Conceiving of and completing my University of Michigan senior honors thesis short, Everything’s New in Lost Time, six years ago was beyond measure the most creatively rewarding experience of my filmmaking career up until this point. With the unrelenting support of my thesis advisors, Terri Sarris and Jennifer Hardacker, I was able to realize the clearest expression of what I hoped to accomplish through the cinematic medium. A thought-provoking film that merges coming-of-age themes and existential philosophy with aesthetic and narrative experimentation, the film told a comedic and thoughtful story about identity, friendship, and expectations. Everything’s New in Lost Time connected to viewers on an inspirational level. I am both humbled and emboldened by the numerous strangers who have contacted me to tell me how much my film resonated with them.
Everything’s New in Lost Time not only a crystallized in my mind the ambitions I had for creating cinematic narratives, it vindicated them as well. It is my most successful work to date garnering me a Director’s Guild of America (DGA) student film award in 2007. How I could have willfully drifted away from this confident and passionate mode of storytelling and found my way back six years later in my upcoming debut feature, a post-modernist hip hop musical love story entitled But Not For Me, is a story of personal soul rediscovery.
Gaining admission to the MFA Film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2008 was both a gift and a burden for me creatively. Coming fresh off my DGA win, I rode a wave of self-assuredness into my first year at NYU. This attitude is on brash display in the first film that I directed in the program.
The assignment—known as the “First year MOS”—was to tell a story in four minutes using only exterior locations, no dialogue, no title cards, and definitely no music. Naturally, I set out to make a silent musical telling the myth of how Blues legend, Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play guitar like a god. The conceit and the ambition of this project—for some reason—made sense to me at the time. I had to do it and nobody would be able to talk me out of it.
The NYU faculty, however was not impressed. Never on board with the idea from the start—everyone was convinced that I was bound to slip and break the rule barring the use of music, thereby failing the assignment and bringing my career to an end—I was excoriated in the final review. The film was called “too cerebral,” “too intellectual,” “narratively muddled,” and even “disturbing.” Looking back, while I understand that a lot of the less-than-stellar reviews resulted more from my (failed) attempt to tell a six minute story in four than a disagreement with my aesthetic goals, what really shook my confidence was the lack of acknowledgment for the intellectual ambition behind the film.
At Michigan my will to experiment was always supported, even when some of my ideas fell flat on their faces (whole scenes and segments of Everything’s New in Lost Time had to be left on the floor because I was trying to do too much). Here, I acutely felt that the lack of recognition for the effort meant that I had to retool or reconfigure my goals in order to thrive at NYU.
It seems all too poetic that I came to this realization after making a film about a guy who sells his soul for success.
The next major project in NYU’s Graduate Film program is the “Second Year Film.” My use of quotation marks are a bit ostentatious as the project is exactly what it sounds like, a film that every student completes during their second year. I use the quotations to highlight the almost irrational significance that is placed on the project within the program. When one begins the grad film program as a wide-eyed ball of anxious excitement, the second year film is billed as the project that will make your career. Given the fact that NYU admits many students who don’t necessarily have filmmaking backgrounds, the weight placed on this film is a bit excessive. In retrospect, I wish that I had used this project to make a film that furthered my work combining experimental narrative structure and aesthetics with philosophical themes á la Everything’s New in Lost Time. What I did instead was what most people, scarred by the subpar review experience that I had first year, would have done: I made an “NYU film.”
NYU is famous for producing filmmakers who embrace traditional and straightforward narrative strategies to tell stories that highlight troubled characters in troubling situations. One only has to look at recent hits such as Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre and Dee Rees’ Pariah for incredible examples of this type of filmmaking. For my second year film I drank the kool-aid. I wrote and directed a film about a major league baseball scout who attempts to come to the aid of a highly touted but troubled young player wrapped up in a steroids scandal that threatens to surface. As a huge baseball fan, I figured this to be the perfect material through which to tap into the “NYU film” ethos. The clear storytelling was there, but in hindsight, my heart wasn’t and the final product lacks the passion of even my first year MOS not to mention Everything’s New in Lost Time.
Having had a few years to develop the idea for But Not For Me, I can truly say that I’m back to the spirit that I had as a maybe-too-confident first year student. I remember writing in the statement of purpose for my NYU application that my goal was to make films that embodied jazz’s spirit of improvisation, Jean-Luc Godard’s bold subversion of the rules of narrative filmmaking, and an aesthetic representation of true American democracy in which all voices are heard and presented vibrantly. I feel this democracy very poignantly in the crowd funding way that we’re going about financing it on Kickstarter.
For me, the aim in combining these elements is to elevate stories that embrace experimentation and a jazz-inspired democratic vision to create films that are not only viewed by audiences but felt by them as a thoughtful cinematic simulacrum of their hopes, dreams, and anxieties regarding the modern world. My films would represent a collective human existence willing to be approached and debated viscerally and intellectually. A thinking man’s cinema in the vein of—a more accessible—Godard. But Not For Me is my long-gestating fanfare for this type of cinema.
Ryan Carmichael is a MFA candidate in Filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He graduated with High Honors from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor (GO BLUE!!) where his thesis film, “Everything’s New in Lost Time” garnered him a Directors Guild of America Student Film award.
Influenced heavily by the films of Spike Lee and Jean-Luc Godard the writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the music of The Roots, Public Enemy, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Beethoven, Ryan aims to synthesize and filter these voices through a unique lens that examines the existential circumstance of modern humanity.
More at RyanJCarmichael.com.