Ryan LittleFebruary 2014 • Interview by Candy Eash
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Ryan began his directing career with The Last Good War, a short film that received the Jimmy Stewart Memorial Award and an Emmy at the 1999 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences College Awards. In 2004 Little directed his first feature film, Saints and Soldiers. This critically acclaimed film received the Best Picture Award at over fourteen film festivals, two nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and the $100,000 grand prize at the Heartland Film Festival. Ryan followed up his feature film debut with the ABC Family Channel original comedy Everything You Want, starring Shiri Appleby (CW’s Life Unexpected) and Edie McClurg (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). In 2006, Ryan directed the western Outlaw Trail staring Bruce McGill (Match Stick Men) and Arielle Kebbel (The Uninvited). In 2008, Ryan directed Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings), Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers), Gary Cole (Office Space), and Penn Badgley (CW’s Gossip Girl) in Forever Strong, the true story of the Highland Rugby Team. In 2011, he directed Age of the Dragons, a fantasy-based adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic story Moby Dick. The film stars Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) as the obsessed Captain Ahab and Vinnie Jones (Snatch) as the incorrigible Mr. Stubbs. Ryan worked with producer Dean Devlin (Independence Day) on the TNT pilot Blank Slate.
There are a lot of stories in the LDS film community about your start in filmmaking—will you share the true story of what brought you to film and how your first feature came about?
My first exposure to working in the film industry was back on a TV show called 21 Jump Street, starring Johnny Depp. I got to be an extra off and on for a couple years. Growing up in Vancouver was great because there was a ton of stuff being filmed up there. Eventually I got to work as a production assistant on a handful of TV shows and movies—mostly picking up garbage, holding signs, making coffee. Very glamorous stuff.
After that, I attended the film program at BYU. They had great resources for filmmaking—sound stages, 35mm film equipment, even their own in-house lab for developing film. It was awesome.
Somewhere along that path I made a short film called The Last Good War. It received a Student Emmy as well as a special award from Jimmy Stewart’s family. I showed that film to a fellow filmmaker named Adam Abel and he liked the idea of trying to make a WWII feature film. So we went around and showed the film to some people he knew. They loved it and gave us enough money to make Saints and Soldiers. That’s pretty much how my directing career started.
So war stories have been a theme of yours since the very beginning. You’ve stated that you were fascinated by World War II and that “making these films is our way of honoring those who have done so much to fight for our freedoms.” With so many stories, how do you choose which to make? And how do you choose which moments to highlight in storytelling?
I have always been fascinated by WWII films. I don’t know why; I just am. I love being able to remind the viewers that there were people who gave their lives for our freedom. Veterans are just amazing people. I read a lot of WWII books. Some are good and some are great. There are gems out there—you just have to put the time in to find them. Usually the stories we choose are based around a moment in time, a single event where someone does something really brave, where they risk everything for the greater good. That is what we try to build our stories around.
You have worked as both a director of photography and a director. Can you explain the difference between the two and share your experience of doing both on a project?
For me, directing and being the cinematographer is the same. People ask me all the time, “How can you do both jobs at the same time?” I don’t really know—it’s just the way I learned filmmaking. I come from a family of photographers, so the creative bug came for me through telling stories with images. The directing part came later.
When I can, I try not to do both jobs. It’s usually a budget reason when I do it—it saves the production money for other things. The real problem comes with actors. If you are the cinematographer and the director, it means you are splitting your time between lighting and working with your actors. That can have a negative effect on the performances you get.
Each project is different; each has its own needs. In an ideal world I would just direct, so I could give the actors the time they need to really shape what they are doing in a particular scene. I really love being the cinematographer for other directors. It is really fun to step back and watch someone else direct. I always learn something new from other directors I work with.
You’ve had the privilege of working with some pretty amazing and well-known actors–Danny Glover, Sean Astin, and Neal McDonough, and some of your own movies have helped to establish some pretty incredible LDS actors like Corbin Allred and Jasen Wade. What do you look for in an actor?
I have been very blessed to work with some very talented people. I always learn so much from those who have been in this industry much longer than I. Truthfully, I think Corbin Allred and Jasen Wade were already established before—I was just lucky enough to persuade them to work with me.
In respect to hiring actors, there are a few things that come to mind. I only work with actors who are respectful of the crew. I don’t tolerate actors who think they are better than anyone else on set. It doesn’t fly with me. Everybody works hard on set, not just the actors. I like to work with actors who are prepared. When an actor comes into an audition, I expect them to be “off-book”—they need to memorize the dialogue for the scene. I don’t care if they change the wording a bit, but if you come in the room and just read off the script and wing it, then there is no way I’m going to hire you. If you can’t memorize a page of dialogue for an audition then how are you going to do a 120-page script when it’s time to shoot? I also look for actors who love acting. I can always spot the ones who are in love with the idea of being famous. I am not interested in those kind of actors.
Each project has its own unique challenges, and with each project your skills increase. Which film has helped develop your skills as a director the most? What specific experiences brought about those changes?
Every film is a challenge. They are all different, so the challenges are different. I wouldn’t say that there is one film that has taught me the most.
In respect to the film I am working on now, called The Void, I have been learning a lot about working with and coordinating the picture vehicles. We have five tanks in this film and they are dangerous, so you have to be organized and plan things out carefully. That is something new for me, so now I have better skills in respect to shooting those kind of scenes. The next film will be completely different.
From the perspective of a director, what are your thoughts on how film festivals help in the creation and promotion of films?
I love film festivals. They are great places to interact with other filmmakers, to see what they are doing and to learn from each other. The kind of people who attend film festivals are the real fans. They are so supportive of your work. It’s very therapeutic for me.
Pick your festivals carefully; not every festival is right for your film. If you want to win and get some good buzz going on your film, you need to attend. So many people enter their film in a festival but don’t go. Those are the films that no one really sees. You have to be there promoting your films—people come to the festivals to meet the filmmakers. Only good things can come to your film from showing your work at a film festival.
You’ve stated many times that Raiders of the Lost Ark is your favorite film of all time. In what ways has this film influenced your storytelling?
I remember walking out of Raiders with my dad and saying, “I don’t know what that job is, but that is what I want to do.” I didn’t know who Steven Spielberg was back then and I certainty didn’t understand what a director did, but I was determined to figure it out. I am not sure if my films have very much in common with Raiders, but I do look at that film as an inspiration for why I do what I do. Raiders is one great roller coaster ride.
At the LDS Film Festival a few years ago, you said that the easiest road to success for a film is to completely understand your audience, and then to stay within the boundaries that audience allows. For example, if a filmmaker is making a purely Mormon film, they need to be realistic about the budget due to audience size and they need to know that the subject most likely will not be relatable to more than that audience. How do the Saints and Soldiers films transcend being simply LDS films?
I have always seen Saints and Soldiers as a film for everyone. I wasn’t trying to make it for one specific group of people. If it appeals to Christians, great. If it appeals to WWII veterans, fantastic. I always strive to make films that can be as universal as possible.
You’ve said you like exploring the spiritual aspects of the human experience. How does the gospel influence your filmmaking?
Not every film I get to direct has a spiritual connection to it, but I love it when it does. People are emotional beings and as long as the spiritual elements of your films are not didactic, then it can be a wonderful way to express your theme.
What are your hopes for future LDS filmmakers and the future of Mormon film?
I love seeing what other filmmakers are making. I saw The Saratov Approach when it came out. It was very great. Fresh. I think as long as you can come up with things that are new, people will support it. I think a lot of people are going to see that movie who are not LDS as well, and that is what I love to see happen.
What are you currently working on, and what would you like to do next?
There are a few projects in development right now. I have been offered to shoot a supernatural thriller in Canada this summer. That will be something new for me. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from the experience.