Interview with Ryan Bonder on his film The Brother – words Paul Risker
Filmmaker Ryan Bonder describes his sophomore feature The Brother (2016) as a story about, “reinvention and trying to escape your past to find a new way of living.”
If a film is storytelling one frame at a time, yet the themes interwoven into the narrative forge a film’s identity as Bonder’s words infer, then we have an important distinction.
This distinction is one that perceives the mortal and permanent bodily form of the film and its underlying soul. And through this distinction a film has the potential to become comparable to the human physical and spiritual self.
Bonder’s film opens with the stark philosophical voiceover on the subject of the abstract nature of morality that unfolds into a story in which the individual is not so much in control of his or her own fate. During the course of its narrative, The Brother reflects as to how one’s interpersonal relationships and associations form a chess board on which we become players. Upon this board a single individual, in this case Adam (Tygh Runyan) finds that his life is susceptible to being intruded upon by the desires, agendas and machinations of others. And this intrusion forms a game whereby to achieve reinvention or the discovery of a new way of living he must escape his families arms dealing past that seeks to pull him back in through familial obligation and loyalty.
In conversation with Flux, Bonder spoke honestly about the process of taking a film from script to final cut, and the comfort with the detachment that follows its completion. He also reflected on the uncertainty of the filmmaking process, the dilution of instinct through the collaborative process and the dependency upon large scale collaboration. But in speaking with Bonder, he struck me as a filmmaker engaged with the intricacies of the process, and still in the midst of asking questions or finding his way. Inescapable is the impression that if found, this will bring his creative journey in part full circle, rendezvousing with his photographic origins.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
My dad was a photographer, so I was around photography pretty much all my life as a child. I started taking pictures when I was young, and my dad was also quite the cinephile, and he took me to see 2001 (1968). He exposed us to a lot of interesting films. When I turned sixteen I saw Blue Velvet (1986), which just blew my mind. I thought: That’s what I want to do – I want to make movies. It seemed like such an unbelievable thing to be able to do, to create a world, and that was it really from sixteen.
Of all the films you were exposed to, what was it about Blue Velvet in particular that made such impact?
It was just the fact that it was so otherworldly in a way. It was very odd and unusual at the time, and I hadn’t seen anything like that. It was its own world and in that very specific strange world it just had an oddness and a mystery to it that was… I don’t know. It just left me with a moving feeling and all sorts of emotions. And I think you see a film at a certain point and it perhaps hits a lot of nerves for whatever reason, and it just stays with you. I guess it was just a question of age, timing and the fact that it had so many layers to it. Even at sixteen I don’t think I fully understood, but it was always there, and I’d watched it about thirty times by the time I was eighteen. I was just trying to get into exactly what was going on because it was so curious.
How do your experiences as a filmmaker influence the way you watch films as a viewer? Are you still able to lose yourself in the magic of cinema or does the filmmaker part of your mind intrude on the experience?
If the film is really good, then I go with it and I let go of that. As a filmmaker I want to experience a film as an audience member and you are always making notes, or not notes, but perhaps markers. And if there’s something within a film that I want to think about or analyse, I’ll go back and look at it a second or even a third time to pick it apart. But the first viewing you just want to experience it as an audience. But of course every now and again you will see something and go: Oh that’s brilliant. But generally speaking I love watching movies and so I want to experience it. And if you get too bogged down in it, then you miss the experience and magic of watching a movie.
Interviewing Sean Ellis for Anthropoid (2016), he explained: “So I am trying to make it as if I was the audience, which is always a weird place to try to make something because you are never really the audience.” In your approach to the process, are you trying to make something for yourself and how aware of the audience are you?
I don’t know that I make films for a specific audience. Obviously it is a financial endeavour and quite an expensive one at times, and so you have to be mindful of an audience. But I generally make things that I would want to see, and things that I think other people would maybe want to see. An idea for me has to stay with me for a certain length of time. I don’t know what that specific time would be, but you can generally feel it. If there is an idea that I can’t shake, that is staying, and I’ve got to do something with it, then I know I can live with it for however many years. And it is often four years from writing a script to actually getting to make it. So that’s the first process of deciding. And then once you’ve made that decision you go through different layers, or you write the script and then you get feedback. Then you develop the idea and things will come in that process and you will lose things in that process. But when you get to make the movie it becomes much more collaborative, and sometimes you see what’s working and not working quite quickly. You adjust and hire people that are collaborators, and my cameraman and I went to film school together. He has shot everything of mine for the past twenty years and the same with my composer. They are great collaborators and there is a dialogue between us. I sort of throw out my ideas and they throw in theirs, and through that dialogue and collaborative process you end up with something. And usually I end up with something I didn’t quite expect that exceeds my expectations, which is nice. So I don’t think in terms of controlling the creative process. I like things to be reasonably loose in order for discovery to happen, because when you are making a film I find that you realise a lot of things are serendipitous, that you don’t expect to happen. I suppose the process is to try to create an environment where that can happen more often.
As the person orchestrating the film, was there a moment when it struck you how potent some of the themes were – how you had not realised the extent to which the themes had grown and become entrenched in the idea?
They were there in the script and I think they exist on a piece of paper, but once it becomes actualised I guess you’re not entirely sure how it’s going to present itself in a way. There are things you leave behind in the process that didn’t work or you were not using, and then there are things that you didn’t expect to develop as strongly as they did. So in The Brother yeah, when we got to the edit room then out of all of the themes you were not entirely sure how strongly they would develop – it is impossible to say. But in terms of what exists in the film, that was the intention or the intention was there early on.
Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the experience of editing The Brother will impact your approach to writing and directing in the future?
There is a tendency when you are developing scripts, and I developed this with Telefilm Canada, a public funding body the same as the BFI. It is a terrible process, and it’s run through development people that really don’t know anything about film or filmmaking, and who have never made… I’m being super critical here, but I think it’s absolutely necessary. So when you get into the process of developing with them, you find yourself, or you don’t find yourself, you have no choice but to overwrite, and the edit process allows you to strip away. I have a very good script editor who I trust that I’ve worked with for years. And in an ideal world you would surround yourself by people that would give you good notes, that you trust and understand exactly what it is that you’re going after. And then when you get into the edit room you begin to strip away the things that aren’t working. For me it’s always a process of taking away as much of the fat as possible. What you come away with at the end of that process is how powerful the image and silence can be, and how often there is a need to overstate, overwrite or to make something appear to say what it is that you want to say. But in actuality you can often do that with a single frame, or not a single frame, but one or two shots. It always amazes me how much information you can convey and that for me comes from my background as a photographer – trying to trust that instinct of the power of the image. And of course you have a moving image, but you also have sound and all of those other things that are often extremely powerful. So on this film I came away with the feeling that on my next one I’d like to try to strip back the narrative and the dialogue even further, and it would be an amazing thing to make a movie… And they have been made with very little dialogue. So I think you always walk away with a sense of trusting your instincts or hopefully trusting your instincts more, and that less is sometimes more.
Is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Yeah, there are all sorts of theories on instinct and how they are in a way beaten out of us in the process of education. There’s an interesting book – it’s kind of pop psychology – Blink (The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, 2006) by Malcolm Gladwell, which is about that and the idea that we are socialised and conditioned to not trust our instincts. And ultimately our instincts are correct. I think the difficulty with making a movie is that there is so much in between the instinct and that creative end product. So it has to go through, or it does tend to go through many different layers of filters. So if you have an instinct and you say: “Blue” for instance as your first creative choice, it will then go through all the various departments – which shade of blue? Is it this, is it that? Can we make that blue? And then in that process and because there are so many people involved in the process of making a movie, the instinct becomes warped. It is necessary for me at times, and I couldn’t have made The Brother without as many people as I had working very hard on it. But there’s also something to working with small crews, where you can I suppose allow that instinct to go through less processing.
The other aspect to that is hiring the people that are similar or have similar ideas, so that your instincts are grabbed. And when it does go through that process, it is going through a process with people that you trust, and that understand what you are about. But you can’t always have that in the process of making a film, and you are not going to have everyone on the same page. You have your creative leads and your team, but ultimately there are going to be people that don’t see things the same way. It’s a very difficult process and I wish in a way filmmaking was more personal in the actual making of a film, and less about the machine. When you get into crews of fifty, sixty or seventy people, it becomes a machine, and you are often feeding the machine and not the film. So the danger is in that and it is a balance… Making a movie is walking a high-wire [laughs].
Picking up on your point about trusting the image and stripping the film back, one of the narrative features that immediately resonated with me was the use of image and action to emphasise the character’s journey. Early on the idea of the pursuit of change or transformation are echoed by origami and painting, which are themselves an act of invention. But these scenes are executed without dialogue, allowing the character to exist silently in his creative world.
It’s a strange thing. The film is really about reinvention and trying to escape your past to find a new way of living, and art just happens to be the thing for him. I didn’t want to make it about that so much. It plays a part, but it’s an action. It’s not: Oh isn’t he a brilliant painter… None of those things matter to me and the way I constructed that, hopefully we create a sense of the beauty, the simplicity and the quietness of that space for him, which he exists in, and that acts as a contrast to his other world. I’m quite into Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer, and a lot of his writing is sort of hot and cold; brutal and beautiful. In The Brother he’s trying to create contrast – the world that he exists in with the beauty surrounding him, and I think that was it really. And when the violence happens I hope it is bit of a shock or there is a jolt because there is a brutality to him as well. So it is meant to be a contrast, but again I was trying to do it simply… I tried to any way.
The film is not over populated with the use of art as a motif for change and reinvention, rather it offers an effective underpinning of the character’s desire. But I didn’t expect him to be as proficient in the act of violence when those moments arrived, which to some extent upsets our expectations. This could be attributable to the creative persona that we are introduced to.
That was the intention, and again duality plays a part. I’ve talked to people about the film and some found the violence too much, which I was surprised by. It is interesting that some found the violence to be too extreme because I don’t really think of it as graphic – there isn’t a huge amount of graphic violence. But there is a lot of cruel violence and the nail gun is quite nasty. What I think I was hoping to tap into, or not tap into, but to explore was that ultimately as human beings we all have lightness and darkness within us. And I’ve just polarised it as a way of showing that we all have this capability, but obviously not in those extremes. You always hope to create characters that are dynamic, and he’s a deeply flawed character, which to me are the most interesting characters. I don’t know why I am drawn to flawed characters, but I think they are a lot more real.
The opening voiceover offers the point of view that morality is an abstract concept that becomes increasingly abstract with age. In the film, and especially in the love interest thread of the narrative, you seem to deliberately avoid the act of moralising or judging your protagonist. The film leaves me with an impression that you are happy to observe the complicated dual nature of a person’s moral propensity, without trying to simplify it.
The thing about making films where you may be tempted to draw or judge always feels slightly… I don’t know. I like to make films where the audience has to invest something and not be pedestrian. So to me if you are making judgements for the audience then you are lazy – it’s lazy filmmaking. I don’t need to make those judgements; people can make those judgements for themselves. And what makes films generally interesting is that you can’t necessarily be pedestrian and just have everything fed to you. But you are not going to reach everyone and some people find that incredibly frustrating. They want to be told how to feel, what to feel and when to feel it. But for me it is complex and I want my audience to invest something, and to make their own judgement.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
When you are in the edit there is a point when you’ll stop, where you seem to have gone as far as you can go. You do make all the other decisions after the edit – sound and music and the other things, but once it’s done it’s done, and it’s out of your hands. It becomes a question of the audience and how they will respond to it – like it or dislike it, whatever the case may be. I am quite happy to let that go because by the time that you get there you’ve had enough of it. It’s a pretty exhausting process and I think it is liberating to say: Okay, it’s no longer mine. And in a way there are so many other people involved and I always consider that. It’s not just my film, it’s a lot of other people’s film as well. I am quite happy to say: It belongs in the world now, and whether people accept it or don’t accept it, it’s beyond my control. And that’s it, it’s gone.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
The only thing I can think of likening it to is that I have kids, and it is a bit like having a child. It’s a bit like giving birth, not that I’ve given birth, but that process of having something enter the world and all the different emotions that you go through in the process. I think they have an impact on you, and also the other transformations you probably go through is that you have no idea. This film was particularly tough to make, and I had a lot of problems with funders, not with the actual filming itself. I made The Brother with a relatively small budget and you can probably see the locations are very good – we had a lot of locations, but it was tough. Handling that pressure I came out of the experience with an awareness of how strong I was as a filmmaker and as a person. It really was five years of non-stop pressure, from writing it to having lots of arguments with Telefilm Canada. You just go for five years living in this pressure cooker and you come out feeling like you’ve survived it. And in that process you’ll have taken away things that you’ll do or will not do again. I think it probably takes about a year before you start to feel like yourself again, because it really can take a lot out of you. As my wife said to me, she doesn’t understand why anyone would ever want to do that to themselves [laughs]. She’s very supportive, but she just couldn’t believe why anyone would put themselves through that because it is a very difficult process.
The Brother is released in UK theatres Friday 16th September 2016 and is also available on Amazon Video.
Interview with Ryan Bonder on his film The Brother – words Paul Risker