RYAN TERK TALKS TOP GUN, SHORT FILMMAKING AND THE MONTREAL ARTS COMMUNITY
Director, writer, producer and editor, Ryan Terk, was born in Montreal, Quebec on December 12, 1998. He began his career working as an editor and video technician for a film distribution company promptly after realizing film school was not for him. One year later, he started as a runner and moved his way up to production coordinator at a VFX company, most recently working on Top Gun: Maverick. Having a strong lifelong desire to make his own original work, he wrote, directed, produced and edited his first short film, There's Nothing You Can Do, which just won Best Canadian Short at the Pendance Film Festival.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood? What kinds of creative activities were you most interested in?
I wrote a lot of short stories, I liked stealing my parents VHS camera and filming the floor with it when I was an infant...I was also obsessed with the servo zoom function, I still am.
How did you engage with filmmaking as a teenager?
Way before I was a teen, my mom would take my friend and I to a movie every Friday after school. It always felt like a religious experience, more than a legitimate house of prayer. I never thought about making them, I just knew I loved them. I learned to read thanks to Blockbuster catalogues, but thankfully I had other interests too. I discovered Boogie Nights at 14 years old and I found an untapped pocket within me that contained a deep seeded need to make movies. As the great Norm MacDonald said, if you took my heart rate that day you would have had to subtract 8. That movie charged me up to voraciously consume any movie I could get my hands on.
Can you tell me about your first years working as an editor and video technician? What did you learn during these years?
I was 19 years old, I had just spent a year drifting between odd jobs after dropping out of college. I had a lot of pressure stacked against me in terms of expectations vs reality and I wasn’t doing too well, but I wilted at the idea of going back to school. I knew I had to get an industry job, so I shot my resume at every single film related gig in town and heard back from two companies. I bombed my first interview due to ill preparation, but I was ready for the second one and got the job. I was an editor & video technician for a porno company, eventually I did work for their sister company, a well respected theatrical distribution company (we shared an office). I was the little brother there by around 20 years, so I felt I had a lot to prove and overcompensate for. Beyond the technical education, I really valued how much I learned about myself by working there. When you’re working on porn, or watching the same straight to VOD Bruce Willis movie all day for quality checks, you develop a muscle for doing things you don’t want to do, and properly. I was always in positions where I had to push myself past my weaknesses and out of comfort zones. I didn’t want to disappoint the adults for hiring an inexperienced kid, or give them another reason to hate young people. More importantly, I didn’t want to disappoint myself. I knew I was on the right path because I felt myself being challenged the way I wanted film school to challenge me, so that gave me enough of a cushion of comfort to try and outperform myself everyday. I didn’t leave that job as the person I wanted to become, but I had a very strong sense of direction of where to go because of my experience there. My superiors really cared about me and passed down some incredible advice too. I’m indebted to everybody at that office. That job was a lot of things, but what I value most was the education I got in work ethic and self-discipline. I learn best when the stakes are high and the deadlines are tight.
What was your favourite part of working on Top Gun: Maverick?
It’s a cop out sounding answer so I’ll elaborate, but being a part of such a huge project on a big team with a lot of talent. The video editor job is where I learned my weaknesses, and Top Gun is where I feel I turned them into strengths. I worked on the production side of VFX, started off as a runner at that studio, moved up to lead runner and then into production. I did two movies in the year I worked there, one being Top Gun and the other a Disney movie. I was so eager to learn more about the industry, the wing of filmmaking I was in, and myself, and everyday presented itself with tons of those opportunities. It was an incredibly intense hard working environment, but my coworkers and superiors couldn’t have been more supportive to everybody, contrary to what I was expecting from a big studio. Things also happen SO quickly when you’re making big movies, and there were moments where I was forced to do things I didn’t think I was capable of, and the sense of accomplishment was a high for me. It opened me up even more to taking risks but on a higher stage, not just at work but in general. It was one of those jobs where a lot of the corny advice I got from adults and teachers at a young age rang true. There were lots of 70-80 hour weeks, and you discover a lot of hidden pockets of untapped energy in yourself, another must if you want to work in film. It became a compulsion to set my best days as the bare minimum moving forward, and it was the first time in a while that I felt truly proud of myself, no longer an imposter in a world that I had built up in my head to be impenetrable. There’s still a huge mountain to climb, I feel like I’ve barely left base camp, but it’s nice knowing that the mountain exists and I’m happy with how it’s going so far. It was also cool seeing one of my all time favourite actors fly real jets tens and thousands of feet in the air.
How did you then pivot into making your own film? How would you describe this experience?
It was something I wanted to do for a long time but I was always too busy. The pandemic came and my contract wasn’t renewed since Hollywood was on pause, it ended in April 2020. With all the time gifted to me, I decided I’d finally make a short. I always told people I was a filmmaker and felt like a fraud, so it was very gratifying finally making a short (There’s Nothing You Can Do). Like my previous jobs, I looked at it as a learning opportunity, but also an opportunity to capsulate Montréal.
Can you tell us about There's Nothing You Can Do? What were the greatest challenges and joys of putting this story together?
We made the short for a few thousand dollars during a global pandemic, so getting multiple locations, actors and extras while having enough money for talented crew was difficult. I was the sole producer but a lot of amazing people deposited themselves into the project, mostly free of charge. I shot a couple of videos as a freelancer for a respected chef named Joe Mercuri, he helped me secure a restaurant for a day of filming in exchange for his recipes. Without people like Joe I wouldn’t have been able to make this project, no chance. My entire family was also really supportive throughout the process, my mom in particular. She’s always been my #1 supporter. What was tougher for me was stretching myself thin between directing, producing, starring, etc...It was my first time making a movie, but like my previous jobs, I was happy with the steep learning curve that came with diving in head first to something I hadn’t experienced before. Having an amazing cast & crew and the support of the city made the dive feel a lot easier too. This short was a sort of film school for me, the fact that it’s anything better than totally unwatchable is a huge cherry on top. I learned a lot making it and I think my friends on the crew did too.
Who are some film directors you admire?
Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Billy Friedkin, Cassavetes, Elaine May, Scorsese, Jerry Schatzberg, The Safdie Bros, Nic Ray...there’s so many. Michael Mann, Alan Clarke, Spike Lee, Abel Ferrara. I’m really excited to see what Emma Selligman, JP Valkeappaa, Daniel Kaufman, Ryan Khanna, Harley Chamandy and David Cardoza do next. I’m actually working with him on his next project in New York, I’m excited for that.
What non-film art forms do you look to for inspiration?
All. Tolstoy said art is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced. Whether it’s a movie, music, painting, joke, or anything else, any sort of pure transmission of personal experience resonates with me. A lot of what I input influences the output like anyone else, so I try and surround myself with everything.
How would you describe the Montreal arts community?
I’m not as submerged in it as I want to be or should be, but there’s so much beauty in a wide range of arts here. Great painters like Tamar Black Rotchin, designers like Dutty Dario. I love curators like Thomas Paps, he does an amazing job at bringing different worlds of artists together. Cult MTL also does a great job at pointing spotlights at the right people. Mr. Waavy has compiled some solid lists of musicians around the city.
If you were given a budget of $100 million dollars to make a film, what kind of story would you like to tell?
I guess a life sized genre story with huge stakes and bigger emotions. Something in the vein of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Epics like that have disappeared.
Can you recommend some artists (film or any other medium!) in your community for us to check out?
For sure. In the music world, I love Lou Phelps, Maky Lavender, VVO VVS, Eryn Temple, MTLord, Nate Husser, Dizastra, Tugawar, The Nicotines, Furst, MIQ, Mooch, Budman, Wiser Times, Kallitechnis, YAMA//SATO, Shayan Sun, L’Atitude, Backxwash...there’s so many more. Crypt is awesome. Skiifall too. Oh, Freddy Crook! Just heard him for the first time at an online Grimey event, he’s incredible. Trei Ochi too, the energy in her music is contagious. In other forms of art, I love Tamar Black Rotchin, Ana Marcu, Dutty Dario, Igal Perets, Rachel Shaw...there’s a planets worth of talent in the city. I hope I didn’t forget too many artists. Oh, Hugh Durnford! He makes the coolest watercolour animations.
What are you looking forward to?