• By: OLM Staff

Aaron Ryder, Man Behind Donnie Darko and Memento Offers Advice to Ottawa’s Budding Filmmakers at OIFF

It was Saturday evening, and I was at the movies. A common weekend pastime for many, however this particular weekend respite was anything but routine. It is because on this Saturday, I was able to pick the mind of a top Hollywood producer – Aaron Ryder. Part of Ottawa International Film Festival’s special presentation, “An Evening with Aaron Ryder”, this event featured a screening of arguably two of his most well-known films: Memento (2000) and Donnie Darko (2001). After the screenings, Mr. Ryder sat down for an intimate Q and A period, and a discussion about why Ottawa was the chosen destination for his current project, House at the End of the Street.

Memento was first on the bill. When viewing a film for a subsequent time, your gaze is invariably altered. You may look for deeper meanings, or things you perhaps missed in the previous viewings. And a film like Memento deserves multiple viewings. A shrewd film done in wholly new style, with a complicated script to boot, it requires of the viewer a very cerebral analysis.

In a Q and A session with CBC’s Alan Neal, Ryder joked of Memento, “Thank God it was the first movie I made. We just didn’t know any better. Ignorance is bliss.” At 27, this was Ryder’s first production gig, working closely with the film’s writer and director, Christopher Nolan. Getting the script to be understood – it consisted of parallel narratives written forwards and backwards – was the first hurdle. While it may be something to joke about now, during the pitching process it was a source of great difficulty. Today he understands that, “Too much weight is put on how a script is read. It’s really just a blueprint.”

The difficulty went beyond the page as, once the film was backed by a production company and consequently made, the distribution process proved to be the weightier challenge. A producer’s job is also to sell a product, and this one was not flying off the shelf. Ryder chuckled that one of the companies “actually said to put it in the right order.” The now infamous story goes as follows: no distributor would touch it, and then finally an Italian company became interested. While sitting on the plane to Italy to discuss the deal, Ryder received a call that they had just decided to drop it. Yet – as is apparent to cinefiles the world over – the film would receive its due praise. Ryder recalled first screening Memento in front of an audience of 1,500 at the Venice Film Festival. People sat in silence for about a minute after credits rolled. Before he could start contemplating absolute failure, the entire crowd stood up for an “eight-minute long standing ovation.” He was not only safe, but was now an in-demand Hollywood producer.

Nevertheless, lessons were learned – some of which were indispensable when approaching Donnie Darko. Ryder described how the final product was an example of how a filmic vision can sometimes appear at the end of the production process. His involvement in Donnie Darko came very late, during post-production. The project ended up needing his wisdom; it was a finished, yet overly-confusing and unapproachable film. He would push to reshoot and re-edit it, explaining that Richard Kelly, the film’s writer and director, was forced to re-script many parts. The beauty was that, as Ryder explains, Kelly would end up “finding the movie later” in that final version.

Even after such blatant success stories, Ryder is the first to admit that he is not the guru of all good film decisions. “It’s just a bad movie,” he said of 2006’s The Return. Beyond having the foresight often needed when making such a long-term investment, Ryder noted that “experience should teach you to not do that anymore.” In the case of The Return, “there were too many cooks in the kitchen.” Other big mistakes, to the audience’s bewilderment, were passing on Oscar-winning films. He thought the Traffic script was “boring”, and Crash – the film written and directed by Canadian Paul Haggis – was entirely dismissed by his distribution company.

He further elaborated to Ottawa Life that reasons for choosing a project are “different every time.” He noted that he mainly drew from two points of reference: the financial factor and the personal factor. The choice is about how well the film can be “marketed and received” or if it “touches your heart.” He explained that, “If one of these two reasons are met, I’ll give it a lot of my time.” The producer certainly does not beat around the bush, describing the process of filmmaking as a “collision of art and commerce.” After being probed further about the business side of the equation, he said that it is “harder now more than ever to find an audience.” Indeed, he noted that the lower levels of audiences in theaters can be attributed to the various “distractions” in an information-saturated world. “There are more reasons why not to leave the house.”

Ryder also gave solid pieces of wisdom to anyone thinking of entering the production world. His style of production is organized. “I’m not one of those filmmakers that likes to figure it out on set,” he explained, while admitting that there needs to be “some sort of open-mindedness to fluidity.” And when it came to the general management of a film’s evolution, he explained that casting “is often everything” – referencing Guy Pearce as the impeccable choice for Memento. But, he added, a producer is not meant to overstep boundaries, as “your role as a producer changes from film to film. I try to be as involved as a director needs me to be.”

These were satisfying tidbits indeed. However, for my part, I needed more insight on the cult hit he helped produce. Earlier he  joked with the audience that he “still [doesn’t] know what the movie [Donnie Darko] is about.” After all these years, the film’s draw may very well be that it consistently defies exact and finite interpretation. But Ryder tried his best to give Ottawa Life an answer. From his viewpoint, Donnie Darko is “about a young man who is in an alternate loop of time.” He believes it is about having the ability to be on the outside of the world while looking in, describing it as a form of “extreme reflexivity.”

So what was Ryder’s message to the budding independent producer? “Save a lot of money,” he was quick to say, if only half-jokingly. He explained that there are four steps to making any production a success: “finding the materials, finding the elements – such as cast and crew – finding the money, and making it all work cohesively.”

This is great advice for anybody in the field. Yet, Ottawa producers and filmmakers often feel left out of that field altogether, deferring Canada’s success stories to Toronto and Montreal. Ryder argues that Ottawa has obvious advantages for any international filmmaker. He does so due to his involvement with Ottawa’s Zed Filmworks on producing House at the End of the Street, a thriller filmed in Ottawa that is set to come out in 2012. “I firmly believe,” Ryder explained, “that, based on the tax incentive that Ontario offers, the localized incentive, and the rapidly growing film crews, if you have a film that has an under $10 million budged, it’s very good to film here.”

The Ottawa International Film Festival, having its second annual run this past weekend, has perhaps given inspiration to local filmmakers. The Festival, largely screening locally-produced films, has proven that Ottawa has a budding film market that is ready to promote its filmmakers. Aaron Ryder – having made this city his set location for the past few months – may send international film markets the message that Ottawa deserves those big film bucks too. The prospects are promising; let’s see if tinsel town – and beyond – is listening.