions of what might be a good fit for me professionally. My political science advisor recommended doing what he did: “Win a Rhodes Scholarship because then you’ll have your pick of graduate programs.” For an obviously smart man, he gave me some of the most useless advice I’ve ever received. My philosophy advisor on the other hand made me swear I would never ever go to law school because she could not take getting another call from a former student who was in tears about the huge mistake they had made by going to law school. As I remember it, that was the extent of her advice.
Returning to the original question here, yes, I would say that my career goals did change and that by the end of college I realized I was going to need a practical way to work on the abstract ideas that had been my primary focus in school. It was at that time that I began thinking of either (or both) urban planning or law (despite the warning) as possible careers.
What did you do upon graduation? When did you decide to go to the University of Michigan?
When I graduated I moved to Portland, Oregon, for no particular reason other than I thought it would be a cool place to live. And I was right! But it also had a horrible economy at that time (2002), so it was very difficult to find a job. I went from looking for a job that would be interesting to anything that would pay. I ended up working at a corporate law firm and I had the very important responsibility of getting very important people lunch. Before I landed this plum position, I started applying to urban planning master’s programs and law schools as a backup plan. I was intending to do this eventually, but was originally going to wait a year or two to make sure it was the right decision. Once I got the job, it took the pressure off and I stopped my application process after only applying to a few places on my list. I worked at that job for four months when I received an acceptance letter and partial scholarship from the University of Michigan for their master’s of urban planning program. I decided to attend the program site unseen and gave three-months notice that week.
How long did you work as an urban planner? Where was that? What did that entail?
I worked as an urban planner for planning and engineering consulting firm for four years: first for a year outside of Washington D.C. and then for three years in Middletown, CT (ironically where Wesleyan is located). My specialty in the field was transit and non-motorized transportation planning. While I was in D.C. I was primarily able to work on transit projects along the East Coast. I transferred to the smaller office in CT when my wife began law school nearby. At that point I had to broaden the type of project I worked on to more general transportation planning (unfortunately CT is not a hotbed of transit use). That might not sound like a big difference, but I went from trying to improve transit service for people who needed it to working on parking plans that supported personal automobile use. That’s not to say that there wasn’t good work to be done in CT when it came to transportation planning, but it felt like I had moved far away from what had drawn me to urban planning. In terms of the day-to-day, I was collecting and analyzing various quantitative and qualitative data and then writing up plans for various projects that were often ignored by decision makers or derailed by neighbors who couldn’t accept change.
When and why did you decide to pursue a master of fine arts degree at Stanford?
If there is ever a time to do some soul searching, it is definitely while your spouse is in law school. I was working a job I didn’t particularly like, plus I felt somewhat isolated since everyone we socialized with was connected to the larger school community where my wife was a student. It made me start to wonder how I had gotten on this particular track in terms of my career. Two things happened at that time that brought this into sharp relief.
First, I had started listening to all the back episodes of This American Life while I was at work. There was a particular episode called something like Plan B. I realized that I had stumbled into a career Plan B without ever really trying a Plan A. Essentially it felt like I had fallen onto a safe path without ever going for something I would truly love.
Second, I ended up backstage at an MGMT show at Wesleyan. They had been a couple of years behind me at school and were a rising band at the time. When they came to town I was friends with people who were friends with them, so we went to the show. The green room was in a conference room at the campus center. I remember everyone was sitting at a big table before they went on and they were pretending like they were having an official meeting and it was the funniest thing to them. As someone who actually had to go to meetings at conference tables, it was the most depressing thing to me. Watching people who were having so much fun in life that they played meeting as a fun diversion from being rock stars was too much to bear. It was at that moment that I really knew I needed to try for something more.
I had always had an interest in film and had even incorporated it into some of my urban planning school work. Once I accepted I didn’t have to stay an urban planner forever, it just hit me as a revelation that I wanted to make documentary films. Luckily, there was a film program at Stanford University that seemed like it would be a perfect fit for me, unfortunately it was the only film program that seemed like it would be a fit for me and they only accepted eight students per year. I worked for a long time putting my application together and reworking my portfolio piece, which was a short film I made about how my wife and I had met that we showed at our wedding. It was really the only thing I had ever made that you could call a film, but it did the trick.
Oh yeah! That was super sweet, I’d forgotten all about it!
Why have you made only shorts and not longer films? Is it based on funding, attention span (yours or the audience), time, the specific ideas, or a combination of factors?
The answer is E, a combination of factors. Making feature-length films is costly both in terms of budget and time. For documentary films, there is also risk associated with investing so much in a story when you don’t know how it will turn out. Additionally, there’s a common trap of waiting for the perfect topic, so you end up looking and looking rather than starting projects and seeing how they develop.
On the personal side, we had our son not too long after I graduated from film school, so taking on such a big project while adjusting to being a parent was a challenge. Beyond that new domestic responsibility, I also felt a need to figure out how to make a living with the filmmaking skills I had, so I ended up focusing more on client work or working on other people’s projects. (Surprise! Documentary filmmaking is not as lucrative as you might have imagined.) Only recently have things settled to the point where I’m trying to make personal work again.
I’m open to the idea of making a feature film if I find the right topic. I happen to really like making short films, so I’m also fine with continuing with those for the time being. Often something that starts as a short leads you to a feature, either because the story warrants it or the act of filmmaking gets you to engage with the wider world. So I think the key is to be making lots of work and being ready and open to go where that takes you. So that’s what I’m trying to focus on now.
I believe “Kept” was your first project, a five-minute film, which focuses on the lives of what is conventionally referred to as “hoarders.” You used the term “clutterers” in your description of the film. I imagine that was a deliberate choice?
Kept was the first film I made at Stanford. It was shot on a hand-wound Bolex camera with 16mm film. When researching the project, I had a vague notion of finding someone elderly in San Francisco who lived on one of our famously steep hills and had become trapped in their home as their mobility declined. I was researching this overly specific idea online when I came across a local public health page addressing the issue of cluttering, which can contribute to health hazards and unsafe property conditions. I had never heard of the term and it struck my curiosity. As far as I understand it, cluttering is when people form emotional attachments to things causing them to acquire more of those things and they have trouble disposing of them. Hoarding on the other hand is a more extreme form of the condition where people no longer distinguish between things that have value and things that don’t. So, in practice, a clutterer may have large collections, but wouldn’t extend that collecting to everything, for example trash. Someone who is a hoarder might not throw anything away. Regardless of any sort of clinical distinction, I like the term clutterer because it is a less loaded term and doesn’t have the same implicit value judgement associated with it as hoarder.
What made you choose the subject matter and how did you find your three anonymous clutterers?
I found the three participants in the film through a Clutterers Anonymous Support group. They were really kind people who were willing to be part of the project, but just didn’t feel comfortable exposing themselves on screen. They had all done a lot of work to address their cluttering, so they were very self-aware and in touch with how the behavior made them feel and some of the deep motivations behind it. I tried to get them to go on screen, but I also respected their privacy. Since the film was about their environments to some degree and I met them through an anonymous group. I decided I was okay to take the approach of only showing their spaces and not seeing them. I think that doing audio-only interviews allowed them to be more vulnerable and honest in discussing their cluttering.
“Sick Wid It” focuses on an Oakland turf dancer, Antoine Sawyer. Since I’m familiar with your impressive move set, I can only assume that you met him in dance battle and his reward for winning was this feature. Did Antoine require much convincing to let you into his life? Any idea whether he’s still dancing?
I did meet Antoine at a dance battle, but your sarcastic jesting is correct that I was not in the dance battle. I don’t recall it taking Antoine much convincing to let us make a film about him. He had a powerful story that he was trying to tell in various ways such as dancing and the youth outreach work he was doing. I think he saw it as an opportunity to reach a new audience. I would say that while it didn’t take much convincing, it did take building a relationship to get him to open up more about his life than the narrative he was used to sharing. Over the course of the week we filmed with him, we got to spend a lot of time with him not filming. It was during those car rides, meals, and general down time that we got to build trust with him. The first day we showed up to film we showed up at his mom’s house and she had a fire burning in the fireplace and opera playing on the stereo. Antoine was the one to point out that it wasn’t quite representative of how things normally were in the house. It was an important reminder of how people try to control their image and narrative when participating in a documentary film. By the end of the week we had gotten past the artifice and when we sat down to do his final interview he basically said something along the lines of, “I’m going to be as honest as I can with you because otherwise this isn’t going to be true and what’s the point.” I think it was the most real anyone has been with me in an interview.
What was it like collaborating with a co-director?
Working with a co-director can be both challenging and inspiring. It’s always difficult to both communicate an artistic vision to someone else and then compromise that vision by respecting and incorporating their ideas. One of the big upsides for me was that my co-director was from New Zealand and she just thought of things differently. She was the one that came up with the topic of Turf Dancing. For me, I felt very uncomfortable about making a film about a former gang member from Oakland because it didn’t seem like my place to represent that story. It was an important story, but I just wasn’t sure it should be filtered through me. As an outsider to the U.S., she approached the topic with a sort of enthusiastic innocence because she was genuinely curious to learn more about these guys and their dance form. That helped push me out of my comfort zone and it turned out to be a rewarding collaboration for everyone involved. The downside in this instance is that she was a more experienced filmmaker and I had trouble trusting my instincts and advocating for them.
“Plasticity” seems like a breakthrough for you — a film that not only is about a subject you clearly find interesting, but one that jibes perfectly with your work as an urban planner, your love of your city (San Francisco), and your examination of the use of space. Did you feel that way about it?
When I made Plasticity it was a very intentional effort to focus on a topic related to my background in urban planning. When I first decided to go to film school, I had imagined that documentary film would just be a different means to address similar issues I cared about. I expected to blend my urban planning background with my filmmaking. But film school isn’t set up to keep you focused on one issue area, so I could feel myself drifting to whatever held my interest (although I would argue that aspects of my interest repeatedly show up in all my films), so I wanted to consciously make a film about the city. I could tell I was really forcing my concept of what I wanted the film to be because at the end of every interview I conducted, each of the three subjects all asked some form of, “So what is this film about again?” I had this idea it was about the flexible use of urban space, which it was, but it was also very much about food, but I just couldn’t accept that at that time. It was a good lesson in how it’s better to be responsive to what the film is rather than what you want it to be.
The flexible usage of space for beekeeping and two sort of pop-up restaurants (though quite different) was a neat, almost Errol Morris kind of thematic approach. I do have to say I wanted to know more about each of the stories. Did you think there was more there but were limited in what you could put into the film, or do you subscribe to a “less is more” approach?
I think there were a few things going on here. Like I said, I had this concept about the use of space, so I was trying to fit the stories into that idea and wasn’t really open to exploring beyond that point. I was also shooting this on super 16mm film, so I was very limited in how much I could film. And finally, I do think that in short films, the less is more approach is generally effective. To me, the best short films leave viewers with more questions than answers, so I’d prefer someone feeling that they wanted to know more as opposed to being fed the entire story. That said, if you don’t have enough information to be interested in or understand what’s going on, that’s obviously a problem, so there’s a balance.
“Everything Is Going to Be Fine” is a very different kind of film. For the first time you’re on camera and it’s told overtly through your voice and perspective. It also strikes a comic tone about a serious subject: the notion that the world is falling part and nearing its end. What drove those choices?
The style of EIGTBF is very similar to the very first thing I made for my portfolio piece for Stanford. This was another conscious choice to get back to what my initial impulse was before I had “learned” to make films properly. It’s a very loose way of making a film, which leaves open a lot of creative avenues. I think of this way of making a film as sort of assembling a quilt of all these little scenes, discarded archival footage, or handmade imagery.
The idea of making a film about the world ending came from a summer of research while I was looking for a film topic. At the end of the summer I looked back through my notebook and I wasn’t sure how anyone could feel otherwise. Some people may call that naive considering where we are today, but to be completely self aggrandizing, I call it prophetic.
In terms of putting myself in the film, that was another deliberate choice. Making documentaries can be a challenging process because you’re often using the real lives of other people as the building blocks to create your art or express your idea. At that time I felt like if I was going to ask people to share their lives with me on screen that I should be willing to do so as well. I chose a comedic approach because I thought it would be a more engaging film to watch. So much of documentary filmmaking is overly serious, which limits the audience who is willing to watch it. Plus, I think that’s somewhat my personality and like the idea of interjecting humor into my filmmaking when it’s appropriate.
How painful is it to think about where we are now in 2019 compared to the condition of the universe when this film was made? Are we mere seconds away from the Lagash solar eclipse that sets us back 10,000 years?
It is very painful. But I also think it is a mistake to think of that as a different time. The table was already set at that point. I think the only real difference is now we’re directly experiencing the consequences of our inaction on some of these big issues. Back then we thought we had more time to act, but the reality is we didn’t and not much that could have practically been done at that point would have changed things. I do think that through the process of making the film I began to let go of a fear of not being able to maintain the world I knew and being open to the idea that some sort of drastic reset or change in our way of life might be necessary. I think it also helped me realize that it’s not that the world is ending, but that we might be ending. The earth is going to be here regardless of what we do, so it’s really just about if we want to keep being part of it. Incremental action won’t get us there and we seem incapable of large collective action, so to some degree it’s making peace with the idea that things can’t be the same and maybe there’s good in whatever change comes.
Your latest film, “A Little Piece of Earth,” tells the fascinating story of Charles Bello, an eccentric, 86-year-old architect, single handedly building wildly unique houses on a large tract of land. He’s hoping to find a kindred spirit who can take over his work, but time seems to be running out. Do you have any idea what would happen to his property when he passes?
Charles currently has a non-profit established to take over the property when he passes. Everyone on the board loves the property and wants to see his vision for it continue, but no one has the skills to maintain the property as Charles has been able to, which would make it costly to maintain. Charles really is a remarkable person and I’m just not sure there is a younger version of him that exists today that could step into his role. I know his hope is that a small group will take over and have the skills between them to make the place run, but it’s difficult to find the right people. I think the fear and general assumption is that if no caretaker is found, the property will just get overtaken by nature and the structures will slowly degrade. Even if that were to happen, the land would still be protected, but much of his work may be lost.
You named your production company (correct that nomenclature if there’s a better phrase) “Subjectively True.” I love it, but what does that mean to you?
I had a friend back in college who would often say things were objectively true when he was making an argument. I misheard him the first time he said it to me and thought he said his point was subjectively true. I thought that it was a hilarious way to end/win an argument and it stuck with me.
When it comes to making documentaries, it felt like a perfect description of the act. Documentaries are always shaped by all the participants involved to create something that may be based in reality, but a reality that is filtered through their interests, biases, and perspectives during the filmmaking process. So when it comes to documentary, it’s very important to me to always remember that films are constructed by people with specific agendas, experiences, and outlooks. What you get may be truth to them, but that doesn’t make it true for everyone. This ensures there is plenty of room to push back, argue, and disagree over films based in real-world events.
How much of your current film work is for you versus work to pay the bills?
I’m not sure I know that or could even accurately guess that. It really depends not only on the day, week, or month, but on the year. Sometimes I’m working exclusively on a personal or independent project for months at a time, but then I’ll squeeze in some client work if a good opportunity pops up. Generally with client work other people are driving the desire to have their work completed, so it’s easier to get pulled into projects. When it comes to your own film, it can feel like an uphill battle making time for it, even if you really want to make it. So in my experience, which I don’t think is uncommon, you get burnt out on the client work and start really desiring doing something more creative and for your own benefit and then clearing some time where you say no to client projects while you try to make your own thing. And then after a little while you need money again so you try to get some client work back on the books. It’s hard to find the right balance and I’d say most people I know struggle with it to some degree.
Not for nothing, but did you and your wife Jen make a deal with the devil to produce the cutest child in the universe? I gather from the credits of your last film that Caspar has your wife’s last name. A feminist gesture against patrilineal society?
We agree! My son Caspar does have my wife’s last name and yes it was a feminist gesture against patrilineal society. I know things like this are a really personal decision and lots of people have excellent reasons for all the different ways family members keep, change, or pass on their names. For us, it just seemed like an obvious way to signal that our family is going to do things a little differently. And for me personally, it was an act of love toward my wife and son to show that I felt so comfortable with my connection to each of them that I could be the one with the different name.