Filmmaker Ryan Balas Talks Vulnerability, Sex Scenes, and Collaborating With Adrian Grenier
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews award-winning director Ryan Balas. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Ryan Balas: Thank you for having me. This is great.
Max Sanders: Oh, I’m so excited. As a mid-thirties, overemotional guy, I feel seen by you.
Ryan Balas: Good. I’m trying to see you.
Max Sanders: So your films are just brimming with emotional depth, whether it’s focusing on your own wedding in Ice Saints or doing an in-depth biopic on a fellow creative in Good Monsters. We’re going to get into how you pull that transference off. But first, can you talk about why vulnerability is such an important theme for you and your work?
Ryan Balas: Yeah, sure. I mean, I started off as an actor. I went to acting school, and I spent two years sort of trying to dig into myself, and I’ve always done that. I’ve always been sort of an emotive. I was an emotive kid. I always wrote songs. I wrote poems. I was expressive. And so acting school, I spent a lot of time really, really digging in and making the work personal. That’s sort of what you do as an actor, just always trying to make it personal. And so that really transferred over into the films that I was making as well, taking a really personal approach. I have a low tolerance for BS. In order for the work to feel honest to me, it needed to be raw, and it needed to be vulnerable. And that meant tapping into whatever emotional world needed to be tapped into.
Max Sanders: Yeah. You feel it in all your films. I mean, you generate all these feelings from lingering shots, well-placed music, and improvised dialogue. Where did you learn those techniques, and why are they so important to you – outside of acting school, obviously?
Ryan Balas: The music has just been a lifelong love affair for me. Oftentimes that’s where I’m doing my thinking. I go for lots of walks. Music allows me to sort of have lingering thoughts, and that’s where ideas come from to begin with. So music’s already just intrinsic to the process. And then as far the lingering shots – that’s kind of an amazing way to put it – they’re long, slow shots often times. For me, it’s just wanting to live in a performance a little bit. I really am performance driven. That’s my background. That’s what I want to see. And so for me, part of it is if I’m able to achieve the films I want to achieve in the timeframe and the budget, I have to do them efficiently. Additionally, if they’re improvised, I can shoot lots of coverage and make it work, lightening-in-a-bottle style. But oftentimes that long, lingering shot allows me to live in the moment, see it happen, and then kind of build an arc out of it. So yeah, I just think that to me feels the realest. It feels the rawest. So that’s sort of been what I’ve leaned into from a cinematography standpoint, at least for a lot of the early work.
Max Sanders: So when you see those shots where you kind of take your time, do you feel that presence, or are you overthinking all the aspects of it? Do you lose yourself?
Ryan Balas: Sometimes I love to lose myself. I mean, I was shooting a film this summer. I started crying in the middle of — I was rolling the camera and I started crying. That’s never happened before. But it was this very cathartic scene where they were burying some ashes, and I don’t know, something about it just got me. But I can lose myself. I think it’s important to let things go a little longer than they should because I can always cut back. I know that. I’m an editor as well, so I’m aware of the potential, I suppose. I am often thinking about the technical aspects to what we’re doing, and I am sort of at the edge of my seat as something progresses, just because I’ve learned to squeeze my hands and rub my thumbs together. Especially when something’s really going well, you’re like, “What’s going to break this?” And then oftentimes when something does break it, you’re like, “Thank you, I’m so glad that happened.”
Max Sanders: You have so many diverse projects, even though you really have this underlying theme of emotion. I looked at your IMDb — sometimes you do 10 to 12 jobs a year. How do you choose what to focus on?
Ryan Balas: Yeah, I don’t really know. I’m clinically ADHD, which suddenly is having a moment in the sun, which, I don’t know, feels sort of validating. But the reality is it’s my superpower. So being able to hold a lot of ideas at once has helped me sort of achieve a certain amount of things at once. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m totally focused, but it does mean that things are happening. If you watch me pack, I can pack a lot of stuff. My gear, for example, for a shoot. But it’s going to take me a long time, and it’s going in all kinds of different boxes. I think that’s sort of the way I manage projects as well, where it’s a little bit of love on this, a little bit of love on that. It all sort of makes itself work at some point. I think for me also, it’s just chasing your interest. I don’t want to do stuff that’s — this is going to sound lazy — but overtaxing or torturous. I do want to find joy in the work. So, I’ll chase my interests. And I see things through. I was talking to my brother about this today, but I hate to see a project not get across the finish line. No matter what. So I see things through, but sometimes there’s no straight line to the end of the project. It just sort of takes a while, and you kind of gotta follow the threads as they go.
Max Sanders: Didn’t Good Monsters take you five years to film and produce?
Ryan Balas: Yeah. I think four or five years. I don’t remember now exactly. Yeah. I mean, it was really a long conversation that I had with my friend Eric over several years. I often say this, but so much of that film happened off camera as well. It’s the dinners, the discussions, the walks, the talks, the traveling. But I had spent, I guess, three or four years maybe in a row going to Indianapolis to play films at the Indy Film Fest. They’ve just been really good to me over the years. And I would always stay with Eric, who lived there at the time. He lives in New York now. But we would just sort of have this ongoing conversation. So it was really natural. It didn’t seem like, “Ugh, I got to get to this place.” I did wrestle with the film once we had sort of got some stuff. And I was like, “I don’t know what’s here yet. I just got to give it time.” But there’s a certain patience in that. A certain, I guess, zen approach to “it will happen.” And you just have to live in it a little bit, and life has to happen. You can’t be always, always racing to the finish line. I’m definitely a big “it’s the journey, not the destination” kind of person.
Max Sanders: Wasn’t the first viewing of Good Monsters where you were just like, “I don’t like this. I need to do something different”?
Ryan Balas: Yeah, exactly. I tried hard to make it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to make an art doc — a doc about an artist. And I was like, “You know what? This isn’t this. I was trying to tell it sort of in a linear way of “this happened and this happened, this happened.” And it just didn’t — it lacked heart. It didn’t have the emotional world that we had built together. And so I thought, “Okay, I’m going to take this footage. I’m going to make a whole different movie.” I had a GoPro shot from his car driving through Indianapolis. And I just put it in black and white. And I added this very weird sort of science fiction music. And all of a sudden I was like, “Oh, there it is.” It had to be weird. Eric’s art is so – he calls them good monsters, these sort of positive, weird creatures that don’t quite fit in. And the movie needed to be reflective of that spirit, and not of my idea of what an art doc was supposed to be.
Max Sanders: Right. You seem to incorporate a lot of your family in your projects. You work closely with your brother. Your podcast, The Bourbon Library — which, for any bourbon fan, is awesome — has incorporated your father.
Ryan Balas: Yes.
Max Sanders: Can you tell us about your upbringing and how your roots have really influenced you?
Ryan Balas: Totally. Absolutely. I have young parents, which is kind of fun. I was around when my dad went to college. So they got married when they were 18 and 19. My dad waited a little bit. They had me two years later, then he went to college. I was around for - those are very formative years, my very early years living in married student housing and having sort of all these cultural influences around. We were at Purdue University. My dad’s an engineer. And then I grew up in the Midwest, sort of half in Indiana, and then we moved to Michigan for my high school years. And that’s played a big part in
sort of who I am. My DIY ethos comes from that. If you live in a small college town, you gotta make something happen, or nothing’s going to happen. You had to look at the resources you had. And for me it was my house. It was my parents. I was putting plays on for them as a kid. I got my brother to dress up and put on plays. And then now, as an adult, my brother and I work together. We make food commercials. And so we have a production company doing that, and that’s been wonderful. And the podcast, The Bourbon Library, it was sort of the most positive thing to come out the quarantine, where we were like, “Well, we want to have a whiskey with dad, and this is a great way to talk every week.” And we don’t talk about anything else besides whiskey anyway with him. And so we just started recording those calls. It started to unfold into these really natural stories about growing up. And that’s sort of, kind of how it’s evolved.
Max Sanders: So it’s kind of that improv feel that you have in all your movies?
Ryan Balas: Yeah, absolutely. I would say it’s about being open to discovery, in both the documentary work and the podcast, but also the narrative work. Always being open to discovery to say like, “Something can happen here.” And I’m not a proponent for just magic-in-the-bottle because I don’t necessarily believe in that approach. I think you have to inject something into it, inject a certain energy. But I do think if you do that, then you need to also listen and be available to follow those things.
Max Sanders: Yeah. Hearing your connection with your dad, it’s interesting. Because it’s like your buddies, but at the same time he is definitely a father – capital F. Period.
Ryan Balas: Oh yeah. No, he’s a very serious guy. Like I said, he’s an engineer. And I wouldn’t say that we were – I don’t know what we would talk about if we didn’t talk about whiskey. Whiskey was this gift that happened sort of randomly in the last decade, where all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, you like whiskey, I love whiskey.” Now we talk every week. That’s never happened in my 30-something years.
Max Sanders: I love that. So let’s talk about a different type of intimate relationship. You’ve shot a lot of sex scenes.
Ryan Balas: Transition from my dad.
Max Sanders: It’s a different type of intimate relationships, but –
Ryan Balas: Yes, sir.
Max Sanders: What have you learned about pulling these off most effectively? Because it seems like a very difficult bounce that very few directors do nowadays.
Ryan Balas: Sure. Well, I’ll tie this into the previous question, because I do actually think it has an impact. I am lucky that my parents talked to me about sex growing up, first of all. Because they appeared to have a healthy relationship and continue to have a healthy relationship, I think. TMI. But the fact is they talked to me about sex and sexuality, and that really gave me a space to think about it without it being this danger thing that you can’t go near, can’t touch, can’t talk about. And so I’ve had, I would say, a positive outlook about sex growing up and as an adult. So, that was the first sort of thing. As far as shooting sex scenes, it has been an evolving process, no doubt. In the early days, I would say improv was such a big part of the process. We weren’t surprising anybody with sex scenes, but the sex scenes were definitely still sort of improvised, sort of less choreographed. And as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve definitely tightened the reins a lot on that process, and really sort of talk through the choreography. And then that’s, partially because, for many reasons – safety. As a responsible director, that’s important. But also understanding the impact of sexuality in storytelling and being able to create choreography or stuff that works for the visual language you’re trying to create. Both of those things have factored into that. As I say, I’ve tightened the reins. But that’s helped me immensely creatively with sex scenes. I would say the best approach is sort of over-communication, transparency, and having accountability. Other people. Producers. If I’m going to shoot a film where there’s nudity involved, for example, and women are involved, more than likely, I’m not going to have other men in the room, especially if they don’t have anything to do with the process. I try to do a closed set where it’s just camera. Maybe we’ll rig the sound. And then I would prefer to have a female producer, or somebody in which, there is a – I guess it’s for accountability reasons, for both people to feel like the power dynamic isn’t there. Because it’s automatic, right? I’m the director. I’m the cinematographer. People want to – people are not as easily going to say, “Hey, maybe I’m a little uncomfortable with that piece of choreography in this scene.” They might not do that. But having an advocate, in the case of having a female producer in the room, or somebody else that can advocate – intimacy coordinators are a big thing now in the industry.
Max Sanders: Oh, interesting.
Ryan Balas: Oh yeah. It’s a huge – it’s basically a choreographer for love scenes that advocate on behalf of the talent of the actors. And I don’t necessarily have the budget for that, but that’s something I’m very interested in. I actually think it streamlines the process a lot. And I am hugely collaborative, across the board, whether or not we’re shooting a scene with sex or shooting someone brushing their hair. You know what I mean? And so the process doesn’t change that much for me. I think sex scenes are a little more arduous and take more time because you want to tread more carefully, just with the nature of, you’re using your body. It’s a very physical, exhausting thing to do. And so you just sort of need to check in there. But my advice is to over-communicate, be super transparent, and just advocate on behalf of your talent. Even if you have what seem like barriers to the sort of love scene you have in mind, that’s actually a really interesting challenge. Because, okay, so we can’t shoot from the shoulder down through the torso for some reason. Okay, well, how else are we going to do this? And what are ways that we can say like, “All right, we’ve seen a lot of love scenes. We’ve seen them from the male perspective, the sort of male gaze, right?” And it’s like, how do I – I am a heterosexual white male in cinema, and that is territory that’s been well covered, right? And so my challenge is to listen to everybody else and say, “How can we challenge that perspective, that point of view? What can I do? And how can I advocate on your behalf to tell a different story?
Max Sanders: Wow.
Ryan Balas: And that’s across the board. But that is what I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about love scenes these days.
Max Sanders: Yeah. I was going to ask if you had any advice for filmmakers about these sex scenes, but you literally just gave the blueprint. So you don’t seem to shy away from appearing in your projects when you’re directing.
Ryan Balas: Yeah.
Max Sanders: And you’re in vulnerable ways, like in Our House for the Weekend, showing that minor daily stresses like losing a cat, I was so stressed watching that. When you’re on screen, you’re often physically and emotionally naked for the world to see. What does that type of exposure feel like to you?
Ryan Balas: Well I, for better or worse, I was naked in the very first film I ever made. And because I was sort of asking other people to do it too for the scene, I felt this amazing sense of relief. As an actor, you spend all this time trying to break down the emotional walls, right? And trying to be real, be raw. You’re not just saying lines. You’re trying to present a human being. And so the first time I was naked on camera, it was like, I have nothing I can hide. This is all me. So all I can do now is just be totally human. And there was something freeing in that. Now, granted, you don’t have to get naked to do that. But once I understood what that feeling was and what it meant, what that vulnerability felt like internally, then I could start tapping into it in other ways. And so I also feel like if I’m gonna ask anyone to be in these films and improvise, I need to be able to come to the table and also make them deeply personal. I expect that from everybody else, and I expect that from myself. I’m also my greatest resource, right? I mean, at the end of the day, I make low-budget, independent films. And especially in the quarantine, my latest film that’s just come out, Ex Ex Ex, about my divorce – we’d shot some scenes literally at the beginning, when we started to realize, oh no, our relationship’s kind of falling apart. And then we shot the rest of it basically quarantined apart from one another, shooting these solo private moments. But that’s the film we had to make. And we were filming while all of that was actually happening. We couldn’t escape the vulnerability. It had to be real. And it’s just cracking into that, and cracking into yourself is just something I value. To me, it’s a cinematic value of mine.
Max Sanders: So do you think a movie like Ex Ex Ex, which was so personal and kind of so heavy, do you think you evolved to be able to make that movie? Could you have made that movie when you were younger? Talk to me about your evolution as a filmmaker.
Ryan Balas: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know that I could have made it when I was younger. I think I wanted to make it when I was younger. I sort of see it as the trilogy in our relationship. I had made all these films with my former partner, Deirdra, and we had gone to acting school together., and we had come up making stuff at the same time. And so we were each other’s greatest resource, right? So we knew that we wanted to make stuff that felt real and vulnerable. And things were really beautiful when we were getting engaged, when we were getting married, we could tell that story. But that is sort of performative. And then Our House for the Weekend was, it’s sort of real circumstances. We were actually house-sitting. We did have a list of rules for the cat. And we turned that into a film. And so that was also sort of easy to tap into because it was real. And then Ex Ex Ex also, unfortunately, real. And it took the circumstances to get us there, but we had been preparing to be vulnerable in that way for a long time because our work just called for it.
Max Sanders: Wow. Yeah. I mean that trilogy, when you lost the cat, I don’t think I’ve ever been more stressed for 20 minutes in a movie. Because it was just real. I just really enjoyed it.
Ryan Balas: It was a true threat.
Max Sanders: So can you share a bit about your current projects? I’m so interested in hearing about the one with Entourage star Adrian Grenier.
Ryan Balas: Oh Adrian, of course. I’m just releasing a documentary series, I guess, or project. It’s called Mother As Design, starring Adrian Grenier of Entourage fame – and his mother as well is a part of it. He built a house for her in Brooklyn made out of highly sustainable materials. And he had not built, but renovated, this old brownstone with the objective of it being super earth friendly. And so a couple years ago, we had a mutual connection, and so he asked, “Hey, can you come by and kind of document this process?” So, sure. My brother and I went there and we shot for a few days, kinda documented the early construction, and then we sort of thought that was going to be it. Then it’s like, “Hey,” a couple months later, “They’re going to put in the stairs. Can you come check that out?” I was like, “Yeah, okay. Okay.” And so then we ended up shooting for about three years off and on, until recently the house was finished. And then I actually don’t know if anyone’s living in it yet, but it’s just this gorgeous, beautiful house they’ve made – aesthetically beautiful. And so we cut this whole project into sort of a six-part short series that’s being released on IGTV, on Instagram, through an account that he runs called Earth Speed. So you can find it if you follow Adrian Grenier on any of his social media. But then Earth Speed is sort of going to be an ongoing project that he’s doing documenting his life. Going kind of from sort of the celebrity lifestyle into a more earth-centric lifestyle. And so our six-part series is just sort of the beginning.
Max: I’m excited!
Ryan Balas: It’s cool. I’m really proud of it. For a guy who played this humongous celebrity, he’s actually a very down-to-earth guy. And so I think the celebrity part of some of the stuff just doesn’t even feel that good to him. So that worked well in our process because it, the way we work is so natural, sort of fly-on-the-wall, that we didn’t fanboy over him or anything. It was just easy to hang out. And it helped partially that in the early stages, we had a night where we drank some tequila together. And I think that just sort of bonded us in a way that was like, “Okay, this is gonna be fine.”
Max Sanders: Tequila can do that.
Ryan Balas: It has a way.
Max Sanders: So what piece of equipment do you find most critical to making your films look so great?
Ryan Balas: Mmm. The sunlight.
Max Sanders: Really?
Ryan Balas: Well, I mean, I do use a lot of natural light. For someone who, I used to be sort of scared of studio lights. Now I’m not because I shoot in my studio all the time for food commercials. And I wouldn’t ever be accused of over-lighting a film that I’ve been a cinematographer for. But that partially that’s because I love natural light. I think it’s the most efficient light to use also on an independent film. But yeah, honestly, it’s some sort of light – that would be, that’s the most important tool to me. And it’s sunlight, and it’s there at least 12 hours a day, unless you’re in the winter. Otherwise, I will say I’m shooting on a RED KOMODO now, which is the most affordable RED camera. And it’s been a pretty big game-changer. Because I wanted to shoot on RED for so long, and they were always big and heavy and required all these different pieces. And it just never felt like it was going to lend itself – it’s expensive and it was never going to lend itself to my approach. And in this case, the RED KOMODO, I can hold on my chest. I don’t need a ton of stuff attached to it to really make it work. And so now I’m able to shoot in the natural way that I want to, but have this incredible sensor. I mean this incredible image and color science. It’s really a great piece of technology that’s made things a lot easier for independent cinematographers.
Max Sanders: Yeah, your stuff looks, I mean, it’s unbelievable. The quality of the visual aspect of it really gets me every time.
Ryan Balas: Thank you. Yeah. I mean, honestly, natural light plays so much into that. And I know a lot of people harp on it because –
Max Sanders: Really?
Ryan Balas: Yeah. I mean, it feels good to show up to a set and have four big lights and have 800 people running around. And sometimes I’ll have to do that. But the reality is I’m happy with the camera, a room with really great light, and then building the scene around the light that’s there, the available light. Because I think that’s where the magic happens. I think those shots where you see the sun kind of dip in through the window – or soft on someone’s face because it’s going through a curtain – that’s the stuff I’m looking for. I study constantly. I’m always putting my hand through the air. I want to see how light is in different rooms. I think there’s ways to use warm lamp light even. So I study. I study light constantly, and I think that’s another thing. I’m available for discovery, right? I want to be able to discover something. And I can create it. Certainly, especially as I get more skilled, more technically skilled as a cinematographer over the years, I can certainly make a very beautiful light situation. But when you find it, and when you see it, to me, that’s just better than anything else.
Max Sanders: So what’s one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when you were shooting your first feature film?
Ryan Balas: Some advice I wish someone told me was, maybe don’t be in your first feature film. I don’t know. No, actually that’s not true. I was happy to be in my first feature film. I’m happy to be in all the films that I’m in, quite honestly. I think I would say don’t worry so much about being cool. I wanted acceptance from the cool kids for so long. There was this Brooklyn film scene and these hipsters making their mumblecore movies. I really wanted acceptance in that group, and I never really got it, and I was hungry for it. And that’s gross to me now. And also, not that it affected me that much, but it didn’t allow me to fully work in my own lane. As I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve made more films, I’ve just gotten deeper and deeper into my own lane. And that’s so much more rewarding creatively, emotionally. And it actually, I think, benefits my career as well. The more honest I am, the more I’m in my personal lane, the more I follow my own threads, the more successful the work is. And the better my career has become.
Max Sanders: That’s wonderful. So now we’ve kind of gone in depth on you and how you make your audiences feel. Let’s do something a little more fun: You can get one movie-inspired tattoo. What would it be and why?
Ryan Balas: Well, I think it would be, I’m going to give you two, okay? I hope that’s all right.
Max Sanders: Okay. That’s fine.
Ryan Balas: One of them – I have a whale tattoo, so it would be kind of cool to get a Jaws shark tattoo on the other arm. So I’ve got a big whale on one arm. A shark on the other would be pretty cool. That, or I think I would get, and I know this is cheesy cinephile dork of me, but I would probably get the shot from Bergman’s Persona with the two ladies and the half face. I think that’d make a pretty cool tattoo.
Max Sanders: That’s better than–I thought you were going to say the movie reel. And I was like, “Ah, don’t do. it..”
Ryan Balas: No, never. Are you kidding me? No, I’m maybe the least cinephile movie filmmaker that exists. I mean, I see lots of movies, but I’m not – I don’t think I’m defined by loving movies. I’m more defined by loving making films than watching them.
Max Sanders: Totally. So Ryan, where can people find your work?
Ryan Balas: Oh man. Everywhere. It’s on the Internet. No, I would say the best place to watch my films – thank you, Filmhub – is Tubi. Tubi’s been an amazing platform. All the work is there and presented really, really beautifully. Some of the work is also on Amazon Prime. You can also get it at the library on Hoopla. But overall I would say Tubi is the best place, the most beautiful place, to see the films. And you can see all of them on there. Additionally, you can go to www.robelfilms.com. That’s sort of my original independent production company, and I’ve got lots of links there for stuff, and some films are up there as well.
Max Sanders: Wonderful. So, I mean, I guess I’m going to look at your IMDb in three years and see another 100 movies, and we’ll have to discuss all of those.
Ryan Balas: I hope so. Yeah, I would love that. No, I’m going to keep, just making stuff. Quarantine slowed me down a little bit, but it also helped me refocus and refresh. And I’m so excited about making films, more now than ever. And I’ve got that DIY punk rock ethos driving me still, even as I’m approaching my mid thirties, into early middle age.
Max Sanders: You still got the faux hawk. You’re good.
Ryan Balas: Yeah. No, I’m great. Yeah. Yeah. Faux hawk’s still there. So I’m still rocking and rolling.
Max Sanders: Well, Ryan, thank you so much.
Ryan Balas: Thanks, Max. This has been really fun. I appreciate it, man.