Ryan Connolly is a film director and owner of Film Riot, a YouTube channel about filmmaking with over 1.8 million subscribers. Ryan paved his way into a Hollywood directing career by launching this weekly filmmaking show taking viewers behind the scenes as he learned the ropes of film directing. In this episode, Ryan talks about his journey, self-producing and directing 18 short films, and how he signed with a manager that opened doors into Hollywood.
Find this episode on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Also available at Creatives Offscript.
Nate Watkin: Welcome to the Creatives Offscript Podcast sponsored by Assemble. I am your host, Nate Watkin, and today we have a guest that defines do-it-all filmmaking. Ryan Connolly is a writer, producer, director, editor, and everything in between, as well as the founder of Film Riot, a YouTube channel about filmmaking with over 1.8 million subscribers. With his mantra, "Right, shoot, edit, repeat," he's a workhorse having self-produced and directed 18 short films. If you studied filmmaking in the last decade, there's a good chance you've seen one of his tutorials or one of his films. Without further ado, welcome to the show, Ryan.
Ryan Connolly: Thanks, man. Happy to be here.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Absolutely. So to get started, tell me a little bit about your history. Would love to know where did you grow up and how old were you when you first got into filmmaking.
Ryan Connolly: I grew up in South Florida, and I always say I was eight, my mom says I was six. I don't remember ever wanting to do anything other than entertain people, bring them a story and experience, but then my dad brought home VHS video camera. That's aging me a bit, but there it is. I vividly remember looking through the viewfinder and having this sense of, that light switch flip on, I can make people see what I want them to see because before that, it's all like I think most kids do, you put on plays for your family and stuff like that or at least a lot of kids do, but they wouldn't laugh at certain parts or they wouldn't get it. They just didn't see what was in my head. So it was like, "How do you convey that?"
So at a young age, I had that idea of I can force them to see the exact perspective I want them to see. Then I just became obsessed with that and then it was Jurassic Park in '93. I was 11. That really fully flipped the switch of, "Oh, this is filmmaking. There's a person called the director and they brought us this experience," because it was the first time I had that unsafe and a safe place roller coaster ride of an experience. So these characters were real to me. I was fully transformed to this completely other place that had to be real, right, but I knew it wasn't, and just how the audience reacted to the film. It was just such a pinnacle moment for me as a filmmaker. Really life-changing moment. That definitely focused me fully on this is exactly it.
Then after that, it was just chasing it. I used to love the show on Discovery Channel. I talk about it all the time on my show called Movie Magic, where they would just show behind the scenes of Terminator 2, and Speed, and Jurassic Park, and the old Harryhausen or I might be screwing his name up, those old films and how the magic behind the movies, how they created these magic tricks that they bring to an audience to tell the story.
Although that's way beyond anything I could do at the time, all I had was a VHS camcorder, it was pulling the concepts of what they were doing and trying them on it, trying to force perspective, trying different ways to cut, to convey a big idea. Then it was just chasing that ever since.
I went to film school late. I was 20, 21, something like that. Went to more of a tech school. I just wanted to know where the buttons were, really. It was a heightened pace school. You're there for 14 months and then you're out, but you do two, three years of work in that very short timeframe. So it's round the clock schooling. So very, very intense, which I liked because I'm a eat, sleep, drink, breathe, film person. So the fact that it was just constantly doing it, I loved. I wanted to get past knowing where the buttons were and get on to figuring out how to tell stories because that was always my plan. I'm not going to learn really craft my voice in school. I'm going to figure out the tech.
Like I said on the show recently, that's always been my deal. My thought process is I want to understand the technology so it doesn't control me, I control it to get it, to do what I want it to do, and I'm not at its mercy.
So then after that, I was just shooting anything that I could, music videos, friends, shows, local commercials, little scenes, just constantly writing, shooting, editing, going again, and trying to build out a reel for myself. Then got a job down in Miami running Alienware. It's a video studio, which was a cool learning experience because I got my hands on more gear and then it was fun to take. You have these boring talking heads where they're talking about a process or they're interviewing somebody, a processor. It's like, "How can I make this cinematic? How can I make this watchable?" So there was constant fun challenges for myself there figuring out how to shoot the laptop more cinematically like how would Fincher shoot this laptop, things like that. Then that ultimately led to the idea for Film Riot. Then I kicked that off and it's just been crazy since then.
Nate Watkin: I can imagine. So thank you for filling me on all that, but let's rewind a little bit. I want to talk about your earlier days a little bit.
Ryan Connolly: Sure.
Nate Watkin: I think it's interesting that you said that from a very young age like six or seven you begin to understand the concept of controlling the narrative through the lens and wanting to control the perspective that you're seeing. Also, I know you grew up with 10 siblings. So were they your first actors and film crew?
Ryan Connolly: Oh, yeah. A lot of them still are. I mean, Josh is my brother. Emily is my sister. Tim is my brother. He's pretty much my business partner. He runs half the company and is a part of every film I make as a producer and executive producer, just helping make things happen, but, yeah, man. In the early days, it was just ... So I have nine brothers and sisters. I'm one of 10, but it was just great to have ... My older brothers and sisters were pretty much never interested in doing my weird zany things, but every now and again they would in the early days, but my younger brothers and sisters were always like, "Hey, hell yeah! What's this? A ghost house thing? Sure, let's do it." So they were always game to play around.
So it was an interesting education on accident in handling talent in front of the camera that has no idea what they're doing and has no attention span for it because that's what comes later, right? When you're doing your early films, you're often working with people who aren't actors, who are just being kind enough to you to come do that. So it's the same thing, and then Ballistic had a child actor, and I found that very intuitive and very comfortable to work with because I had done so much before. Even Emily in the early days of Film Riot working with kids was very, yeah, this is how you do it, this is how they think, and this is how ... So that was really helpful, but, yeah, man. They were for a very, very long time, even into Film Riot. The early days of Film Riot was pretty much just me and whoever would come and help out at that time, and that was all friends and family, largely family.
One of my first shorts outside of film school that I would consider a short, Tell, was all friends and family, but mostly family. It was shot at my parents' house. My brother let me use his attic for these attic shots we had to do. I had my 13-year-old sister as a boom operator. That's pretty much how that one went. So they've always been massive supporters of everything I do. That's been such a blessing. As you get older, you realize how lucky that is that they were on. They're all very talented, too, which is weird. There's something in my parents' DNA that just passed down creative talent. So I was able to bring that onboard as well, and that helped a ton also. So yeah, it's been super cool.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. I think for filmmakers, especially ones that don't go to film school, one of the hardest things is getting that crew of people and cast to support. So it's awesome that you had almost film school before film school with your siblings just playing around with cameras.
Ryan Connolly: Totally. I think before film school, I don't even know. I always just say 50, but it's probably more like 100 plus of short sketches and short films that I did even before film school. I was just always shooting something.
Nate Watkin: So tell me about your experience at film school. I mean, what would you say looking back, what was one of the biggest takeaways from film school that you still use today?
Ryan Connolly: I don't know. I mean, it's all the culmination of everything that I've done before that I do now. So I'd say everything from, like I said, doing short films or, I mean, scenes, really, when I was 16 or 15, 14, 13 with my younger brothers and sisters informed how I handled child actors in my professional days. So I think everything does land itself to what you ultimately become, but I don't know anything very, very specific from film school.
I mean, I definitely, for the first time ever, I was surrounded by people who wanted to do it and there were people who had the passion and really wanted to do it, and then there were people who they like the idea of it, but they don't want to do it. Getting that first glimpse of, "I don't understand how you're being lazy right now. We get to do this. This is the same camera Peter Jackson is using. Why are you going home right now?" You know what I mean?
So it wrapped my head around that and also just the different personalities and some people need to be motivated in different ways, and that's okay. It's just a different personality. Some people aren't so psychotically intense as I am, and that's okay. How I am probably isn't the most healthy. They might be onto something. You know what I mean? Just understanding that not everybody thinks about film and operates with film, how I do it, and that's not a bad thing. I mean, laziness is always a bad thing, but not everybody is going to be as, for lack of a better word, psychotic about film and filmmaking as me, and that's okay and normal. That doesn't make them any less of a filmmaker.
Then that was a real epiphany for me because before then, it was just friends and family. So I thought, in my mind, anybody who wants to do film is as nuts as I am, like they don't want to do anything else all day long. They'd go to sleep dreaming about the thing. There's a lot of people who are like that, but then there are people who they're better at balancing life and the thing they want to do. That's something that I've had to really work on over the years is because I did find myself to be a little too obsessive about film and I had to figure out a life balance as well.
Just seeing those different personalities and everything and how they operated and, "Okay, not everybody does this, okay. So I need to handle these people differently." So it really gave me a crash course on personalities because I did want to be a director. I do want to be a director. I am a director now. You have to be able to manage very different personalities. So you have the people who are just as intense as you and then you have people that aren't as intense, and you have people that really need to be motivated, and then you can really pull amazing things from them and help them achieve what they're most capable of.
So that was probably the biggest takeaway from that because, I mean, there was a lot of obviously wrapping my head around how light works, how the sensor works, all those things, but a lot of that even shifts. You don't need the amount of light that you needed back then, and you don't need this light that takes four people to mount on a combo because we have this LED that pumps out just as much and I can carry it with one hand now. You know what I mean?
So everything changes, but working with people doesn't. That is the same. It always is. You have these types of personalities and you need to be able to navigate that. That was my first entry into really starting at least to figure that out, and I'm still trying to figure that out. That's always some of the toughest stuff.
Nate Watkin: So you graduated from working with your siblings who you can just yell at.
Ryan Connolly: Yeah, tell them to shut up and, yeah.
Nate Watkin: To professional peers. So that's a good progression. So you get out of film school and what was your outlook like at that point? Did you feel like, "I want to be a Hollywood director? I want to go do features," or what was your mindset at that point?
Ryan Connolly: Oh, yeah. I felt like I was going to be an 18-year-old feature filmmaker and then 25, and the 30, and then 35. It's always been the goal of bigger feature films. I suppose that meant Hollywood. I'm sure it did, but I've never thought about premiers or, I guess, red carpets or award shows or any of that sort of thing. I've only thought about this thing that I put together is now in this dark room on a giant screen where these people are going to feel something. That's just always been the goal, whatever that looked like.
So features was always the goal, and I suppose Hollywood, and the studio system, and being able to do it at that level was always the goal, but right outside of film school, I was objective of the fact that there's a road ahead, especially after film school learning as much as I did, but it's going to take five plus years now now that I have this to get there. It's taken way more than that.
So right out of film school, it was about, like I said before, just making absolutely anything that I could, taking what I did before film school without knowledge. So it was really just flying blind to after film school doing the same thing but with a little bit more knowledge. So now, I'm consciously working toward perfecting my craft. Whereas before, I didn't even know to call it a craft. It was very just doing things. So now I can focus in more on, "Okay. I know for sure I don't know these things, and once I figure these things out, I know for sure that's going to teach me what else I don't know."
That was the process of, "Okay. Now I'm starting to wrap my head around these," and, "Oh, yup. There are those other things and I knew I was going to find out that existed that I don't know." That was the progression. So again, anything that I could do that would be visual that could tell a story in any kind of way, like I said, even I was doing talking heads, two people talking about a processor, "How could I stage this? How could I stage this to be cinematic? What's the story here? How can I make an audience feel engaged in this? Well, maybe I want them to feel like they're in the room with these people, they're part of the conversation. Well, how do I do that?"
That's all storytelling like how can I sit you in this seat the way that I want to do that. Figuring out how to have command over those aspects will help me tell the story. That was my thinking. So it was everything from doing actual little shorts and scenes. I would do a lot of scenes, not full blown shorts, even if it was just a two-minute full blown short, but not like a beginning, middle, and end thing. Sometimes more often than not, actually, it would just be scenes and just like, "How do I make this scene work? How do I find the pacing? How do I get whoever is watching to understand what I meant without having to have the people in front of the camera say it?"
So it was a lot of that, including writing that way as well, and just chasing that bit by bit. After that, that was even what my short films were even for Film Riot were, what Film Riot was. Doing Film Riot forced me to make something every single week without fail but at a certain level. It had to be finished. It couldn't be like before I would make a scene, and if I got bored with it, I would just, "I'm going to stop."
No. This had to be a finished, graded music, sound effects. Everything is done. This is a package piece of entertainment and it's going online no matter what even if my hard drive crash and I have one day to do it and it's the worst episode we ever made, it's got to be done and it's going online. So that really taught me a ton and taught me speed. What was interesting is it didn't let me be precious about anything and it forced me to be creative quickly, and it worked out those muscles to where I got out of my way after a while of getting used to do that, of being overly precious and not trusting first or second ideas instincts of, "Hey, this is funny. Run with it," especially when it comes to comedy.
If you have time and you write comedy, you fall into a ditch of, "Is this funny?" You write it and you're laughing while you write it, but then the fifth or sixth time you read it, it's not funny anymore to you. So it's tough. Whereas Film Riot didn't allow me to second guess anything. With Film Riot, I always called it ad lib writing because we had so little time. There were never any rewrites. I would sit down, I would write straight through, making up as I go, no idea where this sketch is headed or what the ending is half the time, write it straight through, and then there we go. This is what we're shooting now.
So that was really great practice as well, but then into the short films, with Tell it was like all theory and instinct, not really I'm going to do this because I know this would be scary or make the audience feel this way because of this reason. It was very instinctual pretty sure it's going to. You know what I mean? Then so after that, I could see what worked, what didn't work and, "Okay. What do I need to get better at?" That's what every short film after that was really about.
We did this action month where it was action sequences. They weren't really short films, but we did five of them with a stunt team in Canada, incredible stunt team, Trevor Addie, Cassandra Ebner, all these amazing artists, but it was my first time working with a stunt team, and that was the whole point around that one is really working with them, figuring out how a proper team puts together an action sequence, how I work with them, what is their language, how do they talk about this, how long does it take to set up a wire fall, how long does it take to set this sort of thing up, how long do they need to choreograph this little piece, how can I interject and wrangle that.
I learned a ton from that, which took to Ballistic and then just sticking on the stunt side of things with Ballistic on the stunt side of things because I do love action and that's a lot of, definitely a big genre I want to play in, but that one I was like, "Okay. Let's do more practical. Let's do explosions. Let's light a dude on fire. Let's do something with a car. How long does that take? What safety precautions are needed?" Really learning how all of these processes work, and even down into the storytelling.
I've always gone more really ambiguous with everything because I just like that personally. I think it makes for a better short film, a more interesting short film. It really opens it up for me, but also, I really love the practice of, "Can I convey more to you than is inherently there?" You know what I mean? Can I put things underneath the surface and you grab on to those things and build out the story around that? Can I paint most of the canvass and leave a lot of it blank and you come in and paint? How's that going to make you feel? With YouTube, people are going to tell you right away.
So that was another aspect of consciously learning and trying things and how much can I hold back and just straight up not show or say and you still gather enough for this to work the way I want it to. It's just fun to experiment that way. So everything has been an experiment that I've taken since those days and just one thing leading to another, just trying to build out, one, my voice, but also to the craft of it all.
Nate Watkin: So launching Film Riot was almost like a way for you to force yourself to create on a consistent schedule.
Ryan Connolly: Accidentally. It became that. Before that, I was definitely constantly doing things to learn, but with Film Riot, it was twofold the reason that I started. I had a friend who was frustrated that he couldn't go to film school. At that time, there was no information to be had. You did have Philip Bloom doing camera reviews. You had Andrew Kramer doing after effects tutorials, and you had, yeah, exactly, and you have Indy Mogul doing props and stuff, but not really filmmaking. They said on the show they weren't really filmmakers. They did backyard filmmaking is what they called it, which is what we did as well, but from a totally different perspective.
For us, it was in the beginning days, I've been saying a lot lately, that opener was, "You want to be a filmmaker, so do I. Let's figure it out." So for me, it was very much about here I am, here's where I'm at, honestly and objectively. I'm green, but I went to film school. I have been doing this professionally for six years, but I'm still trying to figure it out. Come along with me if you want to as well.
Every week was about figuring it out, but figuring out how to be very specifically a filmmaker, somebody who's making an experience for an audience not just, "Hey, here's how to make a prop from this movie," which was awesome and I love that stuff, but, "Here's how you put together and present something to an audience to give them an experience from the visual effects to the storytelling of it all."
That was why. My film school instructor for our final class, 35 mil, big film class, he made a comment one time of, "You make a short film." Basically, what he was saying, "If you make a short film for no one, what's the point? You're just patting yourself on the back. If you're not making it for an audience, anything that you make, if you're not making it for others to experience, what's the point?"
I know for some people that that doesn't resonate and they're like, "I'm making it for me," and that's great, but I've always been somebody who wanted, "Yeah. I'm making it for me." Any artist, whatever you're making, it's completely stitched in with who you are as a person. Oftentimes, it's our therapy sessions to make something. It's us figuring things out about the world and all of that, but I want to make something for an audience to experience, for an audience to watch and be entertained by or be angry with me, whatever it is.
So at that time, I was working on that short film, Tell. Nobody was going to see it just like everything else I've made. YouTube was a thing now and I saw some people doing some stuff on it. Philip DeFranco was on there and he was talking from his bedroom, like news from his bedroom, and it was very engaging. I'm like, "Man, this is a very cool new thing that's direct to an audience." There had been other things before that tried to do it, but it didn't really work. It felt disconnected. People just didn't take to it, but this one, this felt like a digital mall, and people were showing up.
So I really started doing stuff on there and a few things were successful. They got featured a few times back when YouTube would actually feature things. For back then, they got a lot of views. One was 60,000. I think one hit 100,000. Back then, that might as well been in the millions. For me, it was like, "60,000 people?" You know what I mean. Like, "60,000 people watched this thing that I made, that experienced the thing that I made and loved it or hated it or was indifferent, but had a feeling toward a thing that I put my heart into?" That blew up in the doors of that of like, "What if I could make something that did both of these things?"
One, it put information out there that 15-year-old me would have killed to have that doesn't exist and everything is so confusing and tied to the chest, where I did have to. There was no choice. I had to go to film school. I didn't know anybody. I was in Florida. There was no production company I could really dive in to that wasn't gross. So it was like I just had to go to a film school.
So putting something like that online and then also, hopefully, building a community where I could entertain them. The stuff that I'm doing right now just to learn and I'm doing it for myself and nobody is watching it but my parents, somebody would watch it. So those two things were really the main factors. Then there was a lot of just happy accidental like, "This is incredibly useful." Stuff came out of it of the feedback of the audience, the encouragement of the audience. They've always been massively encouraging to us.
When we had a project fall through, they just showed up big encouraging us. It was like, "Man, yeah." So that's been a massive unexpected blessing, but that weekly thing I just thought of it as, "Cool. I get to make something for people weekly," and I hadn't thought of what that really meant. It was a lot of work and I was basically the only person doing it. So it was two days a week without sleep for eight months or something like that.
It was pretty nuts, but that constant write, shoot, edit, repeat like we say on the show really made it, I mean, the thing that I've said the entire length of the show, basically, it really made it like learning to play the guitar, and the acoustic guitar, and then shifting to the electric. Like once I had a crew and some time I was like, "Wow! This is not as hard as I thought it was going to be," but only because everything we did before then was no time, no money, just a couple of us doing it with PVC light stands.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. It's like a 48-hour film fest every week. You just got to knock it out.
Ryan Connolly: Totally. Yes. Exactly. 100%. Exactly. Yeah.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. How do you manage that? I'm curious from a financial perspective. I mean, at this date, you've done 18 shorts, but not only that, every week you're shooting these pieces. I mean, I think a lot of people struggle with, sure, you can go grab a camera. Maybe you get some friends to act for you for free, but when you need somebody to come be a grip or an AC, it's hard to not pay them, right? So I'm just curious, how did you manage that to do these consistent high quality productions throughout your career so far?
Ryan Connolly: Well, when it comes to Film Riot, in the early days, I had a full-time job plus Film Riot, which was a full-time job, and I just did both for a year. It was really hard, one of the hardest years of my life because like I said, legitimately, every week without fail I would go 48 hours without sleeping, sometimes a little bit more, which I do not suggest people doing. It's incredibly unhealthy, but I was just, like I said, I've always been psychotic about film and I had a very whatever I have to do mindset about it.
So after film school, I did construction work, and I did auto detailing, and I stacked shelves, and I did tech support, anything I could do to make money to buy gear, which took several years. Before that, I would just shoot on anything I could get my hands on. My brother had a home video camera. So I'd borrow that. He would let me borrow that. This is after film school. It was crappy, but whatever, I can try my concepts. I can still be practicing. I can still be learning while I save money to get something better and finally, I was able to.
Then with Film Riot, doing it in tandem with a full-time job, that was real tough, but then finally, after a year of just really attacking it, I finally was able to go full-time, but that was real tough, too. Film Riot still wasn't making a ton of money. So I thought what I was going to do was just live out of my car because, I mean, my parents are amazing. They would have let me move back in, but for me, I've always tried to make myself uncomfortable. I've always had the thought process of if I get comfortable, I'll stay there. You know what I mean? If the pot boils slowly.
So I never wanted to make a space where I wasn't force to beyond just being passionate about it, I don't have a choice, I got to hustle. So I would always make those spaces for myself to where there was no choice. So once I decided, "Okay. I'm going to quit my job. I'm going to do Film Riot full-time," the decision was I'm going to make the trunk of my car my dresser. I'll put the rest of my stuff at my girlfriend's house, and I'm just going to live out of my car.
Then my best friend and now brother-in-law caught wind of that and he's like, "Hey, I'm getting an apartment. You could just crash there, dude. Pay me back later." I was like, "You beautiful man. You beautiful, beautiful man." So I didn't have to, thankfully, but only because of the kindness of my best friend. I didn't even tell him. He found out through my girlfriend, my wife now, his sister. Weird situation, but he found out through her and then told me that. I was okay with that. That wasn't a comfortable place because that was still a very uncomfortable place.
I didn't have money to pay rent, so I just felt like a drain on him. So I was like, "Man, I really have to make this work at a bigger level so I could pay him back so I'm not just this leech that he's paying for." So it was really uncomfortable, but at least I didn't have to sleep out of a car. So that was nice.
Then it was just hustling to get it to a point to where now I can pay him back, which finally ultimately did. So for years with Film Riot, and then it was like finally two years, two and a half years into Film Riot, I had enough money to buy my own camera, a 5D. So it was a struggle for a very long time, and it was dangs to Film Riot that I've been able to get some stuff like gear. A company would send you gear and things like that. So that was helpful along the way, but that took years to even get to.
Then when we shot a short film called Losses, we shot it on the RED, but that was just because Eric Kessler of Kessler Crane loaned it to us for that production. We didn't have money for that thing. So it was just by all of the doing, which then I think a lot of people and myself included before I did these things can tend to think, "Well, oh, you're lucky. You had this advantage, and this person gave you that, and that person gave you that."
It's like, "Well, hold on. That's because there was 10 years of not having any of that and working my ass off and showing people what I could do with my brother's home video camera or whatever I had available to me doing for others." This isn't even counting. We haven't even talked about it. I counted all the stuff that I've done for other people, how to get, "Hey, man. Just do this and I know you have this product. I'll do this stuff for you and hook you up with it," and then there you go. No strings attached.
Then next project I had I went, "Hey, what's up? Do you think you could loan me this for my project?" Of course, they were like, "Absolutely," right? It's that idea of reciprocity is what I've always worked off of.
So for years of my career to begin with, it was a lot of just busting my ass to whatever I can get my hands on, show what I can make, and doing for others because that karma is going to come back to you, but it took a very, very long time before things like, "Hey, I have a RED. You want to borrow it?" actually happened, and not being super precious about those things, but doing content that people can connect with because in the early days without money, if you don't have money, you have to have good content.
So we've just really focused on trying to do stuff that was very entertaining, that was us, and we put that out there, and that's what people connected, not what it looked like because it didn't look the best. We didn't have gear. We didn't have money. The cameras we shot on half the time were trash. We were green. I was very, like I said, "Want to be a filmmaker? So do I. Let's figure it out." So it wasn't that you watch the show and you're like, "Wow! What an incredible production." You're like, "This is very engaging. This is funny. I like these guys." You know what I mean? That's what really propelled us forward and let us learn publicly and brought the stuff in.
Then when it came to short films, when I could really start finally doing short films with a budget, I think my first ... Well, Tell had a budget, but that's because I maxed out a credit card with $2,000, which was a terrible idea, and I don't suggest anybody do that unless you want to, then go for it.
Nowadays, you don't even need to do that. That's the beauty of it. How I shot Tell then I could shoot now for 500 bucks because of how cheap things are. So it's just crazy what you can do now versus then. So then it was two grand, which was just nuts compared to what you could do now. It was my mom's house. So it was friends and family. Nobody got paid, and it was still ... I think it was more than 2,000 because I maxed out a credit card plus some, but whatever.
Then we did some stuff for ... Here's a short that we spent 100 bucks on just so we could feed everybody, but we just went to a field in the middle of nowhere. Proximity is still one of my favorite shorts that we've done. It's definitely rough around the edges, but that's because it came as a result of a $300,000 short falling through at the very last second, which we were doing very publicly. We had pre-production making ofs online and the audience was along for the ride, and then it fell through right before we were about to shoot. So we had to publicly be like, "Yeah. So this isn't happening anymore."
Nate Watkin: So tell me about that a little bit. I did want to know more about that. So you had secured funding for this film, Proximity, had a script written, gear rented, crew and actors flying into town, and a few days before you're supposed to shoot, the funding drops out, right? So how did you handle that?
Ryan Connolly: It was a huge chunk of the funding because the funding came from several places. So one main source of the funding fell through. It was largely due to inexperience and me handling a project of this scope. It was definitely biting off more than I could chew at the time, which is what resulted in the catastrophic failure. Definitely one of the most stressful times of my life because I saw the ship sinking.
Really, at that point, the worst thing that could have happened was the finances to come through, and then we have to go make it because of how it had gone with getting all the contracts done and the financing in, so many things hadn't been done yet or properly and we were shooting in four days. So I knew we would get something done, but it wasn't going to be at the level. This was going to be nuts.
So when it fell through, it was both like, "Damn it!" and "Whew!" the exact same time because it was like, man, I'll tell you, I was dry heaving up into that point. We had people that worked on Transformers making sets, makeup artists of Resident Evil that I flew people in to do casts, molds of their face and made every prop and all this crazy ... People flying in from overseas. It was a big ordeal.
At that time, for me, well, I mean, that's what it was. It was me going from shorts that cost a couple of hundred bucks to me being the studio executive producer, producer, writer, director of a $300,000 20-minute short film, which would be several million dollar feature. So it was definitely way beyond the scope of what I could handle at the time, but I learned so much through that failure. I learned more from that than at anything else that I had done in such a short amount of time even up until now. That taught me things that have resonated to this day.
It fell through and now we have to publicly say, "Yeah. So this isn't happening." We always had the motto of you come up against the bigger wall, you get a bigger sledgehammer. Just do it. It doesn't matter how much money you have. It doesn't matter how many resources you have. Just make something. That has always been our thing. Daniel James reminded me of that, my composer. He was one of the people that were flying in. He was like, "No, man. I'm still flying in." He was in England. He's like, "I'm still coming." He's like, "When I land, you better have a script."
I was like, "You know what? You're right?" That energized me and I was like, "Let's put our money where our mouth is. This is what we always say. Let's do it. Let's show them that, 'Hey, this fell apart, and we're not even going to skip a beat. We're making something anyway.'"
So it went from a $300,000 short film that would have had a 100-person zombie day, zombie makeup day, practical explosions, all this craziness, to a $300 short film in this middle of nowhere 300 acre thing that I was able to find with friends and family and a handful of people.
So I had this friend that does, he's an amazing prop builder, but at the time, he was doing just a lot of cosplay type stuff, and he did a lot of really cool sci-fi stuff. So I'm like, "Okay. I know I can get a cool sci-fi prop from him. Okay. So we have that. Justin Robinson is still coming and he looks really cool on camera. Okay. I'll put him in this. Josh can act. I'll put him in this. Todd Bruno is here. He was here for it. He's a close friend of mine and been working with him since the early days. So he's the other lead. Okay. So here are the people that we can put in it. What could we do in the middle of nowhere?"
With the help of few friends of mine, we came up with a basic concept. I was like, "Okay." So then I went off in a corner with Seth Worley and we wrote it. I think it was a total of five days we wrote and shot the whole thing. Then it was the first short film that got managers to call and a few producers to come around and call. Again, it's still one of my favorite short films to this day, and we did it for 300 bucks in the middle of nowhere, wrote and shot in five days.
So that was an awesome experience and really solidified some things that I thought, but maybe hadn't fully put it into practice until that moment. You know what I mean?
Nate Watkin: Yeah. The name of that is Proximity, if anybody wants to check that out. Really cool short film.
Ryan Connolly: Yeah, and it's cool, too, because that biggest failure led to Proximity and Proximity led to Sentinel, which is connected just because I thought it would be fun to do stuff that winked at each other for the people that do watch our channel. Then Proximity and Sentinel led to Ballistic. Ballistic is the one that got me my managers that I'm rep by now and blew the doors open to be able to do all the pitching that I've done and some of the maybe projects I have floating around right now. It all came from Ballistic, which came from Sentinel, which came from Proximity, which came from a humongous failure. So I think that's really interesting as well, but with a span of six years I think it was between those.
Nate Watkin: So you've done 18 shorts now. I don't believe you've directed a feature up to this point.
Ryan Connolly: No, no, yeah.
Nate Watkin: What do you love about the short film format?
Ryan Connolly: You get to tell a story, and it's doable. A feature is a huge beast to wrangle. The type of films I want to make are not very small. So it's difficult to do with very, very little money and resources. We have Film Riot. I have my company, Triune Films. I have employees. So I'm responsible for them. So that means Triune needs to keep turning and it needs to keep being able to pay paychecks, including my own. I have a family. So short films allow me to do the thing I love even if it's bite-sized. That feature length story that sit down for two hours, turn the world off, enjoy this or think about this, whatever it is, that's the major passion. That's where I'm trying to get to still, but short films are the appetizers for me. They're delicious snacks that I get to have before the main course.
So they're just little pockets of the thing. It's no different from telling a story in a feature as far as being able to craft the moments. It's just a moment from that feature. I think that's probably why a lot of my short films, too, also don't feel completely finished. It feels like there's like, "Wait. Where's the rest?" a little bit for almost all of them. I think that's why because, for me, it's like, "Here's a piece that would go in the feature. Here's a moment. Can you see it? Can you see the rest in your mind?" That kind is what excites me like what we were talking about yesterday. How little can I give you and you still see the rest of what should be there. You see what came before and you see what came after.
I think that's really interesting, and it allows me to tell stories in the way I want to tell them, but, again, bite-sized, doable, without the budget that we would actually need to pull it off, but we're still throwing budget at this stuff, and being able to do things at a scale. It's short films so you're not getting the budget you really want for this moment. Ballistic definitely needed five times what we had, but you could throw enough at it to where you can really give it a go and you're going to make a lot of compromises and a lot of things aren't going to quite hit at a 10, but you can still do the concepts. You could still pull off the idea just maybe not quite at the level you were hoping, but you could still toy around in the sandbox.
So it's that stuff. It's getting to have those moments of how can I craft this character without saying much of anything? She hardly has any dialogue. Can I get you to understand her? Can I get you to feel like you know her by where I place the camera, by how she reacts to this, by how I use the music to let's shift the sound right here like this, let's cut to the past just like this at this moment to where you see her and then let's make her even more vulnerable by smashing right to what is the younger her.
You noticed, but we never told you, but if we do these things, if we craft this in the way, you're going to completely understand that this is the past, this is the present, this is the past her, and in this moment of vulnerability that she's in, even though she's this badass, you've got this people coming out of it. Let me smash to right here. This is the moment we go to her past to when she was a child, when you are your most innocent and your most vulnerable.
Then psychologically, I'm connecting those two. Now, even though we're moving on and doing other stuff, that's locked in your mind. That moment is locked. So now that innocence and vulnerability that want to protect and preserve is now prescribed onto her, the older her as well. So will that connect to you? You know what I mean? Toying around with those ideas in such a small space also just lets you really get specific with those things without the resources as well because you're not having to worry about two hours. You're worrying about 15 minutes, 10 minutes, whatever it is, five minutes, three minutes, and without a massive producing team, and the table of people to talk through things.
It makes it more doable as when you're the studio to really look at the thing. There's a lot less to consider with not having a huge team to help you consider all the details, to be able to really dive in and finesse those details.
Nate Watkin: So you shoot Ballistic, put that out, gets a lot of eyeballs, and that eventually gets you your management. You signed with 3 Arts. Did they reach out to you based on that short? How did that come about?
Ryan Connolly: That is an interesting story. I think the thing that's most interesting and most encouraging to me and for I think other filmmakers is Hollywood started reaching out from Ballistic before it had a lot of views. Now, it has a ton of views, but I mean, it had a good amount of views, but it was sub 100,000 views when I was getting emails from producers at massive production companies that were reaching out, and it was all because of this one publication pushing it for showing. They were kind enough to do very short piece on it like, "Hey, here's this thing. It's cool. Check it out."
They were very kind about the short. I believe No Film, not No Film School, Short of the Week, I believe, they pushed it as well and that was another place that some of these producers found it. So you have two places that pushed it, and that came from sending it out to 50 plus places that I really loved, that I think might also like this and only two were like, "Yeah. All right. Yeah, sure. We'll put something out on it," but because of that, these people saw it and hit me up.
So now there was, I think, four or five different product companies that were saying, "Let's develop this into a feature." I've been completely outside of the studio system up until this point. So I'm like, "Well, now what do I do?" You know what I mean? Do you date five people at once? Do I tell them about each other? Do I just pick one? I don't know what to do. So I asked a buddy of mine who does direct features and he's always been like, "Don't worry about managers and agents just yet." Now he was like, "Yeah. Now you need a manager."
I was like, "Cool. How? Where? Who?"
Then another friend of mine had connected me with somebody who was just an assistant at the time years, years, years previous to this after another one of my short films, something like three, four years before this, maybe two years, I don't know.
We had just talked on the phone and connected and, "Hi, I'm me."
"Hi, I'm me," that whole thing like, "Good to connect."
"Yeah. We have similar taste and whatnot."
"Cool. Let's stay in touch. If you ever need anything, let me know," that whole thing you do with fellow like-minded people in the industry.
He was an assistant at 3Arts. Fast forward two years, I'm like, "Oh, yeah, Luke. Maybe I'll email him. Maybe he can have some advice for me." That's all I was looking for. I had no idea what he was doing now, so I just email him and he emails me back. He's like, "Hey, I'm a manager now. Can we jump on the phone?"
I was like, "Yeah, sure."
Really hit it off, and they became my manager, him and Will Rowbotham, somebody that he works with. They became my managers. That was a happy accident because they've been absolutely incredible, but, yeah. That's how that came about. So again, more interesting, which I guess has been a theme of all of this is something always leads to something else. I mean, it's discounting the 10,000 other things that I dared to try that led to nothing else, but if just one of them leads to something else, they're all worth doing.
So it's always you do something and you never know what it could become so you just do as much as you possibly can. So it's just that one connection of just making an honest connection with another filmmaker. That ended up getting me my managers and them helping me navigate all of the craziness.
Nate Watkin: So what's next for you? I mean, you've mentioned features a couple of times. Are you interested in episodic? What's in the pipeline? What are you working on now?
Ryan Connolly: Definitely interested in episodic. Definitely want to do features. There's I think five things right now that I'm developing, two that I'm doing, which both are not film or series, but they are storytelling. It seems like those two will seem to be potentially going to happen, fingers crossed. Then there's another three or four features that I am developing. Series are harder to get into off the bat. Directing a series or anything like that seems to be much more difficult to get to as a first timer than features. So I've really been focusing on features, which is where my main passion lies, anyway.
Nate Watkin: It's interesting how that has flipped, huh?
Ryan Connolly: Yeah, yeah. I was told with one project that we're working on that might move to ... It's IP that might move to either feature or series. We're not 100% sure. I was told that if it goes to feature, yeah, totally, I can direct it. If it goes to series, no way. I was like, "What?" You would figure. That's shorter. It's a 60-minute thing or less. You would figure that, I don't know, but it's very interesting thing to navigate, but there are several features that I'm still developing. Two look pretty good, but how you know how it is. You never know, but just like everything has been my entire career, I'll just keep doing and keep trying until something works.
Something that I'm doing now in five years I'll be saying, "Oh, funny story how this came about. Five years ago, I did ..." You know what I mean? Who knows? Maybe it's this podcast, "Five years ago I did this podcast and we connected and then five years later, we connected again." You never know. Something always leads to something else. So it will happen. It's just in the works until it does.
Nate Watkin: When you do make that transition a longer form, how do you plan to take the Film Riot audience with you?
Ryan Connolly: I definitely want to. I mean, that was always the goal. Start super green literally in my parents' backyard, actually. In the early days of Film Riot, the house that we shot at was just my parents' house and they were just kind enough to endure it. Then it went to my apartment, and then my own house. We didn't get a studio until 2016, I believe it was. So for the majority of Film Riot still so far, it was not even in a studio. It was in houses.
So going from that to making actual feature films was always the dream and to bring an audience along with it. So when I make that feature film and say it's great, I don't know, who knows, but if somebody thinks it's great, they can then go back to this really crappy show in the beginning that we were doing at my parents' house that looked like trash and watch that progression because you don't have that. Certain people I always say David Sandberg and Dan Trachtenberg, it looked like they were overnight successes, but knowing them, I know that that's not even remotely true, that behind the scenes that nobody knows about was all that time, same amount of time that I spent trying to figure it out, trying to do that thing, being passionate about it, and beating their head against the wall until something finally worked.
So this is the only thing in existence that I know of that once I get to that feature point, it's online. You can watch how long it took. You can see that progression happen, and it's an encouragement of just because it hasn't happened to you in one year or five doesn't mean it's not going to. This takes a long time, and it's really hard and it's a lot of work. The actual overnight successes are the 0.1% of the people that make it. It's just not common.
So I love that about it. So I definitely want Film Riot to follow it. I've always said what I would love for it to be is just the most open, immersive, honest following of making a feature that there's been so far, what we've done on our show already. Obviously, when you're working with other people, even when we do our short films, I can be intensely open and honest about myself, but I can't do that about the sound department or if they don't want to do that, you also got to be respectful of people.
So it's navigating that, but definitely from writer/director standpoint, we could definitely open that up, but I would love for our features to become mini film schools every time we make one, just very much showing behind the curtain, showing the whole process, bringing people along for it. Peter Jackson has done that a bit. For the making of King Kong they had all those featurettes that they're putting up before the film came out where he would show what a grip department does and all that stuff. So stuff like that plus I would love for it to be.
Then that just depends. Are we making a feature on our own? Then yeah, we could totally do that. Am I making a feature with a studio? Well, now I have to answer to them, so that would have to be a conversation with them and they would dictate what could and couldn't be done.
Nate Watkin: Looking back in your career, it's very inspiring, first of all, coming from just hustling so hard, being willing to sleep in your car if you had to to now pitching for big features. What kind of advice do you give to young filmmakers to go out and break into this industry?
Ryan Connolly: The thing I say every time and I'll just keep saying it till I'm blue in the face is just keep making things. That's it. I do a podcast as well, and everybody I talk to has such different stories. Even all of my friends that are filmmakers, such different stories, totally different paths to how they got to it. Some people were like me, six, eight years old, I knew I want to do and had been doing everything. Some people, "I thought I was going to be a doctor, and then I was in college, and I was like, 'I don't want to be a doctor. I want to be a filmmaker.'" So every path is so radically different.
The one thing that is consistent among every single person is the passion and drive to make something and then make another one, and another one, and another one, and just an unquenchable thirst for it to where you just constantly have to be making something. You can't help yourself. If that's not you, that's okay. Maybe this is a hobby. That's all right, too, to admit to yourself that, "I would be fine doing a normal job and this is my hobby and that makes me happy." That's fine, too, but if this is really what you want to do, make something, make another one.
Social media and YouTube definitely has had a bit of a negative effect on younger people wherein they make a thing and they think everybody needs to see the first thing that they just made, where no, you don't. You don't want that. Go make a ton of stuff that no one will ever see and then put something up, and then don't feel entitled to anybody's eyeballs. Put it up and hope. If they don't, okay, try the next one. If they don't, try the next one. If they don't, try the next one.
It's just that wash, rinse, repeat that's really going to get you anywhere. I mean, we have another show under Triune. There was two other shows that we did. One was called Film State, which we don't do anymore and another one is called Variant. Both those shows, even though we had been doing Film Riot for two, three years, both of those shows we made five, six, seven episodes that never saw the light of day even though we were already doing shows just like it that were successful because we were refining what works, what doesn't, how do we make this better.
I think that's missing a little bit. So doing things with the intention of learning, figuring out your craft, figuring out how this thing works, not feeling entitled to anyone's time or response, but just hoping for it, and then doing the next thing, I think that's really how you get there. Then the other really big one is don't be an asshole. No one wants to work with none. No one wants to be around one. Life is short. Movies are movies and people are more important. So act accordingly. Whether you're on set or trying to be, people are far more important than any film ever made. So act accordingly.
Nate Watkin: Great advice from one of the hardest working guys in the game. Thank you again for joining us. It was a pleasure catching up with you.
Ryan Connolly: Thanks, man. I really appreciate it. This is great.
Nate Watkin: Awesome. Thanks, Ryan.
Ryan Connolly: Thank you.