Interview: Ryan Harper
Ryan Harper made an impressive directorial debut with his indie desert-set thriller Circulation, which has just been released on DVD. Actually, after conducting the interview below, I’ve discovered just how impressive a first outing it truly is. A scientist by trade, Harper has made a creepy and spiritual flick about the journey between life and death. Part horror movie, part Twilight Zone, part David Lynch and part original vision Circulation is a unique and hard-to-classify film:
Underground Film Journal: What’s your background? What were you doing that led up to shooting Circulation?
Ryan Harper: In high school I took some creative writing and photography classes. I think those two classes shaped my interest in film, but when it was time for college for some reason I didn’t go to film school, instead I majored in Molecular and Cell Biology. I spent about 10 years working in a lab before I realized that I would rather do something else. I even remember the night it happened. I was sitting a bar with my friend Todd Lay and we were talking about our jobs and he asked me if I could do anything to make a living what would I do? I sat there thinking for a minute and then
told him that if I could do anything I would make movies. For a week after that I couldn’t stop thinking about that statement. It bothered me. Finally I decided that I can make a movie. Lot’s of people do it, why can’t I. So I did. Can’t really say that I’m making a living at it yet, but I’m still trying.
UFJ: Desert-set thrillers are a very distinct American genre. What was the allure of setting Circulation in the desert for you?
RH: A month before the above conversation took place I took a road trip down to Baja. Just by myself. I spent two weeks driving all the way to the Baja peninsula and back and as I was trying to think about what I wanted the movie to be about, this trip was still fresh in my memory. It’s also one of my favorite places to visit. I’ve always loved the desert and the ocean and Baja is the perfect combination of both those.
UFJ: When you conceived of the idea for Circulation, were you inspired by the spiritual aspect of the film first, or by the desert location first? Or was it all intertwined?
RH: I wrote out about 8 ideas that I thought might make a good movie. Most of the ideas were typical movie concepts – I had something in there that was like Red Dawn, but took place along a river. The other stuff wasn’t very original. I wanted to make something different and when I looked at my list, the idea for Circulation was probably the most original idea on there. I feel that I can safely say that Circulation is different than any movie out there. When you pitch movies, producers like to hear what movies are similar to the movie you’re trying to pitch. But for Circulation, there isn’t anything I could use as a reference. You can say something like From Dusk Till Dawn, but even that is a mile away.
Anyway, to get back to your question, I’m not a spiritual person. I don’t believe in reincarnation, I don’t know if God exists, I don’t go to church. But I do think about what will happen to me when I die. I don’t know if I believe in the soul, so I imagine people just die. Nothing happens afterward. But maybe there is a soul and maybe that soul can be recycled into animals or other people. Also, as a biologist, I’m interested in how animals learn the instincts they are born with. How do birds know to flap their wings when they step off the branch? Is it passed down in their genetics or do they learn it some other way? In a very subtle way, Circulation tries to answer these questions. These were all things that attracted me to the idea.
UFJ: Regarding the film’s notions of life and death, does the film have a basis in any specific religion or notions of spirituality that you’re interested in personally?
RH: Like I mentioned, I’m not religious. But I did take an eastern religion class in college, so I think part of me is interested in different religious concepts. It’s interesting to me that every culture has a specific religion. Even jungle people in the Amazon have their own religion. And everyone thinks their religion is the right one. I think that’s interesting. But it’s not something that I’m constantly reading about or digging into.
UFJ: While there are certain horror elements in the film that the characters encounter, do you consider Circulation to be a “horror” movie?
RH: No, I don’t. But it has been accepted to several horror film festivals, so it ended up being marketed as a horror movie. But it’s not a genre movie. I think some people rent it and are disappointed because it’s not what they expected. Maybe you can call it an art-house horror film – I don’t know. It’s hard to classify Circulation. I think from a commercial standpoint I would have been better off making a typical genre film. But for my first film, I wanted something that would stand out and be different. When people tell me they love the move and they’ve never seen anything like it, I feel extra proud. When I read reviews saying they hate the movie, I just try to remind myself that I didn’t write the movie to have mass market appeal. To be honest I wrote it more for myself than anything else.
UFJ: You really got two terrific leads for the film. What was the process like casting Yvonne Delarosa and Sherman Koltz? Was it a difficult process? Did you luck out?
RH: Casting the male part was fairly easy. I put a local ad in Craigslist and held auditions. Based on their photos and experience, I might have invited 15 people to the auditions. I always imagined the Gene character to be overweight, but when I saw Sherman, I realized that I was wrong and he fit the part perfectly. You can see his audition in the extras section of the DVD. Casting the Ana character was more difficult. I couldn’t find anyone in the Bay Area that fit the part so I started looking in L.A. I searched casting websites for any actress in the right age range that spoke Spanish. This time I held auditions in L.A. and Yvonne was by far the best actress at those auditions. It took a little convincing for her to commit to the project, but it all worked out for the best. Did I luck out? I think so, I thought they both did great and I loved working with them.
UFJ: Same goes for cinematographer Paul Nordin. The film looks gorgeous. How’d you hook up with him?
RH: Yeah, it was pretty much the same process for Paul. I found him using a Bay Area Craigslist ad. I looked at a lot of cinematographers, both in L.A. and the Bay Area. I like that Paul lived 3 minutes away from me and when he invited me over to look at his stuff, I saw right away that he was good. And he’s easy to get a long with. I hope I get the chance to work with him again.
UFJ: What’s next for you? Already working on another film? Got something in the planning stages?
RH: Since Circulation, I’ve written six other screenplays and decided to move one of those forward. It’s called Albany Hill. It’s a straight up, well thought out, ghost story horror flick. If you happened to mix The Exorcist, The Orphanage, 21 Grams and The Others all together you would end up with Albany Hill. Here’s the short synopsis…
Hired to revive an abandoned school, the headmaster and his dysfunctional family are haunted by the school’s past. The teenage daughter gets trapped on the “other side” and in order to save her from an eternity of torment, her mother must make the ultimate sacrifice.
This is a total genre movie – unlike Circulation. But it’s told in a way that no ghost story has been done before. Unlike Circulation, this movie wasn’t written for me, but written for the horror audience and I’m 100% confident that it’s going to be a hit. I’m in the process of looking for funding, so if anyone reading this wants to invest in a film, please let me know. We’re talking to actors right now, all of them are well known and should help the movie get some early traction.