Ryan Frost, writer/director of the upcoming September Morning, took some time over the weekend to talk to Solzy at the Movies about the new film.
Thanks for joining Solzy at the Movies today. How are things treating you?
Ryan Frost: Doing well, thank you. It’s really hot in LA. There’s like fires just north of here so pretty crazy. I went outside there was ash on my car. Unique. Other than that, doing well.
You wrote and directed September Morning, which is coming out in select theaters and on demand this Friday. What was it like to revisit 9/11 through this film?
Ryan Frost: I had a few opportunities to do it because the way the project started when I had written the script originally, I had sent it out to a bunch of theater companies—national and regional—and a theater company in Virginia ended up doing a staged reading at a commemorative event back in 2014. When I went back to that to rehearse with some of the actors in that, it was a little bit of a surreal experience because you’re kind of trying to explain what it was like. I remember the first reading we did. The reading was very dour and people were kind of just projecting their own thoughts about what they thought 9/11 was. These actors were kids at this time. They were all like 8 or 9 years old. When we did the film, they were even younger.
It was definitely like a surreal experience for me. I guess I got the opportunity to try and share exactly what it was like. One of the things that I tried to do in the film and instill was just because this event is happening; you’re still like a normal person. You kind of go through the motions of life. You eat and you sleep and you do all these things that maybe you don’t really remember but you still are human. I don’t know a good answer. But for revisiting, it was definitely surreal. I remember the first time I walked on when we were building the set, it felt like I was walking back into my freshman year dorm room.
There are a number of children that are going to be entering college soon and were born after the tragic events. What message do you want them to take away after viewing the film?
Ryan Frost: That’s a good question. That was pretty much the inspiration for writing it. In a few years time, everyone going off to history is born after 9/11 and just like for me, studying Pearl Harbor and the assassination of JFK—historical events—this is that for them. In this film, you’ll see that I don’t think that, historically speaking, I don’t think we’ll forget what happened in New York, in Washington, on the plane, and a lot of history will talk about the wars that follow. I think it’s important to look at the perspective of that day—what it was like to be an American that day. What it was like to be a college kid on that day. I feel this film is just a snapshot of that.
The first shot of this film is the television and then the television—the camera spins around to face the room. I think most people my age, a little bit younger or a little older—their experience of that day is they remember watching the news all day long. I just wanted to collect a snapshot and say this is the perspective. I chose freshmen also because I was a freshman in college. Two, I think the perspective of a freshman is that you’re away from home for the first time. The idea that you’re away from home just—I think for the century after 9/11, we were kind of in uncharted territory.
I think it was important overall—to go back to the original question—to try and imagine a perspective with history if we don’t really add to the narrative, it feels itself off in a way. We look at very important events throughout history—they’re written and then it is a struggle to add in the other narrative voices once its closed off. I was trying to add another voice to it—another perspective—that hasn’t been covered as thoroughly by the other stories.
I know most of the 9/11 films I’ve seen have been set on the planes or set at the World Trade Center or in the vicinity. This one was very unique in that regard.
Ryan Frost: I feel like those stories have a place and they’re important too. I thought to me it was too important to not be that story, to not try and replicate that. The big budget dramas and docudramas—there’s going to be plenty of that so I felt it’s just important to try and add a different perspective and share something about what it like for people that were maybe immediately affected because I think that everyone in this country and in this world is ultimately affected by 9/11. Everyone remembers what they were doing, and really, the aftermath of that that we’re still experiencing today.
I’ll never forget where I was: Keyboarding, 2nd period.
Ryan Frost: Oh, really?
All of sudden, they make an announcement over the intercom saying that there’s been a terrorist attack. Naturally, being Jewish, I immediately think something happened in Israel and then they turned on the TV.
Ryan Frost: Yeah. What I remember was—my first class of the day was at 9:45 but I had this Spanish drill class that was kind of optional, kind of not optional, and that was at 8:45 so I went to get breakfast beforehand with a friend. We were both in Spanish and the history class that came after. We went to breakfast and we saw the tower hit by a plane and it was on the TV in the dining hall. It didn’t seem like anything big. It was like, “Oh, that’s weird.”—just one of those idiots flying one of the two-person type planes or something and hit it. We went to class and came out—everyone was huddled around the historic building, Ryland Hall. We were like, “What’s up.” They were like, “The World Trade Center just got hit by a plane.” We’re like, “Oh yeah, we saw that building.” They were like, “No, the other one.” Then your heart just sinks and then you know something is going on and that it’s terrible.
Your film had an interesting Indiegogo campaign where half the donations went to a college fund for those who lost their parents in the attacks. Can you talk about what that means to you?
Ryan Frost: I’m happy we did it. I didn’t really want to do any crowdfunding but this opportunity came along to work with the Twin Tower Orphan Fund. That way, we feel like if we’re going to ask for something, we’re going give back evenly in return. It was so cool to send off a few thousand dollars and know we contributed to something good. But it’s also been like, after we did, it’s there in like our project history and stuff like that but we haven’t really—we don’t tout it or brag about it that much because we just felt like it was the right thing to do. We didn’t do it for the press, I should say. We just kind of did it to do it. I just tried to really approach the subject matter with a fair degree of sensitivity because there are obviously people who are more affected than I was. Even now, we have some things—it’s probably been in the press—school screenings planned. We’re going to be at Villanova and University of Miami as a part of these educational campaigns to teach about 9/11. It is a tough subject to teach because it’s not that far in the past. We also have some screenings planned for a few different 9/11 groups coming up later in the fall like The Feel Good Foundation and Tuesday’s Children in New York. We try and stay involved in that arena and really give back to the community and be a part of it and do what we can as well.
This was the first starring role for Katherine Hughes and features Barney Miller’s Max Gail. How did the cast come together?
Ryan Frost: Katherine, it’s her first starring role I should say. She was in Me and Earl and The Dying Girl. She wasn’t a lead but she had a pretty good role in that.
The cast, I had two great casting directors. They’re actually the first two people to agree to come on the film. They’re both in the guild—the CSA—in LA. One of them, Andrea Rueda, used to be an actress that was in one my student films when I was at USC, and quit the acting business and went into casting. We just stayed friends and she cast my thesis film years ago. The other one is Charlene Lee, also in the CSA. She’s a casting associate on Fargo, the TV show.
The casting was one of those things where we just wanted the best talented and the best actors for the roles. We had some meetings with some bigger people but we knew in the end that it was probably going to be unknown anyway in the sense that even if you were going to get someone like, for example, Sam Lerner. Even if you were going to get someone like him, if it’s not someone with more of a name, it’s not going to affect your bottom line anyway. So we just went with who we thought was best. The beauty of having good casting directors is they kind of know the moral victories of the actors. They know who almost got X, Y, or Z big role in this film, or they were second or they know a director who really loved their work.
Like Katherine Hughes, for example, in Me and Earl and The Dying Girl—you’re allowed to say the F word once in a film before it gets rated R so the second time it’s rated R. She got the F word in Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, and I go, that director must have loved her so we brought her in. That’s kind of that. We just brought everyone in and everybody came and read. We never did any kind of pairings of them or anything like that. It was definitely a process.
Max signed on to do it maybe—we shot in chronological order so that like the second week or so. I think signed on the day before we shot that scene so it was good timing.
What I find most impressive about this film was that it was such a minimal cast and sets. What was the reasoning behind that?
Ryan Frost: When I set up to write it, I didn’t limit myself. I know some people have asked me, oh, was this for budget or was this for that? It really wasn’t. The idea of this film is that I wanted to flip the camera from the TV onto one room and have it treated like this microcosm and just like make that place like a character and fit into the story. The idea is like outside of this room is the outside world. Once you leave and once you go out, you have to deal with reality. These 18-year-old kids get one last opportunity to kind of be kids. You know the whole world is going to be different the next day but if they stay here a little bit longer.
Oddly enough, it was on stage beforehand. I had always written it as a film but it was on stage so a lot of people ask me, I remember when we were auditioning actors, wouldn’t this be better as a play. I’d seen it on stage and the problem on stage is we’re all stuck in one location on stage, we have to stay here but for the film, it’s like no, they want to stay there. They need to stay here. They can leave any time. We could leave but it’s sort of like this idea that they don’t want to because of the realities out there. I think for me that was the big reason why. When I started writing it, I never left the room.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
Ryan Frost: That’s a tough question. I was a history major in undergrad in college in Virginia. After I graduated, I moved out to LA even knowing I was going to go into film but this was back in 2005 or so. I didn’t really know what that meant back then. There wasn’t really—like the idea of film school, I never heard of and it definitely didn’t exist the way it does today. There were probably a few schools that the major ones that had them, I never know what it was so—I just think, I don’t know. I had this drive or something in me that wanted to do it. I loved movies but really, that was about it. I wanted to be a director but didn’t know what a director was until I got to LA. Once I sort of made a decision that I wanted to move to LA after graduating, I was probably 20-21 years old or so. My senior year, I tried to write a screenplay. I went to like—there was some technology center in school and I borrowed a camera. I edited a film on Final Cut and sort of taught myself. I took photography classes and then just came out here. It was sort of like a weird thing. It’s hard to answer that because all this happened.
This was your first feature film, correct?
Ryan Frost: My first feature, yes.
Did having worked on short films before make the process less overwhelming?
Ryan Frost: Yeah, definitely. Like I said, I went to USC for grad school. I don’t know how many short films I made beforehand—probably a dozen or so. A few of them, they got to—they increased in scale each time so you know your first five or six are a little small. But eventually, you are working with a bigger budget, a bigger crew, and it was definitely instrumental for me to have to do that and have the confidence to go out to do it. I had done a fair amount of commercials and online content. Every time, you go out and direct, I think you get better. I can’t imagine it. Like I think I thought I’d probably have been fine when I was 22 or 23, I could have done this or I could have done that—probably not.
Now that September Morning is about to be released, what other projects are you working on?
Ryan Frost: There’s a script I wrote before this that I really want to make. It’s sort of a romantic drama. That’s definitely the next one, I hope. I’m in talks to—I’m also interested in Meyer Lansky so you and I both have that Jewish connection so I’m interested in Meyer Lansky especially during the World War 2 era. I think I’d like to revisit that. I’m talking to an author about optioning his novel about Meyer Lansky during World War 2. I’m hoping the film does well so I get some more opportunities to direct or write. I think I’m more of a pure writer than director but I want to do both.
I’m working on a screenplay right now but with it being awards season—good luck finding the time.
Ryan Frost: What’s your story about?
With me being transgender, it’s based in Chicago with a transgender lead whose doing her first open mike at a comedy club after coming out. I developed it through Second City. I took Writing for TV and Film. I developed it as a sitcom pilot but over the weeks after finishing the class, I decided to convert it to a feature film because I figure as an indie film, there’s a better chance of finding an audience than trying to get a sitcom off the ground and selling it.
Ryan Frost: I think that’s probably—the smart money on doing it as a film. It sounds good.. How far into it are you?
With reworking the outline and adding dialogue into a few scenes, I’m at ten pages.
Ryan Frost: Okay.
But then of course, I’ve been seeing an average of 30 films a month these past few months so it’s been really hard finding the time.
Ryan Frost: Yeah. That’s cool though. Chicago seems like it has a great film community, especially now, right.
Ryan Frost: Liz Toonkel, my production designer—she production designed, it was right before this film came, right before we started shooting it. The Joe Swanberg movie, Digging for Fire—she was a production designer on that. I actually never saw that movie. I saw parts of it. I knew her work from something else but I think she went out there for that film.
Thanks again for your time.
Ryan Frost: Thank you.
September Morning will be available on Friday.