Interview by: Melody Charles
Many think that a soldier returning home from war would find navigating civilian life to be easier than dodging enemy fire, but what about those still sell-shocked from their experience and unsure of how to move forward into normalcy? This happens a lot more often than folks would like to admit, and the mental anguish that one soldier experiences—as well as the impact it has on his friends and family—is what El Paso, TX native and filmmaker, Ryan Piers Williams, focuses on in his poignantly-written and powerfully-directed feature film debut, “The Dry Land”.
Starring well-known actors such as Wilmer Valderrama, Jason Ritter, Melisa Leo and America Ferrera, who also serves as Executive Producer, The Dry Land follows James (portrayed with heart by Ryan O’Nan), a soldier struggling to remember the attack he survived in Iraq while attempting to assimilate into small-town living with his wife, family and friends back home. In a haunting, house-of-cards fashion, each days grows harder and harder as he finds himself crushed under the weight of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a common malady that can be treated, but is also hard to recognize and understand
In our exclusive chat with the 29-year-old filmmaker, Mr. Williams discusses what drew him to the subject matter, what he learned from his research and what he hopes that the audience takes home when they walk away from his Dallas International Film Festival award-winning masterpiece.
MELODY CHARLES- I found The Dry Land to be an incredible and educational film Mr. Williams, congratulations!
RYAN PIERS WILLIAMS- Thank you so much. To have made a movie about Texas people, to have it come out in Texas theaters, it’s just awesome. Some people have been working their wholes lives to make a film and can’t do it, but I’ve been able to and I’m very fortunate.
MC– Indeed. Please tell me what led you to the subject matter and what the process was like for you.
RPW- I wanted to tell the most authentic story that I possibly could. I didn’t want to hold back or sugar coat anything and I definitely didn’t want to have any kind of political agenda in the movie. I spent two years doing research before ever writing anything, because what I wanted to find was some common things that were happening to many, many soldiers and to try to embody all of them with just one guy in context with his life. There are a lot of tough issues for soldiers coming home and not everybody coming home has the same journey as James does, but there are a lot that do. I just wanted to be honest and that’s the only way to honor that experience.
The reason why I made this movie in the first place was that I’d read an article about five years ago about a man who came back home after the war, and everything in his life just crumbled. He was in some nasty battles over there, he came back home, got married, but a few weeks later, he was divorced. I had read the article and just thought ‘oh sh*t, I didn’t know any of this stuff was happening. About five years ago, nobody was talking about how the soldiers felt while coming home, the bad cases. They wouldn’t even show coffins coming off the planes. I had just gotten out of college, and I was just deeply affected by the idea that this guy had served his country honorably, but life was slowly just falling apart because he was suffering from PTSD. So I spent two years reading and talking to soldiers just trying to understand what it was like for people coming home from this war.
MC- What’s been the reception you’ve received where you’ve screened the movie?
RPW- What I found when I screened the movie is that the soldiers had an honest and positive reaction. People who don’t know anyone from the military, however, feel as if its’ and overly-dramatic portrayal. What that shows is that there is such is a disconnect (between what the media discusses and what is real life). They’re shocked that this experience is really happening.
We screened it at Ft. Carson for about 400 soldiers and family members. We did a Q&A with American and Wilmer and Ryan O’Nan, and one guy actually stood up and said that he’d fought in Afghanistan and admitted in public that he’d had to get help. It was really powerful that this man came out and said ‘I have issues and if you have them, you should seek help.’ I don’t think that would’ve happened if it weren’t for the movie, and that’s what excites me. Hopefully, with this film we can bring more help and we can bring more awareness. For those who are going through hard times, or to help the friends and family of those who are having this experience.
MC- Without too many plot spoilers, tell UTM readers what your film is about.
RPW- The idea of the movie is that James went away to Iraq and had an experience that changed his life. And while he was away, everybody at homes was going through changes without him being there that changed them as well. He was the guy at home that held everyone else together, and when you rip that out, they all started to crack and fall apart. So when he comes home, there’s already this cycle of things happening and already set into motion. Everybody is affected in their own way by his leaving. I wanted to have the audience try to watch all of the characters reconnect.
MC- I really related to Sarah the most, but I felt that all of the characters were believable and honest.
RPW- Sarah wants to be there for James. She loves him, she wants to take care of him and support him, but she doesn’t know how. And he’s not willing to accept it. It gets to a point where he pushes her away so far that she just can’t deal anymore. I wanted her to be a strong character, to be there to support him and not only know the value of her own life, but to stand up for the both of them.
The Raymond character is going through issues too, he’s just going through him in his own way. You have James, who knows something is wrong and is seeking out info, and I’m sure Raymond wants answers too, but he just blocks it out or does anything not to address it. I wanted to show the different ways that people go through trauma. Henry in the hospital lives with it everyday, James can’t remember and Raymond doesn’t even want to think about it. That’s what I was hoping would come across, that people deal with things in very different ways.
MC- It’s not typical for a first-time writer and director to be able to secure such big established names and talent. What was that like for you?
RPW-I tried to find actors that had the same qualities as the characters in the movie, so we spent a long time auditioning people, and also meeting with different actors to assemble the cast that we were able to put together. At the end of the day, we were very lucky that the actors responded to the material and wanted to be a part of the movie with us. I would’ve made this movie with whatever I was able to have, I would’ve found unknown actors because my dedication to having the story told was there. Every step of the way I knew I was going to push for the best I could possibly get, and as we were going along, more actors were getting into the script, it’s like a magical thing happened. People get excited about the script and then you get more and more people involved.
MC- America Ferrera really struck me with her dramatic chops in this movie, I’d never seen that in her performances before.
RPW- America has a whole world that people need to see, it will be incredible what people will see form her in the future. She came in early on as an executive producer to help with the creative aspect, not the financial assistance. She helped to shape the vision and give notes on the script, and so at a certain point, she started to fall in love with the character of Sarah. I never wrote the movie for her, but after I cast Ryan O’Nan (as James), America connected with him and though that they could work well together.
MC- How did you approach directing the film?
RPW- My big priority as a director was to get the hell out of the way of the actors and let the story tell itself. There’s a certain amount of craft of filmmaking that goes into that, to make it feel natural, to have a smooth pace without being showy, but for me, it came down to having this amazing cast. They’re all going to come together when he gets home act as if nothing happened, and they’re all going to recreate that home that was once there. My interest as a filmmaker was ‘what happens now,’ when they realize that things are not the same, and as a screenwriter, I would think, ‘okay, so what happens next’?
MC- Are you working on any other projects now?
RPW- I’m actually writing two different scripts right now, a family comedy and a science-fiction thriller. I want to diversify and try different ways of telling a story, but I always want to have social relevance. I hope one of them gets off the ground by this time next year.
MC- Well, judging by what you’ve already accomplished, anything else you create should be successful as well. What advice would you offer aspiring directors and filmmakers who would like to be as successful as you?
RPW- For those who write, I would say focus on your writing and storytelling. Find a good group people around you that can be your critics, offer support and create a community that you can go to share your stories so that you can get critiques from them.
For directing, as much experience in every aspect of filmmaking as you possibly can. For me, I did about ten different internships, worked with a casting director, with development, an editor, a producer, a director, and tried to bounce around as much as possible so I could get a well-rounded perspective of what it took to do all those jobs. That helped me tremendously with making this film, because I wasn’t afraid of any part of the process. I knew what it took to do each job. You can communicate to people more efficiently and know their limitations. Watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books, learn to tell stories, because that’s what we’re ultimately doing.
MC- What about training, managers and agents?
RPW– I went to film school— I don’t believe that you have to do that, but I definitely don’t think it hurts. I’m not a big believer in hunting down agents and managers, I truly believe that the work will, if it’s good, will find its way into the right hands. Get as much life experience as you possibly can and feed it all into your work. Tell the best story that you could possibly tell.