A Moviemaker’s Journey Back to School

Paul F. Ryan
Paul F. Ryan on the set of Home Room.

Paul F. Ryan may not be a household
name-at least
not yet. But this September, he’ll be living the dream of every
independent moviemaker when his debut feature, Home Room,
begins its nationwide theatrical run through DEJ Productions, the
distribution arm of Blockbuster.

Started before-but later inspired by-the events
at Columbine High School in 1999, Home Room tells the
story of what happens after the news cameras go away and a town-and its people-are left
reeling from the events of a school shooting. Here, Ryan speak
with MM about the challenges of working with an extremely sensitive
subject line, why it’s okay to play the smaller film festivals
and what it’s like to wear the simultaneous hats of writer, director,
producer and editor.

Jennifer Wood (MM): When did you begin writing the script
for
Home Room, and how long did it take to complete?

Paul F. Ryan (PR): Home Room was a screenplay I
began working on in late 1998. There had been a number of school
shootings in a relatively short period of time, and the issues
that were being raised intrigued me. I stopped working on Home
Room
in early 1999, and picked it up again several months later.
In all, it was probably three months of writing and rewriting.

MM: What sort of considerations (if any) did you have
to make in writing a story that deals with such a sensitive issue?

PR: I was very concerned about dealing with this subject
matter, which is why I took that long break when I was writing
it. On the morning of April 20, 1999 a friend called to tell me
that a high school shooting was happening and that I should put
on CNN. He knew I had been working on Home Room, which at
that time was a story that centered on a student who brings a gun
to school.

Watching what happened at Columbine High School
had an enormously emotional impact on me. As I watched kids running
from the school,
and others being carried off on stretchers, I couldn’t help but
think about how offensive the screenplay I was writing would be
if it ever got made. I decided Home Room would remain uncompleted
forever.

What changed my mind was watching what happened
in Littleton afterwards. CNN reported the story for about two
weeks, then left. The rest
of America moved on, but the people in Littleton didn’t. How do
you start living your life again after such a terrible thing? The
exploration of this question became the new focus of Home Room:
a film set entirely in the aftermath of a school shooting.

MM: Were you concerned ahead of time about the commercial
aspects of the film, considering the nature of the topic?

PR: I think that everyone involved with
project knew from the get-go that a teen drama about a school
shooting wouldn’t exactly
be a box office goldmine. At the same time, I think we also felt
that the right script with the right cast would still be economically
viable. But most importantly, this is a film we felt needed to
make.

MM: You took a very “auteuristic” approach
to the film, serving as writer, director, producer and editor.
How did these
roles affect one another?

PR: While I’m a big believer in the
auteur theory, the truth is that I crewed many of these positions
out of budgetary
necessity as much as being a control freak. My producing side affected
the screenplay from the very beginning: I knew this would be a
very low-budget film, so I focused the screenplay on just a handful
of people in a handful of locations. The writing challenge became
how to keep the story interesting and dynamic under those limitations.

MM: How did the script change once
the cast was in place? Did you find yourself rewriting on the
set to fit a particular
actor’s strengths or ideas?

PR: I like to think of the screenplay as a fluid blueprint
for making the film. Busy Philipps and Erika Christensen are both
remarkable performers, and they knew their characters intimately.
One comment I seem to get consistently from viewers of Home
Room
is that the performances seem very natural and real. I
think a big part of that comes from allowing the actors to alter
dialogue, for example, in way that they’re more comfortable speaking
with.

When I write, I hear the characters speaking
in my head. But when I direct, those voices literally become
the voices of the actors
themselves. It’s a very interesting process, really, because we
had zero rehearsal time on this movie. We found the tone as we
went along. There would be days that I would be driving to the
set and I would hear Erika’s voice say something that would clarify
a point in the script. As soon as I arrived on set, I would start
rewriting. One significant exchange between Busy and Erika was
added to the climactic scene of the film that originated in just
this way.

MM: One of the most difficult dual
roles to play is that of director-editor. Where on the one
hand you’re trying
to assemble as much good footage as possible, as an editor your
job is to cut all that footage down to a 90 – 120 minute feature.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as an editor, in determining
what would go into the film and what would end up on the “cutting
room floor.”

PR: I’m very comfortable in the cutting
room. I see editing very much as a natural extension of directing.
Editing, for me,
is directing the film for the final time.

The biggest dividend of being editor is that
when I’m directing,
if we fall behind (which happens a lot) it’s very easy for me to
know which shots I absolutely have to get in order to build the
scene, and which shots I can live without.

When the first cut of the movie clocks in at
close to three hours, it’s clear that some stuff will need to go. My philosophy is to
cut entire scenes whenever possible, instead of short-changing
every scene in the movie. From that standpoint, yes, there were
many moments that I had to part with that I wish I didn’t have
to. But there weren’t too many agonizing moments. Maybe there should
have been!

We reached a point where I wasn’t cutting fat
anymore; I was cutting meat. And the question became how much
was the movie gaining by
making it 10 minutes shorter? So we went looking for feedback.
And time and again, people were telling us they liked the movie
just the way it was: long. On the festival circuit, the movie continued
to play extremely well.

MM: Can you talk a bit about the specifics of the film:
the budget, how long of a shooting schedule you had?

PR: My keepers don’t want me to say how much the movie
cost to make, although I get asked that question all the time.
I am allowed to say that we made it for less than $500,000, but
I can’t be more specific than that. The budget obviously affects
everything that follows. That’s why the shooting schedule was so
short: 18 days, which consisted of three six-day weeks.

MM: How did you shoot the film?

PR: One area where I was not willing
to compromise was the shooting format. I’m a film guy-period.
We shot the entire movie on Kodak 35mm stock, but I would have
used Fuji, short-ends
or whatever it would have taken to stay on film. Maybe even Super
16. The reality is that once you go through the entire post-production
chain, shooting a movie on DV or other stocks is not really that
big of a cost savings, especially once you blow up to 35mm for
projection.

I know it’s an unpopular sentiment in the indie world, but I’m
not a fan of DV and would never have considered making Home
Room
that way. Finding a distributor is hard enough; being
on DV makes it even harder. Most DV movies I see look quite poor,
especially once they get blown up to 35mm. Sometimes a film’s subject
matter melds nicely with the DV look, but most times I find it
infuriating. Tadpole is a perfect example of a film that
should never have been made on DV. It was a wonderful story with
great performances, but it looked cheap and very few people went
to see it. I’ll be interested in seeing how Pieces of April performs,
because it also seems like a movie that should have been shot on
film.

MM: Home Room has had a very long and impressive festival
run. Where did the film start out on the festival circuit, and
at what point was it picked up for distribution?

PR: We’ve been very blessed in this process, particularly
because indie film acquisitions have been in such a slump. We aimed
for Sundance and, like most everybody else, we were rejected. Afterwards,
my partners and I went looking for advice from many sources, most
of which responded with: “premiere at a high-profile festival or
you don’t stand a chance.” This was a problem for us because Home
Room
was finished in January 2002, yet the next “big” festivals
(Seattle, Cannes, etc). were many months away. We were contacted
by the Taos Talking Pictures Festival shortly thereafter, and decided
to premiere there even if it wasn’t considered a “high-profile” festival.
Thank God we did.

The distributor who eventually bought Home Room saw
it first at Taos Talking Pictures, and contacted us soon afterward.
In the meantime, we were shot down by Cannes and Seattle, but won
the Audience Award in Santa Cruz. By mid 2002, most of the major
indie distributors had seen the film, and our producer’s rep recommended
we end our festival run. By the end of the summer, the film was
sold.

Our distributor accepted a subsequent invitation to the Denver
Film Festival, as Home Room was selected to be part of a
showcase of films dealing with gun violence in America. Our final
festival appearance, again at invitation, was just this August
at the Chamizal Independent Film Festival, where Home Room won
the Jury Prize for Best U.S. Feature Film. That’s our entire festival
history with Home Room.

MM: Film festivals are really a great open forum for
feedback for directors. Did you make additional cuts based on
the questions, comments and conversations you had throughout
your film festival experience?

PR: Actually, the final cut of Home Room is
unchanged from the version we premiered at Taos Talking Pictures.
I’m very
proud of that.

MM: What do you see as the biggest benefit of going
on the festival circuit before having a theatrical release?

PR: What I like most about the film
festival experience are the people that you meet. I’ve met some extremely talented
filmmakers like Lucy Walker and Michael Moore, and I’ve also met
many extraordinary people from the audience.

After a screening of Home Room at the Denver Film Festival
I was approached by an audience member who was an English teacher
at Columbine High School. As someone who lived through those tragic
events, I was anxious to hear her reaction. To my great relief,
her response was very positive. Based upon that meeting, I have
twice since been a guest of Columbine High School. Just this past
April, we arranged a special screening of Home Room for
hundreds of Columbine students, faculty and parents, which was
attended by actress Erika Christensen and myself. It was an unforgettable
experience that grew entirely out of our festival appearance in
Denver.

MM: Home Room is one of the first acquisitions of DEJ
Productions, the independent distribution arm of Blockbuster,
to be released theatrically. What were the greatest selling points
to you for going with DEJ? What sort of rollout is the company
planning for the film? When all is said and done, what do you
hope that audiences will take away from the film?

PR: Because there was interest in Home Room from
multiple distributors, we had the luxury of not having to make
our decision based on panic or desperation. DEJ buys a lot of movies
every year for direct-to-video distribution, but they demonstrated
a unique passion for Home Room itself, which went a long
way with us. Part of that passion was their commitment to release
the film theatrically, a “first” for DEJ that we are very proud
to be part of.

MM: What sort of rollout is the company planning for
the film?

PR: Home Room opens on September 5th in New York
and Los Angeles, and will expand to other cities in following weeks
(first up is Denver on September 12th). I think when you consider
how many indie distributors are closing up shop or are getting
out of theatrical releasing, the fact that DEJ is getting into
it is a positive development for independent filmmakers everywhere.

MM: When all is said and done, what do you hope that
audiences will take away from the film?

PR: More than anything, I want Home Room to be the
basis for dialogue about an issue that plagues this country. We
tend to only discuss school violence when it happens, then try
to forget about it as quickly as possible. Hopefully Home Room is
an opportunity to provoke that discussion again-without anyone
in the real world getting hurt in the process.

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