I'm Glad You're Not Dead

Interview: Ryland Walker Knight on I WISH YOU WOULD (2021)

Before we met at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and later became friendly, I knew Ryland Walker Knight through his writing, which is dense, curious, and form-breaking. He’s one of the few critics whose singular analysis generously opens up fresh ways of understanding how sound and image can dance together.

Throughout the mid-to-late aughts, Knight’s blog Vinyl is Heavy was a must-read, as were his many essays published by The House Next Door, Reverse Shot and later Mubi (originally The Auteurs). My all-time favorite article of his is this masterpiece on The Lone Ranger (2013), one of the best American films of the decade and entirely worthy of such a thunderous 6000-word piece.

In 2014, he decided to transition from writing to filmmaking and made the short Inside Voices, a lovely overnighter about two young women hanging out and saying goodbye to summer. I Wish You Would (2021), his latest short focusing on a tormented man facing down the consequences of addiction, represents a huge step forward in terms of ambition and artistry.

Upon being released from a psych ward after experiencing a mental breakdown, Stanley (Cuyler Ballanger) reenters the world angry and confused without any structured support system to lean on. During one long day’s journey that snakes through many Bay Area locales, he tries to combat the destructive impulses that have led him to this point. He oscillates between binge drinking and meditation, giving Knight and his filmmaking team an opportunity to visualize a fragile cinematic perspective that keeps slipping between utter despair and transcendent hope.

On the occasion of I Wish You Would’s virtual premiere, I corresponded with Knight to discuss his creative inspiration, aesthetic choices, and the difficult task of releasing a film during a pandemic. Before reading our interview, I suggest viewing I Wish You Would in its entirety at the Vimeo below.

Glenn Heath Jr.: What inspired the story of I Wish You Would? It feels like it comes from a very personal place.

Ryland Walker Knight: It should come as no surprise to anybody who watches the film that it was inspired by certain events in my life. The difference being I had support from my family and friends in a way that Stanley does not. But I, like Stanley, was committed to a psych ward for a breakdown. The writing started by thinking: what’s the worst that could have happened to somebody like me? And I love a picaresque, even in miniature. 

GHJ: Lead actor Cuyler Ballanger somehow manages to convey both this sense of anxiety and deep capacity for  calm reflection. Can you talk about your collaboration with him and how you worked together to bring Stanley to life?

RWK: Cuyler is probably the most fearless dude I know. That was the secret. We talked about the script a bunch, of course, but it always came back to: he’s a drunk, and, like a lot of drunks, he has a real I-Thou problem. But a lot of the credit is simply due to him, Cuyler, and his ability to be present in a scene. We did a fair amount of takes where I would just talk at him or the other actor with the camera rolling (shooting in series) and my main notes were “be angrier” or “think about what you, Cuyler, would want from this person.” They say a lot of a good performance is casting, at any rate, and I knew Cuyler’s fearlessness would aid him and that his good looks and intensity would translate to a compelling screen presence. What I’m saying is I can’t take all the credit. I just let him try a lot of stuff. He was willing to try anything. And of course his Stanley is different than me or him or even what I wrote.

GHJ: Almost immediately, the versatile score by Maxwell August Croy, which features everything from minimalist piano notes to scratching, sync tones with overlapping reverb, reveals itself to be the film's guide. Why was the music such an important element for you as a filmmaker?

RWK: It’s a pet theory but I think films are a lot closer to music than novels or stage plays. After all, a movie is told in sound as much as images. I’ve known Maxwell for a while now, and he gave me a piece for my last movie (Ghost Comb.), so I asked him if he had anything laying around. My editor Eric Marsh and I had some tracks from his record Kaniza that we really liked as temp and he said, “Yeah, that mostly works, but here’s some other options.” A lot of the credit to how the music works in the film is due to Marsh and Sean Gillane, who did the sound design. Sometimes I worry we relied on the music too much, but it’s so beautiful (I’m biased) and it fits Stanley’s mood so perfectly, we leaned into it. Especially during the long walk. 

GHJ: The act of meditation plays an important role in giving Stanley's recovery efforts hope. The film conveys these moments through grainy, HD (I think) archival footage, How does meditation play a role in your own life and approach as an artist? And how does it compare with the therapy of cinema?

RWK: They’re actually SD, from an old Canon Elura 70, which is kind of annoying to get into 1’s and 0’s, but I thought it would add an interesting texture. I basically shot with it for a week, just me, wandering around Oakland (and BART into SF) the way Stanley does. I tried to find whatever I could, then Eric took it and ran with it.

I meditate every day. My dear friend and former lover Allison Jones got me started (that’s her giving the instructions at the start of the movie), but it’s become part of my daily routine because it allows me to unplug from stuff. I don’t really draw any big inspiration for writing from it, it’s more of a mental health maintenance thing for me alongside exercise. The world has been especially chaotic for a few years so it’s been a nice reprieve, even if it’s as brief as ten minutes. Allison also taught me about how yoga is more about breathing than burning calories, and that helps, too.

Cinema as therapy is a great idea, and one I’m sure every cinephile knows, but to be honest it can also lead to solipsism. The idea to make mini movies for Stanley’s meditations just felt natural—and fun! Harkening back to the music question, I’m always surprised how much more experimentation is “allowed” in music rather than movies. Especially narrative movies. I don’t think IWYW is all that experimental, frankly, but the meditations were a fun way to do some poetry. After all, the mind can wander all over the place when you’re “in the zone” and completely unplugged. Also, Stanley’s not great at it! He’s most relaxed in the theater with that hot dog. I mean it’s pretty obvious to me why we wind up at a movie theater, but Daniel Coffeen already wrote about that in a very generous essay here.

GHJ: There's a moment when Stanley hits rock bottom, buying a 24 pack of PBR and pounding multiple beers as he walks down the street. The camera tracks with him, but at one point pulls ahead leaving him out of frame. It made me think of cinema as a medium sometimes being ill-equipped to handle stories of depression and anxiety. What does this sequence mean to you in hindsight? 

RWK: I feel compelled to say it’s a 12-pack. 24 would have been funnier, probably, but annoying for Cuyler to carry. As far as meaning, I’m not sure. I don’t mean to be evasive but my impulse is to talk about the act of making it more than the meaning I derive from it. Pressed to answer, I’d say it is the hinge of the movie. We learn a lot about Stanley watching him crush beer after beer in broad daylight. He’s on a journey after all and we get to see him begin to back slide. He just doesn’t know what to do!

I still don’t know if I have the words for it but I wanted to make the movie as objective as possible outside the meditations. Like we’re witnessing reality unfold. And the long walk is a perfect example of how, at a certain pitch, all films are documentaries. Rivette once said “Every film is a documentary of its making.” And I agree. After we said “that’s enough,” my DP Padraic O’Meara asked Cuyler “Are you wasted?” Cuyler said yes and, after dinner, he took a power nap. 

GHJ: Watching this film for a second time allowed me to zero in on the myriad of editing choices that are used - jump cuts, freeze frames, superimpositions, slow motion - yet none of them distract from the film's arc. How did you and your editor approach the challenge of piecing together a story that's inherently about slipping between reality and memory?

RWK: Eric and I share a very similar taste and set of references. He’s a better scholar than me, but I like to think our mutual admiration for certain movies and his understanding of my personal canon informed a lot of this. Rivette, Resnais, Cassavetes, Dorsky, Gehr, etc. were all talking points. Eric was part of the script stage, too, I should say, offering advice on structure, helping re-arrange some beats, and I think that helped him build an assembly in about a week. It took another six months to lock picture, but he knew the story from the jump. And the variety of editing choices is a testament to his skills. I asked for a few of the jumps, but it’s all about rhythm, and engaging an audience. I want to use every tool available, basically, because, you can do whatever you want. Mathieu Amalric said he learned that working with Alain Resnais on those two masterpieces Wild Grass and You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.

Also, Eric lives in Chicago, not Oakland, so it was highly collaborative in that we’d share project files, I’d make some edits to guide the idea, or I’d just watch and tell him ideas. But he’s the one who came up with a lot of the meditation montage. He surprised me all the time! I’m a broken record, sorry, but: it was fun. I edited a lot of my own movies prior to this, and I think I’ll have my hand in them going forward, but it was a blast to work with an editor. We also got some great notes along the way from our producers as we tightened things and cut a whole ten minutes out. As for slipperiness, I think it’s in the script, though the film, thank god, is not the script. We just wanted to keep the story going and make every detail count.

GHJ: You came to filmmaking by way of film criticism. What's been your biggest takeaway from that transition? And do you plan to ever go back to writing on a regular basis?

RWK: My biggest takeaway is, surprise, it’s way more fun for me to create something than it is to write about something. I feel like I learn more from making. You have to get beyond the problem solving, of course, but there’s a reason Christopher Nolan sees movies as a jigsaw puzzle: you’re forced to make meaning at every stage. And you’re forced to be a good communicator with a host of collaborators. I’m a reserved dude so this can be a challenge sometimes, but listening well helps. It’s also harder than writing about a movie, frankly, and I like the challenge of trying to tell a story. I’m primarily interested in stories because I think they’re an easier way into emotions than, say, a movie about a pool. (NB: I love Barbara Hammer’s Pools a lot.) 

I learned how to read an image and an edit as a critic, though I never thought of myself as a critic. I just liked to write and I liked movies and reading Manny Farber taught me that film criticism can be an art. That said, I doubt I’ll go back to writing about movies beyond my Letterboxd diary. If I do, it’ll take the form of poems, probably, because I like that challenge, too: to evoke the feeling of a film and its meanings, to perform a reading one line at a time. But I’d bet money on not writing another 6000 word essay about Gore Verbinski again. I just want to get better at telling stories, and filmmaking is a craft, and you only get better at a craft by doing it. I feel like I’ve still got a ways to go and it really boils down to time management. 

GHJ: You’ve previously discussed how I Wish You Would was one of three short films shot in succession with a collective of SF filmmakers. How important was it working within that kind of structured support system between artists?

RWK: It was great. It was supremely difficult to shoot for 10 days without much of a break, but it was great. I owe Sean, Vanessa, and Kevin a lot. They kept the machine going. I just hope whatever’s next comes with a weekend. Even if that weekend is just watching dailies and going over shot lists. But I think it helped all the films to have this camaraderie. We wouldn’t have been able to pull off the robbery scene without all those hands building the set. We even got some help from the DP of Kevin’s film, who loaned us pretty much his entire supply of black duvetyne. Filmmaking is a group effort and I couldn’t be more grateful for all the help. I just hope they felt similarly. It’s funny, on set all that matters is: how does this serve the movie? And sometimes your friends can answer that better than you can. I wrote the robbery to take place outdoors but we couldn’t get OPD to rent us an officer, so we talked about how we might re-think it and Paddy reminded me that I showed him a flashback in Desplechin’s Kings and Queen where the walls are pure black, and I realized, shit, that’s the answer.

GHJ: What factors played a role in the decision to release the film online? What's the response been so far? 

RWK: The biggest factor is maybe stupid: I needed some closure. We were rejected by every film festival but one in Prague that accepted the film then fell off the face of the world once COVID hit. Also, my friend Kurt Walker released his (lovely) film s01e03 online last summer—as did Isiah Medina with his “adaptation” of Inventing the Future—and it made me realize, shit, more people will watch it online than at a festival anyways. And every festival is online right now to begin with. 

The response seems to be good. It’ll probably only make a dent in my little corner of the internet, but that’s okay. I’m proud of it, grateful for the experience and its lessons. That’s enough. Of course it’d be great if somebody with money saw it and gave me some to make the next thing, but we’ll see. I believe it’ll have a shelf life beyond the relatively quiet launch we did.

GHJ: What's next for you as a filmmaker?

RWK: I wrote an expansion of this story into a feature that just keeps going North, following the picaresque idea, but it’s expensive as written, so it’ll go on the back burner for now while I’m writing something smaller. I really hope we get to make a feature soon, and this new script is definitely feasible on a small budget, but it requires more money than I can make at present, so we’ll see. The next real challenge I’ve given myself is to make something that is truly fun to watch. I don’t think I’ll ever make something as lighthearted as, say, I don’t know, Bottle Rocket, but I do want to make something that hits harder, and has more jokes. I think funny and sad is the best combo and I think I could stand to better balance the see-saw next time.

For more info on Ryland’s work and films visit his website.