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Stephen Ryder Tells A L.I.E.
An Emily Blunt Interview

 

 

 

 

I recently spoke with Stephen Ryder one of the writers, who along with Michael Cuesta, has produced the ultra-controversial independent movie L.I.E.

The story is about Howie Blitzer, an average American teen coming of age. They've created a sometimes shocking snap shot in everyday--anywhere America but show some not so everyday mundane growing pains and truths facing this boy. L.I.E. is brilliant, and honest.

Our anti-hero, and hero, Big John Harrigan played by Brian Cox, is a somewhat charming, eccentric patriot and a pedophile. I know, charm and pedophile in the same sentence…that's the key to L.I.E it's manipulation of our emotions and the three dimensional characters that stay with you long after the films credits have concluded.

Writer Stephen Ryder agreed to chat with me about his current work, how he got here, and what's next for the man, and the writer, who's certainly not afraid to shine his visceral penlight onto the darker side of the human character.

EB: Thank you Mr. Ryder.

SR: It's my pleasure.

EB: You began your career as a police officer in NYC, I believe, then as a police reporter and then a correspondent for The New York Daily news. Both seem like wonderful, if not macabre, breeding grounds for creative, intriguing writing. Human stories …so, what switched the tracks over to screen writing?

SR: Well, yes... I could really not answer that because I probably wrote my first screenplay when I was seventeen years old. I dabbled a little bit. I was always a writer; I was writing poetry since Jr. High school and I was writing for the newspaper. I was always a writer. But it wasn't a living, it was an avocation. Obviously, I was a teenager so I was in school but I seemed to have some facility with the language and teachers noticed it ... I went with it. My goal had always been to be a cop. Which is what I did do.

EB: People can't hear you…but you do sound like the quintessential cop

SR: Well I tell ya, if I had a nickel for every time I was told that I could retire already.

EB: You mean I'm not unique in my observances?

SR: The other thing is I'm a 265-pound guy with a handlebar moustache and I kind of look like a cop and these really icy blue eyes they say and it gives people the creeps! So, whenever I get into an argument over a parking space -- I usually get the parking space.

EB: I can imagine… L.I.E captures all the angst of discovering who you are as childhood slips away, and learning the lessons that things are not always as they seem. How did the process for L.I.E begin?

SR: Well, Michael came to me he knew my reputation as a script doctor and a dialog guy, and he came to me some years ago with this idea. He had an idea- he grew up in Long Island- I think it was called "The Last Days of March" and it was about four, what I saw was four handwritten pages about boys who were breaking into houses. More or less and it was a mysterious amorphous character known as "the bloated man" and it was just mentioned. And that's kind of all I saw. He hired me to write the script. And I did. Immediately when I saw it I thought it was a great idea. I grew up in the Bronx we had a guy in my neighborhood who was like this…we called him Big John in fact. He was a nice guy too.

EB: It seemed like you captured the three dimension of this character…Most New Yorkers know the title L.I.E. right off the bat. It's intriguing and such a great metaphor. Any unobvious significant on the title?

SR: No. The thing about the title, this is another benile story very brief, Michael called me up and said I don't like the title I need a better title I said "L-I-E" he said "that's great"

EB:It's just wonderful. When I got the press kit I thought it "that's brilliant." The young actors play intelligent, streetwise kids, even though they appear to be in a relatively " nicer" neighborhood. Like Bully, you show how it's not always the have nots that steal and experiment. This inner knowledge, was it from the police force days?

SR: I grew up in the Bronx 1940's and 50's. I'm an old guy --58 years old I saw a lot of life. You just learn that in life. No when becoming a cop everyday you live you learn stuff on a rate of about ten days to the normal person you know? And it's all underside. I moved to Long Island and saw that, it just became a factual storehouse of information. I wouldn't attribute it to growing up in the Bronx or growing up in Long Island I was just trying to be living and observing.

EB: The lead, a brilliantly understated Paul Franklin Dano, played the internally suffering Howie Blitzer…

SR: Incredible kid.

EB: A great actor too. He did it with that general disinterest in life so many teens seem to project. He's lost his mom on L.I.E, His dad is already sharing his bedroom with a loud female friend and now when he learns of his best friend, Gary's, extracurricular activity he isn't shocked into space, but begins to almost toy with the idea. How did you and director, Michael Cuesta, manage to get him so uncanny?

SR: Well I wrote the dialog and he played the part [laughter] there…nothing was really required of Paul. I mean kind of what you see, I mean other than his acting, it's his personality. It's hard to describe. He's a wonderfully talented and brave actor a sweetheart of a person and a wonderful family. I can't say enough about him. Such a pleasure working with him. And he we didn't have crack any whips to get him to play that role he did that himself a lot of that stuff he nailed on the first take. And of course I wasn't on the set so I can't speak for Michael direction, which of course is fabulous, but basically he nailed. There's an interesting story how he got the part…we were casting. We had cast about four days, Judy Henderson, --got to be one of the best casting agents in the business in New York, so she said "I've got a kid for you" so I couldn't be there so I asked Michael if you could put the castings of the primary characters on video and messenger up to me…and he was courteous enough o do it-cause I'm only a screenwriter I don't have anything to do about the casting…but Michael was interested in my opinion. So, four days into casting the kid walks into the casting and blows every one out of the room so I call up I say how's it going? Judy says" you gotta see this we gonna messenger this up to you" Michael says, "You gotta see this kid. But I don't know the thing comes and I look at 'im [Paul] on the tape and I said " this, this is the guy" So Michael says…"I don't know" cause he's the director he wants to see everybody he didn't believe we, he's always joking about this…He didn't believe we could find the right kid in four days. We figured the casting was going to take months. We were going to see thousands of people. He figured if he just went with the first kid that he was taking a short cut and that is not professional. So as Michael is fond of saying…his wife saw the tape and threatened to divorce him if he didn't cast Paul and the producer said, "this is the kid, this is the kid," so we had him on a call back. So the call back I drove into Manhattan and I watched the kid in person and in my view when I was envisioning the character in my head he didn't look or act anything like Paul Dano. But when I saw Paul Dano bring himself to the role I said, "this is better!" [laughter] This is better than what I had in mind when I wrote it. So he got it. No one else was even close. Billy Kay, when he was actually auditioning for the part of Howie. Michael saw him and said, " I want you to read Gary" He's the perfect Gary. He said, "What do you think?" I said "he's the perfect Gary." So we hit one two three, Brian Cox there wasn't even a question. We knew he was the perfect Big John.

EB: How did you find Brian?

SR: Judy Henderson the casting director. This was one of the finest casting jobs I have ever seen in the business.

EB: Absolutely.

SR: She got her first choice for every character. Judy Henderson's first choice for the lead character-- Brian Cox. Her first choice for Howie-- Paul Dano, and her first choice for Gary --Billy Kay. We fell into line after that. We had been doing some casting before that and we were weren't even close. We were having a hell of a time. Some actors, name actors, kids especially wouldn't take the role because of the material. Mothers didn't want them to take it because the kids didn't want to take it. You know…we ran into some initial rejection because America's a pretty uptight place and don't think the creative community is any different than say upper Eyesocket Wyoming-cause it's not! [laughter]

EB: Brian Cox deserves an academy award. I doubt that they'll give it to him, a pedophile character. But…um…It's amazing because he's such a charming actor, and if you know of any of his other work, he's usually a good guy a calm man and that's why, I think, he was so perfect for the role. You didn't want to believe in him. It took me a good couple of scenes to actually grasp him as the villain and sure enough you switched it and played with our emotions and we actually are sitting there liking a pedophile. It was amazing

SR: That was my plan [laughter]-- My evil plan.

EB: It worked! You've taken a taboo subject and managed to explain, humanize it. Actually subjects, as the pedophile is also gay. While homosexuality is beginning to, finally be accepted, if not in some cases peacefully tolerated, (idiot Jerry Falwell aside), the pedophile in L.I.E is human.

SR: He's not a pedophile

EB: Oh? He's not?

SR: NO. Pedophiles don't like people over the age of thirteen. Any doctor of psychology or professional behavioral scientist will tell you pedophile like people prior to puberty.

EB: I didn't know that.

SR: Yeah the other thing is in the movie Howie is fifteen going on sixteen, it's that age when we grow. Almost every nation in the civilized world, industrial nations, right? Fifteen is the age of sexual consent for both boys and for girls. You wouldn't even be committing a crime-including Canada- in almost any other country on earth he 'd just be considered a gay man with young lovers.

EB: Wow.

SR: so this is something…when I was writing this and I travel a lot in Europe and I'm talking to you from Canada, it's always been my understanding that these are just regular ordinary nonfelonious people. Now these are consensual relationships where they are not predating anybody and they're not coercing and they're not feeding people drugs and they're not laying large sums of money on them these are consensual arrangements. Of course they're doing a power trip over somebody who's much younger. Of course they have problems of course I'm not approving or recommending it and stuff it's the whole Buttafuco thing. There's lots of um dirt bag heterosexuals who are 40 and 50 years old who have fifteen year old girlfriends and nobody calls them pedophiles. For instance, Elvis Presley! The most famous pedophile in American history…when he met his wife Pricilla she was twelve. I mean he was in love with her but he agreed with her father not to doing anything with her till she was fourteen. When she was fourteen she came home from Germany to live with him here. Now here you have a man living with a fourteen-year-old girl and he's on a postage stamp in America!

EB: Good point.

SR: Okay. But Big John who is living with a twenty year old buy you know the Walter character…the kid who played Scott…

EB: Yes, Walter Masterson

SR: Right, Walter Masterson. Now pedophiles do not have sex with adult people under any circumstances okay. Pedophiles don't have sex with post pubescent people. But I don't know, maybe this is too much of a psychology lesson [laughter]

EB: Well, you enlightened me! I just assumed -I am an American and pretty prudish-I just assumed the kids under age dammit! I just went that route I admit.

SR: That's a slippery slope because, fifteen is legal in Connecticut, seventeen in New York and I think in Texas the age of consent is thirty-five now! [laughter]

EB: Well Jerry Lee Lewis was another one and he even went within his own breeding pool. The family tree. Didn't he marry his thirteen-year-old cousin?

SR: That's what everybody did in the neck of the woods that Jerry Lee Lewis came from!

EB' Yep

SR: When you think about it twice

EB: It's funny when I was a thirteen year old girl I was madly in love with Keith Richards…

SR: And Keith Richards would have had you. Emily Keith Richards was madly in love with you just didn't know it! [laughter]

EB: I didn't look thirteen believe me.

SR: I'm saying if he had met you two would have been an item….
[laughter]

EB: Well, thank you. You've seen me so you know I'm a chickbabe…

SR: Yeah!

EB: How did the collaboration between you and Michael Cuesta transpire, was he a student or a friend?

SR: No I use to write dialog for his father and write TV commercials for his father. Who was a great man And a very successful director of television commercial in this business in the television business and he's like a God.

EB: What's his name?

SR: Michael Cuesta

EB: Same name as the son and your co-writer/director?

SR: Yeah, everybody in the business knew 'im and loved 'im. And loves him still a very great gentleman. And I knew him for quite some time and I had doe some work for him and for a couple of little movies…the scripts and all of the all of this stuff and I was also and actor I was in the Screen actors Guild and he got me some jobs and some commercials you know. So he sort of gave me my start in the business back twenty years ago. So when Michael decided to write a movie…well, he had started writing it alone and couldn't do it then he got hooked up with his brother Gerald, and apparently they had a fight or a falling out or something as brothers often do so it didn't get very far and but he never stopped believing in the story so he wanted to work with me and I know that he asked his father "hey maybe I can call Steve' and his father said "no, no-don't'--don't call him…
[laughter]

EB: Well I'm glad he did make that call because [together] you've created a powerful movie it is absolutely wonderful.

SR: Well we did a lot of work Michael insisted on going over every word of dialog every line he use to aggravate the hell out of me…go over every line…I had to explain what my intentions were what the feelings were, on everything he made the changes though, Held my feet to the fire and ultimately made the movie he wanted to make! Which was not always the movie that I wanted to make but I'm not a director. It was something…it was stormy I have a strong assertive personality and he's no wimp either… so it was a colorful collaboration-that's for sure!

EB: With L.I.E. already stirring critical acclaim, and buzz of controversy, what's next for you?
Can you talk about your "Only Perfect" which you've told me "it will raise more eyebrows than even L.I.E.?

SR: Yeah, "Only Perfect" is a script of mine -I kind of got this idea when I came up to Montreal and I noticed there was an interesting social divide between the Franco Quebecois you know the French speaking Canadians and the Anglophones Canadians here and I felt…and they're very civil…they tell you it's no big deal it's just about language… but I've big living here for 3 months and I can tell you that divide is as big as the ocean that divides the united states from England. They put it subcutaneous - it's under the surface. So, I got this idea that here it is the Plantagenets {maybe he meant Capulets} and the Montagues again.

EB: Ahhh

SR: But I decided to do it this time with twelve and thirteen year olds a boy and a girl Romeo and Juliet but I decided to respect their no so innocent attraction to each other and not treat it just for laughs the way they do in America. You know making the teenage boy some kind of monster of hornyness and the girl some kind of mindless coquette. Instead of doing that I decided to treated it with respect. For instance when I said to the producers, and how I got started on this I said do you remember the seventh grade? They said yes. Emily I'll test this on you…you remember the seventh grade?

EB: Yes.

SR: What was his name?

EB: David

SR: Thank you!!! Every person that I've asked that question doesn't hesitate more than two seconds and they come up with a name no matter how old they are.

EB: I couldn't even speak to him; I was so shy-still am.

SR: Right. I, mine was Sharon…But every adult human being that I've spoken to has been able to name a girl or a boy from that year in school. Now this movie is about David and you. It's about the curiosity the innocent etc wild unfocused undeveloped love…etc-- etc. This is about that treating with reverence and respect that it deserves.

EB: I can't wait to see it

SR: And she is a Francophone, she's upscale French girl who also speaks English, and he's a downscale Anglophone which is exactly the reverse polarity of the socio economic position those two ethnic groups actually occupy in this town and its down to the English are usually the ones who are the wealthy ones and the Francophones are somewhat downtrodden economically. So what I've done is I reversed that cause it's kind of a cliché' up here and I've been interviewing directors some of the finest directors in Canada have expressed a keen interest in doing this film, only perfect. And by the way how he describes his girlfriend when his friends, his lascivious little friends, when they ask, "Is she built, is she popular?" he responds "no she's, um, only perfect."

EB: Awwe

SR: It's going to be deep. What we are going to do with the camera is linger on the details…I remember and I can tell you this, when we were twelve and thirteen, what we thought was daring and exciting and wonderful about looking at the person that we were in love with was their earlobe…their wrists..their feet.

EB: How true.

SR: How true right? Or the way they smelled or the admire the clothes that they were wearing that day and we'd go home and we'd think about that shirt---or those shoes
[laughter] It will never be like that again. After that year it will never be like that after we got much more primary in our lustfulness. So it is the last day of innocence, and it is the first day of love in your life and you'll never love like that again. So, I felt this was an impossible to resist subject to deal with a great director and a great cameraman and of course a great script and a Steve Ryder script well I don't have to say.

EB: Say no more-there you go! If it's anything like L.I.E. -you've captured these characters they are soulful. You're a busy man with requests for a script of your from handsome Amand Assante

SR: Amand and I spoke in Boston

EB: … you will pass my private line onto Mr. Mambo wont you?

SR: Sure!

EB: I'm only kidding [laughter]

SR: Yeah? He expressed an interest in my script "The Night Of The Black Mamba." It is a spy thriller.

EB: You're all over the genres — You do all sorts of writing…

SR: Well, I teach at a NY university, screenwriting there at NYU and I'm interviewing on Tuesday with a university up here in Montreal wants me to teach screen writing up here.

EB: Wonderful. Is there anything you'd like to say to aspiring writers, screenwriters?

SR: Ohhh… Yeah, …Find another way to make a living [laughter] it's taken me forty years to become an overnight success. No, I'd say. There is something I'd like to say be fearless, and don't listen to anyone and be unreasonable and get a really good manager to take care of the money! Never make the deal yourself. Don't write on spec.[laughter]

EB: Do you have a favorite movie, or perhaps movies for different reasons?

SR: Okay in the Bronx when I grew up you had about eight movie houses within five blocks of my house I went to the movie about everyday-about five days a week in those movies they had two features, as you know, cartoons, the shorts the news the Warner news, cartoons and coming attractions. The coming attractions were for about six different movies. So after I'd go to one I go see two movies in one theater then I'd go to another and see two more some weeks I saw eight movies This went on for a long time. So to ask a guy like me what his favorite movie is I would say the number one favorite movie of all time…"Casablanca;" best mindless action movie of all time would have to be the "Wild Bunch" by Sam Peckinpaw; best contemporary wild mindless funny movie would be true lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. Literally a wonderful intelligent movie. It may not have looked it to the people who don't know much about the spy business, but let me tell you there was a lot of good technical consultation going on in that movie. My taste in movies is pretty eclectic. If it's good I like it! I wouldn't say I like foreign films. Of course "Death In Venice" was great. "The Conformist" was great, by Bertolucci. Luchino Vasconti's "Death in Venice" was unbelievable as a visual treatment. Those all. My all time favorite of those is "Leolo" a Canadian film

EB: I haven't seen that.

SR: Do yourself a favor you gotta see this L-e-o-l-o It's gonna be hard for you to get but you can find an art house video that is the one that one every awards in Canada. To give you some idea of what you in for with "Only Perfect" because that's being filmed up here. And one of the reason's it's being filmed up here is I don't think we'd be able to film it in the United States.

EB: Why would that be?

SR: Legal reasons. The kids are too young. We had a lawyer at my side half of the time we were writing the movie, this L.I.E. thing. Because a lot of this stuff…there are laws about this stuff that are very very strict. Jerry Falwell has a big following in the law enforcement community and we have very restricted laws about art and stuff. In the United States.

EB: I'm amazed that Bully got made with all the teen sex.

SR: Yeah but they're all eighteen years old…
EB: I know the actors are...but they play didn't look it to me

SR: I didn't see it

EB: well they put a little too much sex in it I thought they ruined the story they did it like a free for all and they didn't get into the character development -you didn't feel for them.

SR: I'm not much of a Larry Clark fan Emily.

EB: Me neither.

SR: Because it's just an easy way to go…take a bunch of kids take all their clothes off and have then bold in front of the camera

EB: That's what it was — a sex ballet of the under aged 1-2-3-sex scene, 1-2-3- sex scene. It got tiring. I wanted them to tell us more about the characters! If you get a chance to see it for nothing else but to see how not to do it [laughter]… Well, thank you for your time; it's been a thrill. And I love writer like you who can still manipulate my mind. As you I see so many movies and so few are this unique and disturbing. I have been thinking about Howie and Jon for weeks now. I still say wow! How did he do that?

SR: Well thank you…every once in a while…I leave you with this…every once in a while, a great while in a professional career comes a confluence of circumstance and talent and what happened here was we got very lucky; the right director was there, the right actors, the right writer and the right story idea all came together, somewhat seamlessly, and have been resonating in the American artistic community ever since.
[end]

What a powerful interview huh? A brilliant guy - who, as like he says - has become an over night success in forty years. The film's playing around the country presently. Find it-but read the review first. It's not family fare. It is graphic and frankly quite blunt about Howie's relationship with his friends, Big John, and his growing isolation. Read about L.I.E here

Steve's "Only Perfect" sounds like another hit if he stays true to his own advise and makes another fearless piece of celluloid for us.

 

 

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