One beautiful summer evening last month, Bruce and I went into Philly to see a new film The Four-Faced Liar. It was the first foray in to film of a young woman we’d watched grow up at the theatre. We‘d heard great things about the film and we were off to lend our support. By the film’s end we were both speechless. I don’t know what impressed me more, the film or the young woman who was the writer/producer/actress of the film. The Four-Faced Liar premiered at The 2010 Slamdance Film festival and has been on the circuit since picking up award after award and playing to sold out audiences. Wolfe Releasing, MTV/LOGO and Multivisionaire have respectively bought domestic DVD/VOD, broadcast and foreign rights. It is smart, funny, fresh, and honest - a staggering slam dunk entrance into the film community. After I’d picked my jaw and my heart up from the floor I gave writer/producer/actor, Marja-Lewis Ryan a call to ask her a few questions. I think you will be impressed and amazed by her and her no-excuses, no-fear attitude.
ME: OK, I know you’ve told this story hundreds of times now but will you tell it one more time, how did this film come to be?
MLR: (laughter then a deep breath) Well, Daniel Carlisle, Todd Kubrak, Emily Peck and I all went to NYU together. We studied at the Atlantic Theatre Company which was founded by the playwright, David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. During our second year they came to the school to hold a master class and I was among six students chosen to perform three scenes in front of them. At the Q&A after the master class a girl stood up and asked Mamet, “Why don’t you write more roles for women?” and he said, “Why don’t you?” He kind of just dismissed her like that and I was laughing to myself but then I thought, “It’s true, why don’t I?” So, I did.
We had scene studies for class and the kiss of death was to get a scene for two women because there’s so little material out there, so I wrote a one act play for two female characters. I produced it for one night in New York. People came and liked it so when the four of us moved to LA together I re-wrote it into a full length play for the four of us. We produced it together in the spring of 2007. Then I took that play and went off to a farm in Kansas for three months and I changed it into a screenplay. When I returned to LA it took about nine months to workshop the script and raise the money. We started shooting in the Fall of 2008. We shot 28 days over nine months - two chunks in New York to get the seasons, one in the Fall and one in the Winter and then 17 days in a sound studio just north of LA. After that it took about another six months to get through post and then we premiered at Slamdance in June of this year.
How’d I do?
ME: In every respect - amazing!! You were all in NYU’s theater program. What prompted four theatre kids to change the play into a screenplay?
MLR: We were four young kids, 21 & 22 years old, in LA. One of us had found representation but the others of us weren’t having any luck at all. One thing we took away from school was to create your own work. The one way to make sure you’re working is to do it yourself. So, I wrote the full length version of the play and we all collaborated together to workshop it. We did the play just to work but I think we were all a little surprised that people liked it so much. I mean, we all thought we were funny but we didn’t know if other people would. They did and that positive response helped spark us to take the script further.
ME: Had you ever written before?
MLR: No. The one act with the two female characters was the first thing I’d ever written and I kept exploring that original concept, re-working it into the full length play and then into the screenplay. Before then I’d never thought about writing but it felt natural and easy to me at the time so I’ve continued to write ever since then.
ME: I was struck by the honesty of the screenplay. There were a couple of times, in fact, when it was startlingly honest and I thought, “Yes, that’s what the character would really say.” Can you tell me a little bit about your process and how you get inside a character as a writer?
MLR: Something I’ve always done is kept a journal, not a “Dear Diary” type of journal but when people say things that really strike me I write them down. I also have a very, very strong auditory memory. I can remember things that were said years ago verbatim. So, I draw on that when I’m writing.
I also did some character study. The one element of the story that was hard for all four of us to get behind was the cheating. We are all pretty vanilla when it comes to that. We’ve none of us cheated or been cheated on. So, I talked to someone I know who’s about 20 years old than I am and who was like that when he was a kid. He answered my questions honestly and offered some insight into what it’s like to love someone and to be compelled to test them in that way.
ME: I know the play/screenplay was workshopped. Did things emerge from that experience that proved helpful?
MLR: OH!!! SO much!! After I had written the screenplay we would meet at 10:00am one Sunday of every month for “Defend Your Character Day.” Basically everyone wrote in longhand what happened moment to moment in their character’s journey. That way we’d be sure, well, first of all that everyone had a journey and we could clearly see the places where from point A to point B didn’t quite make sense.
I don’t know how anyone writes without workshopping because - everything sounds good in your head (laughing). And eventually, all four of us became useless because we’d been through so many drafts we’d be carrying over information that wasn’t even there anymore. So, it was really helpful to have an audience that could say, “Why did he do that?” Then we could see where we needed to fill in the holes.
Toward the end of the process one of my professors sat down with me and we went through the script from a structural perspective. One thing he told me that really stuck with me was that if your actor’s not saying it right - it’s your fault. I’m working with three very good actors so I have to assume that it’s not them - it’s me. To take that kind of responsibility for every single line really opens things up for me because I realize I have the power to change each moment.
ME: How did being the producer of the film effect you as a writer?
MLR: Well, the main thing was I was acutely aware of how much money we had. I became hyper aware of how much it was going to cost to really shoot this thing - down to the day. So, for every scene I wanted to write I had to make sure that it took place in one of the locations we already had slated. It was limiting in that way but it also kept me focused. It forced me to focus on character development. Of course, I couldn’t introduce any other characters and it became a challenge to make these people look really cool and popular when we didn’t see them hanging out with anyone else!
ME: I find your character, Brigit, to be one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen in literature or film in quite a while. I know you were writing a strong female character for yourself to play but were there any specific traits/characteristics you wanted to highlight or did she just emerge organically?
MLR: One of the things I felt very strongly about was the time line of the screenplay. I wanted to write a journey that someone who was 20-21 could really go through. I wanted her walls to be broken down a bit but I didn’t want her to complete the full journey of human life in the course of 90 minutes. Life doesn’t work that way. Change takes time.
I also wanted her to be smart. I wanted her to be more than just a one dimensional character. I didn’t want people to see her as just a player, whose only thought was picking up women. I wanted them to see that there was more to her.
ME: Ok, you had never written anything before and you had never done film before. HOW did you make this happen?
MLR: (laughing) THAT’S a broad question! The four of us really wanted this. Between technology and meeting people we were able to look at over 500 reels just to find someone who we thought would be a match for our film. We invited 5 out of the 500 to our final staged reading. Later we had a meeting with Jacob, the guy who wound up being our director, and he got it, he got our humor, everything - he just got it. We were lucky we found what we wanted - someone we could connect with. And his best friend was our cinematographer and his best friend was our DP. So, we found our team at the opposite end of the camera. The four of us found the four of them and we became like a little family - and we all pulled a lot of weight.
ME: I have to think that you must have come up against several things you’d never done before. Were any of them scary to you and how did you push past the fear?
MLR: I think the scariest part was asking for the money because it’s a crap shoot. I couldn’t guarantee they would get their money back. So, to ask people for hundreds of thousands of dollars was definitely the scariest thing I had to do. But, the first “yes” erases all the “nos” you heard before it. It’s an incredible rush, an incredible high. Even a small amount of encouragement can spark you on. So, after the first “yes” it became much easier.
ME: Sitting in the audience and watching your work with the audience had to be a new experience for you, too.
MLR: We did post right up until the second we left for Park City so none of us had seen the final mix until we were watching it with the audience at Slamdance. It was a little unnerving. We all sat in the back and held onto each other. I still get nervous every time I go to a screening. I guess it’s the lack of control. In the theatre you can feel the audience and adjust accordingly - you and the audience go on the journey together. So, the screenings can be a little scary. Besides, by now I know the film inside and out so I usually don’t watch anymore.
ME: You and the other actors, were also the producers. That had to have had it’s challenges. Did this experience inform how you might approach future projects?
MLR: DEFINITELY! For sure!! We tell this next story as sort of a joke now but - it was real. One day we shot for twelve hours, then I had to go back to the hotel room and sit up with the director to re-write the scenes we were going to shoot the next day. So, I was up for six more hours. I had to be in make-up at 6:00am so I got about 4 hours of sleep. I showed up that next morning and the make-up artist took one look at me and said, “Thank God I have white eyeliner, you look like hell!” It sounds funny but it was really a problem. We all always looked and were exhausted. We’d be up past midnight solving problems and then would have to be on set at 4:00am. We had bags under our eyes and we all lost a ton of weight.
I also have to say that to be aware as we are shooting that we are falling behind schedule does not relax me. I can’t separate the producer who knows that and is stressed about it from the actor who needs to relax in order to do her job. AND, the people I would normally turn to - my best friends - were all in the same boat!!
SO, in the future we won’t do that. For instance, we’re shooting a short in NYC in a couple of weeks. I wrote it and I’m in it but I am not producing it. Todd will be producing it.
Now, that all being said, I do have to add that there was a positive side to it. The first day we were on the sound stage together, Todd and I were helping the art department paint our set. All the grips and gaffers and swings were hanging lights and saw us there. Then the next day the camera was on me. That created a kind of morale because we all felt so completely responsible, well, because we were. People were inspired across the board. Everyone busted their butts and pitched in in so many ways. Everyone had the feeling of - whatever you can do, you will do.
ME: This has been an amazing ride for you. What would you say was the most amazing thing that’s happened to you related to this experience? What did you walk away from and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that happened?”
MLR: I actually have a very specific answer to that. The last scene of the film is a really long, one take crane shot. It starts about 25 feet up in the air then comes down on me and the other female lead, Emily, and that’s how the film ends. Film in general requires that everyone be spot on in order to get the shot but with a shot like this it really is “all hands on deck.” You have Emily and me who can’t screw up, the art department that has to arrange the entire room to make it look just so, you have the crane operator who can’t jerk or move anything, you have Danny who’s operating the camera above it, and you have Jacob, our director, who’s calling all the shots. And then, you have the entire crew that’s behind the monitor that can’t move or make a peep. Oh, and then there’s the money we had to raise to get the crane for the day so there’s THAT guy…! So, it was the 1st of July. I know that because it was Jacob’s 22nd birthday. It was about the fifth take. We said our final lines and Jacob called “cut.” We could hear sniffling so I popped my head up from the bed and then went over to him. I crouched down next to him and he said, “Do you guys want to go again?” Emily and I looked at each other and said, “no” and he said, “good.” The we walked outside together and we just cried. We really felt like we had made something that day. We felt like we did it. I don’t know why, but it felt like a real movie that day.
And then we had to shoot for another nine days…!
And that, I think, tells you more than anything about who Marja Lewis Ryan is. “What’s the most amazing thing that’s happened to you” is a cheesy question and the typical answer would be “We met So&So at Slamdance.“ But, Marja is the sort of woman for whom the craft, the work, the art is the payoff. She is the sort of woman who can recognize and celebrate a special moment in the midst of the stress and pressure and knowing that there is still more work ahead. She’s also the sort of woman who when asked if she has anything to add will say, “We were a team. We did it together. Let me just say everyone’s name.”