5 Questions For X/Y Writer/Director Ryan Piers Williams
An admission of infidelity — hers — sends a pair of twentysomething New Yorkers into separate rabbit holes of desire, regret and personal discovery in Ryan Piers Williams second feature, X/Y. The film is something of a family affair, as Williams and his wife, America Ferrera, star as the couple, with each supported on their La Ronde-ish journeys by a charismatic cast of supporting players, including Melonie Diaz, Dree Hemingway, Common and Amber Tamblyn. Intimacy, IRL and online; sexual fantasy vs. reality; the artist’s life vs. the corporate warrior — all these dichotomies are explored in a film that draws its name not from the signs for male and female but from the middle ground of identity between the generations of X and Y. X/Y has its premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
Filmmaker: What was the initial inspiration for the film?
Williams: Before I wrote the script for X/Y I had been going through an intense period of my own artistic and personal self-reflection. This drove me to want to tell a story about the challenges we face in modern society in truly connecting deeply with someone. One big question on my mind was, “How does one build and maintain a deep relationship in this hyper connected social media world?” I was inspired by many observations I made in the lives and contemporaries around me. In writing the film I wanted to explore the gray areas of each character, dive into their vulnerabilities and really find a way for the audience to get under their skin. I didn’t want to make a cookie-cutter portrayal of modern relationships. All of the characters in X/Y are conflicted and not entirely good or bad, which I believe is more true to life.
Filmmaker: What role did the actors have, if any, in the construction of their own characters and storylines?
Williams: The structure of the story was set from the beginning and I wrote the script before I had any actors in mind to play the roles. I had to make sure that the script worked on its own before I engaged in a dialog with actors. Once I cast the roles I relied heavily on each actor’s input. While making a film you have this awesome opportunity to collaborate with other artists that inform and challenge you every step of the way. I find the collaboration exhilarating. Provided that you’ve cast the right actors, their input is invaluable and I take it very seriously. If you think about it, an actor spends all their time digging into their character, and as a director, I want to know how the actor feels and hear their ideas. Although I didn’t work in an improvisational way, each actor played a big role in shaping the specific characteristics of their character – from their physical look, to the dialog, to the design of their character’s environment.
Filmmaker: The sort of “interconnected urban dweller” movie is one that independent filmmakers have employed from time to time, along with the “La Ronde”-style serial narrative. What films or narratives in general influenced the storytelling structure?
Williams: From a structure and aesthetic point of view, I was influenced by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Steven Soderbergh. All three have made films that brilliantly interconnect storylines. I am also very inspired by many painters, specifically Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock. Both painters, while very different in style, create paintings that engage the viewer on a visceral level. They both have inspired me to find my own ways of connecting the audience to the character’s emotional life through the visuals and use of music.
Filmmaker: This is the second film you’ve made with your wife, America Ferrera. How does your personal relationship impact the art you make together?
Williams: We obviously know each other very intimately, and this allows for us to push each other in a really deep way. Our work together is rooted in honesty. With this honesty we are able to find great strength and vulnerability. It is a dream working with a collaborator that knows your weaknesses and strengthens, but ultimately someone who believes in you. Our relationship has allowed for us to be more bold and brave in all of our artistic endeavors.
Filmmaker: What lessons in filmmaking or, perhaps, distribution did you learn from your first film, and how did you apply them to X/Y?
Williams: The Dry Land was very unique in that we had a great cast of actors (America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Wilmer Valderrama, Jason Ritter and Ryan O’nan) that were able to do a great deal of national press leading up to the release. Unfortunately, we did not have the marketing dollars to really inform audiences on how they could see the film. We approached the distribution of the film very traditionally. We opened the film in a few key markets and then expanded to roughly 15. It wasn’t until months later that the film was available on DVD & VOD. With this approach we were not able to capitalize on the press that we generated leading up to the theatrical release. Had we made the film available on all platforms at the time of the theatrical release I think the film would have been more financially successful. We live in a world in which people have very short attention spans and in which they consume media on a wide variety of platforms. The traditional distribution format still seems to work for studio films partly because they have the marketing dollars to support this approach. Independent filmmakers fighting to get their films seen have to think outside the box. You have to think about your resources, how you can make the biggest push with those resources, and cater to your audience’s consumption habits. I think for X/Y we will have to get very creative in how we deliver the film to the public. I am not sure how we will do that exactly, but I can say with confidence that we will think outside of the box.