For a film dealing with such a harsh and serious subject, THE DRY LAND has seemingly had a charmed existence from day one. The drama examines the experiences of a veteran returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq and struggling to find his place back in his old life while still reconciling what went down on the battlefield. However, the experience getting the film made and making its way to a theater near you has been remarkably easy for first time feature filmmaker Ryan Piers Williams.
On the eve of the film’s limited release in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, I talked to Ryan about each step in that process to shed some light on how exactly it happened for THE DRY LAND, what his role and experiences were like in particular, and what he has learned from it all.
Let’s begin with the film festival experience. THE DRY LAND was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. Did you cast a wide net applying to a lot of film festivals? Or did you just start with that one, thinking “We’ll take it from there”? How did you approach that?
RYAN: We only applied to Sundance. Our strategy was to wait and see what happened there and then we’d try other festivals.
Did you figure because America Ferrera was a legacy (She had previously been to Sundance with REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES (2002) and HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS SPENT THEIR SUMMER (2005)), that you had that locked down?
RYAN: No, we didn’t think for a second that we’d get in. Of course that’s what you hope for, but you don’t expect it. Even with Heather Rae’s track record (A producer on the film, she had films like TRUDELL (2005), FROZEN RIVER (2008) as well as having been a juror at Sundance) you still never know, there are no guarantees. It was a complete surprise when we got in.
After we were in Sundance, then what happens is that a lot of festivals will come up and ask you to be in their festivals. We were very strategic in the ones that we accepted and then applied to in order to make sure that we weren’t over doing it with the festival appearances.
Describe that strategy.
RYAN: It was important to not show the film to everyone all over the country. You want to try and hit every different region – the major regions. Especially if you’re trying to build toward a theatrical release.
You didn’t want to play it out.
RYAN: We didn’t want to play it out. You want to build the excitement up to a release. Other films take different strategies but this is a strategy that Heather and I talked about for a long time. We did do a host of outreach screenings for military families and soldiers and military communities to talk about the issues the film deals with.
From the beginning, and not that you worked hand in hand with them, but you submitted the script to the Army early on and they were aware of the project. So, did that relationship follow through to completion and those screenings?
RYAN: Yeah. They definitely were helpful. We got their support early on and they helped us meet people in different communities and helped arrange some screenings. And we also relied heavily on locally based organizations as well. We did a screening in Boise, Idaho, a benefit screening and they helped us get the troops there and get the community out to the screening. And we also did a screening in Fort Carson, Colorado and that one was put together by a local organization as well. But the Army has always been supportive in just helping open doors and connecting with the right people.
How much thought, as you were developing the project – writing the script, putting it together, etc. – were you putting into the idea of how this movie would make its money back?
RYAN: For me, I’ve always been prioritizing the “conversation” that we create with this film and trying to reach people that I think need to see it and that would benefit from seeing it. I don’t really think about the money part. That’s not really my specialty; I don’t really worry about that. I do everything I can to make sure our screenings are well attended. But I don’t really know how that will translate into how well the film does.
However, on a common sense basis: If this movie makes money, you have an easier time making movie #2. So, you honestly are still kind of divorced from those concerns?
RYAN: Well, you naturally hope the movie will do well and is a success. But the only thing that I can do to help is to get out there and promote and get the word out about the movie. And that’s what I’ve been doing. But ultimately, I think the issues in the film are so important that people need to see it. So, if people pay to see it – fantastic. But for me, I’d be happy if people just saw it. I mean, obviously you want the movie to make money to make sure the distributors are getting their investment back. And I’m sure it would help to make my next film, but I don’t think I could focus on that. You can be out there promoting the hell out of your film and still no one goes to see it so you never know how audiences are going to react.
There are never any guarantees.
RYAN: So, I try not to think about it since it’s out of my control. I do what I can and hope it does well.
Okay, let’s go back to the effort to getting THE DRY LAND made in the first place. As much as you can or are willing to divulge: How did you get he money to make the movie?
RYAN: Maya Entertainment read the script after Heather Rae took it to them and they financed the whole movie. We had already created a budget and a schedule that was very reasonable, it was a very small budget – and they saw that we could make the movie for what we were saying we could make it for and America and Melissa Leo and a couple of the other cast members were attached at that point. It was just a business decision that they thought they could finance this film and make their money back.
And, to be honest, it happened pretty quick. I had taken the script around myself with a couple of my co-producers and we didn’t really get anywhere with it. But once Heather came on board, it had the financing within 2 ½ weeks.
When you were taking the script around, on your own to people, what was that like?
RYAN: It was difficult. We ran up against a lot of roadblocks. It’s a movie that has war themes in it and a lot of movies like that hadn’t done well up and to the point when I was shopping THE DRY LAND around.
Were you just shopping around the script? Or did you have additional materials, a business plan, and prospectus, that sort of thing?
RYAN: We just had the script, a schedule, and a budget. And a lot of people commented that they liked the script but it just wasn’t something they could take on. A lot of doors were shut in front of us until Heather Rae came on board. She was able to find the right people.
She was the hero.
RYAN: She is the hero. She’s incredible.
Let’s talk about casting for a moment. If I look at this from an objective, business point-of-view, you have America and Wilmer Valderrama on board – and they both have a tremendous following due to their television shows. And you have Melissa Leo and Jason Ritter on board, and they bring instant indie film credibility. Is any of that discussed in the casting process?
RYAN: No. Maya Entertainment did want a couple Latino actors in the film, so they were very attracted to the fact that America was in the movie. They were excited when Wilmer became attached to the film. But other than that, they were very supportive of all the decisions I made with my casting director. We had a very small budget – under a million dollars – so when we had these people willing to read the script, we considered ourselves very lucky. At that point it wasn’t about whether they could bring value to the project, it was about finding the best actor. And I was lucky because Maya Entertainment supported me in that.
Speaking toward getting those people to agree to be in the film: You and America had worked together on the short film MUERTAS, so she trusted you. You sent the script to Melissa and then you and America met with her. So, in that case, you had America as your advocate as someone behind the camera. What about Wilmer and Jason?
RYAN: Wilmer had read the script and his agent contacted us, saying he wanted to meet about doing the film. And he met with Ryan O’ Nan and myself and afterward we just knew he was right for it. He connected with the character, he connected with the material, and he also had been on several USO tours over the years so his connections to the military ran very deep.
So he was the right guy for you, but how did you then become the right guy for him? Did you have to show him a copy of MUERTAS or something like that?
RYAN: No, I didn’t. He read the script and then met with Ryan and I. And the three of us just kind of clicked, you know? I think it was just an immediate, mutual feeling.
With Jason Ritter, I had kind of known Jason socially, here and there for a couple years, but he actually just came in and auditioned for us. And he was great. We knew immediately he was right for the part, so it was very easy. We were very surprised that he wanted to audition for us. We wouldn’t have asked him to. I was very honored that he took the time to come in and do that.
Fast-forwarding back to today, the film is set to open this weekend in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. You’re doing press tours, trying to pitch it and convince people to go out to see it. How involved are you in that process? There are publicists for Maya Entertainment, the film has a publicist, there are personal publicists, but what about you yourself?
RYAN: I am involved in every single aspect. I see every email that gets pushed through. I’m in a very fortunate position where the distributors have ingrained me deeply in the process. I am making key decisions every single day, giving notes on individual ads, having discussions about which theaters it’s going to be in, helping to create the poster, giving hours and hours of notes on the trailer, to creating the whole outreach program we have established to get to the different people and communities that might be interested in the film. I don’t think there is one aspect that my finger isn’t in – which is incredible for a director. I feel very lucky, very privileged.
It’s one thing to accept that level of responsibility and participation. Are you enjoying that process?
RYAN: I am. It’s a very difficult process. I am learning a lot. This is the first time I’ve done this – it’s my first feature. I feel like I’m shepherding this film out into the world in the best way I think it needs to be shepherded – I’m always watching out for it’s integrity and the actors’ integrity. Not that I think anyone would just take this film and handle it in the wrong way, but I’ve been involved with this project from the very first idea of it. So being involved in seeing presented to the world in a nice way, with class – that’s exciting to me.
Now you are fortunate enough to have someone like America Ferrera in your cast, BUT she also has a personal publicist and they are notorious for not being helpful AT ALL for a film like this. So, how has that process been for you? Of course, in this particular case it’s a little different because of your relationship with America (They recently became engaged), but you are still dealing with an agency deciding that she doesn’t “need” to do this or that. And you just might be in the same room with her when those decisions are being made, wondering, “Why can’t she do this or that?” What is that like?
RYAN: You know, I try to keep my relationship with the actors separate from our professional relationship. The one thing I have to say is that we haven’t run into any issues with any of the representatives. And the actors have communicated to the reps that they’ll do anything they can within reason for this film. There are moments where everyone gets exhausted and needs a break, but we’ve been very fortunate that everyone has been so giving of his or her time and energy. Everyone has been very excited about the film – the actors, their representatives – it’s been good. I can’t say I have had one bad experience so far.
But there has to be some oddness to the professional formality of that.
RYAN: I don’t know. We all know each other, so it’s not odd. There IS a structure and you just have to respect each other in terms of a business sense. But it doesn’t have to be awkward if you run through the proper channels. We’re just fortunate we have a team of people around us on all levels that are very passionate about the film. So, it’s been great – I can’t say anything negative.
Having gone through this process up to this point: making the film, navigating film festivals, working through distribution and the marketing/promotion of the film, etc. – What has been the biggest eye-opener for you? What will you carry into making the next one?
RYAN: It’s so important to find out and really identify your audience – and find alternative ways to connect with them. You’re working with such a small budget that you have to be very creative. We have this whole push on facebook and twitter and this whole social networking thing as well as with our website to try and appeal to people that might not necessarily go to the movies. We do a lot of outreach screenings to try and build support for the film. In this day and age, if you don’t have a lot of money then you have to be creative to get the word out there about your film.
I think one of the best things I can say about THE DRY LAND is that if someone were to put it under an “Iraq war film” sub-genre, is that you deal with a very specific aspect of the soldier’s or the wartime experience and take a down to earth approach to that subject. For that reason, I could see the film having a healthy life beyond the initial release.
RYAN: My biggest goal for THE DRY LAND is that it furthers the conversation about the issue and the subject in the film. Whether it be PTSD or the issues that families face (with veterans returning home from war), I hope people can sit down and experience what ‘James’ (Ryan O’ Nan’s character) is experiencing and get a deeper understanding of what it must be like. I think those are universal themes, so hopefully this film will keep playing and keep people talking. If it can be used as a tool to spark those discussions, that would be fantastic.