Career

‘Amateur’: A Conversation with Ryan Koo

It shouldn’t surprise you that Ryan Koo didn’t go to film school. He is, after all, the founder of the wildly popular website No Film School, an indispensable resource used (and loved) by independent filmmakers around the world — us included. No Film School is a direct extension of Ryan’s scrappy, independent mentality. This is a guy who does things his own way. Like when he moved to New York to start a job as a graphic designer at MTV, despite having zero design experience. Or when he ran a Kickstarter campaign for a film that ended up being years away from being produced.

But despite his unorthodoxy, Ryan’s dedication to his craft is nothing if not disciplined and professional. His latest project, Amateur, is the culmination of years of researching, writing, fundraising, and then revising, revising, and revising some more. He may be scrappy, but he’s certainly not slapdash.

We recently talked to Ryan about his career, his writing process, and his upcoming feature film, Amateur.

How long have you been making films?

It’s been 15 years since I won my first filmmaking award, and now I’m about to make my first feature film. It’s been a long journey, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I had to go through the things I’ve been through to get where I am, to learn, and hopefully it will result in better work. The first video I ever edited was one of my high school basketball team, so it seems fitting that my first feature would be a basketball feature.

Did you go to film school?

I took some film classes in college. I made a music video that won a competition, and the prize was a camera, which allowed me to make a lot more videos. But I’ve always felt that in film school classrooms, you’re getting a very narrow perspective. For me, personally, I needed to get out there in the world and fall flat on my face and live life and figure out what I wanted to say, as opposed to continuing in the classroom.

So considering you never went to film school, what has your film school been?

My film school was watching films, reading books, being on website forums. One thing I loved was DVD directors’ commentaries. Listening to directors like Steven Soderbergh talk about their process, their craft, the choices they made in putting together a film. It was so educational and inspiring to me. That’s something that didn’t exist when Scorsese and Spielberg and those guys were going to film school. There was no behind-the-scenes commentary, no Netflix that let you watch anything you want. You had to go to the theater at the film school, and then listen to a lecture afterwards. Now you can just play a movie and listen to a director talk about his choices. That was always inspiring to me, and it’s probably the number one thing I got into early on in my attempts to learn.

I had to go through the things I’ve been through to get where I am, to learn, and hopefully, it will result in better work.

In that 15-year gap between winning that award and making this feature film, did you ever feel like maybe you were on the wrong path?

There was so much encouragement along the way, I always felt like things were building. I won that award in college, and since then there have been so many grants and selections and recognitions. That’s one of the great things about the independent film community — so many organizations are devoted to encouraging storytellers and shepherding filmmakers along. It’s such a difficult industry. I’ve often been frustrated with the difficulty and the amount of time things take. But with organizations like Sundance, Tribeca, IFP, and Lincoln Center — those are the organizations that have supported and encouraged me — I’ve always had some recognition for the work I’m doing. Without them, I honestly don’t know where I would be.

How did you end up in New York?

I got hired at MTV as a graphic designer, even though I had no training in graphic design. I took a $25 online Photoshop training course. I was literally doing that on the train to and from work every day. A year later, I was a senior designer for MTV, sitting next to people who went to Rhode Island School of Design, Savannah College of Art and Design, Yale, and those kinds of schools. And I’m like, These people spent $200,000, and I spent $25.

The Internet has disrupted everything — especially education. My idea with starting No Film School was to move a lot of that film school knowledge online.

In 2008, while I was still at MTV, I ended up doing a project with my co-director, Zack Lieberman. It was a web series we shot at night and on the weekends. We literally had no budget, no permits. Our only expense was buying pizza for the actors. Everything was unpaid. We shot it on the camera we happened to have, and we ended up winning a Webby Award for Best Drama Series.

This was The West Side?

Yeah, The West Side. Its success was great, but in a lot of ways it was also developmentally damaging. Early success can be very confusing. We won the award, got an agent, went to Hollywood, and pitched an interactive film that really only now, seven years later, would even be feasible. We took a lot of meetings and went to some interesting places with it, but I finally realized I was fighting to make something that didn’t represent my voice or that I wasn’t even very passionate about. Plus, it wasn’t getting made, so I was losing twice. I was like, “I can’t get this made, and I don’t even want to make it.” But in the end, it led me to the concept for Amateur. I wanted to find a topic that I felt like I had something to say about personally, that I’d had personal experience with, and that, if it were going to take me 10 years to make it, in the tenth year I’d still be fighting for it. So that’s the roundabout way I got to this point. A little bit of success and a lot of learning from my failures.

Sometimes creatives can feel frantic about producing enough work. It’s really scary to think about investing 10 years into a single project.

It is. But it’s also a good way to gauge your ideas. You look at all of them and say, “Okay, in which one of these am I interested in investing five years? Ten years? Which one of these will I still be interested in years from now?”

How long have you been working on Amateur? You funded some of it through Kickstarter, right?

I had the idea for this film at the end of 2010; that’s when I started writing it. It’s also the same year I launched No Film School. I basically wrote the film for a year, and a very early draft got selected for the IFP program and the Lincoln Center program to be read onstage. I thought, Okay, this is way ahead of schedule. But now that it’s going to be out there publicly, this is a good time to run a Kickstarter campaign.

Films are incredibly difficult to make. People who are making their tenth feature film are still learning things. This was my first. The Kickstarter campaign was the most amazing experience of my life at the time — the fact that it was successful and so many people supported it — but I had no idea how much longer it was going to take me to actually make the film. I think, ultimately, it’s going to be a much better film for all the years I’ve spent working on it.

This is the first feature film you’d ever written?

It’s not the first I’ve written. I co-wrote the web series, which was basically a feature divided into episodes. And the other project we were pitching in Hollywood was a feature film. So I’d written other stuff, but this is the first feature that’s going to see the light of day and actually get made. I think a lot of writers will write 10 films and then have a breakthrough. For me, I just wrote 100 drafts of one film to get to that point.

Really? One hundred drafts?

Yeah. I don’t think people understand how hard I’ve been working on it, and that all of this work is making it a better movie and also making me a better writer. I mean, 50,000 independent features get made every year, and maybe 50 of those reach an audience and impact culture. Good enough isn’t enough. I have hundreds of drafts of this film in my folder. Although I’m never quite sure what somebody considers to be a “draft.” Is it the number of page-one rewrites? But these years spent revising, getting notes, pushing the story further — that writing process is going to serve me well the rest of my career.

Do you have a process?

I do. The longer I’ve written, the less time I spend in the screenwriting software. My instincts have gotten better. I spend a lot more time outlining things, and now I can look at an outline and say, “You know, that’s not going to work,” instead of writing and writing and writing and then realizing it’s not going to work.

So you outline before you start writing?

I see the outline as the most important part, but that’s only once I’ve done my first draft. A lot of writers refer to their first draft as the “vomit draft,” and I completely agree with that. I wrote the first draft of Amateur by hand in a notebook with ink because that forces me to turn the page and keep the forward momentum, to get through it rather than constantly going back and self-editing, trying to be a perfectionist about it. I just try to get through the first draft and not be too precious about it.

So in this first draft, do you have a good idea of where the characters are going to end up, or are you making it up as you go along?

Well, for something like Amateur, which is based on real things happening in our society, the research process was really, really extensive. Once I’d done all of that research, I felt like I knew the world. I wrote a draft very quickly then. That first draft, looking back now four years later, it’s all a prelude to the current story. But it was a necessary part of the process. I don’t know if it would be the same for all stories; but in this case, I had to do a lot of research before I even started a draft.

Do you have a daily creative routine?

I struggle with that for a couple reasons. One is that I’m the founder of No Film School, which has been a great success in my life but has also grown to the point where it’s too complex for me to run it alone. But it’s also not to the level where I can go out and hire people just yet. Just like my film has been getting larger and more complex, so too has my website. The demands on my time are larger from both sides. I wish I had a routine where I was able to wake up, do some ideation, work on future projects, work on No Film School, work on Amateur. But right now, there might be several weeks in a row where all I do is Amateur because I’m on a screenplay deadline, which is exactly what I’ll be doing when I get off the phone with you. But then there will be weeks when I’m just doing No Film School stuff. It’s a constant juggle.

I can’t keep painting myself into this micro-budget sports film corner. I have to tell the most interesting story I can tell.

How does the Amateur short film you made fit into the story?

The short film is more of a companion piece. It’s meant to function as a directorial sample. It was something I felt I needed strategically to get this film made. And now that I’ve done it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not only does it help with grants and selections and exposure for the project, but also later in the project when you’re reaching out to an actor or film commission or producer or agent. You’re not just sending the script. You’re sending something people can actually watch. Because it’s not just a question of Can this person write? It’s also Do they have directorial chops? That short has opened so many doors that have impacted the quality of the feature. It’s been immeasurable, and it’s something I highly recommend.

So the feature has changed quite a bit since the first draft?

I think because of the Kickstarter campaign, I was very self-conscious about writing something that was makeable. That was small enough. A sports team film starring a kid is a difficult thing to get made. You have a child actor, so your days are very short. You need a lot of extras to fill the gym. It gets expensive very quickly. So that first draft was written to be as small as possible. Eventually, though, when I started letting people read the drafts, everyone was really interested in the moments when the story opened up into the larger world. Eventually I realized I can’t keep painting myself into this micro-budget sports film corner. I have to tell the most interesting story I can tell.


Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to chat with us — oh, and for publishing everything he’s learned about filmmaking for the past five years on NoFilmSchool.com. Be sure to check out Ryan’s short film Amateur and then look for the feature-length version, which begins production this summer.

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