Photographer Geraldo De Pina Kokra
Featured in Issue 15 is director and writer Ryan DeForeest. In this interview, we delve into his latest film "My Brother and Me" and explore the creative process behind it. We discuss the challenges of writing and directing an independent film, as well as the personal journey that led Ryan to this point. Join us as we gain insight into the passion and dedication that goes into bringing a vision to life on the screen.
"My Brother and Me" is a captivating queer coming-of-age drama set in the contemporary setting of South Los Angeles, this film delves into the intricacies of sibling bonds, shedding light on the complex dialogues surrounding children's expectations of their parents. Additionally, it shines a light on the deep-seated fears and haunting memories that resurface, particularly within familial relationships. When contemplating the tone of this captivating short film, it draws parallels to the poignant narratives presented in A24's cinematic masterpieces, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" and "Moonlight."
Ryan DeForeest, dir.; Shandrea Evans and Lexx Truss, prods.; Sade Ndya, cinematographer; Kaij, costume designer; Evan Wright, composer
Can you tell us more about “My Brother and Me” and how this film came about? What are some of the challenges of writing and directing your own independent film?
It's been a journey, lemme tell you. I've been working on the foundation of this story for a solid two years, but I couldn't crack it. But then, when I went to Sundance in January for the first time in person, I was in awe! I went there just to experience it, and I'm so glad I did because I left feeling insanely inspired to want to be back next year with a film of my own. So once I left, I started giving myself deadlines to finish scripts or outlines I had never written. I wrote two pilots and a short script; I just couldn't stop writing. As I sent each script out to people I trusted to give feedback, I would move on to the next idea while I waited for the critiques. Once I finished those three, I found the outline for "My Brother & Me" and thought there was still something strong here; I just needed to massage it more. EVERYTHING FLOWED OUT OF ME once I figured out the story's main driving force. From its plot to its character arcs, it was a story that resonated with me as most of the story is inspired by my childhood and the dynamics of my family. I sent off the very first draft to my now Producers, Shandrea Evans and Lexx Truss, and to my Composer, Evan Wright. You never send the first draft; you wait until you have something that'll wow the reader. But there was this feeling in my gut that it was good enough to share in that moment. And now we're here a week away from principal photography. My department heads and cast are all locked in and working hard. We just secured our locations and had our first table read with the full cast, which is a surreal feeling now. The words, the tone, the setting, the props, the score it's all coming together in real time. So excited to be here! And to answer your 2nd question, writing and directing my own indie film is challenging because it feels like you're playing a board game. You're trying to choose the right moves to make, the right property to buy, and praying you roll the dice on the number you need most in that turn. It's a tough business, and I hate playing board games...but I absolutely love making films. I couldn't imagine challenging myself in any other way.
Fundraising for a film must take a lot of planning and organization what advice do you have other filmmakers trying to raise capital for their future films?
Crowdfunding for any kind of film is an insane process. After finishing a few drafts of my script, I debated with my producers for a few weeks on how much money we could truly fundraise. I get skeptical about asking people for money, especially family/friends. We started formulating this plan as the WGA started voting on a strike, and then it happened. It felt strange to ask for money at that time, but once I started to create the plan of action from outreach to the campaign launch video, I knew we might have a chance at getting to our minimum goal.
Plus, we're considered a Micro-Budget production, so the WGA and SAG-AFTRA aren't looking at us as scabs. We're just trying to keep indie film alive during this tumultuous time between creatives and the AMPTP. I suggest analyzing the project you're trying to make and finding projects like yours on crowdfunding websites like Seed & Spark, IndieGoGo, or Kickstarter. Watch their campaign videos, read their project descriptions, watch tutorials on YouTube about the best crowdfunding tips & tricks, and learn from what's already been done but put your own spin on it. You can't rush into crowdfunding for a film; do the research on what platforms are going to be able to assist you in getting to however much your goal is. Take the time because I promise it's going to feel like a full-time job down the line.
What do you look for when casting?
Authenticity, always. I was an actor growing up, so I can spot good character choices from an actor, but I can also clock when someone doesn't feel comfortable with what they're saying and/or their body language.
As a newer screenwriter, I like to talk with my actors about the dialogue and how we can collaborate to make these moments feel natural or realistic. I get so frustrated when I'm watching a film, and I can tell the screenwriter wrote this as if they were trying to write poetry or be Shakespeare. It sometimes feels unrealistic, especially when adults are writing for children or teens. While that's not necessarily bad for certain types of films, I don't want to write/direct films like that. During this production, I'm making a conscious effort to do that with the two tween characters in my film. Whether substituting a word or phrase that fits that character's age better, getting input from the actors playing these characters and saying these words feels right.
Which cinematic period do you find most inspiring?
For me, it's the 15 years between 1992 and 2007. I know that sounds like a random time period, but let me explain. We have some of the best films (in my opinion) being made during this time. You got one of Spike Lee's best, Malcolm X, who I did a school report on in the 7th grade in 2007 after watching the movie. You got 1994, The Lion King, which I couldn't see in theaters because I was still cooking in my mom's stomach, but I could feel the beat of "I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” which is ironic because my name means “little king.” BOOM. Then, in '96, you got the cult classic Scream, which has always been a horror/slasher staple at my house. And then some other greats, Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Men in Black, Clueless, The Matrix, Scream 2, Legally Blonde, Bring It On, Maid in Manhattan, The Prestige, X-Men, Akeelah and the Bee. Some of these films, if not all, have heavily inspired me as a filmmaker. Dramas, comedies, sci-fi, and horror didn't matter the genre because I soaked it all in.
What film or television show has influenced your career?
I don't know if this film influenced my career, but I've watched it so much as a kid that the story's morals have definitely influenced my mentality. It's called "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead," and it's from the late 80s, starring Christina Applegate. When her mom leaves town, she gives her and her brother a babysitter, who passes away almost within the first day; Christina's character has to get a job and provide for her family. She creates a fake résumé because she's only 16 and has no actual work experience, and she ultimately gets hired at an office job for which she is technically unqualified. Ultimately, the film taught me what it means to prove people wrong and that no matter your age, gender, or any other minority, you can achieve and succeed in anything you want in life. You just have to be determined to do so. It also may have been the first time I learned about the mantra of “fake it ‘til you make it.” I never looked back.
“My feeling is if you believe you have star quality, you inevitably will have star quality. That may sound delusional, but as creatives, you gotta dream big!”
Tell us about your last binge-watch...Have you recently watched something that's a must-see?
The last show I binge-watched was Project Greenlight. My friend and the Cinematographer for my short film, Sade Ndya, told me to watch it, and I watched like 6 episodes in a row. Watching a new director learn how to make a $3.5 million sci-fi film was a lot to take in. The script wasn't in good shape before getting the director attached; the mentors were gone for most of the process, and honestly, there were so many more thoughts and opinions on the show and the drama. But if you love making films and aspire to be in the industry one day, it really is the show to watch. I hope next season they do an all-LGBTQIA+ directors line-up. That would be great!
Which character from the world of cinema or television do you relate to the most? And, importantly, what is it about this character that truly speaks to you?
That's hard to say because I haven't seen any characters I can truly relate to. Yes, there are hundreds of light-skinned cis-male characters out there, but I've yet to find one quite like me! For example, I grew up loving Bring It On, which is ironic because I inevitably became a cheerleader in high school. But I've never really seen a show or film about a young black teen boy being a cheerleader, so I wrote a TV pilot inspired by my experience. The lack of representation that I see for people who look like me and the people I hold close is something I want to challenge head-on. I want BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ characters that I can relate to because I just don't see them at the moment.
Who's in your thespian Hall of Fame?
(In no particular order because I can't do that!) Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Regina Hall, Laurence Fishburne, Regina King, Denzel Washington, Michael K. Williams, Meryl Streep, Rita Moreno, and Chadwick Boseman Honorary Mention: Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter (because her filmography is iconic)
What are some common misconceptions regarding the correlation between photography and film?
I feel like the biggest misconception about photography and film is that it is really easy to switch between both. While you could turn on any DSLR nowadays and switch from their photo and video modes easily, lighting a studio portrait and lighting a scene are two different types of tasks. You're thinking about different technicalities when it comes to framing and lighting.
You're also dealing with the added pressure of frame rates and sound for film. And if you've ever seen a film with bad audio, you would immediately turn it off or stop watching. They both require different skill sets, but that’s not to say you can’t be talented at both.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
As a Writer/Director, it feels amazing to bring my stories and wild imagination to life. When I was writing this short, I just kept thinking about how to tell the best story possible with rich characters and give them lives that feel real and interesting. As we soon head into production, I'm thinking about how to get the best performances out of everyone (in front and behind the lens). Making sure the actors know their emotional beats and helping them find moments that ground them into the reality of the story. With the crew, I'm making sure we're all on the same page and the vision feels intact with every hand on set while also opening myself up to other ideas that my crew will present to me to make this film a truly collaborative effort ultimately.
Take us back to your first project, how did that moment prepare you for where you're currently in your career?
The first one I can clearly remember was in college, I shot a 30-second short for my first-ever film class. It's still on YouTube if you can find it. But it was a high-concept, and I only had 30 seconds to tell a story, so I learned that that was rather difficult. But the first actual short film I took the time to invest a lot into was this short I did for Adolescent Content a few years ago. A 3-minute short about the last day of summer and two friends departing from each other. It was mostly voiceover and made with pennies. But stylistically, I felt confident in it. I was the Writer, Director, DP, Editor, driver, all of it! And I prepared a lot with shot lists and constant communication with my actors. It turned out well, but it was the first time I realized that a bigger crew would help me in the long run. Fast forward to today, I've got a fairly big crew, and I'm not doing absolutely everything by myself. Those films taught me about delegation and trusting my gut instincts. I'm in such a better place as a leader and filmmaker that I'm excited to do something big with this short film. I'm investing my whole being into it, emotionally, financially, and physically. But nonetheless, I'm over the moon with how it's coming along and excited for what this film will bring me in the future—who knows, this could be a proof-of-concept for a feature film adaptation. You never know!
How do you approach the technicality of your work, both from yourself and others?
I approach everything I do with intentionality. I have to be intentional with how I approach writing my stories, pitching to potential collaborators, rehearsing with actors, and figuring out how these puzzle pieces come together. Having a clear vision as a director or in any creative position will set you up for success.
Boy in Blue (playing the character "Terrence") Alexander Bello Man in Green (playing the character "Malik) Zechariah Eubanks Photographer Bahareh Ritter
What's the body of work you're most proud of?
A 30-minute musical film I did in 2021 is my proudest achievement so far. It starred my good friend Asia Simone, who also wrote all of the music for the film. We initially thought of just a music video for one of her songs, and then I had the bonkers idea just to make her whole album into a visual album. But also infusing our love of silly comedy, on-the-street interviews, and emotional one-take shots. We created the film for the art collective that I run with another good friend, Gulet Isse. It's called the BXD Collective, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we started it just to create some community uplifting for our friends and acquaintances. We've hosted two large exhibitions, with about 20-25 artists displaying their work, which most (if not all) of our artists have never been given the opportunity to do. It's truly grown into a community of BIPOC & LGBTQIA+ artists who just want to be seen and showcase their work. But back to the film, Asia and I decided in the 2nd year of BXD to create this film and show off our chops. Her talent as a singer/songwriter/actress, and my skills as a Director/DP/Editor. It holds a place near and dear to my heart because of what we were able to achieve with close to about $1,100 and a very limited crew. It goes to show that it's not about how big the budget is; it's about how big the hearts are behind the making of the project. Sappy, I know!
How do you handle rejection or not getting chosen for a project or opportunity?
There was a time I used to get really depressed by it, but now I have a folder in my Gmail labeled "rejection emails." I apply to every program or lab that I'm qualified for, but that doesn't mean I'll get into most of them. But when I get a new rejection email, I put it in that folder and leave it there. So months later, when I'm able to have a win and feel like I am achieving something, I can look back and say, "It's okay that you didn't get into these other things because now you're able to get into this new program/lab that might be an even better experience for you in this current moment." Being a filmmaker, an artist, or just a human being is all about taking the positives out of negative situations and growing from them. We all face those pesky creative blocks and moments of self-doubt from time to time.
How do you effectively navigate creative blocks and moments of self-doubt?
If I'm stuck or doubting my creative thoughts, I get out of my house, take a walk, get some food, see a movie in a theater, etc. Just stepping away from the laptop or my phone for 30 minutes to an hour helps refuel my creative flow. It really works! My best ideas come to me when I'm either taking a shower or driving on the freeway. I'll do one of those two in order to kickstart my creative process. Managing the entrepreneurial aspects of being an artist is crucial for success.
How do you handle the business side of the industry?
It's so difficult to manage the business side of the filmmaking industry. But we need to know how most business conversations, negotiations, getting repped and what that can do for your career, and a myriad of other business-y things. Knowing more helps you not get bamboozled by people in the industry who will try and use your talents to benefit them and not actually benefit you. But I'm still in the process of learning everything as well, so trust that I'm still figuring it out, too.
With SAG-AFTRA and the WGA on strike in their labor dispute against AMPTP. We're curious to know your take on the current state of the entertainment industry? What message would you like to send to AMPTP?
At the time of answering these questions, it's been 126 days for the WGA and 53 days for SAG-AFTRA striking to get fair wages and residuals and not to be replaced with AI. I think that the studios need to get off their high horses/yachts/jets and realize that their companies are making billions of dollars annually, but the writers that develop the films/TV shows and the actors that star in those productions and go on press tours to promote their work and then ultimately talk about how amazing it was to work with the particular studio, are getting paid literal pennies in residuals for their work that can be consumed for as long as the studios and streamers decide to keep that content on their platforms. The writers and actors are the main reason they're even able to stay afloat. So get it together, studios/AMPTP. That's all I have to say.
Photographer Bahareh Ritter
What do you envision for the future of cinema? And where you place yourself in the conversation?
I envision myself as a part of the future of cinema. I've been determined to be in this film industry all my life, ever since I picked up a camera at eleven years old. Ain’t nothing stopping me from being at the top of my game and becoming an artist who (hopefully) will push and expand the world of cinema with the Black, POC, & LGBTQIA+ stories at the forefront.
Ryan DeForeest, dir.; Shandrea Evans and Lexx Truss, prods.; Sade Ndya, cinematographer; Kaij, costume designer; Evan Wright, composer
Connect with Ryan on Social Media