Ryan Ebner tells Addison Capper about his brilliant, warming tale of a retired Sith lord trying to find his way to New York City
At some point we will all find ourselves in a time of change. And times like that are unsettling. We're entering the unknown, sometimes with little control of the outcome. Things are going to change, including ourselves as well as our worlds around us.
It's under this premise that director Ryan Ebner went about directing his first ever non-branded short film. Entitled 'The Light Side', it tells the story of an aging Sith lord who finds himself living in the Bronx and discovering humility through a series of experiences. It's like nothing we've seen before. It's far from a Star Wars spoof and looks nothing like a Star Wars movie. And it's all the better for it. Placing this character into a very real world with problems that we can all resonate with will not fail to make you feel kinda warm inside, and find yourself quietly rooting for a man who used to blow up populated planets. It just debuted at the Tribeca We Are One Global Film Festival which combined the best films of 2020 from festivals like Cannes, Sundance, Venice and TIFF. The festival wrapped earlier this month and ‘The Light Side’ was one of five narrative shorts picked to represent Tribeca 2020
Ryan's inspiration for the film came while rehabbing a shoulder injury at his physical therapist’s office that looked over at a fencing studio in Midtown. He told LBB's Addison Capper more about that inspiration and bringing the story to life.
LBB> Tell me about the initial inspiration behind this film. It was something to do with you getting rehab for a shoulder injury! How did this wind up with a tale of an ex-Sith Lord struggling with life in NYC?
Ryan> I was rehabbing a Jiu Jitsu injury at a physical therapy studio up in Midtown Manhattan. It was a bland Tuesday night, right at rush hour. It’s the time of day when commuters are shuffling through life with a thousand yard stare. While doing my own mind-numbing exercises, I looked out across the street to a fencing studio. A night class was happening at the time. It was a kids class. The instructor looked so deflated. So beaten. It was then that the Sith character popped into my head and I just started daydreaming. The parallel between a lightsaber and a fencing foil became the onus for the entire film. A fallen Sith lord finds himself suddenly confronted with a new reality. Like everyone in NYC, he’s got to find a way to make it in an unforgiving city.
The story isn’t totally autobiographical. But there are definite elements from my life that are reflected in the story. The number one similarity is dealing with aging and change. I’m at a point in my life where I'm starting to question what it is that I really want. I used to think it was money and status, etc. But that’s just a hamster wheel. It’s a constant drain and you really never get anywhere in terms of happiness and peace of mind. I brought that theme into Sith’s journey as he finally finds that a simpler existence is the key to attaining true contentment.
LBB> What were your starting points to bringing the idea to life? When it came to the overall concept, narrative and feel, what was the creation process like?
Ryan> I had a definite vision for the film at the beginning. But along the way, it evolved into something much, much better than I had originally envisioned. For instance, we were originally trying to shoot in Mexico City. We started scouting locations and found some really great environments that I fell in love with. However, the production fell through and the whole project disintegrated. I was heartbroken. A few months later, an opportunity arose to try and shoot it here in NYC. We all jumped back into it and the thing just blossomed. Shooting it here in the Bronx and Brooklyn just turned out so much better. From there, the process just kind of morphed into a living, breathing entity that drove itself. Along the way, it evolved into something unexpected. Casting was a good example. Originally, I wanted Sith to look more like Palpatine (Darth Sidious), with lots of prosthetics and make up. Then Joseph Ragno comes in to read for it and all that just flew out the window. Joe had such a killer look for Sith because he has such a keen sense of subtlety in his performances. One moment he’s menacing and evil, then he can suddenly let it fade seamlessly into remorse. It was an incredible audition. I didn’t want to cover all that brilliance up with makeup and prosthetics. Looking back, he was probably the most important factor in the film turning out as well as it did. Again, it was not part of the original plan. It just kind of evolved. I got lucky.
After getting Joe on board, the rest just fell into place. Locations, crew, equipment, etc. It was just the icing on the cake really. And that’s 100% because of my team, predominantly my producer Dom Ferro. It absolutely could not have happened without him. Or the handful of others listed in the credits. I could spend way more of your time telling you what’s special about each and every one of them and how their talents contributed in unforeseen ways. It was truly inspiring to see them work, and to be alongside them during the creative process. It was the most fulfilling aspect of the entire experience.
LBB> Sith Lords are notoriously prickly characters, hell bent on blowing up worlds and such. But I definitely felt a warmth and sadness for your character. Firstly, where did you look for inspiration for him (on top of being a Sith lord obviously)?
Ryan> I am absolutely fascinated with duality. The Yin and the Yang. Some of the best characters possess both good and bad at the same time. Think Tony Soprano or Walter White. To have an evil person that draws empathy from the audience is an incredibly hard thing to do. When you cheer for that person, that’s the difference. That’s when you know you’ve changed someone from being despicable into being salvageable. There’s hope. We all have character flaws. This story is about identifying them, coming to accept them, and then making a decision to do better. Sith’s story is about redemption. It’s about being the absolute worst of the worst, and then finding a glimmer of light that is just enough to make you want to change. How can you not root for someone like that?
LBB> Why was it important to have those layers to his character?
Ryan> The layers of Sith’s psyche, good vs evil, are important because every story needs an arc. Where Sith starts and where he ends up are two separate places. This is crucial because without it you only have a situation, not a story. There has to be a dynamic shift in a character, even if it’s in a very short film. What does Sith want? What’s he willing to do to get it? And how does he eventually succeed? These were the important points along that arc. There has to be a change. And before that can happen, we need to understand how Sith ticks. The layers show us that.
I was very careful not to make this a Star Wars parody like you’d see on SNL or Funny Or Die. I didn’t want to do a ‘sketch comedy’ short. I absolutely love that stuff, but the whole reason for doing The Light Side was to try something out of my wheelhouse. I wanted to explore a darker, more emotional element of a protagonist’s persona. Sith’s character was just too rich to turn it into a ‘fish out of water’ comedy schtick. We’ve all seen the mockumentary of a fantastical character trapped in our world. It’s been done. This was an attempt to do it a tad differently. One way I approached it was to NOT make it about Star Wars. I specifically made no mention of Siths, characters, places, names, verbiage, etc. The lightsaber was really the only element that was inherently Star Wars. The rest is 100% about an old man trying to come to grips with his past. Because that’s what we can all identify with in some way, shape or form. We all are human. We all feel like outsiders at some point. And we all have done things in our past that we’re not proud of. That hopefully resonates with the viewer, and gives them a reason to care.
LBB> Can you tell me a bit more about the casting? You needed to cast both the actor and voice actor for the Sith lord. Why are they separate? And what was it about your actors that were right for the role?
Ryan> Casting was a surprise. Like I mentioned earlier, Joe came in and it was settled. We had Sith. From there, everything just fell into place as we moved forward. The guys in the fencing scene are actually members of the fencing club. And the guys in the auto garage scene were actual members of a construction crew that our location guy knew. And you could not have cast either groups any better. I’m a real believer in authenticity. And it played into our favour with this film. As you know, any short film that you create and fund yourself is going to require scrappy, out-of-the-box thinking. By utilising real people and real locations, it allowed me to just come in, set up the shots, and knock them out without a lot of overthinking. It was very run and gun. That sort of filmmaking adds texture. It gave the film that gritty quality that I was looking for.
The voice actor was a whole other story. If you would have told me I would have the biggest problem finding the right VO, I would have rolled my eyes. But it was the truth. Even after the edit and colour correct was finished, we still didn’t have a VO. We were talking to all sorts of big British theatre actors, and even Richard Dawkins (yes, that Richard Dawkins), but everything was falling through. I had both casting directors in NY and LA working for a month trying to find the perfect person, but to no avail. I finally went online one night and found Tim on Fiverr. I gave him the script and he punched it out overnight and it was PERFECT. We threw the VO under the footage that morning and the whole thing came to life. I had Joe read the VO as well. And it was great. But in the edit, we lost the ‘British aristocrat’ in Sith. The right accent was crucial. I wanted him to be more smarmy and elitist, as you’d expect from an imperialistic douchebag of the Sith order.
LBB> When it came to the overall aesthetic and grade, what were your main aims and inspirations?
Ryan> I wanted a mundane, gritty piece of film that was also gorgeous at the same time. There’s the duality here again. I find beauty in the mundane. The perfection in mistakes. It was crucial that Sith existed in our world. So we paid special attention not to stylise the look of the film too much. I didn’t want it to look like a blockbuster Star Wars film, which is exactly the world you’d expect to see a Sith inhabit. To help that, we made a decision to go handheld. It felt more raw. More voyeuristic. And it helped Sith’s lightsaber stick out like a sore thumb. The stark, humble locations lent a rich backdrop for the cinematography. My DP, Stoeps Langensteiner, said, “even I can’t fuck up these locations.” They were just so perfectly banal. Nothing was precious. Just dirty, authentic and real. I’m a huge fan of the Safdie Brothers. They capture NYC in a way few others have since the ‘70s and ‘80s film era. I referenced their aesthetic many times in the prep leading up to the shoot. And I also mirrored their propensity to embrace real people casting. I firmly believe they bring something special to the characters that you just cannot cast.
The post had a huge impact on the overall tone of the film. The team from Harbor saved me, honestly. Paul Kelly handled the entire edit, while Adrian Seery did the superb colour correct. Paul O’Shea did all the special effects with Andrew Granelli, including the amazing planet exploding scene at the end that was a supercritical scene because it was the culmination of Sith’s guilt. It was the climax of the movie. And finally, Steve Perski did a phenomenal job of editing the sound and mix to make the VO, score and SFX come to life. It was a perfect balance. And those folks are the pros when it comes to creating cinematic experiences. This film would not have come out half as good without their expertise.
LBB> One very specific little element I loved was the T-shirt worn by the gym owner and Sith lord. Is there any meaning to the print on the front or is just a pretty print that my eyes are drawn to?
Ryan> Haha. No deeper meaning. Those were the actual rash guards from the Brooklyn fencing school we shot at. It was just what they were wearing and I said, “can we get one for Joe?” We used all their own equipment and athletes. It was about as pure of an independent short film experience as you could get. Use what’s available, and make it work. Don’t overthink the details. Besides, I was not only the director/writer/financier, I was also the wardrobe stylist. So we had to make do with what we had.
LBB> He eventually finds peace and humility. Tell me about the inspiration behind where you had your Sith lord find peace. Why there and with those people?
Ryan> When I was in high school, I worked on a construction crew in the summers. The guys were pretty blue collar and from all walks of life and age ranges. But they were all salt-of-the-earth guys. For some, that was the only job they’d had. Looking back on my career, I sometimes long for those days. The work was brutal. But I’d dig a ditch and look at it at the end of the day and feel pride in actually making something with my hands. It was incredibly satisfying in a very visceral way. The best part of the job was my connection to my crew mates. I really got to know them and care about them. And they for me. I wanted Sith to discover that feeling. I wanted him to realise that he’d been searching for meaning in the absolute wrong direction. It doesn’t come from power or glory or status or wealth. It comes from a sense of belonging. Belonging at a very basic human level. He’s humbled when he realises that, to his co-workers, he’s just another guy trying to make it work. He’s finally accepted.
It was important for me to also have his workmates be from a minority. In this case Hispanic. I wanted to flip the notion of a rich, white, old man who’s in power. Now, Sith is the immigrant. It took that fall from grace for him to realise that he can learn from people that he once considered beneath him. In the film he confesses that he finally feels a strange sense of belonging among the guys. The experience changed him. And it’s a message that deserves the attention now more than ever. We are a nation of immigrants. And the more diverse we are, the stronger we get. We seem to be so fearful of different ideas and cultures, especially under this administration. Instead of repelling, we should be embracing people from different walks of life. I think we’d all be astonished at what we could accomplish as a society.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Ryan> The biggest hurdle for the film was just getting it off the ground. We struggled on the first round to actually wrangle the troops and get some momentum in Mexico City. But when we finally decided on shooting in NYC, that’s when things started to gel. From there, all it took was me writing a check. Money and time will always be tricky components to getting any project shot. It was eye-opening for me to see just how much the costs skyrocketed - even for a very short and simple film. On commercials, I’m spending a corporation’s money. It doesn’t really compute. But our whole team just marched forward. Perseverance is the key to overcoming those obstacles and a huge strategy for achieving that is to be creative with problem solving. You have to be malleable. Major fires pop up at every juncture. It’s a gauntlet. You have to be able to write and shoot around the pitfalls.
The one nice thing was that I was able to make the final decisions, good or bad. There were no clients, investors or partners that I needed to double-check with, etc. We lost our restaurant location 15 minutes before the scene? No problem. I’ll rewrite it to happen in the home. Unexpected thundershowers steal two hours of daylight shooting time? Sucks. But let’s move the garage scene to nighttime. Solving problems quickly is imperative on shoots. And to do that, you have to let go. You have to be prepared to abandon your script on a moment’s notice and be proactive. If Jiu Jitsu has taught me one thing, it’s to remain calm under extreme duress. There were times I felt like I was getting the snot beat out of me during this project. But I trusted my instincts and kept my mind clear. That experience allowed me to make better decisions at extremely crucial junctures.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Ryan> Be nice to people. And may the force be with you.