Anyone who follows the annual horror festival circuit is likely familiar with the name ‘Ryan Spindell.’ From TriBeCa to Fantastic Fest, Spindell’s short films have been screening and winning awards at festivals across the globe. His most recent short, The Babysitter Murders, has just finished its festival run after successful outings pretty much everywhere that matters. In short – he’s pretty much got this short film thing down.
I’ve known Ryan for a few years and he was kind enough to answer some of my ridiculous questions from his Los Angeles dojo. He’s a horror dork, an impressive visual artist, and a damned fantastic filmmaker.
What was the moment – either the particular film in your life, or the particular moment in a film, etc. – when you knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
If I had to choose one film that stands out in my mind, it would have to be Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. To this day I’m not sure I can think of a film that has more creativity, the fun-factor, and just pure audacity crammed into every single frame. The specific scene is a sequence involving an open wound, a bowl of custard, and a whole lot of puss.
How old were you when you first saw Dead Alive? Do you think children should be sheltered from horror films until a certain age?
Growing up, I was terrified of horror movies. I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was like four and it scarred me so badly that I refused to watch anything horror until I was in my teens. Eventually in was the original Twilight Zone series that led me back to the genre and ultimately opened the doors to everything I had missed out on.
You’re a graduate of the film program at Florida State University, which has received a fair amount of attention of late with high profile graduates like Barry Jenkins (Oscar winner for Moonlight), David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), and Wes Ball (The Maze Runner franchise). What was your FSU experience like? Apart from a degree, was there one take-away from your time there that sticks with you? And what’s more important – experience, education, or both?
I spent a good portion of my time in FSU inspiring Barry, David and Wes to follow their dreams. Now that they have found success, I’m gonna start working on me [laughs]. In all seriousness, being a part of the FSU Film Conservatory was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. There is no right or wrong way to become a filmmaker, it all depends on the person. FSU provided me with the structure, equipment and support I needed to thrive. To answer your second question: I would say experience is everything. FSU is almost exclusively production-based, so education and experience are one in the same.
Let’s say there’s a kid fresh out of film school and they want to make a short film and they’re all like, “Mr. Ryan! – any advice you can give me?” What would that one piece of advice be? And feel free to be jaded and break their heart if you want; they’re young, they’ll recover.
I’d suggest going online and watching as many short films as possible. If you can go to film festivals and watch them on the big screen, even better. Most of us film nerds have spent our whole lives watching and studying feature films, but shorts are a different beast all together. Learn how to structure a short. Become well-versed in what works and what doesn’t. There’s a lot of amazing work out there, and if you want to make something that stands out, you’re gonna have to know what you’re up against.
As a writer, what’s your ideal writing environment?
I envy people who can write at home, in a quiet office, staring quietly out a bay window. For me, I need chaos. Loud coffee shops, lots of people, uncomfortable seating. Perhaps it’s from growing up with a ton of siblings, but I find peace in mayhem.
Where do you seek out inspiration for your stories? Or does inspiration just have to find you?
I find inspiration everywhere. I read a lot of horror and non-horror stuff, especially short stories and I listen to some great horror fiction podcasts. Surprisingly, I don’t get a lot of inspiration from horror movies, at least the ones that have come out in the past ten years. There’s also something to be said for crawling out of your cave and living life. Lots to be gleaned by just being a human in the world. Creators seem to forget that.
It’s an interesting time in this country, politically. If there’s anything good to come out of this current Administration, it might be whatever ‘resistance art’ we see over the next few years. I think back to a film like The Battle of Algiers and how important it was to the French people. Is there a place for politics in film and – if so – how important do you think it is?
We’re likely on the cusp or an artistic renaissance the likes of which we’ve never seen in our lifetimes. Never have so many non-political people been so invested in politics. While I’m not one to approach a project from a political stand point, I think it’s unavoidable.
So we won’t be seeing a Purge movie in your directorial future?
Oh, I’d totally do a Purge movie, but mine would revolve around a ruthless serial killer who kills year-round, but uses the 24-hour purge to save peoples lives.
You’re known, primarily, for three horror shorts that did quite well on the festival circuit – Kirksdale, The Root of the Problem, and (most recently) The Babysitter Murders. Each film is a marked improvement in terms of style, execution, and ambition. Has this been your slow march to feature directing, or would you say there’s a less meticulous design to it than that?
I miss the ‘fantastic’ in genre movies. Hollywood has shifted and big, fun horror movies are few and far between these days. While I can’t afford to make these kind of feature-length films on my own dime, I can afford to explore these stories on a small scale. Obviously I’d love to be making feature films one day, but, until then, I’ll keep fighting the good fight.
There are purists who believe quite vehemently in the three-act structure, and your shorts seem to adhere to these tenets quite rigorously, but there is also an ever-growing movement in indie film to abandon that structure in favor of a more loose narrative. Is that something you’re interested in exploring?
I’m always open to breaking the ‘rules,’ as long as there’s a method to the madness. A movie is ultimately for an audience and if you leave your intended audience unsatisfied, you’ve failed. That’s where the challenge of filmmaking comes in. Anyone can put exciting images on screen, but can you make something fresh within the confines you are given?
I like to equate making a movie to telling a story at a party. If you command the attention of several people and go into a long-winded narrative, there had better be a great ending. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time. This is where so many modern horror films go wrong: a great premise but no follow-through.
Your visual style is very specific and that’s recognizable in all of your work. What is it about that gothic-inspired design that appeals to you? And what other filmmakers, horror or not, are putting out work that inspires you on a creative level?
I’ve always been drawn to bold visual storytellers. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Juenet, Peter Jackson, and Wes Anderson have spent their careers bringing the fantastic to life, and I’d love to do the same in my own work.
What step of the filmmaking process appeals to you the most, and why?
I love pre-production. The point when you know the movie is happening and you have to figure out how the hell you’re going to pull it off. There’s something about the inevitable shoot looming on the horizon that inspires me in ways I never thought possible. It’s when a script transforms from rough outline to an artistic blueprint, where many of the magic moments are discovered.
How collaborative do you like to be during the pre-production process?
Pre-production is all about collaboration. That’s the best time to lay everyone’s ideas out on the table and see what works and what doesn’t, before we start hemorrhaging money. I like to storyboard the whole film early, then go through it with my team. Once everyone has given their input, and we’ve brainstormed on better ways to do it, I go back and storyboard again. It’s sort of like the Pixar model, but with my crappy drawings.
You received, probably, your greatest exposure from appearing on the last season of the SyFy series, Face/Off. How did that opportunity come about, what was it that convinced you it was the right thing to do, and what were some take-aways you learned during the process?
The opportunity to do Face/Off came from the good people at Blumhouse. Jason Blum was the special guest of the final episodes and his company was asked to suggest ‘up-and-coming’ filmmakers who specialize in stylized genre movies. Initially, I was resistant to the idea. I have no business being in front of the camera, and the thought of doing so while directing was overwhelming. But I’m also of the mindset that filmmaking is about overcoming challenges and, by facing one of my biggest fears head on, I would emerge a better director. As it turns out, the shoot was a blast, I met a ton of amazing people, and learned more that I could have ever imagined.
In 2014, you co-created a short documentary, We Come in Pieces, about the importance and the influence of the horror anthology. Since then, coincidentally or not, we’ve seen an outpouring of horror anthologies, including the most recent, XX, directed entirely by women. On television, there’s American Horror Story, and the upcoming Castle Rock and Tales from the Crypt reboot. Was it just time for the anthology to make a comeback? Have any of them got it right?
I couldn’t be more excited about the resurgence of the horror anthology, both as a creator and a fan. There are millions of amazing stories out there and many of them don’t require a 90-minute run time. Horror anthologies, whether it be on television or in the cinema, give those stories a platform to be told. I think the time has always been right for this format of storytelling, and it’s a shame it’s taken so long to make a comeback.
Rapid fire questions: Favorite cocktail? In case someone bumps into you in a bar and wants to buy you a drink.
I like a good Reposado Tequila, neat.
Favorite Mel Gibson film and why? I do not accept “What Women Want” as an answer.
Dude, Braveheart. Obviously.
Who was your first movie crush? And why?
Jessica Rabbit. Cause she’s got it going on, but still goes for a guy with a great sense of humor.
First movie poster you ever hung on your wall?
Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.
What’s next? Any projects in the pipeline that you can discuss? If not, is there one particular ‘dream project’ you’ve always wanted to tackle that you can tell us about?
I’m actually gearing up to shoot a horror anthology feature called The Mortuary Collection later this year. In the mean time, I’m going to make another short, because, you know, I have a problem. As far as dream projects go, I’d love to be involved in a reboot of Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt on television. I’d love to adapt Hack/Slash or The Criminal Macabre graphic novels. I’d love to do anything Stephen King.
Final question: What’s the one film (horror or not) that is woefully underrated – the film you just can’t believe people don’t appreciate the same way you do?
Dude, The Lone Ranger was sooooo much fun!
And, with that, the fat was chewed and there was nothing left to say. Big thanks to writer/director Ryan Spindell for taking the time to get funky with me. Hi-yo Silver – AWAAAAAAY! #ChewTheFat